We are offering a class to train officers and teachers. The next meeting will be Saturday April 26, 8:00am at the Young’s home. It is not too late to participate (men and women are welcome). It will cover the doctrines we believe and practical ministry training. Childcare is available so that husbands and wives can participate together.
I’ve recently been reading Letters of John Newton (I recommend the book–click on the image at the left for a link). He has important things to say about the struggling with sin in the Christian life. Concurrently I’ve been thinking about sanctification because we’re studying it in our adult Sunday school class at Cornerstone.
The Lord could have chosen to take us immediately into glory upon conversion. But He didn’t. It’s hard to avoid wondering, “Why not?” We must trust that He has His reasons. Undoubtedly, some of them are clear to us in His word. He has ordained that we testify to His beauty and glory in this fallen world. He wills for us to manifest the fruits of our salvation even now.
We cannot expect to exhaustively peer into God’s decree for keeping us here in the wilderness. In any case, presently we live in a world that continues to be dominated by sin. While Jesus has destroyed the reign or dominion of sin for believers, we continue to battle against indwelling sin (see Romans 6-8). Until Jesus returns and brings His kingdom to consummation, the Spirit continues to war against the flesh, and vice versa (Galatians 5:16).
Struggling with sin is our part of our present calling as believers. That being the case, the following quote from Newton is worthy of consideration:
By these exercises of sin and grace the Lord teaches us more truly to know and feel the utter depravity and corruption of our whole nature, that we are indeed defiled in every part.”
God’s training in this way causes us to embrace a few other truths. First, that we would be humbled by the realization that salvation is of grace and wholly of grace. Second, that we would see that Jesus Christ and all His perfect righteousness is our all and all. Third, that from our own weakness we would know how to warn, pity, and bear with others.
I find these truths encouraging as I’m struggling with sin in my life. I’m reminded that what I need isn’t found primarily within myself (contra most of the advice given from non-Christians and many professing Christians). The answer isn’t greater exercise of my willpower, increasing my discipline, strengthening my commitment, deepening my emotions, or any of the many other things I’m tempted to find within. Rather I need the strength of Jesus Christ, and the power of the Holy Spirit, and they can be received only by faith.
I’m ultimately reminded that all my righteousness is found in Jesus Christ, and that which He imputes is utterly sufficient for my standing before God. I can think of few truths that so powerfully enable me to get up when I have fallen down into sin. And believe me, when I fall into temptation, I need something powerful to pick me up, and start walking in the path of righteousness again. Naturally speaking, it’s the last thing I want to do.
But if I embrace these truths, a couple of other realities should be emerging in my life as well. I should be growing in gratitude for the riches of God’s grace in Jesus Christ, which he has gratuitously lavished upon me. I should be able to praise Him for victories over sin in my life. In turn, gratitude should be a solid foundation for continuing growth in obedience.
Finally, I should be patient in bearing with the sin of others, whether my friends, my children, or even those who are outside of Christ. If those two things aren’t happening at all as I’m struggling with sin, maybe I haven’t embraced the truths that Newton identifies to the extent I assume I have.
You can mitigate against over-scheduled children (and over-scheduled adults) by setting a sane family rhythm. Our time with our children is precious. That being the case, we need to be attentive to how our time is being ordered. I recently read “Busy All the Time: Over-Scheduled Children and the Freedom of the Gospel” by Cameron Cole over at Gospel Coalition. It’s a helpful post showing how in Christ we are free from performance-driven expectations parents encounter when it comes to children’s activities. It has me thinking about how we should use our freedom as parents.
Sane family rhythm: what it is and why you need to think about it.
Musically, rhythm can be described as the placement of sound in time. There would be no dance without it. It’s vital to the beauty of music and of poetry. Biological rhythms can also be observed in nature, including in human physiology. When competitive long-distance runners (see e.g. this post) train, they seek to develop a rhythm. Developing a rhythm enables them to keep up a pace that will not only enable them to finish, but hopefully give them a shot at winning the race.
In a similar fashion, I’m convinced that family life tends to develop a rhythm, for better or for worse. Whether or not you give thought to the structures that shape this rhythm, the rhythm will be there. If that’s true we need to ask, “What structures in my family are shaping how we spend time?” We can set up the structures that will shape family life instead of allowing them to enter by default. Children, especially younger children, thrive in the context of structure. We have a few children in our family for whom it is especially critical. A sane family rhythm is a rhythm to family life that accurately reflects godly parental priorities.
Certainly, there is danger of over-structuring life. It may become so rigid as to be stifling, and we should guard against that. Kids need time to pursue their interests and to interact with friends. They need time to play and to simply be kids. When I speak of a sane family rhythm, I’m assuming there’s plenty of room for these things. Given the array of choices about how we might use the time, what should be our priorities? What does a sane family rhythm look like? It should not only avoid the pitfall of over-scheduled kids (and adults), but also guard time for children to grow in the fear and knowledge of the Lord.
Below are some structures that Jennifer and I have found helpful for something like a sane family rhythm. By no means do we claim have it all together in this area. For that reason, I really want to invite you to contribute to this discussion (I’m tempted to say: to beg you to share your insights!). I know there are some wise and experienced parents reading this blog. We could all benefit from your comments. Please take time to add your thoughts and ideas to this discussion, even if it means disagreeing with me. As you read the post, please be thinking about what you would add, and as soon as you finish reading, make a point to comment. Thanks.
Sane family rhythm begins with weekly Lord’s Day worship.
In six days the Lord created all things, and on the seventh day He rested (Genesis 2:2-3). Why did God rest? God wasn’t exhausted. He rested to establish a holy rhythm for the people He made. Unlike God, because we are creatures, we need to rest from our work. Six days we’re to do all our work, and on the seventh day we’re to keep a holy rest to the Lord (Leviticus 23:3, 24). It’s a holy rest because it isn’t mere inactivity. With Jesus’ resurrection, we now gather together with God’s people to worship Him on the first day. It sets the tone for the rest of our lives. We worship the Lord as our God. On the Lord’s day we gather with God’s people into His presence. We acknowledge that He is God and there is no other. We offer Him praise, honor, glory, and our very lives because of who He is and because of what He has done. Worship fits us with new lenses. We learn to see life less from the perspective of our sinful desires, and more according to God’s will.
We also enter the worship service acknowledging our dependence on our Lord for all things. We trust the Holy Spirit to use the word, the hymns and songs, the sacraments, and prayers to carry out God’s work in our lives. We come acknowledging that Christ is our life. In turn, we’re reminded that the things of this world cannot give the life for which we long. Eternal life is knowing the Triune God (John 17:3).
Corporate worship isn’t just for you, parents. It’s also for your children after you. There will be plenty of times when they won’t feel like participating. Of course, the same could be said of you. But you take them with you because you believe that there are no age restrictions to the Holy Spirit’s transforming work. You bring your children with you because you’re convinced the Lord must give them spiritual life, sanctify them, and grow their faith in Jesus. You take them with you because God has promised to work through His word read and preached, through the sacraments, and through prayer. This weekly pattern of worship orders the rhythm for the rest of the week. It is the foundational Christian practice for ordering all of life. Without a pattern of weekly worship, I believe it will be exceedingly difficult to set a sane family rhythm.
Sane family rhythm includes family worship.
Our worship isn’t limited to an hour or two one day a week. Family worship is an opportunity to give concrete shape to that conviction. Just as corporate worship sets the tone for our week, so also family worship can help set the tone for our daily lives. A wonderful potential resonance exists between corporate and family worship for us and for our children. During family worship, children learn that worship is for them, and not just for adults. Family worship provides opportunity to learn about worship, and to embrace it for themselves. What do we mean when we pray the Lord’s Prayer? Why is God’s word so important? What are we saying we believe when we confess the Apostles’ Creed? They also can learn to be still, to take part in the various elements, and to sing the hymns or songs of the church you attend.
Thankfully there are an increasing number of excellent resources to help with the “how” of family worship. “The What, When, and How of Family Worship” is a great place to start, and there are several good books out there as well. My schedule as a pastor means that we sometimes have family worship in the morning, and other times in the evening. Honestly, at times we get off track, and we need to “snap back.” Because we still have very young children, we try to keep it simple. We begin by praying the Lord’s Prayer together, sometimes talking afterward about what we’re praying. We then sing a hymn, like the Gloria Patri, followed by reading and discussing God’s word. We end with a time of prayer. I would compare corporate and family worship to the skeleton that holds together the body of the family rhythm and gives it shape.
Sane family rhythm includes meals together.
We have deliberately sought to eat meals together. We’re especially jealous of supper. We recognize this commitment becomes increasingly more difficult as kids get older, but we’ll do everything in our power to preserve it. More than ever before, I’m acutely aware of the limited time we parents actually have with our kids. Eighteen years pass far more quickly than we imagine when our children are born. Cultivating the practice of eating together is a helpful anchor for making the most of the time we have. At the very least, it affords a certain amount of time in which we can all sit down together. It offers a great venue for family interaction. It’s protected time to deliberately cultivate relationship with our children. Jennifer and I have found that meals lend themselves to conversation. Meal times serve as a point of contact, a way to touch base about the happenings of life.
Sane family rhythm includes set family activities.
In the Young family, we have regular family reading time during the week. We read books aloud. It allows us to spend time together focused on the same thing. It’s also time that prevents us from being sucked into the black hole of media consumption. Indeed, as we read out loud together, we’re seeking to cultivate a lifelong value for the written word. Once a week we also have a family movie night (at least during the winter months). We regularly try to have family game times. Since some of our children are too young for games, this isn’t always easy to put into practice. But we at least try to regularly play different games with our older kids. Saturday mornings are for pancakes or waffles. Our kids look forward to it! No doubt a plethora of other possibilities exist. The point is to build into your schedule time to interact with one another.
Sane family rhythm includes family vacations.
In our family budget we set aside money each year for at least one family vacation. Our vacations aren’t necessarily elaborate, nor do they need to be. There’s something invigorating to family life by getting away together even if for only a short time. There’s something refreshing to family relationships about exploring new environments together. There’s something formative about breaking from the normal schedules and activities, and trying new things together. As many others before me have observed, family vacations tend to impress children’s memories. That is often true, even when parents perceive the vacation to be one disaster after another. In this way, vacations can help to strengthen family bonds. Such bonds are important not only for the formative years of your children, but for their entire lives.
Elite long-distance runners train to develop a running rhythm conducive to winning the race. In a like manner, we should develop our family rhythms deliberately. As Christian parents, the Lord calls us to train our children in the fear and knowledge of the Him. There are certain activities that, like so many insatiable black holes, will suck up time. Screen time is a huge one. These days you’re concerned about TV, computers, tablets, phones, and video games. Likewise, sports, the arts, and clubs hold wonderful potential for enriching and developing our kids. But they can also consume so much time that there’s little left for other things vital to our children’s maturity. Before you know it, there isn’t any time for the things you consider priorities. You will have a family rhythm, whether you set it up deliberately, or not. What structures will you put into place to make it a family rhythm that accurately reflects your priorities?
I recently re-read George MacDonald’s short essay, “The Fantastic Imagination.” It has me ruminating on cultivating imagination. As a pastor, I’ve been thinking about it as it applies to my work in ministry. But I think imagination may be advantageous in pretty much any vocation or avocation.
MacDonald is known to C.S. Lewis fans as one of his most significant influences. Repeated requests for him to explain certain things in stories he had written prompted this essay. Rather than offer the explanations his readers craved, he wrote to expand their appreciation of the power of fairytale (a term he admits isn’t entirely satisfactory). He writes:
Inharmonious, unconsorting ideas will come to a man, but if he try to use one of such, his work will grow dull, and he will drop it from mere lack of interest. Law is the soil in which alone beauty will grow; beauty is the only stuff in which Truth can be clothed; and you may, if you will, call Imagination the tailor that cuts her garments to fit her, and Fancy his journeyman that puts the pieces of them together, or perhaps at most embroiders their button-holes. Obeying law, the maker works like his creator; not obeying law, he is such a fool as heaps a pile of stones and calls it a church.
Imagination is the tailor that cuts garments of beauty that clothe Truth. Christians sometimes conceive of imagination as being at odds with truth. MacDonald insists that, whatever else that may be, it isn’t imagination. So-called creativity, uprooted from what MacDonald calls Law, isn’t imagination. By Law, MacDonald seems to have in mind reality as God has created it. He distinguishes between physical and moral realities, with the former providing more room for “invention.” In any case, ideas cut loose from the created nature of things–or as Ken Myers puts it, the givenness of things–are inharmonious, disintegrating, and produce works that are dull and lacking in interest.
MacDonald is after something more than defense of fairytales and defining imagination. He writes to convince that fairytales are important. Why are they important? He explains:
A fairytale, a sonata, a gathering storm, a limitless night, seizes you and sweeps you away: do you begin at once to wrestle with it and ask whence its power over you, whither it is carrying you? The law of each is in the mind of its composer; that law makes one man feel this way, another man feel that way. To one the sonata is a world of odour and beauty, to another of soothing only and sweetness. To one, the cloudy rendezvous is a wild dance, with a terror at its heart; to another, a majestic march of heavenly hosts, with Truth in their centre pointing their course, but as yet restraining her voice. The greatest forces lie in the region of the uncomprehended. I will go farther.–The best thing you can do for your fellow, next to rousing his conscience, is–not to give him things to think about, but to wake things up that are in him; or say, to make him think things for himself.
Imagination has the power to sweep you away. It can rouse conscience; it can wake up things within you. It is able, in other words, to give you a grasp of truth that encompasses your full humanity: mind, body, will and emotion. It can make you think things for yourself. It can carry you to embrace Truth for yourself. This power of imagination probably helps to explain why so much prophecy assumes the form of poetry in Scripture. The prophets are constantly seeking to move us to embrace the covenant both externally, and internally, for ourselves.
A plethora of voices have persuaded me of the importance and power of imagination. Four men in particular have convinced me of the necessity to cultivate imagination for pastoral work: Bryan Chapell (see Using Illustrations to Preach with Power), Jerram Barrs (see especially his recent book, Echoes of Eden), Ken Myers (for more on his work see Engaging Culture Christianly), and Eugene Peterson (see e.g. Cultivating the Imagination, a Conversation with Eugene Peterson).
I face personal limitations when it comes to imagination. Some of us have greater imaginative gifts than others. There are surely also cultural impulses that tend to stifle imagination. Or if they don’t stifle, they at least anesthetize us to its importance for our lives and work. I won’t go into what those may be in this post. My point here is to say that I find that I tend to be weak in imagination. Hence, cultivating imagination is something that I need to pursue deliberately. What follows are five practices I find helpful for cultivating imagination.
1. Cultivating imagination by attending to creation.
While most orthodox Christians reject macro-evolution, many of us who do are functional evolutionists. We live as though our world was not created by God. Consequently, we aren’t as attentive to the givenness of the world as we need to be. This failure to pay attention to the createdness of the world includes our physical environment, our spiritual environment, and our understanding of what it means to be human. If, as MacDonald argues, imagination is rooted in the givenness of things, cultivating it will require a growing understanding of that givenness. We need to ask questions like: what does it mean to be human? What is the world in which we live like? We need to ask such questions in spite of the prevailing voices who insist we can’t know such things. One of the most powerful components of effective sermon illustration is keen observation.
2. Cultivating imagination by attending to Scripture.
Propositions occur frequently in Scripture, and I don’t subscribe to the notion that they are unimportant. However, as many have argued before me, those propositions rarely stand alone. They’re embedded in metaphor, story, and poetry. Scripture uses many and diverse means to drive truth home to us as whole people. It provides word-pictures, analogies meant to appeal not only our minds, but also our wills and emotions. To give but one example, the apostle Paul prays for his readers:
…That the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you the Spirit of wisdom and of revelation in the knowledge of him, having the eyes of your hearts enlightened, that you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power toward us who believe, according to the working of his great might (Ephesians 1:17-19, ESV).
In relating his prayer he uses the metaphor, “the eyes of your hearts.” The prayer itself indicates that the knowledge he desires for his readers is more than what might be called merely rational. Certainly he wants them to have rational understanding. But he desires more. He wants them to appreciate the truth. He desires that they would have an emotional embrace of the truth that will in turn reshape their way of living. He wants them not merely to be able to define hope, or give a rational account of it, but to actually have it.
This passage is one example that shows how Scripture leads us to appreciate the power of imagination. Imagination is capable of reaching us physically, intellectually, emotionally, volitionally and spiritually. The Bible can also motivate us to grow in imagination. It gives examples of how that might be done in a way that corresponds to who we are as human beings. The fact that Paul uses things like metaphor reinforces the propriety of cultivating imagination. He certainly knows that God must affect spiritual change. But that conviction in no way deters him from employing imagination as he ministers to people.
3. Cultivating imagination by attending to the arts.
Tastes vary. Some people will resonate most strongly with music, others with the visual arts, and still others with literary arts. Some may appreciate all the above equally. Even within a given artistic arena, people’s tastes will vary. While allowing for variations of taste, good art will always impact us through evoking imagination. Sometimes it touches imagination in a way that expands it. Like a musician who develops mastery in her craft through disciplined practice, so disciplined consumption of the arts may develop the capacity for imagination.
Further, we can learn from artists who have mastered their disciplines, and demonstrated an ability to move us by evoking imagination. If you want to appreciate the power of words, you can read Shakespeare or Marilynne Robinson. If you want to better understand how music employs imagination to move us, you can listen to Bach (or George Strait, the Beatles, or Miles Davis). I’m convinced that we can find useful principles employ imagination within our own work from diverse artistic sources.
4. Cultivating imagination by attending to contemplation.
Like any good plant, it seems to me that imagination needs room to breathe for growth. For quite awhile now, we’ve had many voices wisely warning us about the dangers of excessive activity, information overload, and media saturation. These warnings ring true in my experience. I struggle as much as anyone to make time for quiet reflection. It often seems that I’m perpetually processing information in a very cursory and shallow way. Giving time to reflect more deeply on creation, Scripture, and the arts, can sometimes prove amazingly fruitful for expanding our imagination, and the capacity to use imagination in our work and communication.
In this regard a couple of things come to mind. First, I find that my ability to appreciate Scripture, art, and even creation is expanded through good conversations about the subject in question. Especially where I can converse with someone who has more experience, understanding, or appreciation for the subject, it can expand my imagination. Here I would include reading. Though admittedly a different kind of conversation, reading represents a conversation nevertheless.
Second, imagination can grow as we seek to articulate our perceptions in the course of conversation. As you put into words your reflections about a movie, or about a piece of music, or about a passage of Scripture it can help to better appreciate and understand imagination. If you’re an extrovert the value of conversation will be intuitive. But even for introverts I think it holds. That conversation is important for cultivating imagination seems obvious. Notwithstanding, how little I actually put it into practice. I rarely speak with fellow pastors about, say, the value of imagination in preaching or teaching. What makes an illustration effective? How do we set our sights on heart embrace, and not merely rational facility? These are the kinds of questions that might result in fruitful conversation when it comes to imagination.
I’m convinced that I need to be cultivating imagination in my work as a pastor. I’m convinced partly because I find imagination to be lacking in my work. I’m absolutely convinced that the Holy Spirit causes people to embrace Christ, and He drives home the truths of Scripture. But I’m also persuaded that God provided all my faculties for His service, including imagination. Similarly, in seeking minister to others more effectively, it would be foolish to ignore a faculty as powerful as imagination.
What other ideas do you have about cultivating imagination? What would you add to the discussion? What is imagination? Do you agree or disagree that its important? I’d really love to hear your thoughts–please take time to comment.
Awhile back a pastor friend, Wayne Larson, wondered why pastors tweet and post comments on “grace” so much more than Jesus. Many consider the book of Galatians to be a treatise on grace. It insists that God’s grace in saving sinners cannot be separated from the person and work of Jesus Christ. Wayne was right to question grace talk separated from Jesus. We pastors need to make sure we’re talking about Jesus. We all need to keep grace and Jesus Christ together in our minds and conversations.
Grace and Jesus Christ in Galatians 3:15-18
Contrary to what the Judaizers insinuated, the law introduced through Moses didn’t nullify the promise the Lord made to Abraham. It came later, but it didn’t annul the promise. Paul provides a human example to illustrate. His example works from the lesser to the greater. If this principle is true on the human plane, how much more is it true with God?
By “covenant” he has in mind a final will or testament that determines who inherits a person’s estate. Scholars quibble about whether he’s thinking about Greek, Roman, or Hebrew testaments. They each had their legal differences. It really doesn’t matter because they all reach a point when they are ratified and cannot be annulled. Such is the case with God’s covenant with Abraham. Since it has been ratified, it can’t be annulled.
Grace and Jesus Christ: the Abrahamic Promise
God made the promise to Christ. That’s the point in verse 16. Paul goes back to the Abrahamic promises, and observes that the Lord made them to Abraham’s “offspring.” Paul was trained as a Pharisee. He understood that Jews interpreted that word as a collective singular. But he also knows that they understood it biologically. There’s a better understanding in this case. God made the promise to a particular offspring. That offspring was Jesus Christ. God had Christ in view when He made the promise. Therefore, although the law came 430 years after the promise, it didn’t annul the promise.
That brings us to verse 18. The conditional assumes the “if” part of the statement to be false. The “then” part must also be false. If the Abrahamic inheritance comes by the law, then it cannot come by the promise. By insisting that it comes by law, a person would nullify the covenant that God already ratified. But, as we’ve seen, the promise stands. In other words, the idea that the inheritance comes through law conflicts with Scripture.
Grace and Jesus Christ: the Heir
The promise to Abraham is received in Jesus. He’s the designated heir in whom a person receives the inheritance. Josh’s mother married a man of whom her father disapproved. For that reason, Josh didn’t see his grandfather very often. They weren’t close. They were together only a handful of times in the seventeen years that Josh knew him. Despite that fact, his grandfather had a soft spot for him.Though he hadn’t seen Josh for several years before his death, he named him the heir of his estate.
It included a 36-acre island and more than 80 acres of valuable farmland. But there was something even more unexpected in the will. There was a detailed list of antique jewelry and loose gems that were in “the thermos.” There was no hint as to where this thermos was. But Josh’s mom remembered an oblique reference her father once made to “treasure island.” If and when the thermos turns up, it belongs to Josh. His grandfather named him the heir
Just as his grandfather named Josh the heir of his estate, so Paul argues that Jesus is the heir in whom the promise to Abraham is received. Grace and Jesus Christ are inseparably linked. To receive the promise, you have to receive Jesus by faith. To receive any of the promised blessings, you have to receive the heir. For God to be your God, and to have all the other specific promises, you must be united to Jesus. He’s the first and chief blessing in whom all the other blessings of God are received. Apart from Jesus there is no redeeming grace. It’s great to talk about grace. But Jesus is the subject really worth talking about!
For the last several years, has the church discussed any subject more than community? With the new year now upon us, I’ve reflected on Christian community. For all our talk of community in the church, how are we doing at actually realizing it? Christians and non-Christians long for something approaching real community. It’s absence from our lives stings. So many of us, even as believers, feel alone, maybe even unloved, or unwanted. Meanwhile we yearn to belong to something larger than ourselves. We have an urgency both to know others, and to be known. We need something more like deep friendship than casual acquaintance, and we don’t even know how to get it.
So many factors conspire to make community a serious challenge. I contend that our thoughtless despising of cultural institutions (including the church) has contributed structurally to undermining community. Similarly, since it takes time to build community, our mobility as a society impedes it. Technology, likewise, can be misused in ways that mitigate against community. But the biggest challenge is probably simple human nature, nurtured as it is, by an uncritical tolerance for selfish individualism. Nevertheless, I won’t dwell on the challenges in this post. Instead I’d like to offer five principles that I believe are essential for building healthy Christian community.
1. Christian community requires shared truth.
Ephesians 4:11-15 sets forth that principle. The passage culminates in verse 15: “Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ.” We are to grow together into the head, into Christ. That is Christian community. Vital to the process of growing together is speaking the truth in love. Jesus gives the word offices to equip the saints for the work of ministry (verses 11-12). That ministry continues until we attain to unity of the faith and the knowledge of God, “So that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about about by every wind of doctrine….” (Ephesians 4:13a).
Ironically, there’s tremendous temptation to jettison truth. Too often we’ve succumbed to it. The reigning doctrine says that truth is no way to build community. We may point fingers, but all of us feel the temptation to find the least common denominator. It seems obvious that we should downplay doctrine as much as possible. Certainly there are ways that the church has in the past–and continues to in the present–misuse doctrine in a way that brings unnecessary division. But it seems to me that the far greater danger for the church now is to abandon the adhesive God gives to bind our community together, namely the truth. I would go so far as to say that, to the extent we seek to downplay doctrine, to that extent we undermine our best chance for Christian community.
2. Christian community requires embodied interaction.
When God created human beings, he gave us bodies. In Jesus’ first advent, he took to himself a true human body (and a reasonable soul). After His death He was raised bodily. When He returns, He will raise us in glorified bodies. From the beginning to the end, to be human means to have a body. Technology tempts us to overlook this reality. We’re tempted to think that humans may flourish and build community in virtual environments. I’m here to tell you that it won’t work. Such “community” will always be second-rate, and necessarily deficient.
Our bodies our vital to making healthy relational connections with one another as we use them to communicate. Building community requires that people spend time together. That’s one of the reasons we have small groups (C-Groups) at the church I pastor. Whether its small groups, or other venues, we must spend time together to be able to develop community. The ministry that Ephesians 4 outlines requires us to be present with one another. It assumes that we build one another up in one another’s presence. Believe me, I’m acutely aware of what a challenge that is given our busy schedules. But unless we find ways to be together with one another, we have little hope of building real community.
3. Christian community requires mutual love.
I’m guessing you read that, and said to yourself something like, “Well, duh!” But since we’re being real here, let’s be honest about love, too. Let me give one example. When people leave a church, they rarely think about leaving the people. They think about leaving something they disagree with at that church. They think about leaving a pastor they don’t like. They think about leaving some major problem they’ve observed. But they think very little about the people they leave behind. Why is that? Sure, it’s complicated. Maybe they don’t love the people they’re leaving. It’s easy to leave them. Perhaps the people haven’t loved them. It’s also easy to leave in that case. Or maybe they have loved each other, and the people leaving have simply overlooked how important love is to their church experience.
We often say that the church isn’t a building. Well, the church isn’t a set of problems, either. It isn’t the pastor. It isn’t the church’s reputation for success. It isn’t that little issue with which you disagree. To be sure, the church universal will reflect the Triunity of God. There’s plenty of room for unity in diversity. Yet it remains that the local church is a body of people who are called to love one another. We’re also called to love people outside the church together. If we’re going to ever build real Christian community, we have to embrace our calling to love people. That love should take expression in a variety of practical ways that I can’t go into in this post. Any path to real Christian community I can envision will require seeing the church as people to love, in precedence over seeing it as a set of problems that need to be solved (there will always be plenty of those in any church this side of glory).
4. Christian community requires mutual deference.
Technically this fourth principle is a corollary to the previous one. But it’s important enough in my mind to single out. Philippians 2:3 exhorts, “Do nothing from rivalry or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves.” The passage makes it clear that Christians are capable of doing that. Not that we’re competent in ourselves, apart from Jesus. We can do it because we are united to Christ. We’re united to the very One who has done it par excellence. He made himself nothing. He humbled himself to the point of death, even death on a cross. That’s the One to whom we’re united by the Holy Spirit.
The word “community” itself suggests the need for mutual deference. To form community all interested parties must consider others more significant than ourselves. If we’re pursuing only our own interests, then we have no shared interest. If we have no overarching interest by which we would subjugate our own interests, then we have no real basis for community. It requires that all of us set aside our own desires (sometimes even ones that aren’t selfish) to pursue our shared interests. In short, community requires counting others more significant than ourselves. As offensive as that may be, as impossible as it may seem, there cannot be any community apart from such mutual deference. We build Christian community only as we look out not only to our own interests but also to the interests of others.
5. Christian community requires settling disputes.
There is one prominent class of reasons for leaving a church that falls outside of those I mentioned in the third principle. Many people leave their existing church because of conflict. It may be with some leader or leaders. But in my experience it doesn’t have to be. Often people leave a church because of a major conflict with a fellow member. Conflict is as inevitable in the church as it is marriage. While there are a few morbid souls who actually seem to enjoy conflict, most of us don’t. The tricky thing about the kind of intimacy we look forward to in community is that it provides all the more opportunity for relational hurt. The people we’re closest to are the ones who can hurt us most.
However, I often tell engaged couples that in marriage we need to work at seeing conflict as an opportunity for the relationship to grow. The same is true in the church. Conflict usually presents an opportunity both to know and be known to a greater depth. That’s part of the reason, I think, that we dislike it so much. Often what people learn about us in such circumstances isn’t pleasant. Nor is what we learn about other people. But its reality. And when we love, forgive, and accept one another in spite of the sin, it does advance relationship. Here again, it’s beyond the scope of this post to go into the hows of resolving conflict. I would direct you to Peacemaker Ministries. I have personally benefited tremendously from their work, and the resources available through their website.
What would you add? Is there anything that needs refining, or that you would dispute with altogether? I would really love to hear your thoughts on this topic. The post is just the start of a discussion.
In the church I pastor we aspire to, “Historic Christianity for the 21st century.” If we’re going to approach our aspiration, (among other things) it will require that we engage our culture constructively in an authentically Christian way. I suppose for many Christians engaging culture Christianly sounds easy enough. I don’t believe it’s so easy. Here’s the problem:
Christians talk a lot about engaging the culture. But engagement can easily result in captivity to contemporary culture—in being (in Biblical terms) conformed to the pattern of this world. Wise and faithful cultural engagement requires an understanding of what culture should do and be, amended by an attentiveness to how the divinely established structures of Creation and of human nature should shape our cultural lives (Ken Myers, Mars Hill Audio).
What does it mean to engage culture Christianly? In my experience, it’s easy to think we know how to answer that question. We plunge headlong into cultural consumption. But too often it amounts to, as Myers puts it, thoughtless captivity to contemporary culture. Every Christian is inescapably situated in culture. You can uncritically consume it. Or, you can equally uncritically recoil from it. Either way it’s impacting you.
How does a Christian engage culture constructively? That’s a great question. It’s not one I’m going to answer per se in this post. But here’s what I want to do: I want to recommend Mars Hill Audio. No doubt there are many resources that might prove helpful for engaging culture Christianly. The one resource, however, that has proved most influential for me over the last seven years is Mars Hill Audio. The content has shaped my thinking considerably. Listening has also enriched my reading considerably.
Ken Myers produces Mars Hill Audio. Myers’ undergraduate degree was in communications, with an emphasis in film theory. For the past almost forty years he has dedicated himself to understanding our culture from a Christian perspective. He is a graduate of Westminster Seminary, and worked at National Public Radio for several years. He spent a good part of his time working on Morning Edition. His experience at NPR seems evident. The production quality of Mars Hill Audio is excellent.
Mars Hill Audio is an audio journal available via CD or Mp3 subscription, whichever you prefer. An annual subscription gets you six issues. You will find the content covers a broad spectrum. According the website,
We believe that fulfilling the commands to love God and neighbor requires that we pay careful attention to the neighborhood: that is, every sphere of human life where God is either glorified or despised, where neighbors are either edified or undermined. Therefore, living as disciples of Christ pertains not just to prayer, evangelism, and Bible study, but also our enjoyment of literature and music, our use of tools and machines, our eating and drinking, our views on government and economics, and so on.
I think that’s true. There’s material out there that might help you think about a particular movie, television show, or album. But Mars Hill Audio is the best resource I know to help you understand the prevalent features of our culture at their very root. Myer and his dialog partners dig deep, to the very foundations. Then they examine them carefully with a courageous biblical mindset. You will find a deep appreciation for art, history, politics, medicine, music and more. But it’s a thoroughly critical appreciation, bound to swim against many of the prevailing cultural currents.
If you have any sort of commute, you will be hard-pressed to spend your time better than by listening to Mars Hill Audio Journal. Pastors, I’ve often found it to inject a much-needed shot of freshness into my preaching and teaching. For anyone looking to think Christianly about culture, I can’t imagine a better resource. Don’t just take my word for it. Listen to a sample issue. Explore the MHA website. You’ll find a thorough introduction to the work, and several examples of the content itself. I’m convinced you’ll find it helpful for engaging culture Christianly. I hope you’ll subscribe.
For the record, I’m not an affiliate of Mars Hill Audio, nor have I received any compensation for this post. I just really like it, and think you should check it out!
The power of human rebellion can seem unstoppable. Christmas provides encouragement that there’s more to the story. Matthew 2:1-12 preserves the account of the Magi’s visit to Jesus after his birth. They arrive in Jerusalem, and begin to ask, “Where is he who has been born king of the Jews?” Dr. Leon Morris points out that He wasn’t born to be the King. He was born the King.
Christmas Means God Fulfills His Purposes
The only information Matthew gives to explain how the Magi came asking for the King of the Jews comes in verse 2. They saw his star when it rose, and they have come to worship him. These Gentile Magi know about the birth of the King of the Jews because God the Father used stars. He used them to lead men who studied the stars to His Son. Because this entourage from the east came seeking the King of the Jews, Herod was troubled.
In verse 4 Matthew says he assembled all the chief priests and scribes of the people. He wanted to know where the Christ would be born. They tell him, and in verse 7, he summoned the Magi. He wanted to know from them exactly when the star appeared. It would be his insurance if for any reason they failed. He sent them to search for this so-called king. He convinced them that he, too, wanted to pay his respects. He told them to send word when they found him.
Christmas Means God Fulfills His Purposes in the Midst of Opposition
The Magi find the child. In verse 12, however, we learn that they were warned in a dream not to return to Herod. So they departed to their own country by another way. The word translated “warned” in verse 12 is verb often used to indicate a divine utterance. The passive, then, conveys that the Lord warned them. He prevented Herod from carrying out his plan to find the child. As Matthew’s next section indicates, Herod’s aim was to eliminate the child rival. The Father preserved His Son from Herod’s violent designs.
Dr. Bryan Chapell recounts a trip that the the first century Jewish teacher, Rabbi Akiba, is said to have taken. He traveled to a strange country. He took with him three possessions: a donkey, a rooster, and a lamp. He stopped at night in a village where he hoped to find lodging. However, the people there drove him out, and he was forced to spend the night in a nearby forest. The rabbi was known for bearing all pains with ease. He was always heard to say, “All that God does is done well.”
He found a tree under which to rest. He lit his lamp, and prepared to study the Torah before going to sleep. Just then a fierce wind began to whip. It blew out the flame. He had no choice but to rest. Later that night while he was sleeping wild animals came and chased away his rooster. Still later thieves passed by and stole his donkey. The Rabbi simply responded by saying, “All that God does is done well.”
The next morning he returned to the village where he had stopped the night before. He learned that enemy soldiers had come by night, killing everyone in their beds. Had he been permitted to stay, he would have been killed. He learned also that the raiding party had traveled through the same part of the forest where he slept. If they had seen the light of his lamp, if the rooster had crowed, or if the donkey had brayed, he would have been killed. How did the rabbi respond? As he always did, by saying, “All that God does is done well.”
Christmas Means We Can Trust God to Fulfill His Purposes
Human rebellion may seem unstoppable. We often won’t understand why bad things happen. But this account shows that God is there, and He is sovereign. He tolerates human evil for the time being. But such is His sovereignty that it never thwarts His purposes. Human rebellion is all too real. It’s ugly, painful and more destructive than we realize. But it isn’t the end of the story. The Lord is more powerful than our rebellion. We need to remember that when we consider history. We need to remember it, especially, as we battle sin in our own lives. The Lord continues to work out His purpose in the midst of human rebellion. All that God does is done well.
Most people realize that Immanuel means God with us. But there’s an aspect of the meaning that is less discussed. I had my first chew of Redman tobacco when I was in third grade. Someone had brought a pouch to the school picnic. Unfortunately for me, and a few others who also partook, someone told on us. We were given in school suspension. That was bad enough. But I was nearly ill at the prospect of the reckoning I knew I faced with my Dad.
The walk from school to the shoe store my parents owned wasn’t far. But that day it seemed like it would take forever. As I opened the swinging glass door, I expected to be in immediate and serious trouble. Neither my Mom or my Dad said anything. The rest of the afternoon passed as though nothing had happened. That night after we closed the store I sat in the passenger side of our light brown Ford Pinto. As we pulled to a stop in front of our home, my Dad told me to open the glove box. When I opened it, I saw a pouch of Redman. I knew that my time of reckoning had arrived. It had.
Immanuel, God with Us
In Matthew 1:21 the angel of the Lord tells Joseph in a dream that Mary will bear a son, and that he is to be named Jesus, “For he will save his people from their sins.” Matthew then informs us in verses 22-23:
All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet:
“Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son,
and they shall call his name Immanuel”
(which means, God with us).
It’s an astounding claim. In Immanuel God is with us. In Jesus Christ, God entered into human history in a new way. Already in chapter 1 Matthew lays the groundwork for us to understand Jesus’ identity. He’s of the line of David, but not of the flesh of David. The Holy Spirit conceives Him through a supernatural work. Dr. Daniel Doriani, in his commentary on Matthew, points out an important layer of meaning for Immanuel. Immanuel means that the One with whom we must deal is present with us. We must reckon with Him, whether we like it or not. There are right ways and wrong ways to reckon with Immanuel.
Immanuel, God with Us to Bless
Ahaz, whom Jesus’ genealogy mentions at the beginning of Matthew 1, is an important precursor to Jesus’ arrival. The quote in Matthew 1:23 comes in a context where Isaiah discusses Ahaz. God was with him, whether he liked it or not. Judah was under attack, and things didn’t look good. God sent Isaiah to tell Ahaz not to fear. He called him to put His faith in the Lord. God offered to be present with him to bless. If he refused to receive God’s blessing, however, God would still be present. But at that point, He would be present to judge.
Ahaz refused God’s blessing. As Doriani puts it, “God had offered Ahaz a gentle deliverance, but Ahaz wanted a mighty warrior.” He put his trust in the superpower of his day, Assyria. God let him have what he wanted. In the short-term, his plan seemed to be working out well. He basically told the Lord, “I’d rather work with Assyria.” In turn the Lord replied, “Go ahead. But afterward Assyria will work you over.” Ahaz had deliverance for a day. Assyria drove out the minor invaders. But then the superpower remained. Judah became a vassal, and Ahaz nearly lost his life.
Immanuel, God with Us to Curse?
According to Matthew, the blessing side of the Immanuel prophecy has now arrived in the person of Jesus Christ. He fulfills it in His birth. He has come to deliver us from a far more ruthless enemy. He has come to save us from our sin. He has come to deal decisively with that which is at the root of all our pain, suffering, and misery. As before, God’s purpose is to bless through Immanuel. But God has now acted in Jesus Christ. As we learn from Ahaz, in Immanuel God is now with us. If a person rejects the blessing of Immanuel, He will still be with us. But in that case, what remains at the end is only the curse of God. Immanuel means that now is the time to trust in Jesus Christ, God with us, and to receive the blessing that He brings.
Las Vegas is iconic Americana. Like it or not, it reflects something of the soul of the USA. It also reflects, I suggest, something of the soul of American Christianity. Americans built the neon city up out of the harsh climate of the Mojave desert. It’s glitzy, glamorous, and beautiful. It’s young and exciting. It’s large, unmistakable, and an epicenter of entertainment. Entertainment is part of its DNA.
What does Las Vegas have to do with the ordinary church? Nothing. It represents the opposite of the ordinary church. But it also reflects so much of what we seem to want in a church. We like our churches recognizable. So much better if the pastor is a celebrity. We like them glitzy too, apparently. The rock concert is the model for today’s worship.
Well, someone says, we’re reaching the lost with our rock star worship! Maybe. But it doesn’t actually look that way. Gene Veith in a recent post cited a 2009 study of the people who attend megachurches. Barely 2% said they were not a committed follower of Jesus Christ. Only 6% said they had never attended church before coming to their current megachurch. The large, the glitzy, and the household name churches seem to attract Christians more than non-Christians.
Whatever you think of them, it remains that most of our churches aren’t megachurches. According to this 2011 post at the Get Religion blog, the median church in the U.S. has 75 regular participants in worship on Sunday mornings. A congregation that size does not have the means to put on the rock concert worship service, even if they want to.
Ordinary Church, Ordinary Means
My real concern when it comes to the ordinary church, though, requires drilling a little deeper. What does a believer need in his or her church to grow? What does a church need to reach the lost? Should we expect large numbers, a smorgasbord of programs, or a worship service with relevant music to yield real growth?
Despite plenty of lip service to the contrary, I fear those are exactly the things we expect to produce real growth. Paradoxically, it may well be that at a deep level we know better. That would explain why so many Christians, at least in my experience, seek out parachurch Bible studies. They know they need more solid food.
Westminster Shorter Catechism 88 identifies the ordinary means through which the Lord brings growth (see e.g. Matthew 7:24-27; 28:18-20; John 15:1-17; Acts 20:32; 1 Corinthians 10:16-17; Colossians 2:6-7; Hebrews 4:12; 2 Peter 1:3-11). Every Christian must make use of these means. That a church offers them doesn’t guarantee growth. Nevertheless, at least the Bible says that we have a right to expect God to use them to work salvation in us. Rock concert worship itself holds no promise for growth. It raises the issue of where we’re placing our trust.
The problem is that these ordinary means of grace are just that: they’re ordinary. Words on a page, preaching (see Westminster Shorter Catechism question and answer 89), bread, wine and water? Really? These aren’t glitzy things! They aren’t obviously relevant. Further, God normally works through them slowly over a long time. They aren’t flashy. Progress can be painfully slow. You will probably face difficult circumstances and hurtful people in the process. But over the course of years growth will become increasingly clear to others, if not always to you.
Ordinary Church for Ordinary People
Let’s face it: most of us are ordinary. We have broken dreams, mortgages, mundane jobs, and skeletons in the closet. As parents we’re trying to raise kids without committing violent crimes in the process. We’re glad cameras aren’t rolling on our daily lives because our children aren’t as perfect as they sometimes seem. Ordinary people ought to appreciate an ordinary church. Not many of us are extraordinary. If everyone were extraordinary no one would be extraordinary. Embrace the ordinary!
Most of our churches have ordinary pastors. They aren’t, and they never will be, celebrities. Our churches are teeming with ordinary members, who will never garner the world’s attention. They will never grace the pages of People Magazine. They will never walk the red carpet. Does that make them useless in God’s purposes? If your answer is “no,” then resist the temptation to dismiss the ordinary church. Why travel from that ordinary church in your community to the glitzy church a half hour or forty-five minutes away? Maybe you have good reasons. Or maybe you’ve put your faith in things that hold no promise in God’s redemptive purposes.