Archive for June, 2011

Towards Conservative Christian Churches – 13 – Teaching Piety

June 24, 2011

Beyond the matter of exposing Christians to past and present examples of Christian piety, a pastor or leader within the local church can seek to encourage Christian piety through his teaching ministry. What follows are some thoughts on how this plays out in a local church, along with some recommendations.

First, as leaders, we ought to become aware of the differing views of the Christian life. There are some fairly recent books which have compared major views of sanctification. Beyond that, we ought to steadily chip away at a reading list of the great classics of Christian devotion. This will enable the thoughtful leader to work out what he believes is the biblical view of Christian piety. It is a confusing experience to have a pastor who seems to sound Keswick one week, Reformed the next, and Wesleyan the week after that. Instead of regurgitating the last book we read, we need to absorb the strengths and biblical nature of differing schools of Christian piety, and consistently teach what we think is the most thoroughly biblical approach to Christian living.

This inevitably appears when we provide applications within our sermons. Our applications are both examples of the principles being taught and miniature ‘how-to’ instructions. A preacher’s applications reveal his view of how the Christian life is to work.

I remember sitting in several sermons where the sin of gossip and murmuring was addressed. The solution given was for such people to be more faithful to the corporate meetings of the church. If people were more involved, they wouldn’t have time to gossip, the reasoning went. Very transparently, the preacher’s view was that consecration to service would cleanse the life.

In some services, I have been led to believe that uber-deluxe quiet times will place the believer in an almost insulated state of holiness for the entire day. Every sin, problem, or pain is referred back to a lack of prayer and Bible study.

In other sermons, I have walked away with the sense that I should simply stop doing some things, and start doing some others in their place. It was all so simple, and I scolded myself for not being cerebral and rational enough about the Christian life.

The point is, a preacher cannot hide his view of Christian piety. If he cares at all about sanctification in those he preaches to, he will keep referring them back to his idea of the Christian life. This is as it should be. I disagree with the school of thought which suggests we ought to keep our sermons as works of pure explanation and interpretation, and leave all application to the Holy Spirit. While I agree our sermons ought not to be distracting by the degree of specificity of the applications, God’s people grow in their understanding of true Christian piety when sermons keep giving examples and descriptions of what this looks like in all kinds of situations, circumstances and conditions. Therefore, we need to strengthen and settle our view of the Christian life, for it cannot help coming out when we preach the Scriptures.

Finally, in teaching on sanctification, a pastor ought to keep referring his listeners back to their loves as the root of all thinking and acting. In recent years, there has been a gratifying trend, particularly in some teachers within the biblical counseling movement, to deal with idolatry and heart desires in Christian living, and not merely with outward behaviors. While such writers seldom go as far as I would like – calling Christians to embrace the religious affections as central to Christian living – , some of them have at least pointed people in the right direction: seeing the loves of the heart as fundamental to Christian living. That is the fifth mark of a conservative Christian church, and we turn our attention to that next.


Why Tolkien Wouldn’t Have Watched ‘The Lord of the Rings’

June 20, 2011

In Macbeth, when it is read, I find the witches tolerable: they have a narrative function and some hint of dark significance; though they are vulgarized, poor things of their kind. They are almost intolerable in the play. They would be quite intolerable, if I were not fortified by some memory of them as they are in the story as read. I am told that I should feel differently if I had the mind of the period, with its witch-hunts and witch-trials. But that is to say: if I regarded the witches as possible, indeed likely, in the Primary World; in other words, if they ceased to be “Fantasy.” That argument concedes the point. To be dissolved, or to be degraded, is the likely fate of Fantasy when a dramatist tries to use it, even such a dramatist as Shakespeare. Macbeth is indeed a work by a playwright who ought, at least on this occasion, to have written a story, if he had the skill or patience for that art.

A reason, more important, I think, than the inadequacy of stage-effects, is this: Drama has, of its very nature, already attempted a kind of bogus, or shall I say at least substitute, magic: the visible and audible presentation of imaginary men in a story. That is in itself an attempt to counterfeit the magician’s wand. To introduce, even with mechanical success, into this quasimagical secondary world a further fantasy or magic is to demand, as it were, an inner or tertiary world. It is a world too much. To make such a thing may not be impossible. I have never seen it done with success. But at least it cannot be claimed as the proper mode of Drama, in which walking and talking people have been found to be the natural instruments of Art and illusion.

For this precise reason—that the characters, and even the scenes, are in Drama not imagined but actually beheld—Drama is, even though it uses a similar material (words, verse, plot), an art fundamentally different from narrative art. Thus, if you prefer Drama to Literature (as many literary critics plainly do), or form your critical theories primarily from dramatic critics, or even from Drama, you are apt to misunderstand pure story-making, and to constrain it to the limitations of stage- plays. You are, for instance, likely to prefer characters, even the basest and dullest, to things. Very little about trees as trees can be got into a play…

However good in themselves, illustrations do little good to fairy-stories. The radical distinction between all art (including drama) that offers a visible presentation and true literature is that it imposes one visible form. Literature works from mind to mind and is thus more progenitive. It is at once more universal and more poignantly particular. If it speaks of bread or wine or stone or tree, it appeals to the whole of these things, to their ideas; yet each hearer will give to them a peculiar personal embodiment in his imagination. Should the story say “he ate bread,” the dramatic producer or painter can only show ”a piece of bread” according to his taste or fancy, but the hearer of the story will think of bread in general and picture it in some form of his own. If a story says “he climbed a hill and saw a river in the valley below,” the illustrator may catch, or nearly catch, his own vision of such a scene; but every hearer of the words will have his own picture, and it will be made out of all the hills and rivers and dales he has ever seen, but especially out of The Hill, The River, The Valley which were for him the first embodiment of the word.

 – J.R.R. Tolkien, On Fairy Stories

Towards Conservative Christian Churches – 12 – Christian Piety Through Example and Exposure

June 17, 2011

How can we conserve and promote true piety within the lives of the Christians in our churches? Phrasing the question differently reveals the size of the task: how can we teach our people to love God rightly? This is the bulk of the task of ministry, so it is certain that a blog post can only scratch the surface. Since my focus is local churches, I will narrow my attention to some practical matters of church life.

While piety must be taught, it is mostly caught. Christians learn to love God ordinately by observing other Christians doing so. It is as Christians worship, serve and dwell together that younger believers learn what a life of love for God is. This leads to several points that church leaders can give attention to.

First, corporate worship is central to the development of piety. I’m not sure if this quote is original with Mike Riley, but I noticed his post, “Corporate worship is the catechism of the affections.” Corporate worship does more than offer worship to our worthy God, it also trains believers how to respond to God. If corporate worship treats God flippantly, that much is taught as a response to God. If corporate worship is relaxed and rests lightly on the consciousness of the worshiper, he learns that he should respond similarly to God throughout the week. If corporate worship contains a mixture of reverence, joy, contrition, thanksgiving and hope, the worshiper comes to expect something similar for his own devotions. Corporate worship communicates volumes regarding how we address God, how we imagine Him, what we expect when we encounter Him. Each corporate worship event in a local church’s life is concentrated demonstration of how that church imagines God. And as Tozer said, what comes into your mind when you think about God is the most important thing about you. For this reason, church leaders ought to consider each occasion of corporate worship as formative for the Christian affections of those participating. Everything admitted becomes some kind of endorsement, everything practiced becomes a model to follow.

Second, a church ought to encourage the kind of discipleship relationships we spoke of previously in this series. These relationships allow one believer to observe and learn what love for God looks like in the milieu of life by watching another believer. This is simply catechizing the affections through lifestyle worship, instead of corporate worship.

This is the best reason for churches setting up ‘fellowship events’ outside of corporate worship. The goal is for believers to share their love of Christ with each other in settings beyond formal worship. It is another opportunity for example and exposure to have its effect on the affections. Too often, churches set up fellowship events without this in mind, reasoning that if people are simply thrown together often enough over some kind of meal or dessert, they’ll inevitably be closer. While a superficial closeness may indeed grow, only if what unites believers – Christ – is shared each time they gather, no real fellowship is taking place.

A third form of example and exposure is to encourage church members to spend time with the church of the past, by reading their writings, hymns and prayers. In so doing, they are exposed to the piety of Christians outside of their current Christian culture, which is by itself enough to cause some cognitive dissonance. Spending serious time with the piety of historic Christianity tends to make most of our worship and piety seem clownish by comparison. Of course, some caveats will have to be supplied, but the doctrinal errors to be navigated are small in comparison to the massive benefits of being exposed to pious Christians. What follows is a starter list of suggestions of books and collections which could be introduced to a church’s library, referenced from the pulpit, or otherwise put into the hands of Christians.

Confessions – Augustine

On Loving God – Bernard of Clairvaux

The Imitation of Christ – Thomas A Kempis

Revelation of Divine Love Julian of Norwich

Pilgrim’s Progress – John Bunyan

The Practice of the Presence of God – Brother Lawrence

Spiritual Progress – Francois Fenelon

A Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life – William Law

Communion With God – John Owen

Religious Affections – Jonathan Edwards

Hymns of Gerhard Tersteegen

Hymns and Psalms of Isaac Watts

Hymns and Poems of Frederick Faber

The Pursuit of God – A.W. Tozer

In the next post, I’d like to suggest some ways that the teaching ministry of a pastor can urge true piety in the members.

Towards Conservative Christian Churches – 11 – Conserving Christian Piety

June 10, 2011

Conservative Christian churches wish to weather the winds of secularism and pass on authentic Christianity to the next generation. This means conserving the gospel itself, conserving a robust, consistent and thorough body of Christian theology, and conserving biblical worship. An offshoot of the conservation of biblical worship is the matter of Christian piety.

In some ways, piety describes the individual Christian’s worship. Worship has a public dimension, as well as a private dimension. We are to offer up our love for God when we assemble, but we are to love Him at all times. This life of love for God is variously called piety, spiritual growth, sanctification, Christlikeness, and Christian maturity. All point to the same thing: a life of knowing and loving God which results in resembling and reflecting Him.

You might think that Christian piety is the most elementary of matters and hardly something worth splitting hairs over. Certainly, it is possible to overcomplicate it. However, not long after our conversion, we soon find a bewildering number of competing visions of the Christian life.

Wesleyans tell us to seek perfection. Reformed Christians tell us to restrain the flesh and put on Christian character. Confessionalists tell us to trust in the churchly means of grace. Pentecostals tell us to seek the baptism of the Spirit. Quietists tell us to stop striving and rest entirely on Christ. Pietists tell us to strive for deep inward affections. Keswicks tell us to crucify the old life and surrender entirely to Christ’s life. Revivalists tell us to confess our backsliding and re-consecrate ourselves. Chaferians tell us to be filled with the Spirit, disagreeing between themselves on what that means. Some mystics tell us to pursue a kind of beautific vision of Christ in the form of illumination. These examples do not exhaust the possibilities along the spectrum of views of the Christian life.

Within these visions of the Christian life, there are different views on the priorities of the Christian life, and what means should be used to reach those goals. They view prayer, the Word, and the church differently. They have varying views on how Christians are to live in the ‘secular’ realm.

To read through some of the classic devotional works of the church is to see these views clash. Compare The Imitation of Christ to Holiness (J.C. Ryle). Compare The Practice of the Presence of God to Communion With God. Compare The Pursuit of God to A Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life. Compare The Practice of Piety to Confessions. Compare The Dark Night of the Soul to Religious Affections. Compare Spiritual Progress to My Utmost for his Highest. To read these works is to be confronted with quite disparate views of the priorities and posture of a Christian. And yet, to do so is to be exposed to what is catholic in Christian piety. It’s in hearing Christians from the past and present describe the Christian life that we come closer to understanding what a life of love for God is.

Obviously, these competing visions of the Christian life cannot be equally correct on their points of difference. Like our doctrinal views, we will have to decide which vision, or combination of visions of Christianity most fully represents the Bible’s view of piety. Next, I would like to consider some practical means of encouraging and developing true Christian piety in our churches.

Some Things To Consider Including In Your Worship – Benedictions

June 6, 2011

Finishing worship well is as important as beginning it that way. Just as a call to worship consecrates the time for worship, so a benediction allows the last word to be God’s blessing and exhortation to His people to continue worshiping as they depart.

There is biblical precedent for this. Almost all the epistles end with some kind of simple blessing. Moreover, scattered through the writings of the apostles are statements of lavish blessing or abundant grace that comes from God to His people. The New Testament authors are fond of blessing their recipients. This becomes even more significant when we consider that the epistles were typically read publicly to the gathered congregations. The local assemblies would have heard Paul, Peter, John, Jude or the writer of Hebrews wishing and praying God’s blessings upon them.

Perhaps our free worship tradition has robbed us of the joy and power of spoken blessings. No credibility is lent to the Word-Faith cult when we say so. The people of God have always imitated their Father in blessing and bestowing verbal blessings upon each other. What could be more appropriate than corporate worship concluding with God’s promise of enablement, protection, sanctification or presence?

A benediction is far more than a final nice word, or a last pleasantry. A benediction sends worshipers from that consecrated hour with God’s own promises to pardon, protect and be present. For a pastor or appointed spiritual leader to look his people in the eyes and bless them in God’s name with God’s Words is a particularly tender and poignant moment in the life of a local church. We ought not to underestimate the heartening and strengthening effect of hearing God’s promises of goodness to His people. I have seen in the faces of God’s people that no small comfort is derived when the last word from the pulpit is one of blessing.

A benediction is also a kind of charge. It reminds God’s people what gracious resources go with them as they leave corporate worship to pursue worship in all of life. They are encouraged, but they are also challenged.

Benedictions can take the form of Scripture that is read after the final prayer. Scriptures that readily lend themselves to this function include Numbers 6:24-26, Romans 15:13, 2 Corinthians 13:14, 1 Thessalonians 5:23-24, 2 Thessalonians 2:16-17, Hebrews 13:2-21, 1 Peter 5:10-11 and Jude 24-25. Sometimes other Scriptural texts may be adapted into a blessing or charge, without doing violence to the original meaning.

Musical benedictions can be used in place of, or together with spoken ones. Hymns such as “May the Mind of Christ My Savior”, “Be Thou My Vision”, “Now May He Who from the Dead”, the well-known “Doxology”, or some of the texts such as Numbers 6:24-26 or Jude 24-25 set to appropriate music.

Appropriate benedictions send believers off encouraged, fortified and challenged to be ambassadors for Christ in the coming week. They close Christian worship appropriately, on a note of hope.

Towards Conservative Christian Churches – 10 – Leading Corporate Worship

June 3, 2011

Restoring biblical worship in churches within a culture given over to various forms of narcissism, sentimentalism, consumerism and amusement is an uphill struggle. If a man is more concerned about retaining or attracting a minimum level of tithers, he is at the mercy of parishioners’ tastes, preferences and stylized worship choices. However, if he is more concerned about offering worship that is pleasing to God or, as a pastor, offering back true worshipers to the Father, then he will be guided by principle, and not raw pragmatism. For such men, I suggest a further three practical suggestions for restoring biblical worship.

First, there ought to be pastoral oversight of the corporate worship of the church. There is a strange practice among evangelical pastors of delegating responsibility for corporate worship to the musicians of the church. This, to me, is like delegating the planning of the Lord’s Supper to the kitchen staff, simply because they are involved. As important as musicians or kitchen staff are, it is the pastors of a church who have been called to provide spiritual wisdom, maturity, and leadership in all areas, worship being the chief. Kitchen staff may be very involved in the preparation and clean-up for the Lord’s Table. Musicians may be very involved in providing music in the public services of the church. But why ought they select what hymns and songs are sung (and how many times), make comments before or after hymns, settle on the order of service, or choose the offertory? Surely this is the role of the appointed spiritual leader(s) of the church. If hours are spent by the pastor on the sermon (which is the bulk of corporate worship), who better to determine what hymns, Scripture readings, prayers and so forth ought to be offered?

This is not to say that there is never a musician who is also a qualified spiritual leader. Several ordained men serve as pastors with a special focus on music,which can be very beneficial to the church. Nor is it to suggest that pastors ought to micro-manage and personally lead every element of corporate worship. What needs to be redressed is a tendency for pastors (particularly those with little musical knowledge) to feel an obligation to ‘stick with what they know’ and hand over the general direction and composition of worship services to others. Pastors without competent musical knowledge can still become competent to judge a good hymn from an inferior one, an appropriate tune from an inappropriate, an ordinate atmosphere of worship and its opposite. Indeed, spiritual maturity ought to be the ability to perform this kind of discernment (Heb 5:14). Increasingly rare is the musician who possesses a sound theology of worship, who understands the Regulative Principle and other issues surrounding corporate worship. While enlisting the gifts and abilities of others, the pastors of the church ought to plan, structure, oversee and review the public services of the church.

The corollary to this suggestion is that pastors ought to train faithful men in the skill of planning, executing and evaluating corporate worship. Too often a church which has traveled a better-than-average path regarding worship loses all the ground it has gained with the change of one pastor. As pastors, we want to leave legacies of ordinate worship after we have gone. It is understandable that a church changes character when its leaders change, but one can ensure more continuity rather than less through the training of men in the area of corporate worship. This could take the form of a few Sunday-school type lessons in which each element of corporate worship is considered, hymns are considered and evaluated, and basic practical lessons are given in leading corporate worship. If pastors conduct post-service evaluations, the men being trained ought to sit in on these and listen to each element of the services being evaluated for its appropriateness, execution and usefulness. These are tremendously helpful training times. Finally, there is no better way for people to learn how to lead and plan worship than to be placed into the situation of having to do just that.

Third, pastors ought to settle on a philosophy of worship, and preferably put it in writing. A philosophy of worship can become a mini ‘systematic theology of worship’. It needn’t be more than a few pages long, but it can summarize a church’s approach to worship. It serves as an up-front statement to those inquiring about the church. It guides present and future leaders, particularly when navigating areas of controversy. A good example can be found here.
Once this philosophy is worked out, the leaders will constantly be working out the application of this philosophy. Scott has already written helpfully on the difference between philosophy and application here , so I needn’t rehash that. However, it is important for leaders to explain the reasoning behind certain applications. My church has tried to explain some of our worship methodologies in a booklet called Why Do We Do It That Way?, which is also reproduced on our website. In this way, we as leaders try to explain how our philosophy has been worked out in practice. This becomes an important form of discipleship for believers.