Archive for October, 2007

Preaching the Headlines

October 30, 2007

The current inquiry into the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, has taken my mind back to that remarkable time. I remember it chiefly for the fact that my wife went into hospital to give birth to our second daughter the day Diana died. I also recall going to preach the Sunday after that in a church I had never been to before- nor since. My overwhelming impression was that I was expected to have as the theme of my sermon the death of Diana. That was not my theme. I also recall preaching the day after the Omagh bombing in which 29 people died and adjusting my sermon accordingly. It seemed I couldn’t do otherwise. Incidents like this raise the question of how far our sermons should reflect the headlines.

CH Spurgeon pointed out the dangers of constantly  looking to our newspaper for our sermons rather than looking to the Word of God. The danger being of course that it is the world rather than the Word that sets our agenda. John Stott also warns of this danger whilst making the case for what he calls ‘double listening’- that is listening to both the word and the world so that we might bring the word to bear upon the world in a way that is culturally relevant. Recently I heard David Jackman suggest that we should try and have a sermon illustration from something that has happened in the last week just to remind our hearers that we live in the same world. However Phillips Brooks cautions against this same practice. He argues that recent events are so raw that our congregation may end up thinking about the event rather than the Scripture we are seeking to illustrate.

The question of preaching from the headlines is a pressing one today with the constant pressure to be ‘relevant’  in our headlines. My answer to the quest for relevance is that  the Word of God is relevant, we don’t have to make it relevant. The problem I have noted with many relevant sermons is that whilst they are hot on the contemporary they have little of the Word of God in them. Indeed they often descend into moralising pap like a column in a woman’s magazine. What I, and others, have discovered is the power of the Word of God as His living Word. As such it often addresses people in ways that neither they nor the preacher anticipated. Indeed it confounds the agenda that the world sets and calls them to a new set of concerns and priorities.

On the one hand we should not distance our preaching deliberately from what is going on in the world. But we should not let the headlines determine what we preach. It is one of the strengths of consecutive expository preaching that it allows our preaching programme to be determined by the Word of God.

Brooks’ Lectures on Preaching

October 24, 2007

I once heard John Stott speak on preaching. Interestingly he said everything he had learned about preaching he had learned from Spurgeon. He also referred to Phillips ‘O Little Town of Bethlehem’ Brooks’ Yale lectures on preaching which I have finally got around to reading. Brooks defines preaching as truth through personality and as result much of his work is focussed upon the man behind the sermon. As such the book is a refreshing book on preaching and a challenging one at that. For instance Brooks’ stress upon a man’s need to love truth for truth’s sake and not just for making sermon. But there is also much to be gleaned from his asides on matters relating to preaching such as preaching old sermons, whether we should preach twice on Sunday, on writing or not writing sermons, imitating other preachers etc. There are also some amusing comments such as his comment on the man who leaves his preparation to Saturday and then proves that he has done so on Sunday! There are also some interesting and unusual topics covered such as thoughts on the positive value of persistent critics. His section on ministry in the present age whilst over 100 years old tackles issues that still have a contemporary resonance.

All in all a good read for preachers.

The Protestant Revolution-Part 4

October 24, 2007

Well, I’m glad it’s over. I felt obliged to watch this series but in truth it was awful. The fourth episode proved no exception in this series. It was completely lacking in any nuanced understanding of the subject and made some wildly inaccurate claims. Contrary to Hunt’s claims early Protestants did not view wealth as an index of God’s favour. Indeed they considered wealth to be a snare. Hunt, who is obsessed with the implications of the priesthood of all believers, completely overlooked Calvin’s concept of all work as vocation.

The series was a great opportunity missed to explore the true contribution of Protestantism to rise of modernity.

The Truth of the Cross

October 23, 2007

I first read a book by RC Sproul during my student days- 20+ years ago. It was a breath of fresh air with Sproul’s sound theology, humour and readable style. I soon had my girlfriend and friends reading him. Since then I have read his works off and on- some being better than others. He has published a new work called ‘The Truth of the Cross.’ I’ve just read the first chapter online and it is classic Sproul.

One of the striking things that he points out in the chapter is that people today are not interested in justification. They really find it somewhat unnecessary. Insofar as they do believe in justification, he states, they neither believe in justification by faith or works. But they believe in ‘justification by death.’ In other words everyone gets into heaven. It is a powerful way of stating what I’ve observed in reality at funerals. When facing the death of a loved one few people have any sense that there is a heaven to be gained and a hell to be avoided. Their loved one will go to heaven- simply because they love them. They will in Sproul’s phrase achieve justification by death.

It is a sobering commentary on just how far our modern generation is in its thinking from traditional Christian values and understanding. And it presents us with the immense challenge of communicating the truth of the cross to such a generation. We need Spirit- filled persuasion where we impress upon them the urgent necessity of dealing with eternal realities.

You can read the first chapter of Sproul’s book at

http://store.ligonier.org/The%20Truth%20of%20the%20Cross_1stChapter.pdf

Onward Christian Soldier

October 18, 2007

General Sir Richard Dannatt, Chief of the General Staff of the British army is reported in today’s Times newspaper as speaking on the need for soldiers to be better spiritually prepared for death. Sir Richard, a Christian, said that death is not the end and that as a leader he had a responsibility to look after his soldiers’ spiritual welfare.

It is encouraging to see such a high profile figure speaking out publicly about how his Christian faith effects his role. He of course knows that this is not how British general’s speak and that it will bring public ridicule. His faithful testimony is to be admired. But he also highlights the spiritual need of soldiers. Far from home and facing death they are in need of our prayers and also we ought to pray that God would raise up faithful ministers of Christ in their midst. Soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan are forgotten by many, their wars a political embarrassment to many. But the church should not forget them and their needs. Especially the great need.

A World (Champion) Without God

October 13, 2007

Nigel Benn, former world boxing champion is interviewed in today’s Times newspaper. On the subject of being world champion he states, ‘What’s it all about?’ Being world champion, you had money, you had flash cars – Bentleys, Ferraris – you had a big house, you had women, you had this, you had that, but what was it all about? Where was true happiness? In a nutshell, it was all total destruction. Did the world title bring me happiness? Absolutely not. Did it bring me fame and wealth? That’s about it.’ Its a true assessment of the emptiness of fame by someone whose purpose has now been found in as he describes it ‘doing the will of the Father.’ Benn is now a pastor in Majorca with the Vineyard church and has found peace, joy and fulfillment in serving others.

50 and Out

October 11, 2007

‘Living Church’ is John Stott’s fiftieth and final book. He writes it as the convictions of a life-long pastor. For those familiar with Stott’s books there is much that is familiar and much that you will taste elsewhere- which is no doubt fitting for someone summing up 60 years in ministry. The book is full of typical Stott virtues- humility, careful textual reading, reflection on church and culture. And of course a call for BBC- Biblically Balanced Christianity.

I suppose one of the surprising themes for me is just how much Stott’s book is suffused with Anglicanism, including an apologia for it in an appendix. It strikes me that his view of Anglicanism owes more to a romantic than a realistic view of Anglicanism. But of course his views are stated clearly and courteously as one would expect. But whether Anglican or not there is much to be gained for the careful reader especially as he calls us to think about the church.

Stott also gives a nod to the emergent church but I wonder how far he would still be sympathetic now that its agenda has become clearer?

As I said in a previous blog the church is indebted to Stott for his half century of work in promoting the cause of Christ and it should be our prayer that God would continue to raise up men of his calibre for a new generation.

Thoughts on ‘An All Round Ministry’

October 9, 2007

I’ve just finished reading CH Spurgeon ‘An All Round Ministry.’ Despite the fact that Spurgeon obtained almost mythical status amongst Irish Baptists because of his profound influence in shaping Irish Baptist life in the 19th century I’ve never been a great Spurgeon reader. Although I must admit I’ve always enjoyed what I’ve read. And this book was no exception. It is a collection of addresses which Spurgeon gave at the annual conference at his college. Most of them reflect the tumultuous times that he lived through as theological liberalism became rife in the latter part of the 19th century. It was  interesting how much it is a case of plus ca change. They are very encouraging addresses which reflect his own warm personality. I especially enjoyed, and was challenged by, his address on the preacher and power.

I started reading the book online and then discovered that I owned a copy that I had completely forgotten about! One part of me thought it would have been good to read these addresses earlier in ministry. But I also found these addresses were well directed to those who had endured some of the slings and arrows of ministry and so I probably profited from them more after ten years plus of ministry than if I had read them earlier.

Well worth a read. And if your pastor doesn’t own a copy buy him one- it will prove a helpful tonic.

The Protestant Revolution-Part 3

October 5, 2007

I finally got around to watching part three of this four part series. The fact that i have only done so now and that final part has been broadcast reflects my enthusiasm for the series. Again this episode was a real mixed bag. Hunt tried to show how Protestantism was the father or modernity which is an important idea. However I have perhaps two quibbles. The first is that yet again he appears to have little real grasp of how Protestantism is driven by religious ideas. So 16th century iconoclasm was like the actions of the ‘Taleban’, ‘sacrilege’ carried out by ‘Protestant stormtroopers.’  Very little sense here of the religious motivation of these actions. My second issue is that there is little explanation of the cleavage between Protestantism and modernity. Why did the latter outgrow the former? Okay, Hunt makes the point about how Protestantism released a spirit of anti-authoritarianism but there is no real explanation of how modernity broke away from Protestant ideas.

One of the striking things about the programme, perhaps not intended by the makers, is that it illustrates just how irrelevant Protestantism has now become to mainstream public life in  Britain. Every time he wants to consider modern Protestantism he heads for the USA.

How the British Become Christians

October 4, 2007

In a recent sermon Melvin Tinker quotes the following statistics for the single most decisive factor in people becoming Christians in Britain today.

  1. The influence of a particular church over a period of time -27.8%
  2. The influence of other members of one’s own family- 25.8%
  3. The influence of a Christian friend or friends- 19.9%
  4. A specific evangelistic event or activity-13.2%

I’m not sure what happens the other 13.3%! The figures seem to reflect what others are saying that reaching our post-modern generation with the gospel is a long process, where people are influenced not only by the gospel message but by the integrity of Christian living. It perhaps also backs up another statistic I have heard that from a person first hears the gospel until they become a Christian is on average 4 years.

I also found statistic 4 interesting with regard to the huge claims that some are making for the Alpha course. Might it not be making the impact that some claim- assuming it is incorporated in this fourth figure.