A Preacher’s Dilemma

giant clock.jpgIt doesn’t prove to be so much of a dilemma for me, but more for certain people within my congregation (and in every congregation I’ve ever been a part of): how long should I preach? There are some (not many, but they’re usually the vocal ones about this issue) who let me know if I’ve gone over. Over what? We didn’t start “publishing” an end time to our worship service until about a year ago and that’s so people don’t think we’ll just go on forever and ever. I think, if the majority of parishioners were telling me I’ve gone too long, and if they did this Sunday after Sunday after Sunday, then I’d probably take the hint and do something about it.

Here’s what John MacArthur has to say about this, in the post on Pulpit Magazine today:

Preaching and the Clock
(By John MacArthur)

Today’s post adapted from the Q&A section of Rediscovering Expository Preaching (Nelson, 1997).

How long should a sermon be?

As long as it takes to cover the passage adequately! I do not think the length of the sermon is as important as its content. At times I have preached fifty minutes and it has been ten minutes too long. Other times, I have preached an hour and twenty-five minutes and it has been just right. The important thing is to cover the main point so that people are convinced of its truth and comprehend its requirements. If you have nothing worthwhile to say, even twenty minutes will seem like an eternity to your people. If you are interesting, they will stay with you. Do not mistake persuasion for long-windedness, however. If you preach longer than you should, you will sacrifice persuasiveness.

I am convinced that biblical exposition requires at least forty minutes. Less than this just is not sufficient to probe the text deeply. If it takes fifteen to twenty minutes to give the setting, ten to fifteen minutes to draw out the principles, five to ten minutes to cross-reference them, and five to ten minutes for a conclusion, you already have about fifty minutes. Rarely does a man preaching twenty-five to thirty minutes do doctrinal exposition.

That is why developing the logical flow of a sermon is crucial. If your message is clearly outlined and you lead your people through the process of discovery, you will hold their attention. Your sermon must be going somewhere. You cannot merely give a number of assorted truths unrelated to each other. If your sermon lacks interest because it is disjointed, your people will lose interest.

If you are going to be a Bible expositor, forget the twenty- and thirty-minute sermons. You are looking at forty or fifty minutes. In any less than that, you can’t exposit the Scripture. The purpose of a sermon is not to get it over, but rather to explain the Word of God. My goal is not accomplished because I am brief. My goal is accomplished when I am clear and I have exposited the Word of God.

Won’t people get bored if you preach too long in the same book?

I think people will be bored if you are boring. It is not related to how much time you spend in a book. As long as you are saying things that capture their interest and challenge their lives, they will not care what book you are in or for how long.

I think, however, that a balance is desirable. If you are preaching through a heavily doctrinal book like Romans or Hebrews, it is good to give your people a break from that periodically. If you are preaching through one of the Gospels, such may not be necessary. When I preached through Matthew over an eight-year period, I rarely felt the need to take a break. Matthew contains such a mixture of doctrinal passages, parables, and narrative passages that it changes pace frequently on its own.

At times, too, you will need to deal with a specific topic. You may find that people in your church are being influenced by an unbiblical teaching that you must combat. Or they may be confused over a Bible passage or a theological issue. Also, you may occasionally see a need to preach about the biblical view of a significant world event. In general, though, preaching through a book will not bore people if you are an interesting preacher. This is the purest form of expository preaching.

So, until most of the congregation’s gotten up and left…

Or until I’ve fallen asleep during my own sermon…

I’ll keep on preaching the Word, trusting the Holy Spirit to do His job of working the Scriptures into people’s hearts when and where they need it. I’ll strive to hold their interest, as the passage dictates. But I’ll not start preaching sermonettes (they only produce Christianettes).

So, what do you think? Come on, let me have it.

Some Thoughts on Prayer

93E6B3F5-AE77-4AA0-8ECE-89AC94E794B2.jpgI’m reading a wonderful book entitled, A Praying Life by Paul E. Miller. I’m not reading this book because a publisher asked me to review it (although I’d be glad to do so). I’m not reading this book because a group of pastors is reading it together and going to discuss it in so many days (although this would be a very worthwhile exercise and a wise use of time). I’m reading this book because I need to.

My prayer life isn’t very good right now. This is due, in part, to my pouty behavior (yes, I pout; when things don’t go well or someone says something that crushes a large part of my spirit, I pout; it’s sinful, I know and believe me, it’s been confessed repeatedly… I need to fully repent, however; God give me the grace to do so). A few weeks ago, someone, right after finishing a time of prayer together, said that our times were in need of something. To use his exact words, he said “We just don’t seem to pray ‘in the Spirit’.”

Now, I think I know what it means to pray in the Spirit. This past Sunday, in preaching my next to the last message in a lengthy series from Ephesians, I was dealing with prayer. Ephesians 6.18 says, “…praying at all times in the Spirit…” I think I did the passage justice in expounding what that phrase means. Yet, I’m still haunted by the statement, “We just don’t seem to pray in the Spirit.”

How does he know? How can he tell? How can I tell? It’s stuck in my theological craw right now. I’m working on it. But am I letting God work on it within me? That’s probably the better, yet more difficult question. I’m holding out hope that God will just send me a letter, an email or a text message saying, “Here’s what it’s all about.” But that would be way too much like Gideon and his polar fleece jacket testing of God in Judges 6 (even if I’m not actually asking for this kind of sign, I’m still expecting it).

So, I’m reading a book on prayer and praying. I’m hoping it will answer my question, “How do I know if I’m praying ‘in the Spirit’?” So far it has not answered my question. What it has done is stir up lots of other, different thoughts. It’s also very humbling.

In the section on praying like a child, Miller shares anecdotes from his own life with a daughter who is autistic. From these experiences, he’s learned what it is to be helpless – both as a parent and as a child. This is how we’re to come to God in prayer: helpless and needy. I must confess that too often I want to come in my own strength, on my own terms and in my own way. In other words, I want to talk to me, not to God. So now, in my acts of repentance, I must embrace weakness. I must grab on to my helpless state and come running immediately to God. He’s not asking me to clean myself up before I come to Him. How could I do that and to whom else could I go?

You’d think I’d know this by now, but somehow, in the sinful stubbornness of my heart, weakness is not something I want to glam onto. I’d rather avoid it. No one else should know that I have them (ha! that’s laughable; when I think about it, it’s really all too apparent to them that I have glaring weaknesses). So, I’ll keep reading. I’ll seek to understand and learn experimentally what it means to come as a helpless but trusting little child to my heavenly Father. Maybe, just maybe, in the midst of all this, God will show me what praying ‘in the Spirit’ is really all about.

I want you to go here and read Stephen’s post on weakness. No, go. Don’t tell me you’ll do it later. Go now and read it. It won’t take you more than five minutes.

Then come back (just hit the ‘return’ button) and read this.

Selah.

The Greatest Story Ever Told

Well, you know this one is just starting to make the rounds in the blogosphere and I thought I might as well add to it.
I’ve never cared for rap music. Not because of style (although, the redundancy of the beat, the mundanity of it’s “music” in the background are really not in my universe of tastes in music – and for those who know me fairly well, I’m very eclectic in my musical tastes, so there’s a pretty big musical universe floating around in my head). No, it has to do with the entire sub-culture that rap represents: the evil, the smut, the bigotry, the nearly pure reverse racism, the underlying hatred – especially of women – that is so pervasive.
It’s always amazing, however, how God can use His power to redeem something man has so thoroughly corrupted – like a form of music, such as rap. Shai Lynne is one of several Christian rap artists who God is using to make a name for Himself (please, please, please note the capital “H” there). Here’s a very good example of what rap can be and should be: used to tell a story – the Story, actually – that brings all the glory to God. The lyrics are included so you can follow along as well as read them later.

It’s the greatest story ever told.
A God pursues foes whose hearts turned cold.
The greatest story ever told.
Restoring all that the enemy stole.
The greatest story ever told.
The glory of Christ is the goal, behold.
The greatest story ever told.
It’s the greatest.

Alright check it: let’s go back in time, brethren. Divine lessons always keep your mind guessing. The glory of the Triune God is what I’m stressing. The origin of humankind was fine. Blessings were plenteous. God is amazingly generous. Crazy benefits in a state of innocence. God told the man what he could taste was limited. Not long after came our nemesis in Genesis. He scammed well, man fell, damned to hell. The whole human race—he represented it. Fooled by the serpent, man through his work, woman through birth—even the earth ruled by the curses. But instead of a wake immediately. God said her Seed would be the One to crush the head of the snake. Yo, wait what is this? Whoa, a gracious gift! In Jehovah’s faithfulness He clothed their nakedness. This was so they would know their Savior’s kiss and bliss. But first, many growing pains exist suffering in the worst form, ugly deeds. Eve’s firstborn seed made his brother bleed. Indeed things got progressively worse. Every section of the earth is been affected by the curse. And though God’s judgments against sin were gory, praise the Lord! It’s not the end of the story.

Next scene: man’s sin was extreme. God gets steamed, man gets creamed. The Lord is so Holy that He drowned them in the water. Fire in the valley of slaughter – Sodom and Gomorrah. But at the same time, He’s so gracious and patient that from one man He created a whole nation. Eventually enslaved by the mentally depraved, they cried out to the only One with the strength that He could save. He brought them out with signs and wonders – satisfied their hunger. Then He appeared on Mount Sinai in thunder. Where He laid down the law for God-ruled government. Commonly referred to as the Mosaic covenant. Sin was imputed. So for man to know he’s unrighteous, God instituted animal sacrifices. This was to show our constant need for atonement. And when it came to sin, the Lord would never condone it. And when His people disobeyed and went astray, He raised up prophets and kings to lead them in the way. But they would get foul with their idolatry—wet and wild prophecy—send them into exile. To take their punishment like a grown man. Then with His own hand He placed them back in their homeland. And while in their forefather’s land they dwelt, they awaited the arrival of Emmanuel.

After 400 silent years filled with sighs and tears. In Bethlehem the Messiah appears. God in the flesh—Second Person of the Trinity. At thirty begins His earthly ministry. Baffling cats with accurate, exact facts and back-to-back miraculous acts. A stumbling block to the self righteous. But the humbled—His flock, said “There’s no one else like this.” He came from heaven to awake the numb. Demonstrated His power over nature, son. A foretaste of the Kingdom and the age to come. But the reason He came was to pay the sum for the depths of our wickedness, our wretched sinfulness. Bless His magnificence! He is perfect and innocent. Yet He was wrecked and His death. He predicted it. Next He was stretched, paid a debt that was infinite. He said that He finished it. Resurrected so the elect would be the recipients of its benefits. Through faith and penitence we get to be intimate. His grace is heaven sent, it never diminishes. Now the Holy Spirit indwelling is the evidence for heaven’s future residents who truly represent Jesus, the Author, Producer, Director, and Star of a story that will never, ever end!

This Week’s Devotional

This is the second posting of a devotional from a man in our congregation. I trust you’ll find it an encouragement to your faith and a meal for your soul.

Why do you seek the living among the dead?

Luke 24.5

“But I have never had a desire to look for the living among the dead,” you may expostulate. “Besides, unlike Mary, I am not one to overlook the resurrected Lord.” Ask then why the dead works of self-effort persist in vitiating a living faith in Jesus Christ? The High Priest of Heaven declares plainly, I am not the God of the dead but of the living. Why does failed culture continue to eclipse the will of the Father? The Master speaks vividly, Not everyone who says to me, Lord, Lord, shall enter the Kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father who is in Heaven. And why do the moribund teachings of men shackle the wisdom of Immanuel, when whoever will be a friend of the world is the enemy of God. (James 4.4)

Consider the query, Why do I seek the living among the dead? There is only One among those once dead who now lives and is alive forever. He is the only true God and Potentate. He is the Shepherd of mercy, healing and grace. He is Christ Jesus, Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Resurrection and the Life.

“Lord Jesus, enlarge our faith in You. Teach us Your ways. Therein we shall subdue kingdoms, enact righteousness, obtain promises, stop the mouths of lions… and out of weakness be made strong. (Hebrews 11.33,34) Eternal Savior, awaken us from indolence to become not unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. (II Peter 1.8) Cause us to uphold the testimony of the Holy Spirit; honor the triumph of Christ Jesus; and rejoice in the truth of the Everlasting Father. Gracious Friend, for these gifts of Life we thank You today and praise You world without end. Amen.”

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New “Feature” – a devotional for your encouragement

There is a man in our congregation who writes devotionals for our encouragement. We place them in our weekly bulletin and hope that most will read them, find strength, encouragement, hope and rest in God’s Word as it is placed before them in this way.They’re quite "spurgeonesque."  I’ve asked permission to begin posting the "archive" I’ve built up of these devotional readings. Here is JDV’s entry for this week:

In that day, a man shall look to his Maker, and his eyes shall have respect to the Holy One of Israel.

Isaiah 17.7

There is a city, whose Builder and Maker is God. There is a people, whose Creator and Shepherd is Christ. And there is a day, when every man shall know his Maker. For those who have condemned the Most High God, the hour shall bring unremitting darkness. For those who are the Redeeded of the Lord, the hour shall brighten eternal Day.

Christ Jesus is the Bright and Morning Star, the firstborn from the dead. He dwells in a light that no man can approach. He is Light and in Him is no darkness at all. We were once darkness, and offspring of wrath by nature. Yet, He who knew no sin was made to be sin for us that the righteousness of God might live in us.

The Messiah is the Holy One of Israel. He pleads with His own, Draw near to me, and I will draw near to you. Come to Me all who labor and are heavily burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn of Me, for my yoke is easy and my burden is light. Lord Sabbaoth instructs our conduct, He who loses his life for My sake shall gain it. The wonderful Counselor teaches us faith, Cast your bread upon the waters, and after many days you shall find it.

“O Lord, You are our fountain of holiness and lifespring of wisdom. May we look to You our Maker. My our eyes have respect to You, O Holy One of Israel. Amen.”

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Some ruminations on Tuesday

A.W. Tozer has nailed it yet again… and this from the 1940s or ’50s, I believe.Tozer

I’m reminded once again of David Wells’ message on the opening night of the Desiring God Ministries National Conference, just a week and a half ago. In proclaiming to us the supremacy of Christ, he opened to the book of Hebrews. There, the author is doing the same thing: proclaiming the supremacy of Christ. But he’s also asking his Christian readers: “Why are you shrinking back from this? Why are you skulking around when you have this glorious Christ on your side? Is it unbelief that causes you to do this? If so, you’re perilously close to being like your ancient forebearers, the Israelites, who shrank back from all that God had promised them due to unbelief.”

Then Wells compared that to us, as “modern day” Christians. I quote from Tim Challies’ summation of this point:

We don’t worry about these things in the West, but our problem is slightly different. It is not so much fear for our safety as that we are so distracted by so many things that it is hard for us to sustain a focus upon the supremacy of Christ in our world and our lives. We think of our experience in the West in terms of its benefits: we know more, communicate more, communicate faster, travel more, travel more often, travel further, we buy more and more and buy higher quality, we have freedoms, we have opportunities that previous generations never had. But along with these undoubted benefits for which we are all grateful come costs. The costs are often hidden, they are like shadows that come right behind these benefits. It is not easy to live in this fast-paced, modernized, competitive world. In Africa, what is most pressing for people are physical needs: the need for food, for security, for simple medical care. Our challenge is more psychological: the psychological pressure of living in this pressurized, relativistic culture where worldviews and lifestyle and religions jostle together shoulder by shoulder and make Christian faith hard to sustain. It is the intrusiveness of this world into our innermost workings. There is so much that is urgent, so much that demands our attention. Our preoccupations are with surviving and with the intensity of the moment. This is why people come to church looking to have psychological needs met. But sermons only addressing these matters are exercises in futility if the supremacy and centrality of Christ has been lost. In an entirely different way, we in our churches seem to be shrinking back from Christ.

Yes, I think we are shrinking back; shrinking back from the fear that we won’t be viewed as successful. Unbelief & fear drive us because we so desperately want to be liked by the world. Yes, we really, really want them to like us, to come through our doors and enjoy what they see and hear. We want to entertain them in ways we think the world can’t (problem: we can’t do it anywhere near as well as the world can, so the world laughs at us in our vain attempts). We simply don’t believe that the Word of God is absolutely sufficient because the God who caused it to be written is absolutely sufficient; and, the Christ it proclaims is absolutely sufficient too.

I pray the Lord will keep me from this unbelief in Him and in the supremacy of His Son displayed in His all-sufficient Word. I pray that our sister Free Churches would be kept from this as well; and that repentance might be granted those many pastors who long for popularity, long to be thought well of by the world and who simply don’t believe in their hearts that Christ is supreme and that God is all-glorious and that His Word is sufficient.

The 100-Minute Bible

By revkev

I got into a discussion yesterday with an acquaintance regarding the recent publication of The 100-Minute Bible. This is the fruit of one man’s efforts to trim down the Bible to about 1 hour and 40 minutes worth of reading. I’ve not seen this work yet. I’ve only read release articles and reviews/comments from others.

The discussion was primarily focused upon the “usefulness” of such a tool to reach out to those who would “never” read the Bible on their own. Conversation turned a bit heated when one piped up and accused me of simply needing to have all my correct theological boxes ticked in order to be appeased. I wasn’t looking to have all my boxes of theological correctness ticked. And, while the 100-minute Bible may be “a gate” to some to read the Bible, one of my concerns is that mostly church-goers will pick it up and hope they can settle in for this version instead of taking the time to dig a bit deeper.

Not having seen a copy of this condensed version of Holy Writ, I can’t make any comments about it specifically. I would want to know: who were the editors, what portions did they leave in (and why) and what portions did they leave out (and why). My initial digging (about 5 minutes worth of time through Google) turns up that the bulk are selected stories about the life of Jesus. Fine as it stands if the person reading knows absolutely nothing about who Jesus is. Maybe that works better in England where Jesus is more a swear word than anything else, I don’t know (forgive me, all my English brothers/sisters). But here in America, Jesus is still recognized for who He is at the center of Christianity. And people all over this country can profess to “know” Jesus and to believe “Jesus”. But if, in this encapsulated presentation, significant portions of Romans or Galatians or Ephesians or 1 John are left out, then the full gospel is not getting presented.

I’ll hold off further comments until I see more of this publication. I fear that many will consider this to be enough, unless pursued by those who give this book to them. Personally, my sinful nature tells me I would love a 100-minute Christianity. It would be so much easier, so much more trouble-free and hassle-free without all those commands and requirements. But Jesus Himself tells each one to “count the cost” of following him (was this part included in the 100-minute Bible?). Taking up the cross surely involves more than this and it’s my understanding that even the unbelieving one is to take this into consideration.

The argument from the “opposing side” took the turn toward “Well, non-christians simply aren’t going to read the whole Bible, so why not just give them a portion of it? It’s better than nothing or than them reading The DaVinci Code.” I realize that in this “choice” my critique-er was merely citing examples, not leaving these as the only three choices remaining to an unbeliever. At least, I hope this is what he intended. If not, then I fear he had become needlessly reductionistic in the opposite direction. I’m not sure where one gets the idea they have to read the entire Bible for it to count (at least in this sense, the publishers of the 100-minute Bible got it right). The Gideons International (www.gideons.org) could provide you countless examples of men & women all over the world who have only read a portion of Scripture and come to Christ as the Holy Spirit brings conviction of sin and regeneration to them. But I at least give great credit to the Gideons in giving out the Scriptures, in many cases, simply the New Testament.

Another turn in the road of this discussion came with the “weight of the Engels Scale.” Well, I’m not familiar with the Engels Scale so I can’t really comment. But, given the context (now there’s an important word in this dialog: “context” – I’d like to see what the editors do with context in this publication), I’m assuming it’s a study/scale done to show how certain “in-roads” are made by offering smaller hurdles or barriers to the main goal/object. Forgive me if I’m wrong in that assumption. Again, however, it seems like some have made this an all or nothing consideration: “You must read the whole Bible or nothing at all! This 100-Minute thingy just won’t cut it here!” I already stated, this simply isn’t the case.

Near the end, the dialogue went the route of “lifestyle evangelism.” “Being who we are and living the life is the most powerful witness of all” is the banner that flies over this “paper fortress.” Those of us who are reserving praise or even daring to criticize this release are accused of being hastily judgmental. I mean, really, who are we to judge? (Problem here with this attitude is that the ones resorting to this accusation fail to think through what Scripture means when it tells us not to judge others. Scripture is not telling us to throw discernment out the window; it’s telling us that we cannot judge a person’s heart – only God can do that. But when it comes to many external matters, we are to judge… use discernment.) I, for one, am all for living the life, but I must take Biblical exception that it’s the most powerful witness of all. I would like to see biblical references for this.

On the “most powerful” side of things, I think Paul tells us where the power is: Rom. 1.16 — For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. [Paul doesn’t add anything here about our personal testimony or life’s example, although I think he would say that supplements the gospel if it’s a positive example and a detriment if negative] Rom. 10.13 for “WHOEVER WILL CALL ON THE NAME OF THE LORD WILL BE SAVED.” Rom. 10.14 How then will they call on Him in whom they have not believed? How will they believe in Him whom they have not heard? And how will they hear without a preacher? 15 How will they preach unless they are sent? Just as it is written, “HOW BEAUTIFUL ARE THE FEET OF THOSE WHO BRING GOOD NEWS OF GOOD THINGS!” Rom. 10.16 However, they did not all heed the good news; for Isaiah says, “LORD, WHO HAS BELIEVED OUR REPORT?” 17 So faith comes from hearing, and hearing by the word of Christ.

It is very clear here that faith, if & when it comes to each unbeliever will come as the Gospel is declared from the Word of God. My biggest concern with the “lifestyle evangelism” of today is that in most areas of, at least America, it’s not working because we think that our actions will be enough when God Himself tells us that the gospel must be preached/told. The church in this country (I can’t speak for England; I’ll let the English brothers/sisters speak up here) has failed miserably at this and I think it is in large part, due to our willy-nilly pursuit of the pragmatic over the holy, the methodology over the message. We think if we “dumb it down enough” then people will come flooding through our church doors. Jesus spoke as plainly as anyone could ever have spoken about the gospel… to multitudes… and not that many followed. It really is in the hands of God’s free sovereign grace.

Anyway, I apologize for this lengthy “rant” but I wanted to be clear on thoughts/opinions/facts… at least the ones I put out there in cyber-space.

By His Grace For His Glory,

Kevin Pastor, Cornerstone Evangelical Free Church Rochester, MN