Flatlander Faith

Apologetics from an Anabaptist perspective

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The foolishness of preaching

For Christ sent me not to baptize, but to preach the gospel: not with wisdom of words, lest the cross of Christ should be made of none effect. For the preaching of the cross is to them that perish foolishness; but unto us which are saved it is the power of God. For it is written, I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and will bring to nothing the understanding of the prudent. Where is the wise? where is the scribe? where is the disputer of this world? hath not God made foolish the wisdom of this world? For after that in the wisdom of God the world by wisdom knew not God, it pleased God by the foolishness of preaching to save them that believe. — 1 Corinthians 1:17-21

Here is the genius of true Christian preaching: it is not a dry learned discourse, nor is it an exercise in emotional demagoguery. The preacher must have personal experience of the gospel he preaches, or his preaching will have no life. There must needs be something of teaching and something of feeling, but the preacher stands on common ground with those to whom he is speaking and talks of the aspirations and trials that are common to all and of God’s grace which is accessible to all.

A distinction needs to be made between the written word and the spoken word. A Christian writer may be inspired to write about a topic or an event and sit down to get this inspiration into written form. The writer then needs to revise and edit to make sure that the inspiration is not befogged with unnecessary words or digressions into side issues, and that all the information is there for the reader to understand the inspiration. The reader is able to go back and reread a portion that was not clear on the first reading, or perhaps read the whole thing over at a later time to let the meaning sink in.

The spoken word is immediate and fleeting. The hearers will not remember every word that was said and will have no opportunity to go back and listen to it again. If the preacher has been inspired by God with a message and opens his heart to share that message as being as much in need as his hearers, the message will have a lasting impact after the words have vanished from memory.

For this reason, I believe that preaching can truly be described as the living word. A sermon has its most powerful impact upon those who are assembled in one place to listen. I don’t believe it has the same impact when broadcast over a phone line, closed circuit TV, or other means. A sermon that is recorded or transcribed also loses much of its vitality.

In the Church of God in Christ, Mennonite, we do not believe in a trained and salaried ministry. Nor do we believe that a minister should write out his sermon beforehand. All these things diminish the leading of the Holy Spirit as he speaks and weaken the authenticity of the message.

The word minister means servant, an apt description of a person who is called to serve spiritual nourishment to a congregation of believers. Ministers are also called pastors (shepherds), bishops (overseers), teachers and evangelists. But they are never to be looked upon as lords over the people of God. All his spiritual work must be done with the collaboration and support of the congregation, or it will never stand the challenges that will come.

All ministers are not equal in their ability to expound on the Scriptures, in eloquence, or even in their mastery of the language. These are all things that can be improved on with time. The most important qualifications of a minister are a pure life, humility, love for others. These are not things that can be learned from books, but the fruit of a life truly dedicated to serving God and his fellow men.

How can we be sure that Christ arose?

There are people in our day who say that Jesus never existed. However, there are references to Jesus in first century writings by both Jewish scholars and Roman officials. No one from that era ever denied that Jesus was a real person. The gospels are eye witness accounts and the authenticity of their accounts on other points has been established.

Luke, in particular, was a meticulous historian. He placed the events in his gospel with reference to secular events and individuals. It has been found that the officials he mentions really did exist in the time and place that he ascribes to them. In both the gospel of Luke and the Acts of the Apostles, Luke took great care to seek out authentic eye witness accounts to compile his history.

There is no attempt in the gospels to cover up the weaknesses of the disciples of Jesus. They fled at His arrest; Peter even denied ever knowing Him. When He died on the cross, they assumed that all was lost. When they first heard reports of His resurrection, they scoffed.

Yet not much later they were boldly preaching the gospel of the risen Saviour. What made the difference? Was it not that they had personally met Jesus, whom they knew to have once been dead, talked with Him, ate with Him, touched Him? What else could have given them the assurance to endure opposition, persecution and death for the sake of the gospel?

If the authorities could have produced the body of Jesus, the story would have ended there. If one of the disciples had ever broken down under torture and confessed to lying about the resurrection, the Christian faith would have died on the spot. Those things never happened, even though Roman officials did their utmost to make them happen. In time, the report was spread abroad that these men had “turned the world upside down” (Acts 17:6).

So here is the question for Christians in the 21st century. This world needs to be turned upside down as badly as it ever has in ages past. We say we believe in the resurrection, we say we believe in the indwelling power of the Holy Spirit in our lives. Why are we having so little impact on the world around us?

Obeying the Great Commission in a time of persecution

This is my only joy and the desire of my heart, that I may extend the borders of the kingdom of God, make known the truth, reprove sin, teach righteousness, feed the hungry souls with the word of the Lord, lead the stray sheep to the right path, and win many souls for the Lord through His Spirit, power and grace.

-Menno Simons

To this end we preach as much as opportunity and possibility affords, both in daytime and by night, in houses and in fields, in forests and wildernesses, in this land and abroad, in prison and bonds, in water, fire and the scaffold, on the gallows, and upon the wheel, before lords and princes, orally and by writing at the risk of possessions and life, as we have done these many years without ceasing.

-Menno Simons

Is the trumpet giving an uncertain sound?

For if the trumpet give an uncertain sound, who shall prepare himself to the battle? So likewise ye, except ye utter by the tongue words easy to be understood, how shall it be known what is spoken? for ye shall speak into the air. (1 Corinthians 14:8-9)

The issue in question when Paul wrote those words was the disruptive influence of incomprehensible ecstatic speech in a worship service. I don’t believe it does any violence to the Apostle’s teaching to apply it in other circumstances.

Immigrants arrive in a new land – for instance Canada, USA, France, or Brazil – and they establish places where they can worship God in their mother tongue. The children learn the language of their new homeland much easier than their parents, but still have some attachment to the old mother tongue. But the third generation speaks only the language of the land of their birth. Their parents and grandparents continue to worship in the old language, but for this generation the preachers are speaking into the air. They have two options: look for another church; or forget about God entirely.

This happened to one congregation of the Church of God in Christ, Mennonite almost 100 years ago. The congregation had begun 50 years earlier, and the first and second generations were faithful Christians, worshipping God in the German language. The third generation knew only English and joined other churches in the community. Finally, the last surviving member passed away and the congregation was officially defunct.

The same thing almost happened in another, much larger, congregation. Young people were growing up, getting married, living honest, respectable lives, but never heard the gospel preached in a language they could understand. Finally the congregation called a minister who only knew English to come for revival meetings. Frank Haynes returned several times over a period of almost 10 years, and during those meetings at least 200 were converted and baptized. The congregation switched to English preaching.

But I am thinking that we may have a more subtle problem in our day. We are living in a post-Christian society, yet we continue speaking and preaching in Christian jargon that is incomprehensible to most people around us, perhaps even to many of the young people growing up in our homes. Is the trumpet giving an uncertain sound? Those of us who have grown up with this kind of language, or who have been Christians long enough to be familiar with the jargon, may not even realize that the words we use are not really getting through, but to most people today they are just words in the air.

The deceptive thing is that we are speaking important, eternal truths, but if others do not understand what we are saying, we are speaking in an unknown tongue. “Therefore if I know not the meaning of the voice, I shall be unto him that speaketh a barbarian, and he that speaketh shall be a barbarian unto me” (1 Corinthians 14:11).

It is surely our intention to speak words easy to be understood. Perhaps the first step would be to ask people if they really understand what we are saying. If they seem in doubt, or if they are confused by the jargon we use, we need to make efforts to find a way of speaking those eternal truths in a form that they will understand. That will mean leaving out a lot of the Christian code words and slogans that are so familiar to us. It does not mean watering down the gospel; if anything it means finding words to make the message come through more strongly, in clear unambiguous terms. We owe it to all the people around us who have never heard the gospel in a language that they could understand.

Why I go to church on Sunday

It’s not because the Fourth Commandment demands it. The Fourth Commandment says nothing at all about worship.

It’s not because the ceremonies of the church are a means of imparting the grace of God. I was a member of a liturgical church in my youth, and took part in the Eucharist every Sunday, as much as possible in a rural area where one priest served four congregations. (I was an altar boy for several of those years and often took part in the Eucharist twice on Sunday.)  I have some good memories of the Scriptures read, recited and expouinded, but really, the services left me empty. This is not the way in which God ministers grace to the penitent.

It’s not because of family tradition. My parents attended no church at all for the first ten years of my life. Church attendance did then become a family tradition, but I abandoned it, along with most other family traditions, when I grew up and left home.

It’s not for fear of getting in trouble with the church authorities. I expect some of the lay members would call and wonder where I had been, and a prolonged absence would raise questions, but there would be no harsh laying down of the law.

It’s not for entertainment. If I wished for the best in contemporary music and the most thrilling speakers, I would not be looking to find them in church.

It’s not for making social or gusiness contacts. Sure, that sort of thing does happen in church, but it is not the best, or ideal, setting for such things.

I go to church because I need spiritual nourishment. I may not always feel that need. I don’t always feel very hungry when meal time comes around at home either, but I know that if I skip this meel, I will be feeling very hungry before it’s time for the next meal. It is the same way with spiritual nourishment.

I go to church because my spiritual compass is always in need of realignment. Sure, I could worship God at home, or in the woods, or at the beach, or even at the hockey game. Or could I? In such settings I am very prone to thinking that my priorities are God’s priorities. There is something about gathering to worship God with fellow believers of like precious faith that reawakens and redefines my awareness of  God’s priorities.

That is why I go to church. It is not the magnificence of the building or of the music , the oratorical skills of the preacher or the reverent cadences of a liturgy that draws me. It is the certain knowledge that here, among other believers as weak and fallible as I am, is where God comes near and reminds us that this is after all about Him, not about me.

Spiritual starvtion and suicide

[This was written 33 years ago, as you will note by the reference to the IRA hunger strikers.]

“But Jesus said unto them, They need not depart; give ye them to eat” (Matt. 14:16).

Jesus was out in the hills of Galilee, and the multitudes came there to him to be healed and to learn of Him. As evening drew near, Jesus saw that the people would need to be fed before they could return to their homes. He told His disciples, “Give ye them to eat.” They thought He was asking the impossible of them, but when they told Jesus how little food, they had, He simply said, “Bring it to me.” And He blessed the few loaves and fishes, broke them, and gave them back to the disciples to distribute among the people. When all had eaten their fill, there was more left over than there had been at the beginning.

Perhaps our ministers often feel, like the disciples, that they hardly have enough for themselves. But as they are obedient to God and allow Him to bless and to break this little bit, it grows so that we all can be fed, and we find that we also have something to take home, to feed and meditate upon there, and perhaps to share with someone else. In fact, we find that as long as we are humble and obedient, this spiritual food continues to multiply itself.

The Gospel account gives no indication that anyone of the five thousand refused to partake of the natural food that was given to him. But perhaps most of us are aware of the tragic events presently taking place in Northern Ireland. There are a group of men who have been found guilty of committing acts of violence and have been sentenced to prison. They do not deny their actions, rather their reasoning has become so perverted as to feel that they had a just and righteous cause. Because of this, they are refusing to eat, and one by one they are dying. At the time of writing, ten have taken their own lives in this manner, and others are still following in their footsteps.

When God brings conviction to us, directly or through the Word, or through our brethren, and we begin to justify ourselves and proclaim our own righteousness, do we not place ourselves in exactly the same position as these rebels? If we refuse the spiritual food that is so abundant and so free because we think we have been misunderstood or misjudged, is it not suicidal?

Starvation is perhaps one of the most painless ways of dying. There are pangs of hunger when the first few meals are missed, but these fade away, and the body gradually grows weaker and eventually perishes. If we find ourselves starving spiritually, we can even quiet those hunger pangs with a false spirituality that seems to satisfy, but it gives no nourishment. Soon we can be dead in our sins, hardly remembering what it was like to be spiritually alive and delighting in spiritual food and fellowship.

Let us rather give heed when we first feel those pangs of hunger in our soul and just accept in humility what our Saviour is offering, for He knows exactly what we need to be spiritually alive and healthy.

“If ye be willing and obedient, ye shall eat the good of the land: but if ye refuse and rebel, ye shall be devoured with the sword: for the mouth of the Lord hath spoken it” (Isa. 1:19,20).

“How shall we escape, if we neglect so great salvation . . . ” (Hebrews 2:3a).

–Bob Goodnough, Fullarton, Ontario

The suicide of civilizations

I have been pondering the thoughts that Jacques Ellul expressed in Presence au monde moderne. I don’t know if this book has ever been translated into English, as most of his other books have. This book was first published in 1948, shortly after World War II. The following excerpts are my translation.

“Thus we see that ethics are inseparable from the preaching of the Word for it is the conduct of the Christian that truly ruins the work of Satan and tends to the edification of the body of Christ in the world. But . . .  ethics is not a recipe for being righteous, it is not a synthesis of Christian faith and the values of the world, nor a means given to the Christian that allows him to live without the Holy Spirit. It is the opposite of all that.”

“I believe there is a great and serious confusion. It is not by acting as other s do and participating in the technical works of the world that a Christian can effectively participate in the preservation of the world, but in filling his specific role . . .  This does not mean that the technical work does not need to be done or that it is useless, but everyone is doing it . . .  For the world must be preserved by the ways of God and not by the works of man.  . . .  it must be preserved in the order desired by God and not by the plan that men make of this order.”

“The will of the Lord that is presented both as judgement and forgiveness, law and grace, commandment and promise, is revealed to us in the Scriptures, illuminated by the Holy Spirit. It must be explained in the present time, but it does not change.”

“The will of the world is always a will leading to death, leading to suicide . . .  The world is not capable of preserving itself, nor capable of finding the remedies for its spiritual condition (which controls all the rest) . . .  If we do not want to be totally abstract, we are then obliged to know the depth and the spiritual reality of the fatal tendency of our world, and this is where we must direct our efforts (and not toward the false problems that the world poses, or with a clumsy application of an order of God that has become abstract). If we are to act thus, we must understand that the work of preaching must accompany the work of material recovery.”

I do not necessarily agree with everything that Jacques Ellul writes, but I believe that here he is putting his finger on the real condition of the world. All the efforts made by the world to do good, to right wrongs, to teach moral values, all of these things when done by the world tend toward death. Spiritual death first of all, which leads to the death of civilization.

This has been the case in all the great empires of the past. Rome was not overwhelmed by the uncivilized Germanic tribes until she was so thoroughly decayed that there was no real power to resist. We will not fix the decline of our present day Western democracies by political action, but by submitting ourselves to the will of God so that He can bring about a spiritual revival.

A simple question

The following paragraphs are quoted from By My Spirit, written by Jonathan Goforth.  I would like to add a simple question to what Mr. Goforth has written: In this age of leisure, why do so many of us struggle to find time for reading the Bible? 

During my student days in Toronto my one weapon, in the jails and slums, was the Bible. In China I have often given from thirty-five to forty addresses in a week, practically all of them being simply Bible rehearsals. In fact, I think I can safely say that, during the forty-one years that I have been on the foreign field, I have never once addressed a Chinese audience without an open Bible in my hand, from which I could say, “Thus saith the Lord!” I have always taken it for granted that the simple preaching of the Word would bring men to Christ. It has never failed me yet. My Chinese pastor, one of the most consecrated men I have ever met, was saved from a life of shame and vice by the first Gospel address which he ever heard me give.

My deepest regret, on reaching threescore years and ten, is that I have not devoted more time to the study of the Bible. Still, in less than nineteen years I have gone through the New Testament in Chinese fifty-five times. That prince of Bible teachers, Dr. Campbell Morgan, has declared that he would not attempt to teach any book in the Bible unless he had first read it over at least fifty times. Some years ago, I understand, a gentleman attended the English Keswick and was so fired with a zeal for the Bible that in three years he read it through twelve times. One would imagine, of course, that he belonged to the leisured class. On the contrary, however, he began his day’s work at the Motherwell steel plant at 5:30 a. m.

The Bible was not so neglected a Book when the great revivals of 1857-59 swept over the United States and Great Britain. Neither was it so neglected in Moody’s time. During the late Manchu dynasty, scholars were expected to know the classics of their sages off by heart. How do the scholars of so-called Christian lands measure up to that standard as regards the “World’s Great Classic”? It is nothing short of pathetic how so many, who come professedly to represent the Lord Jesus Christ in China, know so little of His Word. Thirty years ago the missionary ideal was to know the Bible so well that one would not have to carry around a concordance. Is the indifference to the Bible today on the part of so many missionaries due to the fact, perhaps, that they have discovered some better means with which to meet the needs of a sin sick world?


Getting the most out of church

Whenever I read that part of the Shepherd of Hermas quoted in yesterday’s post, it helps to re-calibrate the way that I view the church.  Am I seeing her as a feeble old woman?  Then I must conclude that there is some unresolved problem in my heart that is clouding my vision.

The church is more than the sum of its members.  There are people within the church whose attitudes and conduct may rub me the wrong way.  If I don’t think there is room for such people in the Bride of Christ, why would I presume to think there is room for me?  I may not see my own problems very well, but I suspect other people do.  And they still accept me.

Can we really expect to get much out of church if we don’t put anything in?  I don’t mean just money, though that is part of it.  But giving generously of our money isn’t enough to make us feel that we are truly part of the church.  Money isn’t even the most important part.  If I expect to be blessed in worship services, Sunday School and Bible Study discussions, but never contribute anything, those meetings will come to seem very flat and uninteresting.

Attending church is not meant to be a spectator activity where I am merely a passive observer.  At the very least, I need to pray for the preacher and his message.  I am part of what is going on here and need to hear the message the Holy Spirit has for me as the Scriptures are read and expounded.  If there is opportunity for lay people to take part in the service, by an introduction and prayer, by sharing a testimony, an experience or a message, and I never take part, I will be tempted to remember only the mistakes made by those who do.

There are so many ways we can make a contribution of our time and talents to the church.  We don’t need to wait to be asked, or to be elected to something.  There is much that can be done to help others who are members of the church and to reach out to the unsaved.  If we are obedient to the prompting of the Spirit, and don’t care if anyone is watching or not, we are part of the spiritual life of the church.

Sometimes we may find ourselves in a church that is not providing spiritual nourishment.  Before I say good-bye and go looking for a better church, it would be well to examine myself to see if the fault is within me.  Are other people being fed and I am not?  What is preventing me from getting out of church what others are receiving?

Finally, if there can be no doubt that the church is corrupt and unspiritual, I still should not rush out to join another church that is more to my liking, or where the pastor seems more friendly.  That will only lead to another disappointment and finally perhaps a disillusionment with the whole idea of church.

It will work much better to pray “Lord, what wilt thou have me to do?”  It may take some time for direction to come.  Meanwhile, it might be better to continue worshipping where I am while I check out the options and see if any of them are pleasing to God.  If we are honest in asking for direction, then eventually God will make His plan clear to us.  He does care for us and wants to place us in a nurturing spiritual setting where we can grow in grace to serve Him, and where our faith can be passed on to the following generations.

There is a famine – part one

Small town churches across Canada are rapidly disappearing.  Fifty years ago, the town where I grew up had five churches.  Only two remain, and they are the churches where one is least likely to ever hear sound Bible-based preaching.  Smaller towns nearby have no churches at all.

This is more than a demographic curiosity.  It means that in whole swaths across our nation people are deprived of a readily accessible place to hear the Word of God preached.  In times past many people deemed this a necessity.  Families would invest money, time and labour to ensure they would have a place of worship.

What has caused the decline?  One part of the problem is the cost of maintaining a minister.  To provide suitable living accommodations and a decent salary for a minister and his family was by far the greatest part of the operating cost of most small town churches.  Some denominations would have one minister serving congregations in three or four towns.  Over a period of years the smaller congregations died out one by one.  Other denominations merged rural and small town congregations into a congregation in a larger town.  Many people find it too far to drive and now many congregations in the larger towns are struggling.

Ministers do not want to stay long in a low-paying church; the parishioners find the constant turnover of ministers discouraging.  Some ministers are young and find it hard to develop a rapport with parishioners older than themselves.  Others have been taught new ideas in the Bible Schools and Seminaries that do not resonate with their staid small-town parishioners.  Old-fashioned Bible truths and the old hymns are laid by in favour of teachings and choruses thought to be more appealing to younger people.  None of it seems to have worked.

The real problem is the notion that a church cannot survive without a trained and salaried minister.  The pattern shown in the Scriptures is for believers to meet together for worship and mutual edification.  In such a setting, The Holy Spirit will eventually give direction to choose one or more brethren to be ordained as ministers.  They will minister to the needs of the brothers and sisters, while continuing to earn their own livelihood.  The congregation may provide help for expenses incurred in their ministry, but they will not need a salary.

The preparation needed for the ministry is not training in Bible School or Seminary, but a genuine spiritual life, with love for God, the brotherhood and all mankind.  Such a minister is well equipped to minister to the needs of people and point them to the same Saviour who has delivered him in all his times of need.

The preaching of the Word should not be a lecture by someone who is considered to have superior knowledge, but an exposition of Bible truths that relate to the very real present day needs of every man and woman, including the preacher himself.

This is the pattern of the New Testament and of Anabaptists of former generations.  Congregations organized in such a manner can prosper and grow and multiply.

There was once much sound Bible-based preaching in other denominations.  I fear that over time the reliance on trained and salaried ministers introduced unsound teachings, as well as creating a financial burden that small-town congregations could not manage.

Are there still people in the small towns with a longing for Christian fellowship and sound Bible-based preaching?  Jesus came to seek and to save those who are lost and to gather together His scattered sheep.  Such sheep are not only to be found in the glamour of foreign mission fields or big city missions, some might be found in the very prosaic setting of a small town.

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