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Wednesday, 17 July 2019

Church Planting - the art of letting go

Strawberry Plants  and churches
This summer, my son's strawberry plants have not produced many strawberries. The reason, we were told, is that the plants are a little on the old side, and what we need to do is to allow some of the “runners” to root into the ground thus producing new plants which next summer will produce a fresh crop of strawberries.

New churches produce crops, old churches often don't
There is a statistic out there which shows that the older a church is, the less good fruit it produces. There are a 1000 reasons for this. One is that churches rapidly turn in on themselves, become traditional, lose their edge, their zeal, their purpose. When older believers are involved in this process, the possibility of change - necessary in any rapidly changing culture – diminishes, and the church can so easily fossilize.

What is needed is for the mother church to encourage a "runner", a new plant and then when it is rooted itself, to cut the chord and let it go.

Letting go
It's this last point that sums up the wisdom of the New Testament, and it can be a hard thing to do. After Paul has planted a church, he lets it go and moves on to plant another church. He does not form a denomination, he does not form a rigid association, but lets the churches go - which means, of course, that he allows the Spirit of Christ to lead them, and the Chief Shepherd to guide them.

Paul trusts the Holy Spirit far more than we do. Of course should the infant get into trouble, he'll write them a letter, advise them and so on, but otherwise, they are "on their own.” Of course, they are not on their own - at all.

The dread of denominations
There are fewer more drastic errors in the history of the church than the formation of denominations which were formed for good and bad reasons. The good reasons were to facilitate fellowship and help across likeminded churches. The bad reason? The prideful desire to control and the desire for conformity. This last one, the desire for conformity, is strange, since Creation bears witness to the vast diversity of the Creator’s handiwork. The beauty of the true church of Jesus Christ is that every local church looks different from every other church. Visit false churches, such as those belonging to the Jehovah's Witnesses, and they all look the same - even the buildings are similar. But visit the churches of the New Testament and they are all different. The same essential components, yes, but done in different ways.

So there you have it. Plant a new church. Then let the church go, don't try to shape it and avoid the prideful instinct to control it.  Watch what the Spirit of God does. Just as fathers and mothers are often challenged by their kids,  mother churches often learn and are refreshed by their church plants.

Thursday, 27 June 2019

Just a Farm Boy from North Carolina (Billy Graham)

Why Billy Graham?
Billy Graham, who died last year at the age of 99 was perhaps the most influential Christian of the last century. It is estimated that he preached, in person at his crusades (not via TV), to some 250 million people in his life time and ended up a friend to the good and great of the world, from the Queen of England to numerous Presidents. (Those numbers and those people are, by the way, not on their own, any indication of divine blessing.)

Why did God call a farm boy from North Carolina to what turned out in the end to be such a great task? And what can we learn from his life?

(1) God likes to choose the outsider
It is very much in God's ways to chose people who are despised by the world to accomplish his great purposes, because then he gets the glory (which is always a righteous desire in his case, since he is, in point of fact, the author of all good). So he chooses a farm boy from North Carolina shaped by the hardships of the Great Depression.  He deliberately bypasses those who are wise in the eyes of the world and chooses nobodies, like Peter the fisherman, and Paul, the outcast Pharisee.

I myself remember in the church circles of my youth, that some pastors would speak disparagingly of Billy - a little too ignorant and uncouth for their liking! One of them even wrote a book against him and his system of inviting people to the front!

(2) Billy was a Team Player
Billy Graham had a wonderful team around him, some of whom stayed the course of his whole ministry, men like Cliff Barrows who organised the meetings and George Beverly Shea who sang at his crusades. He recognised that the church was a body, and he but one cog.

(3) Billy was a learner
Always willing to learn, even when he was older, he was reading and listening and developing. He learnt from his mistakes and always looked forward, not backward.

(4) Billy developed a strong ethical code for "The Billy Graham Evangelistic Society"
He would not be paid mega-church millions but the wage of an average US pastor. He would not be found alone in a room with a woman who was not his wife. His counsellors had to counsel, women to women, men to men, and so on. Anyone sniffing around for dirt found none - because there was none to be found.

(5) He was Gospel Bold and Gospel Confident
He would not miss an opportunity to share the Gospel. After a visit to a light bulb factory he talked about Jesus, the light of the world. He found some way in his interviews of turning the message to the Gospel. He called people to Christ and not to courses. Although not adverse to apologetics he preached a simple message about sin, the cross and forgiveness: convinced that inside that "foolish" message lay great power.

(6) He was faithful
Billy Graham was a faithful preacher. Perhaps not the best preacher, but faithful, right to the end. He didn't mess about with secondary truth, but dedicated himself to the simple Gospel all his life.He wasn't distracted by evangelical fads or new gospels, but stick to biblical orthodoxy.

(7) He was godly
Billy Graham was personally a godly man who exhibited the fruit of the Spirit and was ever prayerful. On one occasion he was asked "how often do you pray" to which he instinctively responded, "I am praying that the Lord would help me give you the right answer."

Of course, none of us knows what the Judgement Seat of Jesus Christ will reveal. My guess is that Billy Graham will prove to be one of the very few men who though famous, were truly great in the eyes of the Lord Jesus whom he loved and served.

My summer's reading is going to be Prophet with Honour: The Billy Graham Story, by William Martin.

The above is based, in part, from a talk by Hugh Palmer, given at the EMA, June 26th 2019

Tuesday, 18 June 2019

How shall we treat our enemies?

Western Christians live in a culture where few of us have enemies. That for sure will change in the years to come. What is true of perhaps most Christians in most of history will most likely become true of us - unless we compromise the Gospel, in which case we will make friends of the world, not enemies.

Jesus seems to assumes that believers will have enemies in both Mathew 5, "I tell you love your enemies" and Matthew 10, "a man's enemies will be members of his own household." 

David's enemy - Saul
Young David was one day going about his business - which was serving God with his gifts of music on the harp and his gifts of fighting skill with a slingshot, when out of the blue he got himself an enemy in the shape of king Saul. Saul was envious of David - very often jealousy is the secret origin of enemies although they will never say so! It's rather an embarrassing confession! In Samuel chapter 24, and in Matthew 5 we learn how to handle enemies, remembering all the time that our warfare is not against people but invisible powers behind those visible enemies.

1. Never fear an enemy - God will protect you
The psalms, so many of them written by David, breathe a quiet confidence in God's protection, "The Lord surrounds the righteous with favour as with a shield.” (Psalm 5:12) So we are never to fear an enemy, for the Lord will protect his people from all harm.

2. Don't believe their lies
One of the sure marks that you have an enemy, is the gradual mist of lies that you become aware of. Saul and his court invented lies about David - that he was a wrongdoer and a rebel against authority. These were precisely opposite to the truth (he was a goldy man and totally loyal to the king). You know an enemy is about when you hear lies told about you. But here's the thing - never believe the lies. True believers are humble and aware of their faults, which gives Satan an opportunity to play with their heads. If you believe the lies told about you - you could go insane. David refused to believe the lies and so did Jesus. Of Him it was said that he was mad and possessed by the devil! If they did this with Jesus (out of envy, Pilate sussed), then it will happen to us.  Like the Master, so the follower!

3. Don't trust enemies
This may seem strange for a believer who has read "Love always trusts" (1 Corinthians 13). But the same Scriptures also teach that we are sent out into the world as  sheep among wolves (Matthew 10). Christians can be too nice. They can easily go off guard and share with an enemy thinking, "he will change, he can be won." That is don't-have-to-learn-it-the-hard-way folly! Enemies have one agenda - your destruction and you must not trust them one jot. They will take anything you say, twist it and throw it back at you. Although Saul wept in front of David, he remained an implacable enemy and when he went home that night, David went into a stronghold. No fool young David. Never ever trust an enemy! "But Jesus would not entrust himself to them, for he knew all people." (John 2:24).

4. Don't be tempted to respond in kind. 
Opportunities to harm your enemy may arise - don't take them. One day David found himself in a cave with Saul. He could have killed him, but just cut off a piece of his robe. He later regretted this action because it was at the very least "a stab" at Saul. Leave all vengeance to God, and don't cut their robe.

5. Don't allow enemies to knock you off course.
There is a strange danger when it comes to enemies. In response to their hatred and lies, it is possible for a believer to go off course themselves, by counterbalance. For example, to become suspicious of all people, or to lose trust in everyone. Or to give up the calling on your life because it was opposed by enemies. We learn from men like Nehemiah never to give up or be deflected from our cause by enemies.

6. Love your enemy
That doesn't mean backtrack on any of the above, but it does mean that when you have an opportunity to help them do so, for in this way you reveal the character of God who loves those who shake their fist at him, giving them both sun and rain.

Loving enemies is among the hardest thing to do - especially if the enemy is still at his dirty tricks. Yet it is God-like and Jesus like, for while we were enemy-sinners Christ died for us. And perhaps as we love our enemies we will give them an opportunity to experience the love and grace of God.

So having enemies, and loving them, can provide us with a unique opportunity to share the Gospel.

Thursday, 6 June 2019

The Attack on the Church in the 21st Century: ANTHROPOLOGY

Big words are sometimes helpful
The great success, under God, of men like John Wesley, was that they deliberately chose simple words, following in the footsteps of their Master. They hid any learning they may have had and chose words everyone could understand.

But sometimes big words are helpful when they sum up a really big idea. And the Bible sometimes uses Big Words. Justification (by faith alone) is a big and beautiful word. We are put right with God merely by believing in the Gospel - wonderful!

I recently came across an idea which I found so helpful in understanding where the attack on the church today is coming from. It uses three big words, it's not my idea, so thanks to wherever and whoever it came from.

This is what someone said:

"The attack on the church in the first century was about Christology. The attack on the church in the middle ages was on Soteriology. The attack on the church in the 21st century concerns Anthroplogy."

The attack on the early church was about Christology: Who is Jesus, is he God, is he Man? This was the big issue which heretics and faithful men of God fought over. It's not really a big deal anymore: we know that Jesus Christ was and is both Man and God, two natures in one divine Person.

Leading up to the 1500s, the big attack on the church was SOTERIOLOGY, the doctrine of salvation. The Catholic Church was teaching that we can be made right with God by good works and religious works. Along came men like Martin Luther. He saw as plain as day from the New Testament that none of our works contribute to salvation - even the very faith by which we believe is a gift from God. He along with Calvin and Zwingli were used by God to restore the church to the Gospel and to the Scriptures. Again, not the issue of our day.

The attack today
The attack on today's church is largely coming from ANTHROPOLOGY - what is man? What a strange attack! Not from a salvation-doctrine issue, but from a What is Mankind? issue. Here are the attacks:

  1. Mankind is not a unique creature - we are merely one species among many others, of no more significance or meaning
  2. Mankind is not binary, male or female - but a spectrum of gender
  3. Mankind is not heterosexual - but a spectrum of sexualities

What is so tragic about all of these modern attacks on mankind, hatched in irrelevant departments at universities - something Jordan Peterson has been good at exposing - is that they are all anti-biology,  anti-facts and anti-truth.

In other words, perhaps for the first time in the history of the world, men and women are believing what are obviously and plainly lies. For example, it is patently obvious that we are radically different from all the other animals - radically so, as atheists such as Raymond Tallis have been saying (See his The Aping of Mankind.)

And what is more we are denying obvious truth in a culture that prides itself as "scientific" and "fact-checking"- there's a ginormous elephant sitting in the room.

"Although they claimed to be wise they became fools... their thinking became futile... they exchanged the truth of God for a lie." (Romans 1)

And perhaps for the first time in the history of the world a Christian will go to prison for humbly holding and teaching, not that Jesus is Lord, not that the Gospel is the only way to heaven, but for believing and teaching a factual biological and  Christian anthropology!

Wednesday, 5 June 2019

Bible Colleges - the Good, the Bad and the Ugly

A New Reformation
Any 21st century reformation - a return to the doctrine and practise of the New Testament - would, I have no doubt, sweep away Bible Colleges as we know them.

Of course to say that is to say something as alien and strange to the Christian world as "Justification is by Faith Alone" sounded to the ears of the Roman Catholic Church of the 14 and 15  hundreds. That's what reformations are about. They tackle issues that have become so "the norm" that they are unquestioned and have become the Ruling Tradition of the day.

A new reformation, building on the work of previous reformations will tackle more than Bible Colleges, but that will be one of the issues it will confront.

The purpose of this blog is to encourage local churches to train their own people rather than send them to institutions. 

Here is the indisputable fact from God's Word: The only place to train God's people for works of service is in the local church apprentice-style alongside seasoned Gospel workers - that is the thesis of this blog and the clear and unambiguous teaching of the New Testament. Jesus trains the Twelve by taking them on a three-year journey, where they spend much time with him, watching and learning. And he sets the model for all training, a model which the apostle Paul clearly followed in the training of men like Timothy. 

Prove this wrong from God's Word.

The Good
Many Christians have benefited from spending a few years at Bible Colleges. This, by the way is no defence of them, just an observation. (God is pleased to bless us even when we get things wrong, thankfully, or else we would hardly ever experience his goodness). At Bible College pastors, evangelists and missionaries have learnt the Scriptures, studied church history and become familiar with Christian doctrine.

Moreover, men and women who have worked in Bible Colleges have produced helpful study guides and commentaries, which have blessed the church. But once again, these materials could easily be produced by men and women who serve in local churches around the world.

At the moment, while our local churches refuse to take up the Biblical challenge to train in-house many are "forced" to take the second-best option of going to Bible College.

Bible Colleges have and continue to do good - there is no question about that. It's just that there is a far better and far more Biblical way. 

The Bad
First,  Bible Colleges discourage the local church from her task in preparing people for works of service. They give the impression that if you have a gifted and called person in your church who wants to serve the Lord full time, the only way to do training is to send them away from the church.  They give the impression that the local church is inadequate, unequal to this great task. They give the impression to ordinary pastors and leaders that they are not well enough equipped to train the next generation. This is an outrageous impression, for Christ has gifted apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers to "prepare God's people for works of service" (Eph 4:12). Ordinary pastors can pass on the truth to reliable men.

Second, as a general rule, a Bible College is geographically isolated from the local church. Thereby, an institution is established which has no New Testament warrant. There is no difference, in this sense, between a monastery and a Bible College. The only "institution" known in the New Testament is the local church. (The "schools of the prophets" in the Old Testament, mysterious in any case, are no model for New Testament practise.)

And it gets worse. New offices are introduced which are unknown to the Scriptures. The office of "Professor" and "Lecturer" and "Scholar" are nothing short of impostor offices in the Church of Jesus Christ, of the same category as "priest", "monk" and "nun". We should never introduce a Christian as "Professor Y" or "Lecturer Z", but just as brother John, or perhaps slave of Christ Jesus.

Third, the emphasis of a college is on the head and on knowledge - it has to be. Listening to knowledge lecturers and writing knowledge essays. This is a striking difference to the emphasis, for example, given in the twenty or so requirements listed for elders in the New Testament, of which only one is a an ability to teach the truth. All the others - by far the greater number - concern godliness and godly character.

Fourth, the method of imparting knowledge at a Bible College is all wrong. Christian knowledge cannot be passed on by distant lecturers  but by living life and example. We have copied the academy whereby anyone can deliver a lecture on anything with the person delivering the lecture separated from the substance of the lecture. In the New Testament, the nature of "discipleship" determines how all learning takes place - one godly example walks with a second and by speech plus life teaches them the truth. The living day to day example of the teacher matters as much as what they say. Academia separates out the person from the teaching experience (unless of course, students and teachers 'do life' together: but that expereince is called the church in the New Testament).

Fifth, the tragic result of Bible College can be this, "I have finished my training, I don't need any more, I am ready." I am sure that Bible College inspires some to life long learning but it could equally give the impression to others that training is now over. 

The Ugly
The first ugly is pride. It is of course the supreme danger of any kind of knowledge which tends to puff up. The young trained pastor thinks he knows more and better than anyone else in his congregation. And they can think the same, "Oh, he's been to Bible College."

Then there is that ridiculous letters-after-the-name game. I have a whole-Bible commentary written by men from a non-westen continent on my shelf and when it introduces all the contributors, that's all they boast about, what degrees and what-nots they have and where they got those what-nots from. (In heaven no-one will be known as Doctor This or Doctor That and this kind of folly will be unknown).

When seven men were chosen to serve the early church in Acts chapter 6, what mattered is that they were "full of the Spirit", "full of faith", "full of wisdom." Not a single BA or PhD among them. When Paul talks about himself, he calls himself slave or servant or boasts about his sufferings. Not a mention of any academic achievements.

Can we imagine the following reformation change of blurb on the rear cover of a Christian book, to bring it in line with Scripture:

Worldly Title: John Smith, PhD, MA, BSc

Christian, New Testament Title: John Smith, almost killed in the Congo for his faith, a slave of Jesus Christ

If such a change sounds outrageous, that shows how far the mighty have fallen.

Thirdly, we now have a church full of experts. If a church newspaper is seeking an opinion on some issue in the world today, they don't ask for a seasoned church pastor, they find someone who has done a PhD on this or a PhD on that and ask them. Just like the world we have parcelled out truth to experts. It's as if we are saying to ordinary church members and pastors, "you can't know anything about such and such a subject because you're not an expert."

Fourthly, we tragically give the impression to young pastors, that if they are really to get on and improve themselves, they are going to either have to go away and do a higher degree or write a book or  a "paper" or two: academia is the way to climb the greasy pole. Not godliness, not love, not suffering, not enemies made on account of truth, but academia is the way to prosper.

Fifthly, we introduce into the church a formal - and frankly sometimes boring - method of discourse. How many times do we read books cluttered with endless numbers marking footnotes which clog up the reading and are there because they were written by someone who took on the "critical apparatus" of the academy. You read some of these books wondering if it was written for the believer in the pew or for the academic colleagues of the author, who is looking over his or shoulder to see if their peers would peer-review this sentence or that. We also find the unbiblical terminology of the secular academy entering the church: Scripture passages are called "texts" and the Old Testament temple worship is called "the cult."

Finally, and most tragically of all, Theological Institutions (including Bible Colleges) can easily become the source of error for the church. This may heppen when a teachers is  not accountable to a local church, which alone is the pillar and ground of truth. It could be because of the intellectual itch for the new and novel. (This is a radical difference between the academy and the church: the academy is concerned with the new and novel, the church with the apostolic and already-given). It could be because the lecturer is really writing for his peers whom he wants to impress by his "wide learning." Or it could be that the institution has to play a political syllabus game with contemporary secular institutions in order to dish out "proper" degrees, resulting in the inclusion of heretical subjects. For whatever

A Reformation Needed 
Ordinary pastors and ordinary churches can - and should - train the next generation of evangelists, teachers and pastors. We do not need outside help. We do not need unbiblical institutions. We need to regain our confidence and authority in God's calling to train the next generation and get on with the task, aided by the Holy Spirit who has clearly shown us God's ways and methods.

As painful as such a transition would be, it will glorify God because it will line up with his revealed will.

A Reformation that might just happen all by itself
I do wonder if an orchestrated reformation in this area will actually be necessary. As our Western culture darkens I can see the day when no western government will allow an institution to exist within its bounds which will not "celebrate" all the anti-biology, anti-truth perversions of political correctness. Institutions  will have to conform or be abolished (my guess is that some will conform - it's happening in the US already). What we will be left with is -  pure church!

So perhaps this reformation will happen without any Christian lifting their hand or nailing their thesis.

Churches get ready to train your own people! The future is bright!

Thursday, 30 May 2019

What is the Gospel?

A vital question
In parts of the western evangelical church, this question's importance is receding. Influenced by the Wrights and Chalkes of this world, we hear people now explaining the task of the church, not as  proclaiming the Gospel, but as proclaiming the Kingdom. We're to tell folk that the Kingdom of God has come and that everyone is invited to join in. No talk of sin, of repentance, of faith or of obedience.

In this confusion, it is helpful to remind ourselves what the Gospel is and to make sure that it is at the heart of our proclamation and labours.

There is a God
The Gospel starts further back than the Cross. It starts with the fact that everyone in the world knows that there is a God from the witness of creation. God has placed a forensic software programme in the human mind which runs from evidence (creation) to conclusion (there must be a God). We don't need to prove the existence of God, just declare it and show it.

Everyone has sinned
Then we need to convince folk from the law in their consciences and the ten commandments and the law of Christ that we have all sinned against this great and holy God who made us. We have all broken God's commandments in thought, attitude, word and deed. This is the bad news that must precede the Good News - we deserve the righteous punishment of God.

It is only when a doctor tells the  patient that he or she has cancer that they are able to see their need for the cure. If a doctor just gave "Good News" to a patient, i.e. news of a cure, they would not be interested. A cure? Why do I need a cure?

God is merciful
Convicted of their sin, we now are able to describe God's loving and amazing remedy for sin and its eternal consequences. God so loved the world that he sent his Son into the world to pay for our sins by suffering death on a Roman cross. In this way his need for holy justice is satisfied and his love is expressed to those who do not deserve salvation. Salvation is available as a free gift to all who trust in Christ, and all who believe will be given eternal life. 

Repentance and Faith
This message demands a response of repentance - a change of mind and a change of life. It demands  faith, believing the Good News and personally entrusting ourselves to Jesus Christ. Simply declaring the Good News is not enough, we must urge men and women to respond: to repent and to believe.

Obedience and following Christ
Is this part of the Gospel? I would say so. Unless we make disciples - which involves teaching believers to obey everything Christ has commanded - we have not completed the task of sharing the Gospel. So discipleship is part and parcel of our gospel declaration.

This Gospel is the power of God unto salvation for everyone who believes. What a wonderful thing!  If we stick to it, if we are faithful in proclaiming it, if we reject modern alternatives, such as the "gospel of the kingdom", God will be pleased to honour our labours and bring men, women, boys and girls to himself.

Tuesday, 21 May 2019

How to Preach

All preachers are different
Every preacher appointed by God preaches differently from every other preacher. Just as the letters of the New Testament bear the stamp of their human authors, so preaching will - and must - bear the stamp of each human preacher. No clones in the pulpit please!

But, after spelling out the differences, there are many things that all preaching should have in common, and here are six.

(1) A prayerful dependence on the Holy Spirit
This is revealed in the preparation, "What do you want me to say?" and the delivery, "Take your words and use them powerfully to change minds, hearts and lives."

(2) A deep understanding of the Scriptures
No preaching can have power unless it comes from an accurate and deep understanding of the Scriptures. How can this happen? First, personal meditation on the text. Second, consulting as many commentaries as you can. (Every commentator themselves has consulted ten others, so by consulting even three commentators you have 30 wise men in your study - teachers whom God has given to the church). Third, second exegesis. Armed with the corrections that reading commentators brings, we study the text again.

(3) A deep understanding of Christian doctrine
This is software running in the background of the preacher's mind and heart. It's the preacher's Android platform. Doctrine is a broad understanding of the teaching of the Scriptures on all sorts of subjects so that a deep understanding of doctrine is the same as a deep understanding of the Scriptures. Which means that as the preacher understands the particular Scripture he is preaching from, a knowledge of the whole Scriptures is already helping him because it is in his mind.

(4) An organised journey
Nothing is more boring than a talk which turns out to be a long and seemingly endless collection of words! The audience need to know and feel where you are going. They need to have a start, an end, and a middle, at least. Whatever structure we use, there must be structure there. Without it, our listeners will think we have drifted off the path into the woods - and lost our way! Will he ever come back they think, and off to sleep they go!

(5) An interesting journey
On the subject of boring, no sermon should be boring. A preacher should raise and lower his voice, a preacher should use pauses and illustrations. None of them affected, all of them natural. This means the preacher is very interested in the world to which he preaches, the people to whom he preaches. He is constantly gathering anecdotes and illustrations storing them away for use at some future date. All good preachers are squirrels.

(6) A Gospel journey
Finally, somewhere in the preaching of God's Word, from wherever in the Scriptures, should emerge the Gospel of Jesus Christ, or at least some part of the Gospel. It is a great mistake to shoehorn in an artificial way every aspect of the Gospel into every sermon. Soon every sermon will sound the same. But since Jesus taught the two on the way to Emmaus that every Scripture in the Old Testament points to Him, we should find no problem discovering grace and mercy and salvation through Jesus Christ everywhere in the Scriptures.

One mark of a true New Testament Church is that preaching happens there. Without preaching the congregation drifts into error, follows the world, lives ungodly lives. They lose the joy of salvation and the hope of eternal life.

If no preaching happens at your place, leave it today - I have no hesitation saying that - and find a preaching church.