Sunday, June 26, 2016

excellent preaching

It is not every day that an entire book is read on a drive to the airport. Three realities conspired together to make it possible. The book was 73 pages. The airport was on the other side of Bangkok. I am an introvert and after eight days of lots of people, it was good to lose myself in a book for a couple of hours...

While on the subject of airports, this relates to the central metaphor of Craig Bartholomew's Excellent Preaching (Lexham, 2015). The book is about 'landing the plane' in preaching, working hard at application, contextualisation and worldview.
How do we listen to Scripture so that we can preach the Bible for all its worth in today's world? ... How do we land the plane whose cargo is the living Word of God so that it is present and received as such by our congregations? (6).
The metaphor extends easily to the captain of the plane (the Spirit, not the preacher), a destination, and 'a view from arrivals':
... When we gather around Christ, he stands with his face to the world! The view at arrivals is centred on God, but precisely because this is its center it takes in the vista of the whole of creation (20). 
Preach the Bible well and it takes you into the world because 'the Bible tells the true story of the whole world' (21), not just the church. It goes to work at the level of worldview - 'the deep, orientational level' (34) of our lives. This is not easy because 'it is exceedingly hard to get a critical grip on one's own culture' (56) as it is what is normal for us, like water for the fish. But preaching is about finding - and living in - a new 'normal'. And so for Bartholomew, in preaching, 'we land the plane successfully when we preach the message shaped by the intersection of two trajectories: the intersection of the telos, or message of the text, and the context in which and to which we are preaching' (38).

This did my heart good! Seeing this emphasis on what I have tended to refer to as 'preaching worldviewishly' - and it is pleasing to have this imagery from Bartholomew to utilise. You know, some authors are seminal, while others are more synthetic. Seminal authors are the ones who come up with something original, eventually finding their way into the footnotes of the synthetic authors. I'm not sure there are enough hours in the day to give too much time to authors gifted with the synthesis of other peoples' ideas. Bartholomew is in the seminal camp. For example, have you seen his commentary on Ecclesiastes? An amazing piece of scholarship at the intersection of text and context.
In my view the church is the primary place where God's Word is to be received, so that the brief message quickly prepared, and barely noticeable amid the rest of the service, is an aberration of the high calling of the preacher ...
In my view, we biblical scholars are like those behind the scenes while preachers are at the front lines. Both roles are indispensable for the great work to which we are called, and we need a healthy partnership between the two. Nowadays, alas, it is unusual for scholars to take preaching seriously, and it is too often unusual for preachers to take scholarship seriously. The result is that both settle for mediocrity, whereas together we need to strive for excellence (53).
Very helpfully, Bartholomew gives some examples of 'landing the plane' (using specific biblical texts: Galatians 1.10-2.21; Genesis 1.16; Exodus 20.3; and Ephesians 6.10-20) before closing the book with six 'practical ways forward':

1. Begin with repentance. 'Preachers too easily become familiar with the holy act of preaching, and we need to repent and commit ourselves to preaching the Bible for all it is - and we are - worth' (66).

2. Prioritize preaching in pastoral ministry. 'It will never be the only thing we do, but space must be carved out to prioritize it. We need to vow to avoid mediocrity and to commit to using all the tools at our disposal to work hard and prayerfully ...' (67)

3. Get all the help we can in 'understanding our world and our particular congregation so we can repeatedly land the plane in our particular context' (67).

4. Alert our congregations repeatedly that 'reception of the Word is a communal task' (67). The ministries of the church must be evaluated for their contribution to advancing biblical literacy.

5. Recognise the task is bigger than any one of us. 'What is advocated in this book - excellent preaching - will involve costly preaching ... Biblical preaching will nurture God's people, but it will also meet with resistance, especially as we bring the idols of our day into focus' (68).

6. Immerse our preaching in prayer and a profound dependence on the Spirit. 'The work of preaching is the work of the Spirit, a work he delights to engage in' (68).

nice chatting


PS: Don't forget Appendix B: An Expanded Apostles' Creed (70-71) in which he adds, substantially, to the original Creed in order to convey better the fullness of the biblical storyline. Very clever - and helpful.

Saturday, June 25, 2016

beyond resourcing

I settled into my seat. Some sleep on the overnight plane meant that some sleep on the midday bus was not going to happen. So I leaned back and zoned-out before the upcoming conference captured me. But gradually three conversations, from further back in the bus, began to come into focus.

I listened. In each conversation, an American accent was present. Having been around Americans all my life, it was as I expected. The voices were kind and warm and animated - but on this occasion, in each conversation, they were doing 90% of the talking, as they shared about their ministry. When we reached the venue and entered into the rhythm of sessions and meals, something similar happened. The room was ringed with tables for organisations, mostly from America (there were very few Europeans present), manned by generous and servant-hearted people committed to resourcing the (majority world) passer-by. Over meal times, I watched a repeating pattern. A few pleasantries initiated by the resourcer. 'Tell me about your family'. 'What is the ministry in which you are involved?' ... politely, as you'd expect, the same questions were returned to them by the (majority world) person. Then, as if by some signal, the 'play button' is pressed, and out flows a prolonged explanation of the resource they are offering the world, accompanied by a fair amount of promotion.

Servant-hearted, generosity-inspired resourcing packaged in a warm, kind, animated, verbose(!) person.

Who could ever be critical of that combo? I will certainly stop short of doing so. But is that it? Is that what characterizes global missional interactions in the 21st century? It disturbed me that I could not hear other voices on that bus. It disturbed me that at the organisational tables and around the meal tables, while the interest in the 'other' was genuine, it was a bit token - and it seemed to be the means by which to reach a greater end. Maybe that is unkind. My apologies. But it meant that for the eight days of the conference I was asking myself, 'Is servant-hearted, generosity-inspired resourcing enough?'

My conclusion? I don't think it is.

The premise behind what I saw and heard seemed to be that there are some of us who have something to give and there are others among us who have something to receive. Really?! That is flawed. That feels like a softer colonialism to me. My renewed call to global mission in my late-40s was built around 1 Corinthians 12 being writ globally, not just locally. It changed my life. It is about valuing the peoples of the world with the dignity, the equality and the interdependency which seeps into that passage. Everyone has something to give. Everyone has something to receive. Everyone is indispensable. Everyone who has been dishonoured is shown a 'special honour'. Yes, there is a need to move beyond a mere resourcing mentality and on towards genuine partnership together.

We all need to be careful - and on this occasion, particularly the Americans who featured so much at this conference. As a senior leader in Asia expressed to me, 'Americans always seem to have the answer'. And oftentimes the answer is of a scale which those at the 'grassroots' in the majority world can find difficult to engage. Like the guy who finished his talk with a sequence of photos of multi-million dollar church buildings he had built as a mark of his effective ministry. Really? This stuff ends up being (possibly) inspirational, without having that more significant aspirational quality. This is the quality that will make it feel accessible. This is the quality that will have people say, 'Ahh, maybe God could do this in me and through me?! Yes, he can.' As I say to our facilitators who preach in our training seminars, 'Don't wow people with your most impressive sermon; rather, wow them with your most accessible sermon'. Inspiration is over-rated. Feeding aspiration is the key. We want people to go away saying. 'I could preach that sermon' - not 'I could never preach that sermon'.

Sometimes the answers are a lot closer to home than America, or somewhere else in the West. Sometimes partnership will mean receiving 'the answers' from elsewhere in the majority world. I love being part of seminars and forums and consultations that enable this West-less interchange to take place among our trainers and coordinators - like these photos suggest:

Samoeurn (Cambodia) with Alex (Peru)
Dil (Guyana) with Richard (South Sudan)
At this conference I was disappointed that effective indigenous, grassroots ministries in the majority world did not live more in the limelight. For example, take the two in the photo below: Devender, with the School of Biblical Teaching in North India, and Qaiser, with the Open Theological Seminary in Pakistan. Remarkable stories - but also accessible, aspirational stories that would have assisted the multitude of people, at the conference, living and working in similar settings with similar challenges.

With Devender (India) and Qaiser (Pakistan)
So it is about moving beyond one-way resourcing to partnership where things flow both ways and where we feed each other's aspirations by keeping the currency being exchanged in the partnership accessible. The way to get started? Maybe it begins not so much with the generous desire to give resources, but with the humble desire to share friendship. Maybe there needs to be friendship before resourcing just as there needs to be partnership beyond resourcing...

nice chatting


Sunday, June 19, 2016

icons past and present

I don't know my icons - but I am willing to learn from my friends.

So when Riad finished his devotion (on living with Habakkuk amidst the Syrian crisis) with an old Coptic/Egyptian icon, I leaned forward in my chair. A painting on wood. From Egypt in the 5th century. Jesus is standing alongside Abbot Menas, the leader of a local monastery. In the Louvre, where it lives now, it is known as Christ and His Friend (Christ et son ami).

Riad's observation is that Menas looks pale and exhausted, but with the arm of his friend around him, he is strengthened to face the world again and his calling to bless others. I've kept looking at the icon ever since. In Jesus I see a gentle love and a calm authority. One arm is around his friend and the other arm is around the Bible. A picture of the comprehensive caring ministry. Jesus is not facing towards Menas, lost in Menas' woes - but instead he is an 'alongsider', standing with him in his troubles, as they face a troubled world together.
I no longer call you servants ... instead, I have called you friends (John 15.15).
The day before Riad introduced me to this icon, Mark showed me another one.

It was in the Church of St Nicholas in Demre (Turkey). Once again, about the 5th century. Known as the burial place of St Nicholas. In the peak season it is visited by 60 bus loads of Russian tourists each day, coming to pay respects to a father of their Orthodox church. St Nicholas' life went on to gather worldwide fame, across timezones and centuries, as Santa Claus. That story didn't interest me one whit. The exquisite, but partial, murals and mosaics and frescoes interested me far more ... but as I exited the church, Mark asked me, 'Did you see the icon out the back?'. He showed it to me on his camera. I rushed back in to find it. This is what interested me the most.

This icon may be found in a 5th century church, but it is far from ancient. It is a few scratches on some relatively new concrete out the back. None of the tourist guidebooks mention it. And yet it speaks, as much as that icon in the Louvre, to those who linger to look and listen.

Psst - hey, tourist - we are still here. These years may not be the glory years when we were the celebrated cradle for the faith that bears Christ's name. Those people may have tried to exterminate us more than once. But we are still here, out the back, scratching out a witness to Jesus Christ, God's Son and Saviour - and Our Friend.
nice chatting


Sunday, June 12, 2016

mission, evangelism, dialogue, salvation, conversion

In trying hard to include everything, a point can be reached where it becomes hard to exclude anything. Put a handful of topics on the table for discussion - mission, evangelism, dialogue, salvation, conversion - and it won't be long before many of the older liberals (in the 1980s) and the younger postmoderns (in the 2010s), wanting to be authentic Christians, are experiencing authentic anxiety.

Not so long ago I was staying at a Christian ecumenical centre. A beautiful campus dotted with all sorts of signs, from the weird to the wonderful ... and with those signs, the bad ol' days battling the more liberal brand of ecumenicity as a young Baptist pastor came flooding back to me.

What was all that about?

One of my issues with that ecumenicity (in the 1980s) - together with some of the younger, cooler postmoderns (in the 2010s) - is that they go to the Gospels looking for love, but lose sight of some of the truth along the way. For example, they are big fans of the Jesus who said that love is the greatest commandment, but when it comes to Jesus saying, "I am the way, the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father except through me" - they run and hide, lest they be considered exclusive. For them, nothing could be worse than being exclusive. They are big fans of hammering the church in Ephesus (and today) for losing its first love and not being inclusive enough - but, keep going, folks. There are six more churches in Revelation 2 & 3. What happened to hammering the church in Thyatira (and today) for not being exclusive enough? This ain't no buffet-line where you pick and choose the bits you like - and leave the bits you don't like.

This is why I've tended to see evangelicalism to be the true ecumenism because it is transparently committed to finding the biblical tension in inclusion and exclusion, in loving what Jesus loves and hating what Jesus hates ... that is, until a few misguided Americans changed the meaning of the word 'evangelical' by over-politicizing it and right-wingifying it. What a sadness this has been. Now the word is damaged goods...

But the words on the table do not change.

Mission. Evangelism. Dialogue. Salvation. Conversion.
Every generation needs to engage them - biblically.

In the 1970s, John Stott did so in his little Christian Mission in the Modern World. Now, in the 2010s, in a publishing masterstroke, the same book has been 'updated and expanded' - and doubled, effectively - by having Chris Wright contribute chapters on the very same topics. The invitation was 'to relieve the (earlier) book of some of its more dated material and to add some reflections of my own on each of the chapters' (12). It works well.

I was reading this book while I was reading those signs at the ecumenical centre. It provided quite the conversation in my head! Sure, sometimes the book can feel like the Lausanne Covenant (with John Stott, as its chief architect) is playing ping-pong with the Cape Town Commitment (with Chris Wright, as its chief architect) - but there is no denying its usefulness (or, the usefulness of these two creed-like documents). It remains a book for close study - personally, in home groups, in classrooms - by those who wish to have God's call to their vocation be marked by a gracious and courageous biblical faithfulness.

My generation needed that book by Stott so desperately. It fed us. It settled us. It focused us. It emboldened us within the ecumenical milieu. Now my children's generation desperately needs 'the updated and expanded' version - but do they realise it? That is the question. It would feed them. It would settle them. It would focus them. It would embolden them within the postmodern milieu.

nice chatting


Sunday, June 05, 2016

langham logic 1.0

The Langham Logic, as it was articulated by John Stott, was too compelling for me to ignore. I first heard it expressed in 2008, as the rationale for the ministry of Langham Partnership:
God wants His church to grow up;
God's church grows up through God's word;
God's word comes, primarily, through preaching.
And so the question to ask is 'how can we raise the standards of biblical preaching?
I am a believer. Under God's hand - and at His direction - I am quite content to give my life for this cause. But that must be Langham Logic 2.0 because yesterday I encountered a longer, fuller and earlier version in Ian Shaw's chapter, 'John Stott and the Langham Scholarship Programme' (in this volume, 314-5).
God wants his church to grow into maturity in Christ.
Nothing leads people into this Christian maturity like the Word of God.
The Word of God reaches people mainly through faithful biblical preaching.
Biblical preaching/teaching are the primary God-appointed responsibility of pastors.
Pastors catch (or lose) their vision for preaching in the seminary (theological college).
The seminary exerts its influence on students primarily through its teaching staff.
Seminary teachers need to combine academic excellence with personal godliness. 
Later, 'We long to see the world's seminaries staffed by godly evangelical scholars,               so that the world's pulpits may be occupied by faithful preachers of the Word of God'              (John Stott, in 1998; see also here).
Biblical preaching and theological education. Pastors and scholars.
In their most consecrated form, they are ever so strategic.

It is a great chapter by Shaw, as he tells the history of the Langham Scholars programme. I never knew, for example, that until 1998 all USA-based Langham Scholars studied at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School (TEDS) - where I studied in the early 1980s and where I heard John Stott give his classic message on the call to pastoral ministry from 1 Corinthians 4 (listen to it here on the All Souls' website).

Shaw quotes Stott quoting HCG Moule: 'Beware of an untheological devotion and of an undevotional theology' ... before including a Stottian warning to scholars returning home 'an academic success but a spiritual failure, a 'doctor' (qualified to teach) but no longer a 'disciple', possessed by no new vision, power, or holiness' (319).

With Chris Wright and John Stott - in Sydney, in 2002 - on Stott's final visit to Australia.
[NB: This photo was taken at Sydney Missionary & Bible College where Stott was just about to preach to their community. He preached the very same message on 1 Corinthians 4 which I heard at TEDS exactly twenty years earlier and I remembered large chunks of it. Then he moved into a Q&A session with the students where the 'growth without depth' story, which I have re-told in so many places (and in a post just last month) and which became so instrumental in my call into Langham, took place].

nice chatting