Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Humility & Henry

I have just finished reading a good book on Patrick Henry by David Vaughan. In this book Vaughan recounts Henry’s life and seeks to draw lessons in leadership. In a chapter entitled “Humility” Vaughan gives a powerful warning.

“Fame is dangerous, of course, because it is deceptive. At the heels of popularity there lurks pride and all of its attendant evils: arrogance, egotism, and selfishness. With every successive victory, or every promotion in public esteem, there is the danger of secretly congratulating oneself, thus edging closer to a fall from the pinnacle of pride. Once a leader succumbs to pride, he disqualifies himself from holding a position of power because he can no longer fulfill one of leadership’s most important tasks: to guard and guide those under his authority. Self centered leadership is an oxymoron.” (165-66)

Too true! Examples of this failure are all too easy to find. Let us beware, guard our hearts, and open ourselves to those who are willing to rebuke our conceit when (not if) it begins to rise.

Monday, July 30, 2007

Local Paper on "Church"

The local paper here ran a story this weekend entitled, “It's time we gave selfish ambition a swift kick - out of church.” I was pleased to find this in our paper. The author might be downplaying the role of doctrine (hopefully not), but she is surely right about how consumerism has infiltrated popular thinking about church. She writes:

Instead, church meetings for many have become a time for showing up at a building once or twice a week to be a spectator.
Worse, recent statistics show our obsession with being entertained has Christians church-hopping in epidemic proportions to meet their designer needs, only to walk away less than a year later in search for something new.
With that kind of constant upheaval, it's no wonder churches are largely ineffective at taking care of the needs of their congregations, not to mention those outside the four walls.
You can find statements like this in some Christian literature, but I was glad to see it in our local paper. The labor for a healthy church is a crucial labor for the advance of the gospel.

Friday, July 27, 2007

Knowing the Holy Spirit Through the OT

Knowing the Holy Spirit Through the OT
By Christopher J. H. Wright
(IVP, 2006), pb. 159 pp.

I have perused this book today as part of a broader review project, and I am impressed. You know right away that this topic is useful since it combines two areas where our understanding in the church tends to be limited- the Holy Spirit and the Old Testament.

The book grew out of 5 addresses given at a conference in Northern Ireland in 2004. He mentioned how many people wondered if he could find enough material to fill five talks, and then writes:

“Such is the widespread lack of awareness among many Christian people of the identity, presence and impact of the Spirit of God in the Bible before Pentecost. It’s not that they don’t believe he existed before Pentecost. They believe in the Trinity after all. It’s just that they have never noticed how extensive a role the Spirit actually plays in those centuries before Christ. Of course, it could be that they just never read the Old Testament, but let’s be charitable” (9).
He argues that since the indwelling Spirit mentioned in the New Testament is the same Spirit of the Lord God of Israel found in the Old Testament, then to understand and know this Spirit we need the Old Testament.

The five chapters of the book correspond to the five original addresses. I was particularly taken with the chapter titled “The Empowering Spirit.” Inthis chapter he notes how the Spirit is the one who empowers the people of God. He then notes this same Spirit produces humility in His people. Thus one section is entitled, “Power with Humility.” Good stuff!

Thursday, July 26, 2007

There Goes the Bride—The Decline of Church Discipline, 19th Century

The most recent Kairos Journal updated included an article by this title. You can view it here. This is a well done succinct piece on the decline of discipline in the church.

KJ is a great resource for pastors. For registration (free) go here.

Sunday, July 22, 2007

Preaching and Imagination

Too often when people join these two words they mean something speculative, preaching about things we don’t really know. That is not what I am talking about. I have in mind preaching in such a way that you draw your hearers into the biblical world so that they see, feel, experience it anew so that the text impacts them powerfully. I found this well expressed in a collection of sermons by James S. Stewart entitled Walking With God (Edinburgh: St. Andrew Press, 1996; recently republished by Regent College). The memoir of Stewart contained at the beginning of the book quotes John McIntyre describing Stewart’s preaching. This is a good description of what we ought to aim for in preaching.

“At a conference in the Pollock Halls, attended by members of the Presbytery of San Francisco, he gave an address of Jesus’ use of imagination in his life and teaching as we encounter them in the Gospels. Here for me was the clue to his own preaching and teaching that I had missed all these years. For I have known expository preaching which was dull in excess, being little more than flat commentary; as I have known pastorally-oriented preaching which did not rise above counseling. But, by the use of imagination, Dr. Stewart gave exposition and pastoral perception new power and relevance. As he described so graphically the situation of the biblical passage, he gradually incorporated his hearers in the situation. They so became part of it that they identified with the persons of whom, or to whom, Jesus was speaking. The nearest analogy I know is the ability of a great artist to draw the viewer into the action he is portraying.
But there was more. It was not merely an exercise in empathy. Embodied in the situation, the hearers could not escape the urgency of the words of Jesus directed to them. The Gospel appeal, or challenge, or invitation, was not a codicil [i.e., supplement] to the descriptive passages going before. Each one of them was an integral – an inescapable – part of the whole presentation, directed at each listener.” (7)

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Einstein, God & Humility

Several weeks ago on a shopping trip to Wal-Mart, my boys and I were able to do one of our favorite things on such trips- slip away to the book aisles! On this occasion I had the opportunity to thumb through Walter Isaacson’s new biography of Einstein. I was particularly intrigued to find a chapter titled, “Einstein’s God.” I later checked out the book from a library and read with much interest this chapter. Einstein was of course a Jew and never professed faith in Christ. However, he was convinced that the orderliness of the universe demonstrated the design of a deity. Isaacson wrote of the impact on Einstein of this belief in God:

“For Einstein, as for most people, a belief in something larger than himself became a defining sentiment. It produced in him an admixture of confidence and humility that was leavened by a sweet simplicity. Given his proclivity toward being self-centered, these were welcome graces. Along with his humor and self-awareness, they helped him to avoid the pretense and pomposity that could have afflicted the most famous mind in the world.” 385
If the belief in a fairly impersonal, deistic concept of God had such a humbling effect on an incredibly gifted, non-Christian scientist, why doesn’t knowledge of the redeeming work of Christ produce more humility in less brilliant, Christian pastors like us? Far too often pastors are marked by more knowledge of God but less evidence of His grace than is suggested in this quote. Far too often “pretense and pomposity” are words associated with Christian leaders. Let us ponder the greatness of God that we might see his glory and our smallness, and find joy in both.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

James Stewart and the Missionary Church

Those who have read this blog for some time will know of my appreciation of James S. Stewart, the prominent Scottish preacher and New Testament scholar (previous posts). I am currently working on an encyclopedia entry on Stewart, and have come across another great quote. In his book on preaching, Heralds of God, Stewart stated:

“no church is anything more than a pathetic pietistic backwater unless it is first and fundamentally and all the time a world missionary church.”

Well put! As pastors we must see to it that the task of world evangelization stays front and center in our churches.

Monday, July 16, 2007

Amend ETS

Denny Burk (Criswell College) and I have been working on a proposal to amend the constitution of the Evangelical Theological Society (ETS). Recently I commented on my proposal from 2001 for a more ‘evangelical’ doctrinal statement. Denny has taken this suggestion and has done the lion share of the work in putting together a formal proposal we plan to submit at the annual meeting in November. We have launched a website (www.amendets.com) with the proposal, our rationale, FAQ’s and a blog where we will continue the conversation. We want to further the conversation, invite response and hopefully gather support for the amendment.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Helping Parents

One of the important things we must do in pastoral ministry is to encourage gospel-driven parenting. Churches know that families around us are in shambles, and people are looking for help. Sadly, though, people are too often looking for a magic silver bullet, “5 Steps to Change Everything.” What is needed, and what we must provide, is the demonstration of how the gospel speaks to and must shape all areas of life. But again, people too often think of the gospel simply as what you believe to be saved. This is the result of defective teaching over the years. The whole of our pastoral labors is showing ourselves and our people how the gospel is to shape everything we do. Much could be said here, but for now let me just mention two resources.

First, I have recently commented at my blog on Children’s literature on a book entitled Hints for Parentswhich embodies this gospel oriented approach. You can see the comments here and here.

Second, one summer at our church we took our Wednesday nights to watch the Shepherding Your Child’s Heart video series and to discuss it (the book is also excellent). All our adults are together on Wednesday nights in the summer so we showed it to the whole group. Some in that group have children, some have children who are grown and gone, some have never had children and quite a few were unmarried. However, we (pastors) made the point that if we were really to engage in one another’s lives we all needed to think through an issue like this whether we applied it as a parent, grandparent, nursery worker, future parent or an encourager to parents. The material is excellent, and I would highly recommend it. Our experience as a community was also excellent and I would commend this idea to you as well.

Monday, July 09, 2007

What Is a Healthy Church?

Mark Dever has released an updated version of his popular booklet, “9 Marks of a Healthy Church.” The updated edition is titled What is a Healthy Church? And is in the form of a little hardback (similar to many Mahaney titles). I really like this format and this tool continues to be extremely helpful in introducing people to conversations about church health. I could not tell what all has been adjusted in this edition, but overall this format seems like it would be more layman friendly. I do not mean to suggest something negative about the previous editions, but I think more laypeople will pick this one up and see it as something for them. It will be a great resource to have available in bulk at your church.

Here are some thgins that I think are new since the last edition I saw (at least). First, Dever now divides his 9 marks into essential (expositional preaching, biblical theology, biblical understanding of the good news) and important marks. This is helpful. There are also to “Quick Tips” pages titled “If You’re thinking about leaving a Church” and “How to find a good church.” These are very helpful brief application points. I think there is even more in this edition about not seeking personal preferences but looking for biblical essentials.

This is a great tool and I am grateful for Dever and Crossway for making it available.

Friday, July 06, 2007

Packer on Baxter’s Directory

The following lengthy quote is from J. I. Packer’s introduction to Richard Baxter’s Christian Directory.. The task of writing an encyclopedia entry on Baxter has given me opportunity to delve some more into the man who in the eyes of many embodies the oversight of souls. This quote provides a great contrast between the pastoral teaching of Baxter and much of what passes for instruction today.

“From this standpoint it is possible to see clearly the difference between the ‘how-to’ books that today’s evangelicals write for each other and the ‘how-to’ teaching of the Directory, which is so much wiser and digs so much deeper. Our ‘how-to’s’ – how to have a wonderful family, great sex, financial success, in a Christian way; how to cope with grief, life-passages, crises, fears, frustrating relationships, and what not else – give us formulae to be followed by a series of supposedly simple actions on our part, to be carried out in obedience to instructions in the manner of a person painting by numbers or activating a computer. Wisdom in role-play is all; ‘heart-work’ hardly comes into it. This wisdom is in Baxter, too, though usually in a more sober, searching, shrewd form than we superficial moderns attain to; but his ‘how-to’s’ are regularly concerned with the ‘heart-work’ that is involved in doing what has to be done with the glory of God as your goal, and love and compassion for the needy other as your motive, and a passion for holiness as your driving desire, and a vivid sense of spiritual conflict keeping you humbly distrustful of yourself, and constantly watchful against Satan’s devices, and deeply dependent on Christ every moment. Only a little thought about the models of godliness set forth in the Psalms and the moral teachings of the Epistles is needed to convince one that Baxter and the Puritans were right to zero in on the ‘heart-work’ of right action, and that our generation has been terribly wrong to neglect it. Had we remembered that what makes good works good, according to the Scriptures, is a right form, fixed by law and wisdom, allied to right desires, fixed by the gospel, we might have been spared the egocentric, zany, simplistic, degenerate, half-magic-spell type of evangelicalism which is all that the world sees when it watches religious TV or looks directly at the professedly evangelical community. Such evangelicalism neither honors God nor blesses man. Back to Baxter! would make a good and healthful motto for the Christian leadership of our time.”

Thursday, July 05, 2007

Baxter and the Dangers of Pride

I am convinced that one of the major problems in contemporary American Christianity is pride. I think this is the case in the workings of my own denomination, the Southern Baptist Convention. We so easily cave to the allure of the praise of men. Early we learn that the way forward is to lavish human-centered praise, and we learn to gauge our progress by the amount of exuberant praise received. I need often to be reminded of the Bible’s rebuke of such ways, and historical examples help me.

It is said that after Richard Baxter received a letter full of praise to him, he responded by writing, “I have the remainders of pride in me; how dare you blow up the sparks of it?” While we need not be unkind to those who wish to express appreciation, we can learn from this example of “self-watch” (Baxter’s term). I would dare say that today you are more likely in the circles of church leadership to be rebuked (or ignored, overlooked) for failing to express enough praise than for fawning.

Let us be quick to give appreciation and thanks, but let us be measured and not exaggerated. Love for our brother will call for us to encourage him with thanks, but it will also call for us to be careful about kindling the sparks of arrogance that lie within his heart just as within ours.

Tuesday, July 03, 2007

Family Driven Faith, Review

Family Driven Faith: Doing What It Takes to Raise Sons and Daughters Who Walk with God, Voddie T. Baucham, Jr.
(Crossway, 2007), hb., 222 pp.

I finished reading this book this weekend and really enjoyed it. My primary overall reaction was, “This book more than any other I have read expresses what my wife and I aspire to for our family.” This book can be of a lot of help to a lot of people.

If you have heard Voddie any time in the last few years you have probably heard some of the material in this book. It is great now to have all of this (and more) in book form. He stresses the role of parents in discipling their own children, the importance of the husband-wife relationship for the children, and the value of children (in contrast to our culture). With these themes he stresses the importance of family worship and the importance of fathers taking the role in teaching their children about God. He powerfully contrasts this with typical priorities among fathers. He encourages having and raising children without being legalistic about how many and how soon we should have them. He talks about how churches fail to help by sustaining the idea that parents need not disciple their own children. There is much of value here and our people (particularly fathers) will gain much in reading this book.

My wife and I came to some of these same conclusions during our time in Scotland. As we prepared to return to a more hectic pace of life in the US we discussed how to maintain what had become important to us. We called it being “family-centered.” Our family, not job or ministry or activities, would be the center of life for us. We wanted our home culture to be the primary culture for our children. By making our home strong and healthy we would be enabled to reach out effectively. But keeping the home central would mean saying no to any number of good things. We continue to struggle to do this well, and this book was a renewed encouragement to me. I found myself being more diligent to look for ways to demonstrate love to my wife, and I was rejuvenated in our efforts in family worship.

Two areas will probably be points of debate concerning this book: schooling and church structure. Voddie is very positive about homeschooling (as am I) but he clearly states that he is not saying this is what all Christians must do. I was glad to see that. Secondly, he advocates having no nursery or any children’s classes at church. This is what is done at his home church in Texas. I, too, am not satisfied with the typical overly segregated church settings. Therefore I appreciate the sentiment. However, I still see a place for a nursery and for children’s classes. At our church we have Sunday School classes for children through age 11. At age 12 a child goes into the adult class with his parents where we cycle through a four year cycle covering systematic theology, church history, bible overview, and the practical outworkings of the faith. Thus Sunday School provides another format for parents to disciple their teenagers as they discus what is going on in class throughout the week. Younger children have their own classes intended to aid parents in their discipleship. Also we have a nursery during corporate worship. We encourage parents to bring their children into the service at 4-5 years of age.
Voddie is careful not to demand churches follow his model exactly but calls for us to consider ways to encourage families in their roles. I wholeheartedly affirm that goal, though we differ in how we go about it.

I hope many people will read this book.

Monday, July 02, 2007

Missionary Determination

Here are two other related quotes from The Greatest Century of Missions.

“Missionary service demands dedication, determination and discipline – and these qualities are basically rejected by the television generation.” (p. 127)

“CMS Missionary at Uganda, Alexander Macay, when 27 years old, expressed the singleminded determination common to 19th century volunteers: ‘I want to remind the committee that within six months they will probably hear that one of us is dead. But . . . when that news comes, do not be cast down, but send someone else immediately to take the vacant place.’” (p. 128)
Brothers, we must teach, commend, and exemplify this spirit.