The Gospel is for every day

We mistakenly think the Gospel is just the four spiritual laws. We further mistaken that the Gospel is only for accepting Christ, for conversion, for “crossing the line” and after that we lay it aside and go to deeper things. How wrong this is, and how disastrous it is for the church to think so. The pastor ought to bring the gospel of Christ and his finished work as much as possible into his messages because the people need to hear it often. They need the constant reminders and renewal in the Gospel both in Word and sacrament, because our faith in the good news must be kept fresh and dynamic to keep drawing down from our spiritual inheritance of forgiveness, enabling grace, peace, power, the benefits of justification, love, healing and much much more. Here’s a video by John Piper that says this:

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A tale of two Preachers

preach the good newsA Preacher took the text and preached a rousing sermon on prayer one Sunday and exhorted the congregation to pray thirty minutes on waking every day that week. And some did and felt good, but most did not and felt short.

The next Sunday, he preached a tremendous sermon on being a witness and challenged his members to witness to one person in school or in the workplace that week. Some did and felt good, but most did not and felt short.

The following Sunday, the Preacher motivated his members to love their wives, and he did it with tears, and confessed his lack, for he had been too busy as a pastor, and he was sure others were the same. So he gave them seven things to do to love their wives. The women loved the sermon. Many men walked down the altar with tears and arose resolute. That week roses were bought, love letters were written, and romantic dinners were had. Some felt good, and those that were still too busy, felt short.

On the last Sunday of the month, the Preacher was convinced what the members lacked was time management. So he talked about the tyranny of the urgent, and underlined the importance of keeping the main thing the main thing. He listed five things they could do to manage their time better. The members were perked with hope that if they could do the list, the nub of many problems would be solved: they would wake up to pray; they would have time to witness, to love their wives, and be a better disciple. Some did it, and felt good. Most of them fell short.

And by the end of the second month those who felt good about waking up to pray no longer thought of themselves as good Christians, for their habit faltered. Those who witnessed did it only that one week. The flush of renewed romance of those men who loved their wives had chilled. And the weekly schedule in the diaries was blank. That Sunday the Preacher looked over the congregation and saw a jaded people. They looked like a people weary of religious must do, ought to do, and should do. The trust that began their relationship with God has given way to earnest but relentless attempts to reach and maintain the C+ of Christian behaviour. They now felt weary. After some months the Preacher left the church with his shoulders slouched, his face downcast, his eyes absent of the gleam with which he started.

After several long months, the congregation found another Preacher. On the first Sunday, he preached Christ the High Priest who sympathized with man’s weaknesses and who offered Himself for the forgiveness of sins. The congregation felt the love of God and they experienced a cleansing peace and assurance wash over them. They had a new found boldness in approaching God in prayer, and though they had not prayed every morning, no pall of guilt hung over them.

The next Sunday, the Preacher exalted Christ as the Baptizer of the Spirit. The people received a fresh infilling of the Spirit, nothing emotional, more a faith thing. Strangely at the cell group that week, there were numerous reports of how members had opportunities to share Christ and pray for the concerns of friends.

The following Sunday, the Preacher talked about the length and breadth, and height and depth of the love of Christ as pictured in the Song of Songs, and the people experienced a new sense of being the Beloved of God. That experience of being loved stayed with them and they found themselves feeling affection for their spouses and children, and being patient towards the people at school and at work.

On the last Sunday of the month, the Preacher talked about the Jesus the Good Shepherd in Psalm 23 and the people were re-assured that God was watching over their ins and outs, guiding them with His staff, protecting them from all kinds of enemies with His rod, and that they need not fear anything. The members entered that week with a restedness and confidence in the Shepherd’s care for they knew in their hearts that the steps of a good man were ordered of the Lord, and that God would work all things for good.

The Preacher kept preaching Christ, and though it seemed elementary, it was fresh as he drew from the wells of Old Testament as well as New with the heart of one who had drawn near and drank from the living waters. The infectious love he had for the Lord Jesus was being passed on to the congregation. Beyond just knowing, the members were catching it.

After four months the Preacher looked over his congregation one Sunday, and saw a sea of contented faces, oozing assurance and animated with joy. Though they may not have prayed every morning, nor witnessed every week, nor loved their wives as they should, or managed their time as they ought, they knew they were forgiven, empowered, loved and watched over and guided by a wonderful Man with scars in His hands, and love in His eyes.

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Young adults at Bukit Batok Presbyterian Church

Trends in the Singapore church

The senior pastor Eric Chua invited me to speak with his young adults at Bukit Batok Presbyterian Church, on the topic, Trends in the Singapore Church, and I politely refused as I had no hard data on the subject.”All I have are years of observing the church, collecting anecdotes among pastors, reading articles about the church online, and some study on the church. No conclusive, hard facts based on sociological studies or any such thing, is that okay?”  So that was how I gave this talk of 30 minutes, with 20 minutes for questions and answers. The recent articles on the Glitz and the Gospel in the Straits Times and my background work formed the backbone of what I shared with them.

1. Megachurches are growing bigger and small churches are growing more numerous.

2. Megachurches owe their growth mostly through members of other churches switching over.

3. Consumerism is a pervasive influence on the Church’s culture.

4. There is an increasing corporatisation of the church.

Negative about the megachurches

There may not be any questions, I was told. But as it turned out the topic about 4 trends I have observed in the Church seemed interesting enough for intelligent, interesting questions to be asked. “You seem to have painted a negative picture of the megachurch?” , someone asked. Never was it my intention in my preparation to do so, but it came out that way. My reply was, “The megachurches do have a role to play in the overall scheme and they are reaching people the small church cannot reach as effectively.” And I continued, “Of course, losing 5 families to megachurches in the last few years, may have colored what I think and feel about megachurches.”

talking to the leaders

Four trends of Singapore church

they discussed before asking questions

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Thomas G. Long on preaching

Every year I read at least one book on preaching to hone my craft and to deepen my convictions. This year I picked up from the Trinity library a book by Thomas G. Long titled Preaching from Memory to Hope, Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009. It was so helpful for me I excerpted passages for you to read and reflect on as well, especially those of you interested in preaching. Here’s what Thomas Long had to say in his book:

On tweaking narrative preaching for today’s listeners

“Some megachurch preachers have seemingly noticed, or perhaps intuited, an increased presence of episodic listeners and have, in response, begun fashioning “antinarrative” sermons (my term, not theirs), sermons that are built as a series of stand-alone “bullet points.” (We have perhaps returned in a digital age to the old “three-points-and-a-poem” style, except it’s now “eight bullet points and a video clip.” As one critic quipped, “when all you have are bullet-points, your ammunition is pretty quickly spent.) Hearers are invited to browse these sermons as they would a Web page, skipping here and there as interest would allow. Such preaching is immediately engaging to many people, but it tends to reinforce the fragmented, non-narrated character of contemporary life, and it works at a deep level, against the gospel. Narrative preachers, however, can learn something important from this approach. We may now be in a communicational moment when narrative preaching as it has often been practised is not viable. If we tell stories in sermons- biblical and otherwise- we will need also to step away from those stories and think them through in non-narrative ways, drawing out explicitly the ideas and ethical implications of the stories. In short, preachers today may need to model in the sermon itself the internal processing of narratives that a previous generation of preachers could entrust fully to the hearers.” (Preaching from Memory to Hope, pg 14,15,Thomas G. Long)

Note: An episodic is someone who “lives in a series of present tense moments. The past is alive, for him, only in the sense that it has shaped his present, much as a concert pianist’s practice last Thursday afternoon is present in the movement of the fingers in the performance on Saturday night.” He has no sense of his life as an ongoing  narrative.

On preaching less than the Gospel

“Much preaching in our day has taken on the posture of Wisdom literature. Take a romp through the thousands of church web sites on the Internet and sample a sermon here and a sermon there, and what one finds is actually going on in pulpits across the land-at least in pulpits in churches with means enough to maintain web sites- is an abundance of sage advice. There is sermon wisdom about parenting and wisdom about managing g one’s money and wisdom about finding purpose in one’s work and relationships and wisdom about engaging in the struggle for justice and wisdom about being more caring toward others and wisdom about accepting differences and being more inclusive and wisdom about the doctrinal truths of the faith and wisdom about the biblical texts for the day and wisdom about nurturing one’s spiritual life.

We need wisdom, of course; wisdom is Christian, I suppose. But true biblical wisdom is less about life skills and the management of problems than it is a seeking of the shape of faithful living that results from an encounter with the living God. Biblical wisdom is grounded not merely in common sense or in the brilliance of some sage, but in holy encounter. “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge”(Prov 1:7).

Much pulpit wisdom, however, seems to owe less to the paths of life that are trod in breathless wonder on our way back from worship and more to the well-trod lanes of conventional wisdom. Where is the present-tense announcement of God’s action in our midst?……….Sermons on “Five Ways to Keep Your Marriage Alive” or “Keys to a Successful Prayer Life” or even “Standing Up for Peace in a Warring World” may possess some ethical wisdom and some utilitarian helpfulness, but they often have the sickly sweet aroma of smouldering incense in a temple from which the deity has long since departed. They can easily have the sound of the lonely wisdom of Job’s friends, who can quote the Psalms and the Proverbs but who have ceased to expect the whirlwind. They are what is left when the possibility of holy encounter has been eliminated and all that remains is how to use religion to manage and cope with our lives and to construct a good life out of the rubble at hand. As for being the good news, many of these sermons are “good,” but there’s no news, northern is happening, no event of God erupts, and when it comes to the gospel, no news is bad news.

In an oft-quoted remark, Annie Dillard once observed that if we truly understood what was going on in worship, we would wear crash helmets and ushers would lash us to the pews “for the sleeping God may someday awake and take offense.” But these wisdom sermons are preached by men and women who have lost the sense of worship’s perilous heights and who have been lulled into forgetting that lightning might strike behind them at any moment. Here are sermons, ironically, which God, as Frederick Buechner once observed, “is the most missed of all persons.”(Preaching from Memory to Hope, p37,38, Thomas G. Long)

Scripture as spectacles to see how God is acting in the present

So how can preaching bring us closer to the eventfulness of God? In his fascinating book Preaching Paul, New Testament scholar Daniel Patte explored, not how to preach the Pauline Epistles, but what we can learn about preaching in our day by examining Paul’s own preaching methodology. Paul, argued Patte, was in a cultural situation much like our own. He had a gospel to preach that was couched in a vocabulary his hearers did not know – Jewish apocalyptic. He was preaching to people whose language and thought forms were shaped by culture other than the gospel, namely, Hellenism. So what should he do? Should he ask the Hellenists to learn the Jewish apocalyptic concepts, risking befuddlement? Or should he attempt to translate Jewish apocalyptic thought into their categories, into Hellenistic philosophical terms, risking losing something essential about the gospel in translation? Paul, claims Patte, chose a third option. Paul instead held the Jewish apocalyptic gospel like a lens to the eye of his imagination and looked through the cross-resurrection refraction of the gospel, and by doing so, he saw something he could not have seen without the gospel lens: the trajectory of God in their world. He saw God at work in cross-resurrection ways in their present-tense circumstances, and he told them what he saw. God is present; God is at work in your world. Can you see it? “Preaching Paul’s gospel,” claimed Patte, “is essentially the proclamation that the power of God for salvation is at work in our present……The power of the Gospel is manifested for us NOT when we learn a general principle, but when we are confronted by Christ-like manifestations of God in our midst.”

What Patte is doing here offers a hermeneutical option to the preacher that is both more complex and more powerful than the customary attempt to find simple analogies between the text and our context, a sermon technique that tells a story about Jesus or reprises the situation at Corinth, and then announces to the congregation, “Aren’t we today just like those Pharisees!” or “Isn’t it true that the church in our time is just like the Corinthian congregation?” Well, no, as a matter of fact, we aren’t just like those Pharisees, and, as a matter of strict historical analogy, the circumstances at ancient Corinth are quite distant from any twenty first century setting. Some form of analogical thinking is involved in all hermeneutics, but the connection between text and sermon needs to move beyond the illusion of a tight analogy between the text and our context and toward a more imaginative way to see connections.

Patte goes a long way toward helping us to reclaim the impact of news in our preaching by saying that preaching involves looking through the lenses of biblical texts to discover and then to announce present-tense manifestations of God in the experience of hearers. Patte’s view of exegesis is in key ways an elaboration of Calvin’s metaphor of the scripture as “spectacles.” Commenting on that metaphor, Gareth Green observes, “The scriptures are not something we look at, but rather look through, lenses that refocus what we see into an intelligible pattern.” But we should not, I think, be fully satisfied with Patte’s description of that intelligible pattern. His rather strict structuralism, with its mathematical ensemble of either-or binary oppositions, tends, I think, to restrict the range of patterns found in scripture. For Patte, everything is squeezed through the master binary opposition he finds in Paul: cross-resurrection. Raising the crucified to new life may work as a macro statement for God’s action in the world, but when we get closer to the grain we need more images, more metaphors, more plot structures to describe the full range of God’s action in the world. God is blessing and judging, healing and guiding, lifting up the weak and bringing down the oppressor. To view life through scriptures, we need a more complex set of lenses than just the one master lens, cross-resurrection. (Preaching from Memory to Hope, pg 43-45, Thomas G. Long)

On preaching eschatologically

“First, to preach eschatologically is to participate in the promise that the fullness of God’s shalom flows into the present, drawing it toward consummation. Eschatological preaching brings the finished work of God to bear on an unfinished world, summoning it to completion. Progress preaching tells people to gird up their loins and to use the resources at hand to make the world into a better place, and such preaching necessarily condemns people to failure and despair. Eschatological preaching promises a “new heaven and a new earth” and invites people to participate in a coming future that, while it is not dependent upon their success, its open to the labours of their hands.”(p 125)

Second, eschatological preaching affirms that life under the providence of God has a shape, and that this shape is end-stressed; what happens in th e middle is finally defined by the end. What is true about all narratives in the small sense is true of the gospel story in the largest sense: they reverse the flow of time. Everything is read from the end backwards, and events in the middle of things take their significance not just in themselves but in how they are related to the end. One of the best Christian expressions of this is the old African American spiritual, “Nobody knows who I am until Judgment Day.” In the middle of things, the forces of history may render a verdict on people. It may deem them to be chattel slaves, cannon fodder, or stubble for gas ovens. But history in the middle of things does not get to have the last word. God’s eschatological fullness is the only truthfulness about who people really are. “Nobody knows who I am until Judgment Day.” (pg 126-127)

“Third, preaching eschatologically today means helping our people know that the eschatological and apocalyptic language of the Bible is not about predicting the future; it is primarily a way of seeing the present in the light of hope.”(pg 129)

Thomas G Long-Renowned preacher Thomas G. Long is Bandy Professor of Preaching at Candler School of Theology, Emory University. He is author of numerous best-selling books including The Witness of Preaching, Hebrews, and Testimony: Talking ourselves into Being Christian.

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Preaching to change lives

Tim Keller

Is secret in the method?
Some say that the secret of life changing preaching lies in verse by verse preaching, and preaching through the Bible, book by book.  It is still vaunted that expository preaching is the only way to change lives and grow a church. Then recently Rick Warren have popularised the user-friendly sermon. Of course, accusations of compromise and watering down of the truth swirled around this method. Preaching of the Readers’ Digest sermon with its practical “How to” themes, made sermons more accessible to unbelievers and even believers too but did it really change lives at a deeper level?

Content not methodology
I noticed a cry in the wilderness in recent years. It is a cry for preachers and pastors to preach a gospel-centered and Christ exalting message. I hear it mainly from the reformed and other charismatic pastors. They point us to content not to methodology. There is something here all preachers need to really grasp. When they do it will bring much blessing to their congregations.

Tim Keller on preaching the gospel
Listen to this teaching by Tim Keller. I first heard him at the Global Leadership Summit, Singapore. He gave a word that affirmed what God had been stirring in my heart about the need for Singapore churches to be more “indicative” in their preaching and less “imperative”, as they tend to be now. Tim Keller was speaking at a conference for pastors and the main outline of his talk is that good preaching must be (1) Gospel-centered, (2) Christ-centered, (3) Life-changing on the spot, (4) Culturally transforming. Its about an hour long, with questions and answers at the end.

Tim Keller Feb’09: Preaching the Gospel from Newfrontiers on Vimeo.

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