I’m guessing like a lot of churches we are on a rather slow road to re-opening. In a fairly small building like ours, the limitations of physical distancing are significant. We have one small entrance, narrow passageways and poor ventilation. As a result, there are some health and safety issues that will need to be looked at rather carefully.
Alongside this, vastly reduced numbers (only approximately a quarter of our Sunday congregation can currently attend under government guidelines) means that most of our church members will still need to watch proceedings from home. We need to put quality camera provision in place that will allow recorded services to be watched by the majority of the congregation who will be watching proceedings from their living room couch.
The challenges of reopening.
We are eager to be together. We want to fulfil Christ’s command to meet in his name. But we are also eager to open in a responsible way that also honours God appointed government and loves our neighbour.
Until then, we are thankful for churches that have already been able to re-open already and we are also praying for congregations who like ourselves, are finding the road out of lockdown to be a slow one.
Back in the late 1990s I was press ganged in to writing a tedious essay. The subject was “monologue preaching” and whether like last week’s milk its sell by date had passed. Voices at the time were asserting that post-modern people would no longer suffer the traditional sermon. With more than a smidgen of irony we were told that we needed to change our ways – or else! “Proclamation must be replaced with conversation.” “The research showed” that if churches made this shift, they would be soon be filled to overflowing (around coffee tables, of course!).
While I definitely learned some things from these advocates for change*, their overall emphasis was flawed. They gradually encouraged a church culture that was too uncertain of what it was saying, and which eventually had nothing to say at all. Churches that embraced post-modern doctrine slowly shrunk; while conversely, less adaptable churches either held steady (or even grew) as they preached straightforward sermons.
It was a parable within my lifetime that it isn’t always best to follow the trend. It isn’t always wise to go where the research takes us.
It seems to me that there could be some parallels to the push I’m hearing right now towards much reduced online sermons. Now in most cases, I realise, what is being argued for is a 5 minute trim. That may indeed be sensible in the online context. Yet something hasn’t been sitting right with me in terms of the assumptions driving the discussion. The arguments to foreshorten sermons seem often to overstate their case or miss some critical factors.
Sunday morning context
In all the discussions about attention spans, the Sunday morning context is often strangely omitted. We’re told about attention spans, in general terms, and we hear that since people are at home there are many distractions around them. Therefore, we had better keep our sermons short and snappy.
Now quite aside from the fact that there are distractions even when doing “live” preaching, what seems to be largely missed is the context. The vast majority of our online hearers are Christian believers who are (in their minds) “going to church” on a Sunday morning. These people are used to making time for church on Sunday mornings. From a certain point of view they are highly committed and motivated. Anyone who usually rolls out of bed on a Sunday morning and goes to church is either motivated or coerced! Their busy weekly schedule is normally clear on a Sunday morning. They are happy to give up their time – an hour of it or more – and are expecting to do so.
Another point that is often overlooked is that most of our target audience are highly interested in the subject matter. To compare, as some are doing, the attention spans of church members to the attention spans of University students in online lectures is to compare apples with oranges. The levels of respective interest in the subject matter may be massively different.
Of course in any communication context, if a hearer isnt interested in the subject, even a 5 minute talk will seem boring. On the other hand, many Americans tune in and watch an hour long state of the Union address because the subject matter engages them. Equally many Brits have been glued to 1 hour daily briefings from government ministers and health advisors. These presentations are nothing more than people talking being lecturns, with the odd graph being displayed. The point is that people are interested in the subject!
I think one of the unfortunate things in this whole discussion is the assumption that most preachers in our churches are not very good communicators. I hope that isn’t true. I assume the reason we let them up the front for 30-40 minutes on pre-lockdown Sundays was because they can hold people’s attention. They have a degree of teaching gift.
I would argue that a dull preacher is hard to listen to, even for five minutes, in any format. But I (and many others) have listened to good preachers online for 50 minutes plus and have still been engaged. Can the more rank and file preacher not hold people’s attention online for 25?
The work of the Spirit
One of my observations during this lockdown is that there has been a subtle shift towards the importance of technique in our preaching communication. Much of this is understandable, and doubtless there are things we have needed to learn about speaking into a camera more effectively. But I fear that too many preachers could be tempted to start relying on a fine-tuned technique than on the power of the Word and Spirit.
As John Stott reminds us: the Holy Spirit “is working at both ends” (a comment he makes based on 1 Thessalonians 1:4-5), empowering both the preacher and working in the heart of the hearer. Can’t the Holy Spirit create interest in the heart of those watching, to keep watching, and to be impacted by what they hear?
Not the last word
I’m not trying to take some sort of high ground against those who have decided that they’re going to preach for 15 minutes. This is ultimately a wisdom decision. The online screen aspect probably is a factor, and in different places and churches differing decisions will no doubt be prudent. I also haven’t factored in the question of preaching to non-Christians, many more of whom may be attending our Sunday service online. They might be the best argument for shorter sermons. I would argue, however, that it might be more helpful to consider doing shorter talks (or courses) online specifically for them, rather than shortening all of our sermons for the benefit of 10% of our audience.
* I did learn that all preaching needs to be dialogical to a degree. It was also true by the 90s that evangelism needed to happen in more socially connected, informal ways, where we listened as well as proclaimed the gospel message.
“I want to share with you a verse from the Bible that should comfort you – and should comfort me. But it’s a verse that, if I’m really honest, sometimes has troubled me a little bit. I’ve often wondered, “what does this verse actually mean?”
So here’s the verse. It’s Psalm 30 verse 5, and I’m going to read it to you in the King James Version. Because it’s more dramatic! It says this: “Weeping may endure for the night, but joy cometh in the morning”
It’s a great verse, isn’t it? It’s a verse that we could put on a poster or a Christian calendar! It’s the kind of sentiment that we would sing in a Christian song or hymn.
But when you get down to it, you start to ask yourself: what does this verse actually mean? I mean it’s nice to text it to a friend for their encouragement, but what’s the reality behind this verse? Does it simply mean that every morning I rise as a Christian I’ll have joy in my heart and I’ll be full of the joy of the Lord?
That’s not our experience, is it? Very often we go to bed feeling tired and burdened about things going on in our lives. And then we wake up in the morning and we still feel tired and burdened! I find that particularly at the moment. I wake up and my first thought is: we’re still in the middle of the Co-Vid crisis. And my heart just sinks. So what does this verse mean? How does it apply to me as a Christian? What does it mean to say that in the morning we’re going to experience this great joy?
Well I’ve done a little bit of digging into this verse. And I think I understand a little more of what it actually means. There’s at least three levels at which we can apply this verse.
Firstly, we can apply it to ourselves. You see, in the Bible this idea of night and dawn is really a picture of God bringing us relief when we are in distress. You see that even in the context of the Psalm. That God had brought judgement on his people – his anger was expressed against them in their circumstances – but then God brought relief. It was like the morning dawn. The sun rose in their experience. And so this image of morning joy is really a picture of those times in our lives when God steps in, when he lifts our burdens, when he makes life easier, when he pours out (in a more obvious way) his blessings.
It’s that experience when we’ve been praying about something for a long time, praying for someone to come to faith, praying that some circumstance in our life will change and we pray and we pray and we pray. And then one day God answers. One day there’s that sense of morning joy. So I think this psalm can happen in our experience, but it won’t happen every morning! It’s not to be read in that kind of literal way, but it speaks of those experiences in our lives, when God intervenes in answer to our prayers.
I think those a second level this psalm applies is it applies to the Lord Jesus himself. When we think of Jesus as he hung on the cross, of course we know that he hung there in the darkness. And the darkness was appropriate because it spoke of the judgement of God and it spoke of the fact that there was no relief for Jesus on the cross. That he suffered their in agony for us. He dies there on the cross, he’s buried then in a tomb, and he’s laid there in the darkness of the depths of the earth. And that’s appropriate, isn’t it, because he’s in that place of death, of not enjoying the fulness of life. But on the third day – very interestingly and fittingly, at the dawn in the early morning – the Father raises his Son from the dead. And Jesus exits the darkness into the light of the dawn.
And that’s a wonderful picture of Jesus release from that place of distress, that place of death, as he rises into new life and in a resurrection body. So as we think of joy coming in the morning, as we run up to Easter time, we can think of how Jesus went through that darkness for us. Of how his agony means that we will never face judgement. Let’s allow that to encourage our soul. Let’s think of the fact that he rose in the morning and how that means that we have a great hope ahead of us.
But then the third level at which this verse applies is looking even further ahead than that. Because ultimately this verse – joy in the morning – is fulfilled ultimately in the new creation. Paul describes this age we’re living in as an age of darkness, but he says in one place that the darkness is already passing away. Christ is coming again. He has already come, he’s with us by his Spirit presently, and he’s coming again in future glory. And when he comes the darkness, and all the features of the darkness will be removed and taken away. Sin and sickness, decay and death, will be swept off the table in that new creation. And it’s in that day that in all of its fullness we will experience this morning joy!
So as you read this verse, think not just about those distressing things in your life that you want God to relieve, but think of the Lord Jesus who rose from the dead, and think ultimately of the fact that he’s coming again. He’s coming to bring relief to the sadness of the night. He’s coming to bring eternal joy to each of us.
Source: John Piper, Brothers, We Are Not Professionals
“We pastors are being killed by the professionalizing of the pastoral ministry. The mentality of the professional is not the mentality of the prophet. It is not the mentality of the slave of Christ. Professionalism has nothing to do with the essence and the heart of the Christian ministry. The more professional we long to be, the more spiritual death we will leave in our wake. For there is no professional childlikeness, there is no professional tenderheartedness, there is no professional panting after God.
Brothers, we are not professionals. We are outcasts. We are aliens and exiles in the world. Our citizenship is in Heaven, and we wait with eager expectation for the Lord (Phil. 3:20). You cannot professionalize the love for His appearing without killing it. And it is being killed. The world sets the agenda of the professional man; God sets the agenda of the spiritual man. The strong wine of Jesus Christ explodes the wineskins of professionalism.”
Comment: Piper’s book struck me as saying something necessary, especially to some parts of an American constituency, when it was released in the early 2000s. Piper was targeting the drift towards seeing pastoral ministry as a job, entailing a list of tasks, which aims for the goals of popularity and appreciation. As many of the tasks of pastoral ministry have been stripped away from us during this crisis, we are reduced to core elements once again. It is an opportunity to be children of God, men of prayer, lovers of people, preachers unchained. As our ‘job’ now looks so different, let us dispense with the idea of a job altogether. It was never a job, but a calling. A call to be God’s son, and a call to serve his children in the word and prayer.
Some preachers will be pre-recording their sermons today or tomorrow – or live streaming them on Sunday. Here is what we can pray for ourselves, or for those who preach.
Source: Matthew Henry, Method For Prayer (ed. Dan Arnold, Ligon Duncan): “Pray for the Ministers of God’s Holy Word and Sacraments.”
Teach your ministers how they ought to behave in the household of God, which is the church of the living God, 1 Timothy 3:15 that they may not preach themselves but Jesus Christ as Lord, 2 Corinthians 4:5 and may do their best to present themselves approved to God, workmen who have no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth. 2 Timothy 2:15
Make them competent in the Scriptures, Acts 18:24 that from them they may be equipped for every good work, 2 Timothy 3:17 in teaching showing integrity, dignity, and sound speech that cannot be condemned. Titus 2:7-8
Enable them to give attendance to the public reading of Scripture, to exhortation, to teaching; to practice these things; 1 Timothy 4:13-15 to devote themselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word; Acts 6:4 to immerse themselves in them and to persist in them, that they may save both themselves and their hearers. 1 Timothy 4:15-16
Let words be given to them in opening their mouths boldly to proclaim the mystery of the gospel, that they may speak as they ought to speak, Ephesians 6:19-20 as competent ministers of a new covenant, not of the letter but of the Spirit; 2 Corinthians 3:6 and let them by the Lord’s mercy be trustworthy. 1 Corinthians 7:25
Let the arms of their hands be made agile by the hands of the Mighty One of Jacob; Genesis 49:24 and let them be full of power by the Spirit of the Lord of hosts, Micah 3:8 to show your people their transgressions and the house of Jacob their sins. Isaiah 58:1
Make them sound in the faith, Titus 1:13 and enable them always to teach what accords with sound doctrine, Titus 2:1 correcting their opponents with gentleness; and let not the Lord’s servants be quarrelsome but kind to everyone, able to teach. 2 Timothy 2:24-25
Make them good examples to the believers in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith, and in purity; 1 Timothy 4:12 and let them purify themselves who bear the vessels of the Lord, Isaiah 52:11 and let HOLY TO THE LORD be written upon their foreheads. Exodus 28:36
Lord, grant that they may not labor in vain or spend their strength for nothing and vanity, Isaiah 49:4 but let the hand of the Lord be with them, that many may believe and turn to the Lord. Acts 11:21
“There is a fear that causes you to be watchful and to protect the people in your ministry from the dangers of the real evil that exists both inside and outside of them. Eyes-wide-open, gospel-driven, sin-warring fear that at the same time rests in the grace of Jesus is a very good way to live in a world that itself is still groaning, waiting for redemption.
[But] Fear can overwhelm your senses. It can distort your thinking. It can kidnap your desires. It can capture your meditation so that you spend more time worrying about what others think than about what God has called you to be.
Fear can cause you to make bad decisions quickly and fail to make good decisions in the long run. Fear can cause you to forget what you know and to lose sight of who you are. Fear can make you wish for control that you will never have. It can cause you to be demanding rather than serving. It can cause you to run when you should stay and stay when you really should run.
Fear can make God look small and your circumstances loom large. Fear can make you seek from people what you will only get from the Lord. Fear can be the soil of your deepest questions and your biggest doubts.
Your heart was wired by fear, because you were designed to have a life that is shaped by fear of God. But horizontal fear cannot be allowed to rule your heart, because if it does, it will destroy you and your ministry.”
Comment: Fear has been lurking around my heart during this last week of change. In my better moments the fear involves a rightful concern for the church – one that even the Apostle Paul might have resonated with (2 Cor 11:28). More often, however, my fears arise from a less devout source. “The fear of man will prove to be a snare” (Prov 29:25) and I’ve caught in it’s trap more often than a godly man should have. The levels of stress I’ve felt around video messages, and worries around the opinions of others concerning the leadership calls we are making, are evidence of my own weakness. But these fears “that make God look small” mustn’t rule my heart. The fear of man (or of anything else) must be overwhelmed by a greater fear: the fear of God.
Source: Derek Prime & Alistair Begg, On Being A Pastor (p 86)
“Some lessons we learn slowly, and one that we have found particularly difficult is that God wants quality of life from us rather than quantity of service, and that the latter is no substitute for the former. More important than all our preparation for ministry and our careful administration of church life is that we should live our lives for the will of God and reflect His Son’s grace and character in all our dealings with others.
The most powerful influence we can have upon people is example. The strength of our example – of which we ourselves are seldom, if ever, aware – comes from the reality and sincerity of our inner and secret life with God. Moral failures, which can so tragically ruin a man’s testimony and terminate his ministry, invariably stem from neglected daily fellowship with God. Walking daily in the light increases sensitivity to the first approaches of temptation and sin and strengthens our capacity to resist it by the power of the Spirit.
Comment: In these days, when we face the pressure to produce more and more content for isolated people, and where we rightly feel the need to stay in contact with the vulnerable, this quote highlights a vulnerability closer to home. Quantity of ministry eventually has its limits. At some point we will regretfully neglect our own walk with God and paying attention to our own soul. Cast in the positive light, ‘walking daily in the light’ carries it’s own exemplary power. May I never forget this!
Source: Charles H Spurgeon – “ Man’s Weakness and God’s Anointing” (Sunday Morning sermon, September 9, 1860)
“David had as strong a God as ever; but he was weak in the flesh; and that, my brethren, blessed be God, is the only weakness a Christian can know. We are never weak in our God, we are always weak in ourselves. Whenever you are in the midst of a difficulty, and you sit down and say, “I cannot do this,” who ever thought you could?
You ought to have known that you could do nothing. But if your difficulty be ever so severe, and your position ever so trying, is the everlasting arm too weak for your defence? Is the eternal eye unable to see through the difficulty? Or has eternal love failed you?
“Oh, but I am so weak!” Of course you are, and the weaker you are the better. But Jehovah is not weak; the Eternal One does not faint neither is he weary; there is no searching of his understanding. David was weak, because he lived by sight; if he had lived as in the days of his youth, by faith in the covenant God who had anointed him, he never would have complained of weakness, but would have done his duty, even should heaven itself totter around his ears. Christian, stop talking today of what you are and of what you are not; remember the Christian’s standing place is not on the shifting sand of creature weakness, but on the immovable rock of divine confidence. The reason why the Church of these days is such a poor trembling thing is because she always looks to man for help, and seldom looks to God.
Comment: This is such a powerful quote. It humbles me to the depths, then raises me to heights of new faith. It reveals my ballooning pride that I hate feeling weak and have my deficiencies exposed. When God unveils my weakness I should see the blindness that caused me to dream I ever was strong. But as Spurgeon points out, if I live with eyes of faith I will see Jehovah in his unwearied power.
In the preaching series in our church we currently delving into the book of 2nd Samuel. It’s a fascinating story with lots of twists and turns. But the question often arises how best are we to read it? This ties in with an even broader question: how do we interpret Old Testament narratives generally?
Here are 10 quick suggestions – accompanied by examples from 2nd Samuel.
1) Try and grasp the overall point of the book.
The overall point of 2nd Samuel is that God is establishing an eternal kingdom through David. Even David’s grotesque sin will not stop the promise and grace of God.
2) Read in big chunks – narrative often tells you ‘a little, in a lot.’
Chapters 2 to 5 of 2nd Samuel are basically about God raising David to power. Of course there’s lots of detail along the way, but the basic point is that David becomes the king of all Israel not through his own scheming and machinations. God engineers his rise.
3) Narratives tell you what happened, not what SHOULD have happened.
David shouldn’t have taken many concubines and wives to strengthen his political position. But he did it anyway (2 Sam 5:13-15). Likewise, the fact that Scripture reports Amnon’s abuse of Tamar doesn’t mean the Bible approves of it (2 Sam 13).
4) OT narrative is first and foremost about God: his holiness, grace, salvation and justice.
In 2nd Samuel we see that God puts David in power (2-5). God is holy and worthy of worship (6). God establishes an eternal kingdom (7). God gives his king and people the victory (8, 10). God is merciful to enemies (9). God is a disciplining Father, but forgiving (11-20). God is our rock, our fortress and our Saviour (21-24).
5) Moralise…but not too much.
It’s not wrong to draw moral lessons from the good or bad behaviour of characters in the Old Testament. The New Testament sometimes does this. We definitely shouldn’t lie like the Amalekite (1). We should pray before big decisions (2:1). And we should hold one another accountable when we sin (11). Yet these probably aren’t the most important points in the passage!
6) Repetition is a clue to what the passage is about.
The confrontation between King David and his wife Michal could be interpreted in various ways (6:20-23). But repetition in the passage helps us to properly understand it. Three times Michal is called the “daughter of Saul.” (6:16, 20, 23). This is likely implying that she is his daughter in character, not just biology. Michal has the same godless mindset as Saul – she is fixated on personal glory, rather than God’s glory.
7) Don’t get bogged down in what the narrative DOESN’T tell you.
Why did David not take stronger action against Joab after his general killed Abnerin cold blood (2 Sam 3)? Was David’s reticence due to family ties with Joab? Did he feel the legal case against Joab was in some way “unclear”? (Abner had killed Joab’s brother in battle). Was this just down right hypocrisy? The text doesn’t tell us…What the author is more concerned about is that David is innocent of Abner’s death (3:28, 37).
8) Place names and people names are always important.
David goes up to “Hebron” – a place associated with Abraham (2:1). Implication: God is going to move forward the promises made to Abraham now through David!
The name “Ishbosheth” (Ishbosheth was a rival to David for the throne) was probably not an original name. It means “man of shame.” This is more like a nickname he was given – it implies that this man was doing something shameful by seeking to usurp God’s plan of making David king.
9) When the writer’s “point of view” is revealed, you’ve just found gold.
“But the thing that David had done displeased the LORD” (2 Samuel 11:27). Now we know how to read the passage before.
10) The New Testament ultimately fulfils whatever narrative you are in and is the supreme ‘commentary’ on your passage.
Are there themes in the passage that find their fulfilment in Christ? (kingship, God’s presence, victory over God’s enemies, mercy to enemies, sin and forgiveness).
How does King David point us to Christ – positively and negatively?
How does the sin in this passage reveal our need of God’s future kingdom?