Thursday, June 28, 2007

The Mereness of Church: Life Together

And they devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. And awe came upon every soul, and many wonders and signs were being done through the apostles. And all who believed were together and had all things in common. And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need. And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having favor will all the people. And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved.

This passage in the early history of the church tends to stun us with the obvious and powerful supernatural acts of God on display. There were "many wonders and signs" and "the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved." It's as though our eyes tunnel in on these extraordinary aspects of that huddled mass of early Christianity.

On the other hand, though, the passage is remarkably ordinary. The early church's "program" was really quite simple, devotion to:
  1. the apostles' teaching,
  2. fellowship
  3. breaking of bread, and
  4. prayer.

It's actually a pretty mere list. No vacation Bible school. No organized men's or women's fellowships. No alternative services for differing musical preferences. No special auxiliaries of the church for this or that social or political cause (and surely there were plenty to be involved in in 1st century Rome and Jerusalem). Nothing mentioned about youth group or youth church. It's a pretty plain paper bag approach: teaching, fellowship, communion, and prayer.

And yet, see how the Lord used these basic floorboards in the lives of people. "And awe came upon every soul." "All who believed were together and had every thing in common." Gladness, generosity, praise and thanksgiving to God, and "favor with all the people." All of this from the simple and unadorned life together of the church, a life that stressed the apostles' teaching, fellowship, breaking bread, and prayer.

In today's church, the life of a local congregation is often built on so many things other than these simple things. Church's are organized as "family centers," cater to Gen-Xers, offer special services and programs for nearly every thing that ails a community, runs from special program to special program, and even dabbles in economic development and political initiatives. Meanwhile, almost no one is left in awe any more. Church disunity is fairly commonplace. You can almost forget about selling possessions and giving to the poor, else people go away sad like the rich young ruler or label you a cult. The church has anything but favor with all the people.

She's despised and ridiculed and blamed for everything. We're quick to conclude that such accusations are a form of persecution or hatred of God and His church. And to some extent that's certainly true. But how many of us have draw any connection between the customarily low and skeptical view of the church and the supplanting of a mere life together emphasizing doctrine, fellowship, prayer, and breaking bread? In other words, could it be that there is no awe and no favor because we've abandoned the simple corporate life outlined in Acts 2?

Prayer meetings are almost empty in most churches. People tire of doctrine and theology; they want something "practical" they tell us. Hospitality and fellowship are a lost discipline in many quarters; privacy and anonymity are vaulted values. For some, communion is an "add on" to the service, a ritual often not understood or esteemed even by many in the ministry.

And I wonder if this state of affairs, where it exists, is not the result of thinking low and infrequent thoughts about the apostles' teaching, fellowship, breaking bread, and prayer. The early church did these things "day by day," in the temple and in their homes. This is what "devotion" looked like: constancy combined with eagerness and joy.

Perhaps one of the most destructive things that can happen to individual Christians and entire congregations is to develop a programmatic mentality toward church life. Where churches commit themselves to a view of the Christian life that emphasizes canned and special programs, the mereness of simply knowing and living with one another can be deeply undermined as people live from event to event, special high to special high. Over time, the church is seen as "boring" if there is "nothing going on" and people begin to mark their lives by this or that event rather than by discerning the Spirit's work in producing fruit that remains. Awe is replaced with or misdefined as excitement. Genuine togetherness may be lost as the basis for unity becomes a good program rather than the truth of the apostles' teaching. And along wiht the program mentality oftem comes its twin, the success syndrome where a "good program" and therefore a "good church" is defined by numbers and customer satisfaction. It's a subtle state of affairs but it's powerfully destructive.

The old simple approach is still best. We still need a mere focus on the apostles' teaching, fellowship, breaking bread, and prayer. What Christian thinking biblically could ever define this as boring or insufficient? What Christian who has ever benefitted from the power of God's word, the intimacy of fellowship, the grace of breaking bread, and the delight of prayer would really want to exchange all of that for the newest denominational initiative and publication? Deep, refreshing, joyful, lasting, awe-inspiring, favor-inducing, thankful and ultimately evangelistically powerful corporate living is actually quite mere. What we need is devotion to it, a back to basics, Word-trusting approach.

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Around the Blog in 80 Seconds

The crew at New Attitude is doing a very useful thing. They're posting short interviews with the New Attitude conference speakers focusing on applying their talks. So far, two have been posted: Josh Harris and Mark Dever. In addition, the conference audio is still available.

A new 9Marks newsletter is out. This one focuses on the gospel. It has three sections: "Challenges to the Gospel," "Explaining 'the Gospel' to Non-Christians," and "Gospel Meditations."

At the 9Marks blog, my brother and the nicest man in the world, Deepak Reju issues an outstanding challenge. Those of us laboring in areas with high population turnover can sure relate to this:

Here’s a novel idea: Why not turn down a job promotion in order to stay committed to your local church? That is, make your church more of a priority than your career.

Matt Schmucker once said to me (and I’m paraphrasing here):
“Maybe a few of us need to be willing to commit our lives to one local church over a lifetime. We need to be willing to sacrifice our lives for the sake of bearing long-term fruit for the kingdom.”

Now you might think I’m just talking about laypeople, but I’m also thinking about pastors here. Researchers say that on average, pastors stay at churches for only 3.5 years. Too many pastors are eager to “move up” to bigger churches with bigger sanctuaries, bigger salaries, more staff, and more ministries.

There is only so much you can do if you stick around for just a few years. In contrast, when you stay in a local church for a lifetime, you can think, plan, and act with a long-term vision. You can build relationships over the long haul. You can commit to transforming one community for a lifetime. A long-term vision with a long-term commitment can make a tremendous difference.

So what say you? Might you consider staying in your church over the long haul? (Read the entire post and comments)

My brother Mike Gilbart-Smith at Loving Church is compiling a list of evangelistic and apologetic websites (here and here) and offering some thoughts on evaluating them.

This headline and abstract caught my eye over at Religion News Service:

Unitarians Find They're Almost Universally White By Angie Chuang

PORTLAND, Ore. -- Joseph Santos-Lyons is this city's first Unitarian Universalist homegrown minister of color -- a milestone for the local church, but also for the national denomination, which is 92 percent white, by its own estimates. But as he assumes his minister's mantle, Santos-Lyons is speaking out about the elephant in the room: Liberals embrace multiculturalism in theory, he says, but there's a reason the Unitarian Universalist Association -- as well as other progressive movements -- remains nearly all white. Liberal whites are no more comfortable with race issues -- and often more defensive -- than their conservative counterparts, he and other congregants say. "A habit of liberals is to want to fix everything on the outside," says Santos-Lyons, 34. "But we don't turn inward and fix ourselves."

Two general comments: (1) Praise God ethnic minorities are not that crazy! As far as I can tell, not since the days of Lemuel Haynes (mid-1700s to 1833) has there even been any discussion of UU in African-American circles. I don't think I've ever seen a religiously-minded ethnic minority of any background jump off the deep end of UU--Praise God! (2) It seems that as long as the hope of multi-ethnic churches rely on the stores of human interest and courage then they will be a distant fantasy; doesn't seem to matter whether you're progressive, liberal, conservative or reactionary. The only thing that reconciles is the cross of Christ--progressive enough to redeem the lost sinner and conservative enough to keep them all in the family of God.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

We Got A Warnie!

Much to my surprise, PureChurch has received a Warnie Award from our brother Adrian Warnock. I appreciate Adrian's writing and full-on engagement with important theological issues. It's a privilege to be even mentioned in the same breath with other recipients and to get positive encouragement from my brother across the pond.

Six others received a Warnie as well, including:

Expository Thoughts -- a really good group blog "dedicated to preachers and preaching".

Church Matters -- a new group blog started by the team at 9Marks Ministries. Mark's first post: "Where'd All These Calvinists Come From?" Should be interesting reading! (Truth in adverstising, Lord willing I'll be contributing there as well)

Reformation 21 Blog -- Another group blog with a who's who of Presbyterian brothers commenting on all kinds of things.

Desiring God Blog -- A blog run by Abraham Piper, son of John, and information distributor extraordinaire. Excellent sermons, notes, shorts, and posts from the DG team.

Enjoying God Ministries -- The blog ministry of Dr. Sam Storms. "Proclaiming the Power of Truth and the Truth about Power"

Terry Virgo -- About Terry: "Terry is based at Church of Christ the King, Brighton, UK and is the founder of Newfrontiers, a worldwide family of churches together on a mission to establish the kingdom of God by restoring the church, making disciples, training leaders and planting churches."

The Mereness of Church: Her Singing

One place that the absence of mereness will be felt is in the singing of the church.

Yet, the absence of mereness in singing will not necessarily be thought of as a problem to be fixed. When listening to music and singing, we're accustomed to hearing complexity. For most people, music and singing belong in the category of "creative arts," and certainly anything called "creative" should bring ingenuity and complexity. Unlike cluttered and complex preaching which is correctly regarded as anything but "artistic," full production music and singing are regarded by many as the apex of expression. It is considered the opposite of "boring" or "stale" worship, and a synonym for exciting, engaging and "real worship."

And not surprisingly, wherever mereness in singing and music are abandoned in corporate gatherings "style" factors heavily into any discussion about that church's "worship." A church segregates herself in order to offer various styles of music and singing to its various members--contemporary, traditional and blended services. In other cases, churches split altogether along these stylistic emphases. And some churches are planted with a distinctive emphasis on this or that style of music in order to reach a particular group. You can almost be certain that wherever style becomes the dominant criteria in directing a church's public singing that beneath that thin veneer are warring preferences threatening to tear a group apart (James 4:1-3). More often than we perhaps admit, our personal preferences are driving our emphasis in a selfish and lazy way. Selfish because we want what we want and we're ready to fight for it, and lazy because we can't even countenance the idea of working to learn or acquire a taste for something different, something not our preference.

Now a disclaimer: I know less about music and singing and worship than almost every pastor I know. If everyone else knows more about music than I do, then by definition I am definitely NOT an expert. So, feel free to take what's useful and leave the rest as one man's opinion.

But my main concern is for the unity of the local church, a unity meant to be expressed in her singing as with every other aspect of her life, and a unity that should include various age groups, cultures, ethnicity, and even languages. While most may be drawn to a professional, slick sounding music experience, it is mereness that helps us achieve the kind of unity emphasized in Scripture.
What is "mereness" in this area?
Honestly, I don't really know. This post is an attempt to put some thoughts down to chew on. As I said, I'm no expert. But here are a few short thoughts.

Mereness in the public singing must be Christ-centered. I trust everyone will agree with that, although a fair amount of material is actually fairly man-centered, emphasizing man's needs, desires, etc. Mereness means directing ourselves to God and His truth supremely revealed in His Son and leaving off preoccupation with self (which gives rise to self-centeredness and selfish preference in worship).

The most effective way to be Christ-centered is to be Word-centered. Sing things that are biblical in content and meaning and that are biblical in phraseology. Some of my favorite gospel rap artists are thoroughly biblical in their content, but their phrasing probably won't be edifying to most other people in my church. Likewise, songs that use biblical phrasing in an unhelpful or ambiguous way should be avoided. In the singing of the assembly, we should work to sing the Bible in its meaning and its phrasing where possible.

A mere approach to music and singing will also be lyric centered. Sometimes a public gathering can be cluttered and made more complex by overly-complex music and accompaniment. The accompaniment should accompany not dominate. One of the top two things most frequently cited when one ethnic group decides not to join a church made up predominantly of another ethnic group is musical style. It's the "They don't sing the way we do" argument. And that perception/reality has a lot to do with the interaction of lyrics and accompaniment. Make the accompaniment more mere, center the singing on biblical lyrics, and much of that argument is minimized.

Finally, a mere approach is edification-centered. The aim is to build up the congregation, not to entertain or fill the program. This makes the public singing of the church an incredibly important teaching and pastoral care ministry. It's by our singing (our lyrics) that we speak to one another (Co.. 3:16). When we choose songs to entertain or to exalt a particular style, we miss a tremendous God-given opportunity to mold our people to Christ. Singing and music is powerful! And because it's powerful it should receive more careful attention, not less. And it should be specifically employed for the edification of the people, not their entertainment.
That's a quick crack at trying to define a mere approach. A couple of thoughts regarding the positive advantages to a mere approach to singing and music:

1. Mereness helps us avoid the entertainment trap.

For too many people in too many places, the time of public singing on the Lord's Day is a time for being entertained. Many worshippers want to be dazzled Sunday to Sunday by a production. They want to consume the singing and music not provide it. They want a certain need met not to give themselves in edifying others. They become passive spectators, bystanders while the choir or the praise team or the neighbors next to them perform. And catering to this expectation inevitably leads the leaders of the public gathering toward providing more and more "entertainment value." This can be subtle, but the pressure is real. Most of us have a good and genuine desire to have people engaged in the public gathering. But that desire can be exploited by the temptation to entertain rather than educate and disciple in this area. Intentionally being mere helps us resist the pressure to entertain.

2. More likely to "sing to one another" for mutual edification.
This point is connected with the first. If we're mere in our musical approach, we create for ourselves opportunity to teach and train our people in this area. In our public praise, we are always teaching, instructing the people in some way. We're shaping them as we sing. The key question, then, is "what are we shaping them into?" Are we shaping them into consumers of music, much like those people at the listening stations in the local record store? Or are we shaping them into Spirit-filled thanksgivers, people who view the corporate singing as "speaking to one another" words of truth and encouragement? (Eph. 5:18-20) Where we keep our music and singing mere and word centered, we disciple people even in the singing event itself. Keeping the singing and music mere allows us to teach the people to sing with understanding rather than with reliance on technique or theatrics.

3. Allow wider groups of people to enter into the singing and participate in mutual edification.

And this mereness also allows the church to demonstrate Christ-centered unity across natural divisions of age, ethnicity and class. And this isn't a matter of "style," but of teaching. I've belonged to a congregation that placed pretty heavy emphasis on the singing of hymns (old hymns!) and benefited from the 20-somethings along with the 80-somethings singing them to each other with joy, love, and enthusiasm. I've been in congregations that primarily sing solid contemporary songs with a hymn or two added in, with great unity displayed as people from different ethnic backgrounds lifted their voices in thanksgiving to the God who bought them. In both cases, I think it was the pulling away of musical and lyrical "clutter" under the guise of cultural or age-group experience/distinctives that made that participation and unity possible. Avoiding the temptation to cater to a majority group's preferences and simply adding a word of instruction or introduction made all the difference in the world in the church's ability to demonstrate unity in diversity when it came to the music. I've seen two wonderful recent examples of this at conferences. At both the Desiring God Pastors' Conference and the New Life Bible Conference, there was music and singing that allowed this unity. Songs were chosen from various genres, various historical and ethnic backgrounds, biblical in their content, Christ-centered, singable, and introduced well. The effect was that the mereness aided a wider unity.

In all of this, I'm simply trying to grapple with what will allow the maximum number of Christians from the maximum number of backgrounds to join together in public thanksgiving to God and be edified in the process. I think the answer is to be as little distracting as possible. And I think that requires peeling off the kinds of barriers created by either an intentional "sector approach" where you appeal to a particular demographic or an unintentional, uncritical reliance on preferences that all too often are less inviting and edifying than we think. I think that requires the church to be mere in her singing and music.

Friday, June 22, 2007

The Mereness of Church: Its Mission

Here's a true confession, and perhaps a disclaimer: I don't think I've ever read a book on the missional or emergent chuch.

Now, I know that for some people that means I'm not well read. And, I'm probably not. For others it means I'm not cool or hip or something. And, three kids and a mini-van later they're exactly right. "Cool" sorta evaporates on the mini-van window the moment you put up the Looney Tunes sun screen for the infant in the car seat. Add to that a few American Girl stickers and you're certifiably NOT cool. So, perhaps my reading choices reflect that.

But I do hear a lot of conversation about missional and I have the privilege of listening to a lot of guys a lot smarter and experienced than I am talk about the mission of the church, whether or not they're missional, or emergent or something else.

And not just the movers and shakers are talking about these things. A couple of nights ago I had the sweet privilege of talking with two college freshmen over desert. Aside from being ravenous where desert was concerned, they'd recently attended the New Attitude conference in Louisville and they were still positively devouring the messages they'd heard there. It was exciting to see these young men burning with passion for the Savior.

At one point in the conversation, one of the fellas asked me what I thought about the church's role in "engaging the culture." That question comes up a lot. "Isn't that the church's mission?"

Last night one of the men joining us for desert after the first night of the New Life conference asked the same question. Two different cultural backgrounds, ethnicities, age groups and interests asking the same question: "What is the church's role in engaging the culture?" "What's its mission?"

Here, I think, is a place where mereness is good for the church. How can I get the African American man sitting in Denny's asking about culture and acceptance (the irony of the question and the location should not be lost here! :-)) to see that his question is profoundly connected with my young, white, freshman, son-of-a-South-African-via-London-now-residing-in-Chicago questioner? Though they're looking at different cultures, how do we learn to see the overwhelming and vast domain we do share and should share in more deeply? Quite frankly, I don't think either thinks of the other much at all... and yet all of us claim Christ as our King and identity.

Well, perhaps it's in the adoption of a mere mission for the church. This may be terribly reductionistic, but the church qua church has a two-fold mission: disciple and evangelize. Bring those professing faith in Christ under the discipline of the Lord and bring those who do not know Christ into saving knowledge of Him.

I don't think my missional and emergent and ? friends would much disagree with that. What I think they would do is begin to add qualifiers and adjectives that to them suggest a strategic interest, a demographic or people group, a culture or subculture.

But what I'm afraid they may be missing is that each addition is actually a fraying of the mission and the fabric of the church. If we would merely shape people with the wide and inclusive love of Christ, then most everyone willing to do a little work should be able find a place in most every church without the need for sub-culture emergent or homogeneous unit principle "churches". If we're willing to conceive of the church's mission in its most basic form and then work out that mission with everyone the Lord brings to us or sends us to, then I think there's room for the hip hopper and the Sinatra generations on the same pew. But I think that only happens when "engaging the culture" means shedding unessential cultural trappings and worldly thinking to adopt a distinctively Christian ethic of love, hospitality, and fellowship... when we merely love those before us (all of those before us) with a gospel love.

I don't know if this makes any sense. But, I think much of the "engage the culture" discussion is really goal displacement. Rather than disciple and evangelize actual people, we sometimes get lost in a rather misty, ill-defined space called "culture". If we would but disciple and evangelize (again, I'm thinking of the church's mission; I'm not limiting what individual Christians do), we will be "engaging the culture" and we'll have the great advantage of staying on-task in the process.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

The Mereness of Church: Preaching

Of late, the Lord has been pressing into my thinking about church this idea: church is to be mere.

That's certainly not original to me, far from it. Rather, many times I've heard godly Christian leaders say this and the Lord is showing me how true it is--and how necessary it is. It seems that the more adorned the church is in its corporate life the less nimble, attractive, permeable, and useful. The more we add to what might be termed the simplicity of the church, the more foreign and inhospitable we make it to the wide range of men and women who need to be in her. The more we dress her in worldly pearls and gaudy jewelry, which comes in many forms, the weaker she is under the heaviness of a wardrobe not meant for militant, war-time life.

The need for a mere church can be seen almost everywhere. In this post, a few thoughts on the need for our preaching to be simple, mere, uncluttered and plain.

The last couple of Sundays during the sermon I've been impressed with that. Simple and unadorned is best in the pulpit. The Lord has blessed me with the privilege of pastoring the most diverse congregation I've ever been a part of. And many Sundays I leave the pulpit thinking this illustration or this joke simply had no reach. Perhaps a few folks acquainted with a certain genre of music "got it," but the other 90% were lost. It would have been better to be more mere by finding an application less "tailored" or "local" and accessible by my friends from Zaire, Zimbabwe, the Philippines, Australia and Canada.

Last night, Paul and Laurie Alexander shared these wonderful bits from Thomas Watson:
Truth when it is in the plainest dress is most comely. The star shines brightest in its native lustre. Who goes to embroider a pearl? or paint oer gold? It is a sign of a wanton Christian to look most at the fringing and garnishing of a truth. Many like the dressing but loathe the food. When men preach rather words than matter, they catch people's ears, not their souls; they do but court, not convert.

And this pearl:
Some ministers love to soar aloft, like the eagle, and fly above the people's capacities, endeavouring rather to be admired than understood. Ministers should be stars to give light, not clouds to obscure the truth. It is cruelty to souls when we go about to make easy things hard; this many are guilty of in our age, who go into the pulpit only to tie knots.

I need improvement in this area. I've already mentioned the need to think more carefully about humor and illustrations. But there's more I need to do.

As Michael Lawrence would say, write your sermon for the ear and not for the eye. My manuscripts and phrasing are too often written for the eye, as if they were going to be read by the congregation, rather than for the ear, knowing that the Word, preaching, hearing and faith are of a whole.

The language and "deeper" things of commentaries are another form of clutter that sometimes creeps into my preaching. What a tremendous joy it is to have as your full-time calling the study of God's Word, excellent Christian material, and the opening of those treasure chests to your people. It's a great joy and privilege. But how often a great comment or argument from the commentary, fresh and helpful to my soul, enters into the manuscript and weakens the sermon. It was a good gem for me, but probably secondary at best given the need of the congregation to hear God's Word. For me, a good commentary or comment from a commentary should make the sermon and the text clearer, simpler, more easily understood rather than more elaborate and complex. In my pride, I'm tempted to sound smart or want to share something a bit more novel or new to my hearers rather than major on the major point of the text. Consequently, my preaching ceases to be mere at that point and loses some of its helpfulness.

Now, what I'm not saying is that a sermon should be "dumbed down," or that simplicity is akin to elementary. A good sermon on Ephesians 1 or Romans 9 should be plain and clear, well-ordered and understandable, but that doesn't mean the ideas are simplistic! We're dealing in the glorious truths of God--which will mean the ideas are majestic and that we should be careful to not cover them in human wisdom and chatter.

Also, I'm not saying that the preaching should be targeted to the people we judge (usually wrongly) are the least intelligent in the audience. Perhaps most of our pitches should be aimed at the 66th percentile assuming the congregation is on some imagined curve of intellectual and spiritual maturity. The younger or weaker Christian will be fed and stretched, though hopefully not lost, and the older, stronger Christian will or should have discipline to mine God's Word even if they're able to digest "more".

So, mere doesn't mean dumbing down or preaching to the lowest common denominator. But it does mean that the church is to be built upon the pure milk and strong meat of God's Word, which isn't to be confused with the clever philosophy and wisdom of men. And when we do that, we comply with the Lord's purposes for His church, and make the church herself more accessible to more of God's people. A final thought from Watson:
Oftentimes God crowns his labours, and sends most fish into his net, who though he may be less skillful is more faithful; and though he hath less of the brain, yet hath more of the heart (quotes from Gleanings from Thomas Watson (Soli Deo Gloria), pp. 90-91).

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

The Godly Life: A Conference

Lord willing, I'll have the joy of spending a few days in Chicago with my family and fellowshipping together with Lou Love, Tony Carter, Wyeth Duncan and the saints at the New Life annual conference: The Godly Life. I'm looking forward to the fellowship and the time of refreshment.

Tony Carter will share on a couple of topics: "The Godly Home" and "The Godly and the Church."

Our host pastor, Lou Love will exhort us with "The Mortification of Sin."

Wyeth Duncan will lead us in song and praise.

And I'll have the privilege of sharing two talks: "The Godly and the Culture" and "The Godly and Evangelism". Also, I'll have the privilege of sharing the Word Sunday morning at New Life. Should all be a fabulous time.

While in Chicago, we also have a couple other "must do" trips planned. Our daughters are really excited about the American Girl store. My pockets are less excited, but it should be fun.

We'll also have some time together with Paul and Laurie Alexander, friends from DC. Paul now pastors at Fox Valley Bible Church in St. Charles, IL, outside of Chicago. He's an excellent preacher of the Word and he and Laurie are proud parents of a new baby girl, Olivia Grace.

Monday, June 18, 2007

I Am Grateful for Mark Dever

I've been working on expressing gratitude more effectively. It's been up and down quite frankly. I'm having to cultivate the habit. It's not natural to me and a good start doesn't ensure continued success. So there have been fits and starts, lulls and jumps. On the whole, I'm learning two things. First, I'm bent whether through sinful disposition or habit toward noticing the soft underbelly, poking it, and commenting on it. In other words, I'm critical. Second, people seem genuinely awkward with specific comments of praise or gratitude. Flattery they can take, but an accurate and meaningful comment leaves people a bit surprised. They're like deer in headlights. "Uhh. He said something personal and warm. Stand real still he might forget you're standing here."

So, not only do I have to cultivate gratitude in my own cold, sinful heart but I also have to do my part in setting a context where such expressions are normal.

I don't know why I shared that preamble accept to say I'm still working on it. And this morning, I want to express my gratitude to God for Mark Dever, a man I love and respect deeply. The post would be too long to try a format like some of the others. So, I'm opting for a list of reasons here. Let me tell you why I love Mark Dever.

1. I love him because he is Christ's. Christ is in Him, and He loves the Savior. That makes Mark a lovely man (I'm sure he doesn't hear that enough!).

2. I am grateful for the tons and tons he has taught me about the local church and about Christ, her Head. I'm most grateful for the ways he taught me to love the Savior and His body.

3. I am grateful for the example of generosity that he is. It's frequently "Christmas in Grand Cayman" because I'm regularly going to the post office and finding there a surprise package of music or books from Mark. And that's just a more mundane expression of his generosity.

4. I am grateful to God for Mark because of how He has used Mark to enrich my friendships. Without question, I've made more friends through Mark Dever than perhaps any other man I know. He's unusually gifted in giving friends away and I'm thankful for the blessing that habit of heart has been to me.

5. I am grateful for how Mark has shaped my preaching. Now, he shouldn't be blamed for all the poverty in my preaching! That's on me. But, specifically, he's helped me think about precision and application in preaching more than anyone else. Several years under his preaching has shaped me tremendously and I'm still discovering ways in which that's true.

6. I am thankful for the example of tenderness that Mark is. A lot of people feel intimidated around Mark. He's a big man with a big brain. But at heart he is a teddy bear. And he is tender with the sheep. I can't count the number of times I've heard him exhort us with, "Feed the sheep, don't beat the sheep." He has a large pastor's heart. He's a caring man.

7. I praise God for Mark's energetic zeal in discipling young men. Not only am I a beneficiary of that zeal, but it's been a model of what I should be doing with young men as a pastor.

8. I thank God for Mark's example of leadership. Three things in particular have stuck with me, particularly since becoming a pastor. First, Mark is relentless in keeping his eyes on the main thing and disdaining distractions. I've at times misunderstood that as "not listening" or something of that sort. On this side of the pastor's desk, I'm now quite aware of how necessary it is to keep pointing the sheep toward the Chief Shepherd, not waivering at all the bleating going on around you. Second, it's really important to have your "convictions" be biblical and few. I think Mark is exceptional at this. And learning to do this in leadership it seems to me is one of the key ways you keep yourself and the people from the tyranny of "preference" masquerading as biblical mandate. And that's good leadership. Third, the brother is a real team player. He'd rather do most things in a team. And I think that's made both his ministry and the ministries of many other men that much more effective.

9. I praise God for the fruit He is bearing through Mark's writing and 9Marks Ministries. There's an ever-increasing amount of stuff out there on pastoral ministry and the local church--from the bizarre to the brilliant. I appreciate that the stuff that comes from 9Marks and the team there is of sound quality and preeminently useful. I'm no prophet, but I think there's a quiet ecclessiological revival happening in churches and 9Marks has played a definite and critical role in that, by God's grace.

10. I thank God for Mark's impact on my prayer life. This was subtle at first. But at some point I realized that much of my prayer life is patterned on things I learned at CHBC. From praying through the church directory, to the amount of time devoted to prayer in the Sunday service, to the range of things I now pray for with some specificity... the Lord has used Mark to encourage and strengthen me in all of these things.

11. I am grateful for Mark's example of humility. I could note this in a few ways. But one way that sticks out to me now is his self-effacing attitude in conversation and preaching. He's often the butt of his own jokes and the "failure" in his anecdotes. Not to draw attention to himself in a false humility, but so as not to present himself as some superman, to war against pride. He's willing to laugh at himself and to have others laugh at and with him as well. It's a great quality--especially combined with that teddy bear quality I mentioned earlier.

12. I am very, very thankful for Mark's encouragement and support of me. It's been personal, it's been specific, it's been consistent, and it's been effective. Nearly from the day we met, he has taken me aside and given specific counsel and encouragement. I'm not sure I would have finished the couple of books now published or being published, and I may not be anywhere near pastoral ministry right now if it weren't for the Lord's grace, my wife's constant support, and Mark's encouragement.

Well... I could go on and on with reasons I'm grateful for Mark. But in the words of a classic... "these are a few of my favorite things." The Lord has been good to me and to His church in giving Mark Dever to us.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Hangin' Out with Michael Haykin

Today, I've had a little more time than usual to catch up on some blog reading since I'm slowed down by some flu bug or something. So, I hung out with Michael Haykin over at Historia Ecclesiastica. A number of things caught my attention that I thought I'd recommend for your reading as well.

#1. What is critical for preachers of the doctrines of grace to notice about NT ministry?
I am constantly amazed that far too many good preachers who love the doctrines of grace and who are assiduous in their reading of the Scriptures fail to notice one critical aspect about ministry in the New Covenant: it is intimately linked to bulding community and relationships. There is, I suspect, among some of these brothers, a mistaken view of what constituted faithful ministry in the past—among the Reformers, for example, or the Puritans.
Read the entire post, Reformed Preachers Whistling Dixie.

#2. Why does Haykin--and why should we--give thanks to God for J.I. Packer?
I thank God for Dr. Packer: for his enormous contributions to the life and thought of the church—and for the help that he has given, by the grace of God, to this one sinner seeking to be a faithful Christian pilgrim.
Read the entire tribute.

#3. What should pastor's smell like?

The shepherd must smell of sheep! I am sure shepherds when they come home from their labours smell “sheepy.” So must true pastors. Here, Richard Baxter is the guide, is he not? For all of his oddities regarding certain soteriological issues, he laid out a true guidebook to pastoral work in his The Reformed Pastor. It is a very convicting book—but so necessary in our day for Reformed brothers whom God has called to pastoral ministry.

The task of the true pastor is a multi-faceted work: prayer and preaching, mentoring and discipleship, caring and loving. Please brothers who are called to this ministry, give your selves to this task: 1 Peter 5:2, shepherd the flock of God in all of its dimensions.

Read the entire post.

Monday, June 11, 2007

Douglas Wilson on the Cross

The Christianity Today debate between Douglas Wilson and Christopher Hitchens, Is Christianity Good for the World?, is now complete. This is Wilson's concluding comments in his debate with atheist Christopher Hitchens (HT: Russell Moore):

Jesus was not just one more character in history, however important—rather, he was and is the founder of a new history, a new humanity, a new way of being human. He was the last and true Adam. But before this new humanity in Christ could be established and begin its task of filling the earth, the old way of being human had to die. Before the meek could inherit the earth, the proud had to be evicted and sent away empty. That is the meaning of the Cross, the whole point of it. The Cross is God's merciful provision that executes autonomous pride and exalts humility. The first Adam received the fruit of death and disobedience from Eve in a garden of life; the true Adam bestowed the fruit of his life and resurrection on Mary Magdalene in a garden of death, a cemetery. The first Adam was put into the death of deep sleep and his wife was taken from his side; the true Adam died on the cross, a spear was thrust into his side, and his bride came forth in blood and water. The first Adam disobeyed at a tree; the true Adam obeyed on a tree. And everything is necessarily different.

Christ told His followers to tell everybody about this—about how the world is being moved from the old humanity to the new way of being human. Not only has the world been born again, so must we be born again. The Lord told us specifically to preach this Good News to every creature. He has established his great but welcoming household, and there is room enough for you. Nothing you have ever said or done will be held against you. Everything will be washed and forgiven. There is simple food—bread and wine—on the table. The door is open, and we'll leave the light on for you.

Friday, June 08, 2007

The Spurgeon of Africa

I never get tired of reading that moniker!! There is something about powerful, Spurgeonesque, sound preaching in Africa that is just plain exciting! Nice 3-piece suit, too! The Unashamed Workman reviews a sermon from Conrad Mbwewe on 1 John 5:13-15.

And Lance is stealing Tony's titles and asking some really good questions like:
As we enter the 21st century I’d like to pose some questions for those of us who came from, love and long to see reform in the black church. The first and perhaps most surprising is this: Should we begin to think in terms of a post-black church era? Is this the time to start thinking of re-defining the church apart from dominant ethnic labels? Granted, some of our other brothers and sisters may not be thinking this way, but why not take the lead? While thinking through your answers (and I’d welcome your responses and input) consider this: if we’re to continue having a black church who gets to define ‘blackness’?

Carolyn McCulley shares this quote from G.K. Chesterton passed on to her by a reader named Lindsay : "People talk of the pathos and failure of plain women; but it is a more terrible thing that a beautiful woman may succeed in everything but womanhood." Wow! Now I'm asking myself... with all the beautiful women around me (my wife, daughters, sisters at the church), am I doing everything I can to help them succeed in womanhood? Have I thought carefully, creatively and long enough about that part of my responsibility as a brother in Christ and a pastor to many women? I'm not beating myself up; just noting that this deserves more thought and action.

GospelDrivenLife is taking a blogging sabbatical... I think. He's on post #2 of reflections before going on his 1-week sabbatical. In the first post, he discusses how men around him hold him accountable for his blogging. I found this particularly humble, humbling, exposing and helpful:
What they have most helped with is to point out where my 25 years in ministry have tempted me to have “pet peeves” – or, to use biblical language, self-righteous anger. What do I mean by that? I mean that ministry involves conflicting with sin and error in my own heart and the hearts of people I serve. If a particular issue recurs, I am tempted to 1. self-righteousness (to think I am not guilty of such a thing), 2 impatience (as though I change quickly and they do not), 3. anger (I am tired of this issue and want to press for anger or shame motivated change). All of that is about pride and ambition and being angry that people did cooperate with my plans.

The #2 Reason to Love Philly

Is the incredible amount of history in the city. Here's an interesting find. I hope they find a way to keep this alive.

Thursday, June 07, 2007

Around the Blog in 80 Seconds

A few things that have caught my eye over the past few day....

1. Debate among Reformed African Americans. When debate erupts in a camp over something as basic as preaching, then one of three things has likely occured. The "movement" has grown large enough to include divergent views and healthy enough to discuss them. Or, the "movement" is potentially splintering before your eyes. I guess a third option may just be that someone has a quirky perspective that neither threatens or strengthens; it's just different. I'm not sure what I'm watching in the comments here and here. But apparently there are now enough Reformed African Americans in the blogosphere to have a debate about expositional preaching in the predominantly African-American context (HT: Anthony Carter).

2. Useful to all bloggers, especially those debating theological matters. Martin at Against Heresies has done a three-part interview with Carl Trueman on guarding ourselves against theological error. As usual, Trueman is helpful and insightful. His comments on theological blogging and ministry are especially instructive. Here's a snippet from part two:

Q: What signs of potential doctrinal drift and danger do you need to keep an eye out for in ministerial students?

I was convicted recently by a minister friend quoting to me 1 Tim. 1:5-7 (ESV):

The aim of our charge is love that issues from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith. Certain persons, by swerving from these, have wandered away into vain discussion, desiring to be teachers of the law, without understanding either what they are saying or the things about which they make confident assertions.

My friend made two observations about this passage. First, the drift into dubious theological discussion is here described as moral in origin: these characters have swerved from a pure heart, a good conscience, and a sincere faith; that is why their theology is so dreadful. Second, their desire is not to teach but to be teachers. There is an important difference here: their focus is on their own status, not on the words they proclaim. At most, the latter are merely instrumental to getting them status and boosting their careers.

Thus, what concerns me most is that students may simply desire to be teachers. If that is their motivation, then they have already abandoned a pure heart, a good conscience, and a sincere faith, and their theology, no matter how orthodox, is just a means to an end and no sound thing. It is why I am very sceptical of the internal call to the ministry as a decisive or motivating factor in seeking ordination. Nine times out of ten, I believe that the church should first discern who should be considering the Christian ministry, not simply act as a rubber-stamp a putative internal call which an individual may think he has.

Further, such students whose first desire is to be teachers are more likely to try to catch whatever is the latest trendy wave. Orthodoxy is always doomed to seem uncreative and pedestrian in the wider arena; if the aim is to be a teacher, to be the big shot, then it is more likely that orthodoxy will be less appealing in the long run – though there are those for whom orthodoxy too is simply a means to being a celebrity.

If a prideful desire to be a teacher, to be a somebody, is the fundamental problem, then one other aspect which is increasingly problematic is the whole phenomenon of the internet. Now anyone can put their views out for public consumption, without the usual processes of accountability, peer review, careful editing timely reflection etc. which is the norm in the scholarly world and has also been the tradition in the more theologically responsible parts of the Christian publishing industry. The internet has few quality controls and feeds narcissism. Again, I have a friend, a minister in a North American Presbyterian denomination who says that, as he reads many blogs, his overwhelming feeling is one of sadness as he sees men seriously undermining their future ministry through the venom they pour out on others. I think he is right.

Of course, all young theologians and aspiring church leaders say stupid and unpleasant things. I still blush about comments I made 15 or twenty years ago which now seem arrogant and offensive, and certainly unworthy of a Christian. But for those of us who are older, the sins of our youth are thankfully now long vanished from the public sphere; yet such sins committed today can live on indefinitely in cyberspace. I shudder for those who have not yet grasped this basic fact and who say some frightful things on the internet which will come back to haunt them the very first time a church googles their name as part of doing routine background checks on a potential ministerial candidate. But more than that: I shudder at the kind of self-appointed arrogance among ministerial candidates and recently-minted graduates which the internet can foster and intensify.

Paul’s words to Timothy seem prophetic in times such as ours. Students should cultivate pure hearts, good consciences, and a sincere faith. That way they will safeguard their theology from becoming idle speculation.

Part one, two, and three (HT: Dave)

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

30th Anniversary at FBC

It seems this is a week for talking about anniversaries. This weekend we'll be celebrating the 30th anniversary of First Baptist Church of Grand Cayman! It's an exciting time of looking back at God's faithfulness to us and of looking forward with "faith in future grace" should the Lord tarry.

For thirty years, the Lord has blessed and cared for the people of First Baptist Church. Thirty years of prayer… thirty years of preaching… thirty years of singing God’s praises… thirty years of evangelism, discipleship, and missions… thirty years of baptisms... and thirty years of serving the greater Cayman Islands family. From a small group of 21 people gathered in a small living room to a diverse congregation of over 25 nationalities, the Lord has and continues to bless us.

We're combining with the anniversary celebration a campaign (summary, and here and here for pdf of brochure) to retire our remaining debt of $1 million by the end of the year and to free up $340,000 per year to invest in the work of the ministry and the spread of the gospel. Thus far people have pledged almost $450,000 toward our goal. It's been wonderful to see how the Lord has been working in the hearts of His people here and abroad to give to the ministry. We're excited because this will mean being able to bring on staff two men who have been "raised up" by the congregation for the work of the ministry. It'll significantly improve our ability to support our missionaries already on the field and some of the short-term work the church has historically done.

This is no small thing. Just three years ago Grand Cayman was devastated by Hurricane Ivan, a category 5 hurricane that literally followed the coastline of the island for some 15 hours, dumping sea water 6 feet high across the island. The Lord was faithful. He preserved life, eternally saved many souls, and used FBC and other churches in a great way to help rebuild the island. The church itself was significantly damaged, and two of our insurers went "belly up," leaving us with more debt to rebuild. But the Lord provided. The country was up and running in an amazingly short time, thanks to God and the industriousness of the Cayman people. And though we've been hampered by the debt burden from the rebuild, our Father has provided our needs and kept us healthy in so many ways. Now, by His grace, we're in striking distance of being free from debt and able to more fully give resources to the expansion of His kingdom and the spread of His glory. We're excited!

So, I'm inviting all of you to celebrate with us. Visit us this weekend! Pray for us. If the Lord moves you, give to the campaign. But from first to last, pray for us, that the Lord would be pleased to own our lives and ministry, to advance His kingdom, and spread His fame in Cayman, the Caribbean, and the world.

Monday, June 04, 2007

A Year In the Blogosphere

June 1st marked my one year anniversary as a blogger. The year really flew by and it's been a lot of fun! Honestly, blogging has been a lot more fun than I thought it would be.

The first time someone mentioned a "blog" to me, my mind went to "The Blob". Some of you will recognize that old movie. So, I first received the idea of "blogging" with all the interest and flare of a '50s black-and-white horror movie. Not a great start.

My second thought was: "I don't really have time to blog. Why would anyone do that anyway? And who are these people who blog?" Honestly, my nose was a bit upturned.

Then one day my wife suggested I blog. Okay... since it was my wife I thought I'd better be less proud and disdainful than when I first heard of blogging. I'd better at lease feign interest. It's my wife after all. When she kept suggesting it over a couple of weeks, and mentioned that there were some bloggers she read regularly, including some people from Canada, I thought I'd better also add this thing to my list of areas in which to demonstrate some masculine headship, discernment and wisdom :-)

Around that time, there was a lot of chatter about some churches who were doing interesting things where church membership and baptism were concerned. The best place, it turned out, to learn about these developments was the blogosphere! All of a sudden, I was reading things from the horse's mouth and the many critiques/supports offered. It was better than CNN!

I wanted to join the discussion, but the main site I wanted to comment on required people to have a blog to comment. With real hesitation and frustration, I went through the three easy blogger steps and presto! I was in the blogosphere. That was June 1, 2006. PureChurch was born... thanks to my wife's encouragement and a little controversy.

And in the last year, here are a few things I've learned and gained from regularly blogging and from those who blog.

1. A bit more sanctification. Boy, there's nothing like hitting "publish post" after writing some screed or critique or essay on some position and anticipating the response of others and the potential effect on someone to sanctify me a bit. The blogosphere is some time exhibit A for the truth of James 3:6--"And the tongue is a fire, a world of unrighteousness. The tongue is set among our members, staining the whole body, setting on fire the entire course of life, and set on fire by hell." And I'm ashamed of comments that I've made that prove this. Blogging has been sanctifying in speech.

2. A lot more friends. I'm one of those who envisioned this blog thing as essentially another chat room for lonely types... Christians, yes, but lonely and in need of a real hobby. So, now, I'm either one of the lonely chat room types or, more likely the case, I've been again judgmental and flat wrong. I can't praise and thank God enough for the many people He's blessed me to meet in the last year. You may not know this... but it's lonely being African American and Reformed and living in the Caribbean! So, friendships with Carter (who is, in my opinion, the most gracious and generous blogger out there and the godfather of African American bloggers), Lance, Eric and Wyeth and others are precious. And there are other friends all over the place. Some of them are now pastoring church plants in areas I care a lot about, others are engaging, educating, and entertaining me on Canadian culture (which is a big help because there are a lot of Canadian members at the church!), others are across the pond, some have sharpened my thinking about pastoral ministry, still others have challenged my use of typically political language in describing the gospel. All I count as new friends and men I pray and thank God for often. The world has gotten a lot smaller and seemingly closer for me through blogging.

3. It would be impossible to list all I've learned from fellow bloggers. There has been the up-to-the-minute events around the Christian world. Justin Taylor's blog is essentially my front page for evangelical news. Several sisters (here and here and here) have made me more aware of the godly women out there and how I can minister more effectively to them here in the church. Nathan Finn, though he's at the end of the line, has been a church history teacher and SBC pundit for me. I could go on and on, but suffice it to say that the blogosphere has been a classroom of sorts and I'm thankful for those who have been my teachers.

4. Christ is all! That's the conclusion for me. After reading over hundreds of pages and thousands of lines, after writing my share, upon reflection, at its best, blogging reminds me that Christ is All! He is the One who unites me with so many other of His people across continents and time zones and cultures and educational levels and economic standings and every other natural boundary. I'm reminded by the blogosphere that Christ unites us to Himself as one new man and unites us to each other. When I've stumbled or misspoken, when others have been the same, I've lost count of the number of responses and emails and corrections and rebukes and encouragements that keep me and others coming to the cross of Christ, clinging to Him, rejoicing in Him, confessing and receiving yet more grace, growing in godliness, deepening our affections for the Savior... and in the end, becoming more like Him. I'm thankful to the Lord for all the small and wonderful ways He's surprised me with Himself through this interesting thing called a "blog."

It's a been a great year!