Be Careful, Little Flock, How You Hear

preachA few years ago Thabiti Anyabwile published a little book, What is a Healthy Church Member? In it, he urged healthy church members to be expositional listeners, by which he meant that just as the faithful pastor makes the main point of his message the main point of the text (i.e., expositional preaching), so healthy congregations will also make it a priority to comprehend the expositional sermon. About that say time, Christopher Ash wrote a little guide on the same subject: Listen Up! A Practical Guide to Listening to Sermons.

Well, apparently, Anyabwile and Ash are not alone in their estimation that the congregation plays a dramatic role in the “effectiveness” of a pastor’s preaching. As I recently scanned D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones’ classic text, Preaching and PreachersI came across the same idea. In chapter eight, he discusses the “relationship of the pew to the pulpit” (143) and addresses the vital role that congregants play in the service of preaching. While not minimizing the role of the preacher, and abhorring the idea that the pew dictate what the pulpit should preach, he is exactly right to emphasize how churches confirm or deny the message of the gospel by means of their own inattention or eager anticipation. Continue reading

Dramatizing the Gospel: Church Membership

bodyIn recent years, the human body has been reshaped and sometimes reengineered. Whereas gender was once biologically determined, today society invites children to choose their own gender. And for some, when their body doesn’t match their gender preference, they are invited to trade their parts for new ones.

Fortunately, Christians know that our bodies are not plastic figurines. We believe our bodies gifts from God, even if we might humbly protest their size, shape, or strength. Sadly, the same cannot be said about the body of Christ.

Christians who decry modern manipulations of gender often ignore the manifold ways Christ’s body has been misshapen. By ignoring what Scripture says about the church (a subject known as “ecclesiology”), evangelical churches have willingly retooled, repackaged, and recreated what churches look like—often with mantras like, “we do church differently,” or “we’re not your ordinary church.”

Such sloganeering reminds us how far the church is willing to bend with this principle in place: As long as we don’t change the message, it doesn’t matter how we do church. The problem with such a view is that it fundamentally ignores the Bible, especially how the NT speaks about membership in Christ’s body. Continue reading

Thanksgiving According to the Psalms

thanksgivingWhile some of us may still be eating leftover turkey, most of us have moved from Thanksgiving to Christmas. This is understandable, as calendars and commitments require us to live in the present, not the past. But let us not forget that giving thanks goes beyond thanksgiving.

Indeed, in all Paul’s epistles minus Galatians—oh, those foolish Galatians!—he begins by giving thanks to God for the people he is addressing. Throughout the Bible thanksgiving is a normal and necessary part of saving faith. And so it ought to be a normal and necessary part of our daily living—not just a holiday season in November. Still, what does thanksgiving look like on a regular basis? And how can we grow in our expressions of thanksgiving?

Let’s go to the Psalms to answer that question. Continue reading

How the Lord’s Supper ‘Saves’ the Church

lord's supperYou cannot care for me with no regard for her,
if you love me you will love the church.
Derek Webb –

As Derek Webb’s song (“The Church”) points out, to love Christ without the church is like loving a man and loathing his wife. Such inconsistency isn’t socially acceptable. Neither is it spiritually permissible. Those who have been born again are joined to God’s family (1 Tim 3:15) and are called to submit themselves to a local church (Heb 10:24–25; 13:17).

The opposite problem is also possible. It is very possible to love the church more than Christ. Now, when this sort of thing happens, Christ is never denied, only demoted. And typically, it doesn’t happen by conscious choice or designed effort. There is never an advertising campaign to elevate the church above Christ. It happens the way that gravity causes bodies to sag—time and spiritual lethargy work together to pull the heart away from Christ.

Leaving our first love, as Revelation 2:4 puts it, doesn’t come through a traumatic event. Instead, it is what happens when members and pastors of a church focus their energy and conversation on church business, church budgets, church activities, church methods, and church growth.

Church, church, church. If all attention is given to the bride, the bridegroom will be lost.

Even when believers champion orthodox belief and defend biblical practices, men and women will still fall in love with a church more than Christ. Because our hearts are deceitful and naturally unbelieving (Jer 17:9; Heb 3:13), even the most committed churchmen are susceptible to loving the church more than Christ. In fact, the ones most committed to church are the ones most likely to love the church more than Christ. Continue reading

Dramatizing the Gospel: Baptism and the Lord’s Supper

baptimsBetter than any comedic skit or high-tech video, baptism and the Lord’s Supper dramatize the gospel. And when churches properly execute these two rites, they present in a very local, personal, and powerful way the gospel of Jesus Christ. Continuing to think about the way that the church is God’s authorized evangelistic ‘program,’ I want to show how these two ordinances display the gospel of Jesus Christ.

The Gospel

Before considering how the church displays the gospel though, it is vital to remember the gospel is a message to be believed, proclaimed, explained, and defended. It is not something we do, make, or build. It is “good news” that our Holy Creator sent his sinless Son to die on Calvary for the sins of his bride. It is a message proclaimed to all the nations, so that any and all who believe in Jesus may be saved from hell and have eternal life. This is the gospel of Abraham, Moses, Isaiah, Jesus, and Paul. It is the life-creating truth that saves Christians and assembles local churches.

That said, if the gospel is believed by a congregation, it will be evident in visible, practical, and tangible ways. A Spirit-filled church cannot stop talking about Christ because the gospel dwells richly in their hearts. Such gospel-centeredness does more than affect speech, however; it also shapes conduct, practice, and liturgy (i.e., the pattern of worship).

Therefore, borrowing the logic of James 2:14–17, the sincerity of a church’s faith (in the gospel) will be seen in the way they live, move, and have their being. And no place is this more apparent than in the way they carry out the ordinances of Christ—baptism and the Lord’s Supper. Continue reading

What Does Revival Look Like?

fireWhen the First Great Awakening occurred in the 1730s and 1740s, Americans experienced a great outpouring of the Spirit of God. Many cried out in terror from a deep awareness of their sins. Many more wept for joy as they experienced genuine forgiveness and the power of the Spirit giving them new life.

Concurrent with these works of God, many false professions were also reported. While the Spirit “awoke” many from their spiritual tombs, Satan also manifested himself as an angel of light by deceiving many into believing they had experienced God when, in fact, they had not (cf. 2 Cor 11:14). As pastors of the era observed, many reported having heavenly visions while others heard God speak sweet words to them. Yet, what made these experiences prove false was the way that such people showed no corresponding change in behavior (i.e., holiness towards God and love towards others), nor was there explicit trust in Christ’s death and resurrection.

What does revival look like?

This was the question being asked in that era. And today, we ask it from another angle: How would we know revival if it came? Would it merely increase religiosity in our culture? Would it mean less crime, better families, or improved race relations? Or is there something more Christ-centered, even cross-centered, that must be seen? These are vital questions when considering revival and perhaps the best answer can be found from the Great Awakening itself. Continue reading

‘Do Not Work For That Which Is Not Bread': A Biblical Theology of Work

workGod has given us everything we need for life and godliness, the apostle Peter said (2 Pet 1:3). This means Scripture gives us all we need to know about God, salvation, and good works. It doesn’t mean that Scripture tells us how to teach grammar or solve chemical equations, but it does have much to say about work.

In fact, no matter what you do for a living, what stage of life you are in, or what sort of position you have (or aspire to have), God has much to say to you about your work. In recent days, a number of helpful books on the subject have been written (e.g., The Gospel at Work: How Working for King Jesus Gives Purpose and Meaning to Our Work by Greg Gilbert and Sebastian Traeger, Every Good Endeavor: Connecting Your Work to God’s Work by Tim Keller with Katherine Leary Alsdorf, and What’s Best Next?: How the Gospel Changes the Way You Get Things Done by Matt Perman).

If the intersection of faith and work interests you, or if you are a Christian who has not considered how God relates to your vocation, you should make it a priority to read at least one of these. For now though, let’s glean a few truths from Scripture, which can serve as a biblical foundation for thinking about work.

A Biblical Theology of Work

Starting with creation and moving to new creation, let’s consider seven points about work. Continue reading

What is Evangelical Feminism? And Where Did It Come From?

rolesEach week, I write a bulletin insert for our church. The topics have ranged from the structure of Genesis 1–11 to assisted suicide to discerning types in the Bible. They usually relate to the sermon or a hot topic in the culture. And though they do not exhaust the biblical, theological, or ethical considerations of any subject, they do help our church members “think Christianly” about many matters of faith.

This blog post is no different. It broaches a subject that requires far more historical, cultural, and ecclesial attention than I am able to give here. But it is a start. Addressing the matter of evangelical feminism is meant to remind us that none of live in a cultural vacuum, and that even most stalwart “bliblicist” inhabits a world where feminism is the norm.

As Robert Samuelson noted this week in the Washington Post, birth control pills, radical feminism as advocated by Betty Friedan (The Feminist Mystique, 1963), and no-fault divorce have changed the way Americans think about marriage. Family life has been radically altered by these three phenomena, and in many ways they have each contributed to the other. Therefore, witnesses for Christ must be aware of how their thinking has been (explicitly and/or implicitly) shaped by feminism and from where those presuppositions originate.

What is evangelical feminism? And where did it come from?

Feminism can be defined as “the advocacy of women’s rights on the grounds of political, social, and economic equality to men.” Evangelical feminism is the related belief that men and women can and should exercise the same offices in the church (e.g., pastor, preaching) and that husbands and wives should mutually submit to one another in the home. Such a view is common among Christians today, but it wasn’t always that way. (This view has been defended in the book Discovering Biblical Equality; it is has been opposed by Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood and Evangelical Feminism and Biblical Truth). Continue reading

What is Jesus’s Evangelism Program?

churchEvangelism Explosion.

Sharing Jesus Without Fear.

F.A.I.T.H.

The Alpha Course.

Christianity Explored.

Over the last few decades, the church has had no shortage of evangelism programs. Each of these mentioned above have been used by the Lord to add to the eternal harvest. But as I recently learned, each of these programs has, at best, a seven-year shelf life. Since each was created for a particular cultural moment, new methods are constantly needed, because culture keeps changing.

With great appreciation for these programs and for the godly men who created them, I want to ask a very simple question: Does the Bible itself give us a program of evangelism? Or more personally, what is Jesus’s program of evangelism? Has he left us to devise our own, only to trade them in every seven years? Or has he given us something more long lasting? Continue reading

Patient Love and Compassionate Truth: Keys to Reaching the Unreachable

blimpDuring the 1950s Joseph Bayly, a Christian publisher and author, began writing modern-day parables. One of his parables was called The Gospel Blimp, which became a low-budget movie in 1967.

The story is a satirical look at evangelism; or more specifically, The Gospel Blimp portrays how Christians invent ridiculous ways of sharing Jesus, while ignoring the simple path of personal, consistent, hospitable witnessing. Here’s a summary (from IDMB).

George and Ethel are concerned about the salvation of their neighbors, but don’t know how to reach them with the gospel. During an evening get-together with George and Ethel’s Christian friends, everyone is captivated by the sight of a blimp flying overhead. Then Herm gets a bright idea: why not use a blimp to proclaim the Christian message to the unchurched citizens of Middletown?

The group incorporates, buys a used blimp, hires a pilot, then commences to evangelize their hometown by towing Bible-verse banners, ‘firebombing’ folks with gospel tracts, broadcasting Christian music and programs over loudspeakers. But a series of misadventures puts the blimp ministry in jeopardy. George becomes increasingly uneasy about the methods and business practices of International Gospel Blimps Incorporated and its “Commander”, Herm.

Running parallel to these good news messengers gone bad, are George and Ethel’s neighbors, fellow church members who are looked down upon for carousing with the unbelieving neighbors. In the end, however, it is these Christian carousers who win the neighbors to Christ.

The morale of The Gospel Blimp is simple: personal witnessing is more effective than elaborate schemes of gospel marketing.

Bayly’s parable came a couple decades before American Churches ‘de-churched’ themselves to accommodate the preferences of unbelieving seekers—what is known today as the “Seeker-Sensitive Movement.” But it also reflects the truth seen in Titus 2 that the best way for Christians to “adorn” the gospel is through humble, hospitable lives that regularly interact with unbelievers and introduce them to the message of grace and truth.

Reaching the Unreachable

This same truth was reiterated last week, as I listened to Rosaria Butterfield’s testimony at the ERLC National Conference. (If you haven’t listened to her interview with Russell Moore, you must). Rosaria is a former professor of English and lesbian, who came to faith when a local pastor (Ken Smith) and his wife befriended her, invited her into their home, regularly visited her home, and held a long-standing conversation about the claims of the Bible.

She tells her story in The Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convertand she begins with these jarring words:

When I was 28 years old, I boldly declared myself lesbian. I was at the finish of a PhD in English Literature and Cultural Studies. I was a teaching associate in one of the first and strongest Woman’s Studies Departments in the nation. I was being recruited by universities to take on faculty and administrative roles in advancing radical leftist ideologies. I genuinely believed that I was helping to make the world a better place.

At the age of 36, I was one of the few tenured women at a large research university, a rising administrator, and a community activist. I had become one of the ‘tenured radicals.’ By all standards, I had made it. That same year, Christ claimed me for himself and the life that I had known and loved came to a humiliating end.

In so many ways, Rosaria’s testimony displays the power of the gospel, but it also displays how the gospel was brought to her by an old-fashioned pastor who thought the best way to reach the unreachable was by regular, fireside conversations in his home after a well-cooked meal by his wife.

Evangelism with a Personal Touch

This kind of evangelism flies in the face of modern market-driven evangelism: it doesn’t promise numeric results; it takes time, invites hard questions, and requires Christians to rub shoulders with the ones who are “ruining our country.” Sadly, Rosaria relates how many Christians condemned Ken Smith for spending time with her.

Nevertheless, it is this kind of evangelism that the church needs to grow in. It is the kind of evangelism need to grow in. It is the evangelism Jesus modeled when he dined with tax collectors and sinners (Mark 2:16). And it is the evangelism found in Titus 2. After rebuking the false teachers ungodliness (1:10–16), Paul commends true believers to adorn the gospel of God by means of living godly lives in the presence of unbelievers (2:1–10).

Paul assumes that Christians will live, move, and have their being around unconverted people. And in this context, their godliness will protect the Word of God (v. 5), silence opponents (v. 8), and display the beauty of Christ our Savior (v. 10). This is the normal way of Christian living. And when it happens, God reaches the unreachable through the twin efforts of gospel witnessing and patient, humble, attentive, loving Christian hospitality, friendship, and love.

Soli Deo Gloria, ds