Discerning the Times – Retiring Address at 2016 General Assembly

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This is my assembly address.  It was too long….and, in fact, I deviated a lot from what is written below and missed out a lot….I preached my heart out – but there is too much in my heart!  It was also a bit bitty…. It was somewhat like throwing out a dozen darts in the hope that at least one of them would stick.  I include some of the slides that I used in the powerpoint – thanks to Al of Solas for getting this sorted!

Assembly sermon – 2016 – Discerning the Times.

Matthew 16:3 You know how to interpret the appearance of the sky, but you cannot interpret the signs of the times.

Isaiah 22:3-4 At this my body is racked with pain, pangs seize me, like those of a woman in labour; I am staggered by what I hear, I am bewildered by what I see. My heart falters, fear makes me tremble; the twilight I longed for has become a horror to me.

After last years Assembly I was approached by an elderly Free Church elder. He is an intelligent and spiritual man, with a good grasp of the Bible and yet he admitted that he just did not understand the Scotland in which we now live. One that has undergone several generational changes within one generation.   We live in an age of great confusion. A confusion which leads to darkness and despair within both the culture and the church.  It affects the church because we are much more influenced by the culture than we realize. Many of our people do not know how to think things through from a biblical perspective, perhaps because we have not been good at helping them in this respect.   In this address I want to look at how we interpret the signs of the times and how we can cope with a regressive culture and communicate the great news of Jesus Christ within that culture.

1  What are the Signs of the Times?

1.1  Apathy – We live in an apathetic age

We are not persecuted in Scotland today. We may experience prejudice, but in general most people just do not care. When we invite people to church it is not usually a hostile reaction we get but rather one of complete puzzlement as to why they would want to go. We live to some degree in an apathetic society – where many do not care about the ‘big questions’ and even if they do regard religion as something personal that is your choice but really has nothing for them. In the comedy TV show called the Royles (no not those Royals). This consists of a family of couch potatoes who sit and watch TV and make usually trivial conversation in between cups of tea and biscuits. Try evangelizing them.  A dumbed down, sophorific, entertainment, trivalised, ‘let them eat cake’ culture, is much harder to evangelise.

My concern is that this apathy is reflected in the church. We either don’t care, or the things that we do care about are relatively trivial. There is no sense of need, no urgency, no lostness, no awareness of the eternal.

1.2  Anxiety – We live in an age full of anxiety

Fear and ignorance stalk the land.  Just think of how the EU Referendum is being conducted.   On the one hand we are told that if we stay in the EU we will face Nazi invasion, on the other if we leave London will be destroyed by flying dragons and World War III will start. Project Fear is in full swing.  The culture of fear is seen in personal as well as political terms. Many people worry about their jobs, families and health. That is of course part of the human condition – did not Jesus after all come to free those who all their life’s are held in slavery by their fear of death?   That has always been the case but I think postmodernism with its removal of certainties is something that has increased the fears of many people. We are more superstitious, frightened, concerned, worried. It is important to bear that in mind when seeking to communicate the Gospel.

Again as regards the church it is disturbing how many of us can give into the spirit of fear and despair. We do not have an adequate and practical view of the both the sovereignty and love of God.

1.3  Alienation – We live in an alien age

There is a sense of not belonging. We all want to belong. But if there are no metanarratives – if there are no big ideas – then who are we? Where do we belong? Some people feel increasingly alienated from either theirs or the predominant environment.  There is a great deal of confusion. A lot of our people are confused and don’t really know how to deal with issues from a biblical perspective, because we are now the contra culture.

1.4  Anger – We live in an angry age

This is turn leads to anger. Now that may sound a direct contradiction of the apathy point. But the truth is that there are many different stories and many different people and you are not going to get one metanarrative that fits them all – except of course the gospel. The only thing that fits all human beings is that we are all made in Gods image, and we are all sinners in need of having that image restored.   Whilst there is apathy amongst many there is also a great deal of anger.

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Sometimes in the Church we can come across as the angry brigade, ranting and raving at all and sundry.   That is, to say the least, not helpful! My minister is John Flavel…in a wonderful sermon on Communion with Christ in vol 4 of his works he gives us a different picture of the Christian: “ It is sweet, Christian, when the heavenly cheerfulness and spirituality of thy conversations with men, shall convince others that thou hast been with Jesus”. Would that that were true of each one of us.

These then are at least some of the people we are talking about – apathetic, anxious, alienated and angry. How are we going to reach them? Not by the weak, insipid and too nice Christianity which ignores the tough questions and the hard challenges.

2  How do People cope?

Most people exist in the culture. They cope. But how? What principles do they operate on?

2.1  The Pleasure Principle

Hedonism rules. Friday is coming. Let us eat, drink and be merry for tomorrow we die. There is no doubt that we live in an ethic of excess where material gratification is considered to be the key. As John Stackhouse in his book Humble Apologetics puts it

 

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There is now an outbreak of status anxiety – with economic slowdown causing frustration for those who seek to achieve status by the acquisition of goods.

“Today sensual gratification is a primary goal. It is what we live for. And America’s affluent environment indulges our insatiable appetites for pleasure. We seek to enjoy more than our sensuous hearts could possibly desire”.

Jon Johnston –(Will Evangelicalism survive its own popularity?)

Materialism affects us in the church as well. We too bow at the altar of Mammon and think we can serve both it and Christ.

Again we need to bear this in mind in our outreach. Forget the blasphemy of health and wealth teaching – how about ‘come, die?’ How about the rich young ruler?.   We should not seek to make church attractive in such a way that we then dare not proclaim the radical message of the gospel. What is the point of inviting people in on false pretences?

Sadly we seem to have developed a consumerist model in churches as well. Not so much about material things but in terms of seeking to give people what they want so that they will come to ‘our’ church as opposed to others. This consumerist mentality to churches must be challenged – the notion that we go church shopping – often with little respect to denominations, theology or principle.

2.2  The Power Principle

It gives people a sense of meaning to have power. That is a source of so much sexual abuse, emotional abuse. People like to have power. It is a temptation as old as the garden of Eden. And again we need to proclaim the Bibles teaching on this and model it within our own congregations and relationships. Christians and especially Christian ministers on power trips are a contradiction in terms.

2.3  The Peace Principle

People want peace. If only I had some peace. There are people who genuinely want world peace (and again this is not something that we should just dismiss or mock).   But not just that – peace in their own life’s, relationships, work. Give me peace. Peace, peace when there is no peace for the wicked, says the Lord. People are looking for internal peace and they do often associate that with religion and with the various self help therapies.   “Countless Christians worry more about losing their self-esteem than about losing their souls.” We need to bring people to the Prince of Peace.

2.4  The Pain Principle

This is tied in with peace. Apart from a very few people most want to be free from pain. You drink to take away the pain. Physical, emotional etc. We live in a painful world and yet the lie of our 21st century affluent philosophy is that we not only can, but also we have the right, to live without pain. And so we avoid pain and seek to live within our own comfort, painless zones. This makes it very hard to bring the gospel to people who will instantly shy away from anything that is going to cause them pain. And the gospel does. It is a pain that heals but it is there – the Word of God is like a sword. God wounds in order to bind up. The Spirit comes to convict of sin, righteousness and the judgment to come. We don’t like that we shy away from it – much as we would shy away from the dentist.

It is again the same in the church. We shy away from confrontation and conflict because it is too painful. Sometimes we allow sores and wounds to scab and fester within our congregations because we haven’t the guts to face up to difficult situations and apply biblical loving church discipline. We live in denial about what is going on around us and what is wrong within us.

3) How do we reach people?  

It does matter what we do and how we reach out. And in particular it matters that our evangelism is biblical.

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3.1  Biblical Evangelism

My main contention here is that evangelism is primarily church based. This is not to say that ‘personal evangelism’ is unimportant. The Church is after all made up of persons. Nor is it to deny the validity of the role of the wandering evangelist – but he is still to be a church evangelist, accountable to the church and with a desire and willingness to set up and to serve churches. But the Church itself is the base and best way to reach out with the gospel.   This is of course being increasingly recognized – whether it is Tim Keller pointing out that new churches= new Christians, or some of our postmodern apologists suggesting that community is a key to outreach. And again they are reflecting the Bible. The notion of the individual evangelist answerable to no one except God is profoundly unbiblical as is the notion of the para church organization answerable to no church. Because of the sinful divisions of the church of Christ there is a role for such organizations but it should be limited, small and specialist.

It is here that we have, as Reformed Christians, a very helpful insight in terms of practical outreach. We have, or at least ought to have, a high ecclesiology. We need to stop excusing the church and/or ignoring her in evangelism and apologetics. The Church is key.

3.2  Church planting

There is rightly an enthusiasm for church planting. The beauty of a church plant is not that it allows you the freedom to go along with the culture or to show how trendy and cool you are but rather that you have the freedom to start afresh, seeking to be biblical, unhindered by years of accumulated unbiblical traditions.

Some times it seems as though we accept that the term Reformed Church planting is an oxymoron. Do we not first of all let people go and start a church, convert people and then we can come and teach the way of God more perfectly? Apart from the sheer arrogance of such an approach we are absolutely failing to recognize the riches in our reformed heritage in this respect and we are being completely unbiblical. What is the point of Calvinistic theology and Arminian methodology?

We should aim to have at least one good reformed, bible teaching, contemporary church within 30 minutes drive (or walk?) of everyone in Scotland today. And perhaps even more radical – let us not compete with other like-minded brethren such as Calvinistic Baptists.   And it is the church that must lead these things – not just left up to individuals or missionary organizations.

I would suggest that in all of our churches and outreach we need the following characteristic:

3.3.1  Reality

We live in a plastic age that too often breeds plastic Christians. There is a sense of unreality and surreality about so much of what we do. What people want is something real. This is beyond sincerity – ‘Oh he does that sincere thing so well!’ That this is not made up, artificial put on etc. We really need to bear this is mind in our outreach. Are you for real? So often we are playing games, playing a role, adopting a strategy – there is precious little reality about it.  Let me mention one particular aspect of this.   The reality of the Risen Christ. In thinking about this, I have been greatly helped by Gerrit Scott Dawsons “Jesus Ascended – the meaning of Christs Continuing Incarnation” . He points out that in terms of mission the world seeks to co-opt us far more than it seeks to persecute us. Philippians 3: 18 For, as I have often told you before and now say again even with tears, many live as enemies of the cross of Christ. 19 Their destiny is destruction, their god is their stomach, and their glory is in their shame. Their mind is on earthly things. 20 But our citizenship is in heaven. And we eagerly await a Saviour from there, the Lord Jesus Christ, 21 who, by the power that enables him to bring everything under his control, will transform our lowly bodies so that they will be like his glorious body.

Dawson points out that Paul is not referring here to those who seek to persecute Christians but to Christians who over identify with the present age.   ‘These Christians had become focused on fulfillment in the present time and place to the neglect of their true identity in Christ” – Speaking of this reality can I highly commend Sinclair Ferguson’s latest book, The Whole Christ, which is the best theological book I have read in years!

3.3.2 Radicalism

This is closely tied into the reality thing. We need to go back to the roots. Christians have to be really radical. Taking everything back to the Scriptures – letting the Word of God be a sword which divides, exposes, reveals. That can be painful but it works. In this sense it is almost the opposite of the seeker friendly church – come and die is hardly the message of the seeker friendly church. This is particularly true of conversion where too often we treat it as something far less radical than the Bible does. We want people to have a comfortable transition from darkness into light. But Christian conversion changes everything – we have a new outlook on everything, a new attitude and motivation and a new relationship to everyone.   Some may regard this radical approach as unpopular and not likely to win many people. My answer is two fold. Firstly so what? If it is biblical we have to do it. If it is not biblical we have no right to do it. Secondly it is not the case that it does not work. It is the very radicalness of Christianity which proves attractive to so many people and it is the incipient, spinelessness of so much modern commercial market driven Christianity that is driving people away.

I was asked to represent the Free Church at the exhibition currently on in the Tate gallery in London, where our Disruption painting is prominent. It was interesting to mix with the great ones of the land! I overheard a conversation in which a couple were commenting on how there were ‘fisherfolk’ in the painting and how radical the ‘Wee Frees’ were. That is our tradition – an inclusive radical Christianity that preaches Christ to all people.

3.3.3  Relationships

Relational evangelism is one of the buzzwords that has been doing the round for some time now. People do need relationships but again they need real ones. It is quite wrong to become friends with someone in order to ‘bring them to Christ’. It is manipulative, patronizing and unreal.

 Take these three things together and what do we end up with. People must first of all have a real, radical relationship with Jesus Christ. The heart of all evangelism and apologetics stems from that.

Then we must have the same real, radical relationship with the Lords people in his church. Again that is crucial. The ultimate apologetic is the apologetic of the Church and the love that Christians have for one another. It should be transparent but not showy. By this shall all men know that you are my disciples if you have love one for another.  Many people are deeply cynical and all our protestations of love, peace etc. will be only words unless they see reality in our lifes and our relationships with one another. They do not believe us – they know that an elder is just as likely to commit adultery as anyone else. We need a recovery of the practice of open, loving and biblical church discipline.

That is also true of our relationships with those outside the Church. They too need to be real and radical.

4  What is happening in Reformed churches just now? Where are we?

There is of course a mixture of good and bad. There are those churches who are just not really being biblical in this respect. Their whole focus is based on maintaining their church. In Free Church we have too many people who consider that if they have a manse, a building and a minister then that is sufficient. Kirk Sessions are there to maintain the status quo.

I am concerned that some of us are in danger of adopting a corporate model of the church – I am sure that there are churches where the leadership perceive themselves as being in a management role whose primary purpose is to maintain the assets of the congregation – particularly physical assets. Even when evangelism is considered in these situations it is considered more as a means to maintaining the church (get more people in) rather than it is seen as a means of glorifying God and bringing people into his kingdom. Which is how we often end up with the abomination of churches targeting particular groups of people. Why is that an abomination? Because we are to target everyone not one select group ‘whom God has laid on our hearts’ or who we see as being crucial to maintaining the church. It becomes itself an absurdity when missionary organizations and churches place greater value on the millionaires tithe than they do on the widow’s mite.

I am greatly concerned that we are in danger of adopting this corporate model – where it is easy for individual ministers and congregations to engage in ‘empire building for the sake of the kingdom’. It is ‘our’ ministry that becomes all-important and so we engage in completion with other Christians, even with those in our own denomination.   Competing for funds from wealthy donors is in my view a subversion of biblical principles and an undermining of the diaconal office of the church. We don’t need to return to an almost Stalinist style centralized economy in the church, but neither do we need to adopt the capitalist market economy. We need to regain a biblical ecclesiology and theology, in which the churches and individuals are valued for what they are in Christ, not where they are located in the country or how much money they have in the bank! We also need to be aware of the danger of adopting an ecclesiology and evangelism that says ‘follow the money’. It should be the other way round. Let the money follow the vision.   The Church of Jesus Christ should be led by elders and deacons, not bankers and lawyers (although of course they are not mutually exclusive).

There is a disturbing view that theology does not really matter in mission.  The idea seems to be that the important thing is to get people in to the church and then we can teach them theology. Theology is somehow perceived as an extra curricular activity. Bring them to Jesus first. But which Jesus? Theology is crucial. And theology must be precise. The use of language is crucial in postmodern Christian apologetics. Take the question of whether Jesus rose from the dead.  Some people don’t care about historical evidence. They ask so what? Others believe anything so Jesus rising from the dead is no big deal. Others are secularist and will look for any alternative explanation possible. We need to understand how our neighbours are thinking and be able to apply theology to them.

Evangelism Training Programs – This may have worked in the modern era but I would argue that they are largely a waste of time and money in the post-modern era. Postmoderns are averse to programs. I am a postmodern. We far too often hide behind programs. It reminds me of the farm labourer with 30 years experience who one day was approached by the boss telling that him that a new manager was coming. This was a young man who had just completed his agricultural degree and was ready to begin. He was arrogant, inexperienced and a disaster.   He set up a structure and a system, which looked great in theory, but it did not work. He needed to listen to the experienced man who knew his animals and combine his technological experience with that. Too often in what we call evangelism, we take people, train them, and then tell them that they are now experts in outreach. It is just not true.   It is not real. It is not radical and it most certainly not about relationships. I think of one young girl who wrote and told me that God had called her into Christian leadership in Scotland to train the leaders.   There was no humility. No fruit of the Spirit.

Christianity is not a program. Evangelism is not something that we can be trained to do. Lets teach people the word and let them loose. The trouble is we have hidden the word behind a mess of language, concepts and training which have little but obscure the basic simplicity of the radical NT concept that evangelism and simply living and telling the gospel. Which is not to say that there is no place for training – but is has to be done in context and must never be non-theological and act as a substitute for real Christian experience and real Christian life.

Let me put it another way the best way for us to evangelise is to get our people thrilled about Jesus Christ. Imagine that you were a Leicester City fan and you were there the day they won the English Premier League. Would you need to go on a course telling you how to tell others? And even if people did not have a clue as to what you were talking about the very excitement and reality of it will communicate to them. Having said that there are resources that we can use which will help us as we seek to communicate something of the thrill of the Gospel.

5  What can we do? Some suggestions for biblical evangelism today. 

5.1  Personal

Contact, connect and communicate. How can we have relationships with people who are outside our circle? How can we have long-term relationships with people who move on so much? By going to war. By getting involved in our local communities – not just taking an occasional excursion into enemy territory to salve our consciences. But we should rather live such good lifes amongst the pagans that they would glorify God.   We are at war. We are at war not with the liberals, or those who are not in our communities but we are at war with the devil and we need to go on our own rescue mission. The trouble is that sometimes we have created Christian ghettos where we have our own communities where everything is christianized and as a result we find it very difficult to reach out – firstly we are too busy running our church programs (including the outreach ones) and so we have no time for understanding or relationships with non-Christians. Time here is a crucial factor. We need to think of our stewardship of time. You cannot build bridges without time. As I was finishing off this I was on the train and desperate to get it done in time. A young man came and sat beside me and started asking questions…he can be listening to the Solas podcast and read my blog and he recognized me. He wanted to talk about Jesus and the Bible. How could I not? How could I not exchange writing about evangelism for actually doing it?   We need to make time. Can I suggest that a lot of our evangelism is wasted because of bad stewardship of time?

And of course what is key here is personal walk with God. We are to walk a life worthy of the Lord. McCheyne’s great dictum “My peoples greatest need is my own holiness”. Linda Zagzebski – “The experience of knowing holy people is still the most important evidence to me of Christianity”. A key aspect of this is surely humility. Christians should never give the impression of being know it alls.

We need to encourage our people in this. These are days of great openness and opportunity. Not for canned artificial presentations of the Gospel – but for open conversation.   There is a level playing field – philosophically. You can begin anywhere you like, with any presuppositions that you want and spin out the worldview you want. It is open house. There is an open market and we need to get in there and our people need to be in there.

This is also true in regard to their lifestyle and works. C S Lewis – God in the Dock

“I believe that any Christian who is qualified to write a good popular book on any science may do much more by this than by any directly apologetic work. The difficulty we are up against is this. We can make people attend to the Christian point of view for half an hour or so; but the moment they have gone away from our lecture or laid down our article, they are plunged back into a world where the opposite position is taken for granted. As long as that situation exists, widespread success is simply impossible. What we want is not more little books about Christianity, but more little books by Christians on other subjects with their Christianity latent. You can see this most easily if you look at it the other way round. Our Faith is not likely to be shaken by any book on Hinduism. But if whenever we read an elementary book on Geology, Botany, Politics or Astronomy, we found that its implications were Hindu, that would shake us. It is not the books written in direct defence of Materialism that make the modern man a materialist; it is the materialistic assumptions in all the other books. In the same way it is not books on Christianity that will really trouble him. But he would be troubled if, whenever he wanted a cheap popular introduction to some science, the best work on the market was always by a Christian.”

The same goes for other fields as well.   It is the apologetic of quality, of the Reformed worldview and of the effects that flow from that. It is the apologetic of good works.

 And secondly when we do make contact with them we do not often connect or communicate because not only do we not speak their language but also we tend to equate the gospel (or at least they do) with our whole Christian sub-culture. So that becoming a Christian seems like exchanging one type of music for another. One type of book for another. One type of politics for another. This ghetto by the way is often restricted to domestic and cultural issues; it does not apply to the business world where we can very often mix it with the rest of them!

The key here is simply this – let us preach Jesus – not church membership, or our own sub-culture. But let us bring everything back to him. This was often the starting point for the apostles – Jesus is alive. So what? And then begin to explain it. Stackhouse “Apologists therefore will want to focus upon the claims Christians have made bout Jesus, rather than abstractions about religion, theism or even Christianity. The particular claims about Jesus lie at the heart of the matter.

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In terms of personal outreach we need to deal with both the emotional and the intellectual. We need to press people as to their own responsibility. We cannot make decisions for people but we can encourage them to see that God requires them to repent and believe. It is a worrying trend that even Reformed Christians are beginning to go down this route of almost leaving repentance out – or at least de-emphasizing it to the extent that it becomes almost peripheral. There is a worrying trend sometimes in apologetics to act almost as if we can persuade people by intellectual argument into the kingdom. It is a tool that helps but we need constantly to bear in mind that Christian apologetics cannot convince anyone to become a Christian because as Stackhouse puts it “argument cannot produce affection”. And conversion is radical requiring a change of heart and affection.

In terms of apologetics let me again quote Stackhouse whose insight on this is excellent. He argues that we do not undertake apologetics “in the hope of convincing someone by overwhelming him or her with the superiority of the Christian religion. Instead, we do so in the hope of presenting our neighbour with a clear enough picture of the Christian religion that the Holy Spirit can find it useful to employ in his dialogue with the neighbour’s heart.” In this regard let us encourage our people to use the Bible. Not in the sense of quoting scriptures like a machine gun but rather in simply encouraging people to read the Bible and to give it to others to read. Why is it that we think it would be better to give someone a tract or a book explaining the bible rather than getting them to read the Word itself?

5.2  Prayer

The other key aspect to this is prayer.

EM Bounds “No learning can make up for the failure to pray. No earnestness, no diligence, no study, no gifts will supply its lack. Talking to men for God is a great thing, but talking to God for men is greater still.”

Christianity Explored is the best course for outreach, in my opinion, partly because it stresses this need for prayer.     The conversation that really counts is not the conversation between ourselves and our friend but the one between our friend and the Holy Spirit.

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5.3  Local Church

It is important to realize that there are the lost within the church, the lost who will visit the church and the lost who will never visit the church. With the first we must continue to proclaim the gospel, love them and regularly pray for them. I would also suggest that regular pastoral visitation is crucial. With the second we do the same but we also try and give them occasions to visit the church – supper evenings, music nights etc.   And with the third we go to them. With them all there must be the powerful apologetic of the love that Christians have for one another.

What about the view that is increasingly being put forward of belonging before believing? There is a sense in which we accept that. Our adherents belong before believing. We all belong to the human race or one particular area. There is even a sense in which we can see people having some kind of identity with our church but we must not go beyond that. Non-believers do not belong. Some do not like this – thinking that it is too exclusive. Good. It should be. It is exclusive. Only the Lords people should be at the Lords table.   No you are not welcome to take this. Why? Because you do not belong! You are welcome to belong but you must first of all realize that you do not belong. 

In fact let us turn that on its head. Let us stress the wonder of belonging to Christ and the fact that that is synonymous with belonging to his church. Let us take back baptism as an initiatory and conversion rite. Let us reject absolutely the unbiblical nonsense of pronouncing people Christians; after they have made a profession of faith and yet they never come to church, they are never incorporated into the body of Christ.

Speaking of turning things on their head, let me say something about language. We are sometimes far too negative in our use of language – reinforcing the stereotypes of our listeners. Why preach against multi-culturalism? We are the ultimate multi-cultural group – many tribes, languages, peoples and tongues. We do not buy into that Christianity is western nonsense – so loved by the relativist liberals. We are multi-ethnic.

We need to recapture the language and use it properly. I would argue for multi-culturalism, tolerance and all the buzzwords of the liberal post modern – including liberal! Why? Because these words have a positive meaning. When you say we are against the liberals you mean that you are against those who do not accept the Word of God. But when a liberal hears you say that he hears you saying that you are against those who are open minded, tolerant etc. We are opposed to theological liberalism but we are a liberal people!

We do need to think about how we can build bridges and how we can help our people connect with the communities we are in. It is not just going to happen.

5.4  Building Based evangelism

Come to church – we mean it literally. We are used to our building. We are comfortable with it. But are they? Where would the unchurched feel comfortable? Should we want them to feel comfortable? Having said that we need to again recognize the centrality of the church as the people of God in apologetics. In fact the biggest single limiting factor in apologetics and outreach in the West is simply the dreadful state of the churches. Which is why reformation, ecclesiology and spiritual renewal are essential for effective evangelism.

5.5  Preaching

Richardson argues that because pre-Christian people will not listen to expository preaching we should find ways to make the bible more interactive, foster dialogue and experiential learning and help people to enter into the Scriptures imaginatively. No. It is about God speaking. It is about God communicating and this is the way he has chosen. Whether it is medieval mystery plays or 21st century interactive medium we have no right to take away from the plain and simple preaching of the word of God. It is my contention that it is not non-Christians who have difficulty with the whole concept of communication through the preached word – but rather some Christians. I think of one young man who came to our services. He got up one morning and ‘felt’ like going to church. After walking out of the nearest charismatic church (because it did not ‘feel’ like church) he came to St Peters, where he has remained. Why did he remain? Because it ‘felt’ like church (and this from someone with no church background) and because as he put it – ‘I need to hear the Word’.     Incidentally he came to the evening service and not to the morning one. Why? The morning was his lie in time. Others may have awkward shift patterns. There may be reasons why we do not have evening services but I suspect that it has little to do with reaching out. And could have a great deal to do with self-indulgence and laziness. The golf course or people say it is family time. Am I missing something? Is Church not the ultimate family time? The problem with the evening service is when Christians will not come to it. Apart from anything else that is apologetically a disaster. If the gospel is such good news how come Christians can only manage to endure one service. The world just does not buy that. One lady who had been recently converted asked me, ‘How could I go the whole week without hearing the Word of God?’ If we claim it is our bread of life, our meat, our light, our guidance etc why do we not want it? And is there not something wrong when we cannot get people to come and hear the word on the Lords Day evening but they will come if there is something lighter – more music – a bit more entertainment?

In preaching we also need to remember the reality, relationship and radical trip (that includes relevance). We are not there to entertain people or to focus on ourselves.

Prof Donald Macleod puts it beautifully –

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5.6  Worship

Whilst there are cultural aspects which almost inevitably will come across- for example the question of dress styles, is it not the case that there are scriptural principles that can be applied in all situations?   Here again the Reformed distinctives can be very helpful in this. Surely our worship is to be simple, scriptural and spiritual.   It is to be real. Is the elaborate, orchestrated, choreographed service ‘real’? Does it appear real to post moderns or does it not appear to be more of a show? Where is there room for the Spirit to move?

In respect of worship in post modern culture the most important thing is not so much what is done but rather that it is done well. Tim Keller talks of Mrs. Brown who plays the piano (badly) and the old hymn tunes. The congregations know her, know the tunes and love her and therefore are able to forgive her bad playing. But Joe Bloggs comes in and he does not know nor love either her or the tunes. All he hears is bad music. That is inexcusable.

In Biblical terms we are concerned with what is done and we are also concerned that it is done well. Simple, Spiritual and Scriptural.

One final thought about the local church and doctrine. If you need to wear a badge, a t-shirt or a Geneva gown saying you are reformed then there is something wrong. What I mean is this. Our being reformed is something that is in the background. It permeates everything that we do – not because we like the party label but because it is biblical. We are teaching our people the bible. And we can do so without ever mentioning Calvin, Reformed etc. In Church planting I think it is quite wrong to lay a stress on our distinctives and attack others. Lets just preach the word – sola fide, sola gratia, sola scriptura, semper reformanda – that is reformed.

5.6  Mercy Ministries

As a denomination we need to return to our radical roots in this respect as well. We should be concerned about the poor. Again there is far too much for me to add here but there is one thing I want to stress – the importance of education. I hope that the Free Church will waken up to the importance of education as a vital part of the churches ministry and a key area for us to be engaged in.

5.7  National Church

It is here that we as Presbyterians should have an advantage. Surely we can see that we are not just concerned about our own individual congregations?  There should be a collective sense of responsibility for one another. We are immensely thankful for the work done by ETS and the Trustees and the offices.   As we are for the work of the Missions Board – it is inspiring to see how David Meredith has begun his new job.   I would however suggest we have let some things go that we need to do collectively.   The Christian church is often a question of balance and swings and roundabouts.  I think we are in danger of forgetting our collective responsibility to the nation. Where is our prophetic voice? This is all the more important given the collapse in the Church of Scotland, its capitulation to the spirit of the age and its failure to uphold and speak for biblical standards in our national life. It used to be that in the Free Church we were far too centralized and perhaps our administration and committees were not the best. But perhaps we are swinging too far the other way. We used to have an education committee – its gone. We used to have an ecumenical relations committee – its gone. And a public questions committee – its gone.  Maybe committees are not the best way to go, but they are a better way than not going at all! It’s time we re-engaged as a national church with the wider culture.

5.8  International

We are part of the body of Christ throughout the world. Our mission as such is international. The equation of Christianity with a narrow-minded nationalism or cultural parochialism is something that we must avoid. But we must also avoid the romanticisation of missionaries and overseas mission. We need to be much more discerning, proactive, theological, biblical, church based in our overseas mission. Again I pay tribute to the work of the Missions Board in seeking to re-orientate our missions work not only in Scotland but also throughout the world.

6  Conclusion.

We do live in confusing and challenging times. But this is also a season of great opportunity for us.   There is an open door, but we need to walk through it. We need to repent and believe.   Sinclair Ferguson in The Whole Christ talks about the danger of both legalism and antinomianism. In talking about the latter he deals with the scenario we all too often face – those who argue ‘this is way I am, this is the way God has made me, He is gracious, he accepts me as I am, and you should too’.   Sinclair writes:

Slide19

 

May God grant that he will not leave any of us as individuals, or any of our congregations, or us as denomination ‘just as we are’, but may he transform and change us into the likeness of his Son.

 

 

 

5 thoughts on “Discerning the Times – Retiring Address at 2016 General Assembly

  1. “…let us not compete with other like-minded brethren such as Calvinistic Baptists.” I’m not sure I would recognize a Calvinistic Baptist if I saw one (and having been in a Baptist Church for some years I assume I had the opportunity) but why restrict the lack of competition?

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  2. An excellent address which highlights so many of the important issues of the day and helpful insight as how to confront and overcome them. I think quite a few of your ‘darts’ will have stuck. You have been an incredibly effective Moderator in communicating the Gospel and have pretty much been a lone voice in the desert for the most part. All the best and keep up the good work!

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  3. Read this twice, first on my phone, which left me a little despondent, and today with a no less heavy heart.

    It’s not that I disagree with anything you’ve said, but that it is so comprehensive that it is elephantine in proportions and how do you eat an elephant, but one piece at a time. (Please, this is only an illustration, not advocacy.)

    From my low and narrow perspective, which includes age and health, I’m not sure where next generation of robust and vigorous gospel ministries are coming from. Who will the baton be passed on to? To my mind, there needs to be gospel revival, to the dead and dying, a movement of God.

    Some points that stood out to me;

    1 Flavel: “that thou has been with Jesus.” If this is Flavel’s flavour of pietism I’m all in favour, but you know him better than I do.

    2 EM Bounds: his writings on prayer put me to shame. If I remember correctly he drew out how much prayer there was in support of Wilberforce. Without prayer, are we not living as professing Christians, but practical atheists?

    3 I’ll never measure up, but it brings us all to our knees with humble greatfulness for Union with Christ and His substitionary active obedience in my place.

    You are now an “ex parrot” an ex Moderator, terminated by time, retired but not expired. Christians never retire, only expire, but even that is a continuation of our union in Christ.

    May you know the freedom in Christ, which paradoxical comes from a slavery to Him, a devotion.

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