Archive for May, 2009

It’s a question of where to start.

Intuitively, there is so much going for starting with the gospels if you want to present the gospel. The focus is so beautifully on Jesus, the personal reality of God present amongst us.

However, for 2 reasons, I wonder whether the disadvantages outweigh the advantages:

the gospels say a lot of stuff that you might not want otherwise to include – what do you think about Mk 13, let alone how do you teach it?? The other side of the coin is that they don’t say a lot about stuff you might want to major on – eg. the doctrine of the atonement, or justification by faith is not exactly prominent

the gospels start in the middle of a story – the story of creation, and God’s determination to restore it from the devastation of sin, and his image bearers to their rule. It is within that story that Jesus, and the gospels, make sense. But our culture has now completely lost touch with even the basic rudiments of this story.

So maybe the gospels are not the best place to start the gospel! In which case, where?


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What’s the hook?

Where does the gospel gain traction for unbelievers who are very decent people?

A few months ago, I had the privilege to spend 8 evenings with a family who wanted to know about Christianity. They are a terrific family – super-responsible people, caring for their children, contributing to their extended family and broader community, and with a vague sense of thankfulness to God for all the good things he had poured into their lives – health, house, holidays etc.

What’s more, they agreed with almost everything I said! Except they didn’t really. It didn’t get through into their hearts.

I tried every hook I could think of:

From flickr by !fatima

From flickr by !fatima

  1. they were sinners, whose sins would take them to death and judgment – except they didn’t really have a concept of sin that touched them deeply.
  2. sin is mostly about a failure to love God with all your heart – except they said they had a personal response of thankfulness to God.
  3. they should join God’s kingdom program of doing more than just living for themselves and their little world – except that they were contributing.

So, my question is this: where do you go – what is the gospel hook – for post-Christian, decent deists?

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I am preaching on the ascension this Sunday at one of our traditional services (it being the Sunday after Ascension Day). I came across this quote, which makes a terrific point:

what happens when you downplay or ignore the Ascension is that, basically, the church expands to fill the vacuum. If Jesus is not someone other than the church – while of course at the same time being present with his people through his Spirit – then we have created a high road to triumphalism of the worst kind.

Ministers need to hear this loud and clear. Commitment to church life and programs can never be identified with commitment to Christ, precisely because Christ is absent – ascended to the right hand of the Father – even as he is present by his Spirit.

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If there’s one thing that keeps you going in the Christian life, and in Christian ministry, it’s that God is sovereign. Lose your grip on that and you slide away into workoholism, or madness. It is God who gives the growth!

And at the same time, within his sovereignty, he calls us to faithfulness with what has been entrusted to us – our gifts, time, abilities, resources etc.

And it would be nice to leave it at that – God: fruitful; us:faithful.

Except that Jesus doesn’t allow things to be quite so easy. There is quite a a lot from Jesus that indicates that faithful is fruitful – Matt 24.45-51, Matt 25.14-30, Jn 15.1-11.

Even saying that the fruitfulness in these passages is our own godliness doesn’t change the basic structure of the point. The fruit of the Spirit is the fruit of, well, the Spirit. It is still God’s sovereign work in our lives “enabling us both to will and work for his good pleasure” (Phil 2.13). And we are held accountable for that fruitfulness. 

I think this impacts at the point of ministry culture. At the moment, it seems to me that we are not surprised at fruitlessness, and are by default comfortable with a ‘faithfulness not fruitfulness’ paradigm. It’s a quick answer we give. What if we were to change paradigm, so that faithful fruitlessness was not the norm or the expectation, but the exception? What if it was something that we only came to after long hard examination? It’s still a possibility, but a conclusion slowly drawn.

The danger, of course, is feelings of failure and being overwhelmed (right now, quite a few of things I am involved in have plateaued, do I know this all too well!). But maybe, as a mate of mine put it, we just need to ‘suck it up. princess’. After all, it’s not about me!

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These are the classic ‘3 transcendentals’ It seems to me that we are good at the first 2, and are not really sure what to do with the other. 

So, here is a case of ‘less talk, more action’. My fabulous wife has started painting again, and here is her latest effort.



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Here’s a line from an email by one of the best evangelical minsters around:

it is fascinating to meditate on the way that the essentials don’t seem to make for growth, but the (theological) optionals/pragmatics do

By essentials he means all the stuff that is absolutely necessary for faithful gospel ministry, as well as the ministry structures that make obvious gospel-sense: expository preaching, heartfelt prayer, a concern for the lost, small groups, SRE, Sunday school, contemporary services that speak the language, etc

By and large, all our churches are doing these things; and by and large, they are not growing. 

I guess there are 2 options.

  1. say that growth is not a goal for the church, so that the only thing that matters is continuing to do those good things. Except that as a Diocese, we’ve not gone down that path, and for 3 good reasons. 1 – God takes no pleasure in the death of sinners, but rejoices when people repent. That is his purpose, and it should be ours, as Spurgeon put it, to be ‘insatiably hungry for the salvation of souls’ – and that means growth; 2. There are some churches that are doing those things and are growing, which shows it can be done; 3. In any case, the ‘noble faithful but fruitless’ response is a conclusion to be arrived at very slowly – it can too easily be a quick letting off the hook!
  2. But there’s another option – what if our list of theologically driven elements for a local church is actually theologically thin? What if we are not quite the fully theologically-orbed churches that we think we are? What if we’ve left some things out? In other words, is there an opportunity / necessity for us to be theologically self-critical?

For me, the fact that hardly any churched have any ‘community care’ programs – the simple overflow of the no-strings-attached love of Christ to the local community, at a structural/program level – is an example of something that could well be added to the list of bog-standard, theologically driven, faithful gospel ministry.

Any thoughts?

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It all depends on whether you’re a glass-half-full, or a glass-half-empty kind of person.

One way of looking at it is to say that more than half of Sydney/Illawarra/Mountains doesn’t know a Christian, and so we need to get out there and contact and connect with them. And there’s a lot going for that. But right from the git-go, it feels overwhelming – even massively so. The glass is way less even than half empty! 

I come at it from the other side. There are 60,000 odd members of Sydney Anglican churches, each of whom has varying degrees of contact and connection already with unbelieving friends and family members. The building blocks are (mostly) in place. Overwhelmingly, we believe in the uniqueness of Christ, the necessity of conversion, and the reality of hell. That’s what happens when you have a great theological college and expository preachers.

From flickr by jeannot7

From flickr by jeannot7

So to raise the evangelistic temperature several notches, we need to do 2 things:

  1. Teach a prayer. The single most important thing to increase our outreach is to pray. At CCIW, we have started embedding this prayer in our culture – we pray it at services, in growth groups and individually (hopefully daily). Gracious God, you desire all people to be saved. Please open the hearts of people in this area to you, open doors of opportunity for the gospel to me, and give me the courage and wisdom to walk through them.

If we pray a prayer like this regularly, I find it hard to imagine that the Living Lord won’t answer it. 

2.  But second, what happens when God does answer this prayer? We need to put a resource in the hands of regular non-expert church members, so that if and when someone does pipe up because God has opened their heart, the Christian knows what to do. 

The resource needs to be a clear statement of the gospel, as well as:

  • designed for a non-expert (most of the courses around are designed for experts – ie. theologically trained people);
  • designed for a 1-1 context (most of the courses are designed for groups);
  • less than 7 sessions;  
  • if it’s a book, less than 100 pages (much more is too intimidating for both Christian and inquirer).

Two resources come to mind: John Dickson’s new course The Life of Jesus looks terrific – incredible production values, focussed on Jesus (obviously), and meets all the criteria except length (the book is 200 pages).

On the other hand, I wonder whether in a post Christian society, that no longer has even the whiff of the Biblical world-view within which Jesus makes sense,  we need to start further back. And so I have written a course/produced DVD called God’s World, which starts with creation and sin, and moves along a thematic trajectory.

In the end, the resource doesn’t matter so much.

But do these 2 things – pray and resource – and the evangelistic temperature will go up hugely!

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