It has been exactly a year today since I last posted to this blog.
As a young lad growing up in the west of Scotland, I became familiar with the local parish church. The minister would be a regular visitor to my primary school and at the end of every academic year, the school would walk in procession to the local parish church for an end of year thanksgiving service. So because the parish church was a “fixture” of life, while I didn’t much like church, it was safe. I’m not sure I knew about any other kind of church, except the ones my mother was suspicious and critical of, for which she would substitute the word “cult”.
When I was converted as a teenager and student in Glasgow, I came to understand that the Christian church was much bigger – full of Baptists, and Brethren and Pentecostals. They had a high regard for the Bible which I had come to love. They were not parish churches – just churches. Sadly I had come to see a parish church as synonymous with a not-Bible-believing church – liberal, moralistic, dull, ageing. “Parish” was a bad word.
Being a church-of-Scotland-y type, I was delighted to find that there was a Bible believing parish church in the city centre of Glasgow, and most of my Christian friends went there. So I did too. As a city centre church, it was almost entirely a gathered church, with people coming from all over the city morning and evening. It was nominally a parish church, but that was largely irrelevant as the parish at the time had less than 50 residents and consisted of shops and businesses. The church membership was nudging 1000 people, of which only a handful at most lived in the parish.
I was a member for nine years and it was a great time for me to be there and to grow under some of the best preaching in the English-speaking world. It was riveting and life-transforming. And it shaped my thinking about what a good church looked like.
And it was good. I feel richly privileged to have been part of it, and for it to have been part of my experience. I am ever grateful to God for those formative years.
There is a downside, however, which I have come to realise still influences me now. It is that the notion of a good, God-blessed church should essentially be a preaching station to which people gather to hear the word. I understand that there is a place for such ministries, such as in town and city centres. But I wonder now whether that city centre, preaching station model has been a help or a hindrance to me as I have sought to lead a church in a suburban setting.
I wonder if I am one of many people who have gone through and will go through theological and ministry training with this model in mind, that somehow it is the goal to develop such a ministry. We are all aware of the great preachers – C H Spurgeon, Martyn Lloyd-Jones, James Mongomery Boice and many current living men with large churches and extensive internet presence. We would love to see and be part of great ministries like these! So that becomes the focus and method of our ministry – set up a preaching station and hope that people will hear about it and come from far and wide and be blessed!
I think that is how we started at Solihull and it is certainly how I have tended to continue. I remember in the early (desperate) days trying to gather a core group and through a generous donor we were able to blanket advertise our existence across the West Midlands conurbation. The strategy as I remember it was, “surely there are some reformed people amongst that 2.6 million population who would jump at the chance of attending a reformed, presbyterian church!” Well, one couple came – once.
That is pretty much how it has been ever since. The Lord has been good. He has added to our numbers and we have grown slowly but surely. However, the phenomenon that has emerged is that we are a scattered church. We have some who travel an hour to get to us, many more who travel at least half an hour. And some locals. They are wonderful people, I miss them when I am not at preaching at home or on holiday, I would not exchange any of them – the Lord is good, and is doing his work.
But I am acutely aware of the need on our doorstep. There are 200,000 people in the borough of Solihull. There are few churches. There are many fewer Bible-believing, gospel-preaching churches. The population needs to be evangelised. How can that be done? The gathered-church model simply is not reaching those masses – that is our experience here in Solihull.
That is why more recently I have begun to think some more about the word “parish”. I wonder if we/I have lost something by associating it with liberal, moralistic, dull, ageing churches. You see, the notion of a parish was that it was a defined geographical area, with a population of a manageable size, that would be the focus of a local church’s mission. The fact that many if not most “parish” churches have lost sight of their mission and become distracted does not mean that the notion of a parish is wrong. I wonder if the evangelical, non-conformist church in the UK has missed a trick and as a result is significantly less effective in its mission to the urban and suburban areas.
I have been reading some of the Thomas Chalmers work of the 19th century. I know – how can he be relevant to the 21st century? Well, wait and see. In my next post I plan to describe what Chalmers did and then I want to consider why it might be extremely relevant to the present time.
Watch this space.
Last Sunday was a major step for our church as we met for the first time in-person as a congregation in the open air. We currently have a difficulty in that during lockdown we lost our regular meeting place and so that we have had to improvise for the time being. There were some hoops to jump through and practical arrangements to be made, but in the end it worked well and I was thankful to God for the joy of seeing our people once again. It was a taste of heaven.
We had to seek the approval of the local council who have been very helpful in the process. They wanted a risk assessment, which is usual for such ‘events’, but examined all the more closely in light of the covid-19 crisis. The only point to be resolved in our minds is the issue of numbers. As we read it the UK Government advice is that open air gatherings of more than 30 are permissible when organised by a charitable institution, which our church is. However, the council asked us to keep it to 30. We complied this time, but it is not clear yet why there should be a local restriction. It’s an ongoing discussion.
Practically we had to do the following:
- keep a pre-booking register of those who wanted to come. This was done with a spreadsheet.
- on site we marked off an area 15 squares (5 wide, 3 deep), each 3m square, with cones. Individuals, families or ‘bubbles’ could sit there.
- people brought their own seating, waterproofs, Bibles.
- set up a greetings table with sanitiser bottles, and a notice of the web address for an online order of service worked up on Dropbox Paper for people to access on their phones.
- we recommended people bring masks, but there was no requirement as we were keeping 2m apart. Some people put them on after the service during the brief post-service chit chat.
Equipment brought by various people in the congregation:
- gazebo. This was not much practical use, though it gave a point of focus for the gathering. (Actually it was a bit of a liability on a breezy day!)
- folding table and lectern.
- amplification (head mic + amp + speaker). I think I could have got away without but it would be been much more a strain.
- audio recording to my phone with a lapel mic.
- video recording camera.
- my notes, notebook, Bible (as you might expect)
All in all a fairly low level of organisation required for the event.
There is nothing like public worship. Even in the midst of trials (while taking into account the public health concerns) Christians are to keep meeting together (Hebrews 10:24,25). Our assembling is a manifestation of that great truth that “we have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God” (Hebrews 12:22). We are thankful too that there were some passers-by who stopped.
Please pray for us as we continue meeting this way through to the end of August.
Praise the Lord! Sing to the Lord a new song, his praise in the assembly of the godly! – Psalm 149:1
For those who are interested, here is the sermon I preached. Try not to get distracted by the footballers:
I have known about the Crieff Fellowship for decades but I only found out recently that there was a website with many of the past addresses.
For those of you in ministry, and to whet your appetite, listen to Eric Alexander in 1980 on “God’s Fellow Workers” from 1 Corinthians 3. Find it at the bottom of this page.
For those who hanker after the supposedly greener grass of some other field of ministry, here’s a quote in Alexander’s introduction:
“There is no ideal spot in which to serve God or to minister the word except for the one where he has set you down. That’s the ideal place in the world for you to minister.”
Go forage. There are many other treasures to be dug up.
Last Sunday at Solihull Presbyterian Church we were looking at Matthew 10:1-15. In this passage Matthew lists the names of the apostles and then describes how he sent out them with his authority to proclaim the Kingdom of Heaven, heal afflictions and cast out demons. It is the first time the apostles step into this role and marks the expansion of the mission beyond Jesus himself. Later, Jesus commissions them to go to the nations and make disciples (Matthew 28:18-20). Ultimately the task is passed on to the church – Peter says in 1 Peter 2:19:
“But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvellous light.“
The highlighted “you” is plural. It doesn’t merely signify a collection of separate individuals – i.e. we are not all to be preachers as such – but the context indicates that proclamation is a responsibility of the collective body, with each member of the body contributing in various appropriate ways. That does not exclude the need for each Christian to be ready to personally speak about Christ. Peter says as much in 1 Peter 3:15 – each needs to be ready to “make a defence” to those who ask.
After the sermon, someone came back to me with a question, asking what practical advice I would give to people who want to share the gospel. It is great to get that question and I often wish there was more interest in evangelism in church life. Here is a slightly expanded version of what I wrote:
The first thing I would say is that you need to be in a gospel-preaching church. In other words, in a church that values the whole Bible, sees the point of it to lead people to Christ, and preaching with that goal in mind. Preaching the word to it’s congregation is central to any true church’s ministry and church members need to have confidence that when they bring people to listen, they will hear the words of God.
Secondly, Christians should volunteer to help with any plans the church has for outreach. That may mean organising a prayer meeting of friends, doing some of the “legwork” of preparation, getting involved in visitation, being willing to lead a discussion, maybe even preaching. Of course, people must be suitably qualified and gifted for each task, but ministers and elders who care about Christ’s mission love to have people who have this encouraging attitude of “getting stuck in”.
Thirdly, be well prepared to give answers (1 Peter 3:15). Understand the Bible – read it, meditate on it, study it, listen hard to sermons. Think about the cross and the Saviour who died on it, what it means, why it matters to us today. Read good books about evangelism and answering objections (one I read recently was The Atheist Who Didn’t Exist by Andy Bannister). Know how to explain the essence of the gospel in a couple of minutes e.g. I learned “The Bridge Illustration” when I was a young Christian and have used it many times since.
Fourthly, pray for opportunities to witness and boldness to take them. We become comfortable in our inactivity and we can bewail to others our lack of opportunity but Paul asked others to pray that for him in his ministry – see Colossians 4:3,4 and Ephesians 6:19. My experience is that prayer and boldness go together. It is a Holy Spirit thing. Somehow, in answer to a genuine request to God, opportunities come, we become alert to them and we are that bit bolder!
Fifthly, practice hospitality. In other words, open up your home and invite people in. And not just Christian friends, but non-Christians too. Have neighbours round for dinner, for coffee, that summer BBQ, hold a games night – use your imagination! Perhaps plan this with Christian friends. You see, people need to see the gospel in action in people’s lives as well as hear it preached (see e.g. 1 Thessalonians 2:8). Beauty and Truth go together. Try hospitality and see what happens!
Well, there are a few ideas. There are probably more and better thoughts about this. But may the Lord bless us and the nations as we proclaim his excellencies!
Today, I was reading Christopher Ash’s little book Listen Up! It is excellent and I would recommend it to everyone. I take his word for it, but he said that there has been plenty written on preaching sermons but nothing on listening to sermons since Charles Simeon 200 years ago.
There are lots of quotable passages in Ash’s book but I came across this:
“When we listen to an MP3 recording of a sermon, we are not listening to preaching, but to an echo of preaching that happened in the past. Listening on my own to a recording can never be more than a poor second-best to actually being there with the people of God in a local church.”
It struck a chord with me so here are a few comments about it:
1) It is a reminder the “online church”, such as has been necessary over the last few months, is not and never will be an adequate substitute for assembling together as the church to hear the word of God.
Certainly, from my perspective as a preacher the experience has been wholly unsatisfying. Feedback from some hearers indicates the same.
Preaching to a live congregation is interactive. People are responding to the preacher and vice versa. Preaching to a camera, even though you know people are watching, cuts off the feedback loop. The whole thing is so much more dull for both sides.
2) For me a growing bee in my bonnet is that even in normal times, too many Christians live on a diet of “second-best” sermon podcasts to the detriment of their hearing of the word of God in their own church, and to the detriment of their spiritual maturity.
There are some great preachers out there. I wish I could sit under their ministry week after week! I used to listen to a lot of them. Now I don’t. A few years ago I realised I was falling into a trap of using sermons in the same way I might use music or have the TV news on in the house. Background. A sound, a voice, a distraction. But as such it washes over and runs away. Nothing learned. Nothing remembered. A bad habit that had developed and was ready for when I actually went to worship and heard a sermon. A sound, a voice, a distraction. Nothing learned. Nothing remembered.
It may seem like an extreme conclusion, but the deadening effect of listening to sermons while walking or driving or filling any available gap was doing nothing to aid my spiritual growth and maturity.
3) Too many preachers wish their podcasted sermons would be considered as worthy if not better when compared with a listening Christian’s own pastor.
Well, it’s a vast extrapolation! I only know my own heart, so the “too many” above is actually only one that I know of. But it is one too many. And I often think that if it is true of me, then it will be true of some others.
My job is not to have an internet ministry, but to have a real ministry with the real people God has given me. I remember when I first started in ministry some 13 years ago now, I came across a great preacher (who shall remain nameless) who had real reservations about putting his sermons online. There were a couple of sample sermons on his church’s website but no regular podcasting. He could have had much wider “reach”, I thought, but he wasn’t interested. What respect I now have for such an approach! It has not damaged his ministry one bit, nor his “reach”. He has kept focus on the task he had been given and been a rich blessing to his people.
Last Sunday was a significant moment for churches in England as legal restrictions were lifted on places of public worship. It was an answer to prayer and I am delighted that so many churches, including some in our own denomination (EPCEW), were able to meet in person to worship together.
However, for many churches it has been a bittersweet experience. Many congregations across the UK do not own their own building but rent their place of worship, so depending on others to make a decision to open up buildings for public use.
For us in Solihull Presbyterian Church the desire to be together in worship has only got deeper the last 100 days as we have had to make do with the wholly inadequate method of internet technology to broadcast services of worship. And who isn’t suffering from “Zoom fatigue” as we have had prayer meetings, fellowship times, Sunday school at a distance?
In Solihull, we have the added problem that we were asked to vacate our premises just days before the lockdown. The building had been deemed unsafe in its current state and a hard closure date was given. Considerable amounts of money are required to get the building into a fit state but the owners had decided not to commit any more to it . On our part we explored every avenue to get the building up and running, but the more we looked, the more the costs seemed to stack up. It was too much risk to take on.
So now we are homeless!
Of course, with nothing open, how do you go about finding a new venue? Schools, community halls and churches have all been closed and who is going to commit to a rental agreement with a third party until they have sorted themselves out? Now that lockdown restrictions has been lifted for places of worship we are still finding that many places have no plans to open for a while, probably not until September. Schools have the headache of planning to bring back students with social distancing measures and keeping schools virus-free with deep-cleaning plans. Who wants a third party group complicating things? Also we are finding that many local churches that may have a slot in their Sunday schedule (many have one Sunday service) are not planning to open soon.
For me this predicament has raised various questions about the nature of our mission as a church in Solihull. As a young person growing up in the west of Scotland I always thought of “a church” as a building on a street corner. But since my conversion some 40 years ago I learned to think of the church as the people, the members of the body of Christ. The Holy Spirit has baptised the church and he gives it life. The life is not in a building.
However, geography does matter, and buildings matter, to the extent that it defines a centre for gospel ministry. It is a place to bring people to. It is a visible presence in the community that can become familiar to people. It is a centre where the preaching of the gospel can be heard week-in, week-out. I recognise that this is not a strong theological or biblical argument to make for buildings. Where does the New Testament ever speak of bespoke buildings to meet in? However, it is an on-the-ground practical application of the missionary principles that have driven the church through the ages. As the gospel spreads places of worship spring up.
Having a place for worship makes planning for gospel ministry clearer. It defines an area we can reach. We know the people we should reach, the streets to visit. We know how many homes a church of our size can cope with. Sure, church members can share the gospel with friends and internet technology means we can broadcast far and wide. In one sense, there are no geographical limits. But we are still left with the question, what about the people in our neighbourhood that we are not friends with or don’t download a church podcast? These people need to be reached too. And when they have been reached and they believe, they need to be drawn into the bonds of fellowship of their local church and hear there the regular preaching of the word.
That is why being “homeless” as a church is so discombobulating. It is not simply a matter of finding an anything-will-do place to meet. It is tied to the question of how we reach Solihull.
When I first came to Solihull, there were something like 25 churches in the wards surrounding the town centre that had 100,000 people in them. That’s a third of the national average density of churches. If anything the number of churches in Solihull has declined. I know for sure three have closed since – there may be more – and I am not aware of any new ones that have opened. There is such a need here.
Will you pray for us and with us? We need a building to meet in. But we need stability – preferably with a building that we can call our own. And we need one that is in a locality where we can make plans to be able to reach people with the gospel of Jesus Christ.
The men of our church have been meeting once a month for a number of years now. We don’t have a fancy name for it like “Theology on Tap” or “Men up to Their Necks in Glory” or some such names I have seen. We just call it “Men’s Group”. We have been in the habit of working through some good books, like Macleod’s “A Faith to Live By“, Murray’s “Redemption Accomplished etc“, Reeves’ “Delighting in the Trinity“, Robertson’s “The Christ of the Covenants” and some others. It has been demanding stuff but, I think, helpful in so many ways.
However, we took a change of tack earlier this month and went back to basics. The church has changed over the years and I have begun to realise that there is a need to do some ground-level work with our group. Not that everyone is at a basic level, but I have always found that going over basics has always been helpful personally, and I trust it will be for others.
So, this series of group meetings I have tentatively called, Feeding on the Word. The question is, what are the ways that we can make use of this rich deposit of revelation the Lord has given us? There are several, they are all useful, and they all compliment each other. So earlier this month I outlined where we are going to go over the next few meetings. So here is a summary.
Since the arrival of the printing press, a proportion of the evangelical church’s members have treasured the Bible in their hands. They read it, studied it, memorised it, meditated upon it, heard it preached. People were trained in the scriptures.
Today, we have never had such a plethora of inexpensive Bibles, notes, reference books, commentaries and a huge amount available to us online, free of charge. And yet modern Christians seem to know so little. We don’t use what is available to us.
Churches need good men. Not just a “Few Good Men” but lots of good men! They are good for the church and its health. They are good for their families.
2 Timothy 3:16 shows us the deep connection there is between the written word and God himself. It is on his breath. It is the divinely communicated, Holy Spirit-worked truth for us. It is for a number of things:
teaching: to get technical, it has indicative statements and imperative statements. Or, in other words, it has statements of truth for us to believe and commands for us to obey. So it gives us understanding about what it true and false and what is good and bad. Proverbs 13:14 says, “The teaching of the wise is the fountain of life.” God is infinitely wise and he teaches us in his word.
reproof: this is the use the Holy Spirit makes of the word in convicting us of our sins. The Bible shows us our sins and thereby it addresses our consciences which leads us to repentance. We should see this as a mercy of God to us – something to give thanks for.
correction: that is, to put right what is broken, or make straight what is crooked in our lives, rather like an orthodontist straightens out teeth. We need our lives straightened out. God does that through his word.
training in righteousness: God takes us through a spiritual workout when we use the Bible rightly. Some of us who have a gym membership forget to go and make use of the facilities, but get a crumb of comfort that at least we have a membership. Some of us can be like that with the Bible – I may not read it much, but at least I have a Bible! Well, the Lord wants us to be regularly in the gym of scripture, growing in strength, stamina, skill.
The effect of all this in verse 17: that the man of God may become ‘competent’ (ESV). Other translations have ‘thoroughly equipped’, ‘complete’, but I like the word competent. In many walks of life, no man likes to be thought of as incompetent. So what about the word of God? We should all seek to become, competent men of God, skilled in the use of the word of God. Then we can believe all God has told us and do all the things he has commanded us.
So what ways do we have to become competent in the scriptures? I only list them here, more or less, but I tend to expand on them in later posts. Here are five:
Listening well to biblical preaching
The Reformed faith has always put preaching at the centre of church’s spiritual growth. This is reflected in the Shorter Catechism Q.89:
How is the Word made effectual to salvation? A. The Spirit of God maketh the reading, but especially the preaching, of the Word, an effectual means of convincing and converting sinners, and of building them up in holiness and comfort, through faith, unto salvation.Westminster Shorter Catechism Q. 89.
It is a thoroughly scriptural notion. You cannot read the New Testament without, if you are paying attention, seeing how the apostles put preaching at the very centre.
Having a daily devotional time
Scriptural examples abound of people taking time to read the scriptures and pray, but most importantly Jesus did it (Mark 1:35; Luke 9:18; 11:1; 22:39ff). Sure he did not have a Bible with him, but he knew the scriptures and so his time of prayer was also a time of meditation on the word.
Reading the Bible
This is simply the discipling of making sure that you get to know all of it. For that, you simply have to get down to it and read it. You would not pause at every verse, but read it as you would read the newspaper. Reading four chapters a day gets you through the Bible in a year.
Meditating on scripture
Not emptying your mind but filling your mind with scripture.
- Joshua 1:8a – “This Book of the Law shall not depart from your mouth, but you shall meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do according to all that is written in it.”
- Psalm 1:2 – “…his delight is in the law of the Lord, and on his law he meditates day and night.”
This is about how to think about scripture at any time – not just while studying, but also while walking, in the car, before you fall asleep. Of course, this has implications for memorising the parts of the Bible.
Studying the Bible
This is a more structured and concerted time spent getting to know parts of the Bible. It involves finding out about the background to a book – who wrote it? why? when? etc. It also involves identifying themes and ideas, and relating it to other parts of scripture. It involves using tools, like maps, dictionaries, handbooks, commentaries. It can be done alone or with a group of people.
So those are the ways I plan to cover with our men, and I will add posts here as I go. Remember, the idea is that we become competent!
O Lord our God,
We bow our heads before our infinite, eternal and unchangeable God. We adore you who are love itself, eternally expressed between the persons of the Godhead.
We worship you, our Father, who has planned and purposed creation and the great plan of redemption for us.
We worship and adore you, Word of God, the Son who is God who humbled himself and came from heaven to be our Saviour through his life, death and resurrection.
We worship you, Holy Spirit, our helper and sanctifier, who leads us into all truth, who draws our gaze to Jesus Christ, who causes us to be able to say, “Abba, Father!”
O Lord, our Triune God, we worship you, Father, Son and Holy Spirit this morning. Come and meet with us. Come and speak with us. Come and bless us.
We ask it all, in Jesus’ name, Amen.
When you break the big laws, you do not get liberty; you do not even get anarchy. You get the small laws.G K Chesterton, quoted in The Man Who Was Orthodox edited by A L Maycock
I came across this Chesterton quote yesterday. It is only a line in a collection of items of his pithy prose. Apparently it originally appeared in a Daily News article in 1905, but the original article has been lost, so it is hard to know what he meant without the context.
It rang a bell because I recently heard one theologian say something similar about the Ten Commandments in relation to the state of western society. When you substitute “big laws” with “ten commandments” in the quote above you can perhaps see the point: if a society ignores the 10 commandments then in order to have some order the state has to introduce a myriad of sundry small laws.
Is that true? It’s plausible from experience. It seems to me that our legislators are continually busy trying to fix evils that emerge as a result of unhitching from those God-given “Words”. The trouble is we are left with a malleable and drifting set of underlying principles that guide lawmaking which results in many, many small laws.