Planting Churches or Gardens?

“For you have been born again, not of perishable seed, but of imperishable, through the living and enduring word of God” (1 Peter 1:23)

I have noticed there has been a growth in the gardening industry of late. Christians are planting roots into local communities by beginning community gardens and teaching horticultural skills. Churches and Christian organisations are making substantial financial commitments into establishing these beds of vegetation. In fact, no fewer than 3 Pastors have asked me about this phenomenon over the past month.

Such ventures sound like a great idea. They can encourage people to think creatively about sustainable food, they may foster relationships among local people, and impart practical skills. But should we call these activities mission? Should we understand these program as growing God’s Kingdom?

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Starting a community garden could well be an expression of Christlike love and may exhibit some of the qualities of God’s Kingdom to our neighbourhood. These activities may articulate an interest in our neighbours and an intent to serve our communities. They may create relationships from which we will share the Gospel and see local churches growing. However, at least in some instances, the soil isn’t producing a harvest for God’s Kingdom because Christians are planting with stones, not seeds. The problem lies when these activities are pursued in the place of evangelism and when we develop these ministries instead of cultivating the local church.

We mustn’t neglect peoples’ material needs. God’s love for us in Christ Jesus should be displayed in every aspect of our lives, and yet the Bible gives a clear vision for what God’s mission is about and the Bible gives the Church clear mandates for how this mission is to be fulfilled.

There is a substantial theological argument supporting the thesis that mission should be understood as evangelism: speaking, explaining, proclaiming the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Whether we understand the biblical categories of mission to be speaking exclusively or primarily about evangelism, the imperative to preach Christ crucified, to call for repentance and faith in Christ, and seeing (new) Christians joining a local church is at the core of God’s purposes in the world.

If Jesus promised, “I will build my church”, why would Christians decline from joining in this task, or suggest that it is optional?

If Jesus calls on people to repent and believe the good news, how can we conclude that this is no longer central to our task?

The Great Commission places intentional Gospel telling front and center,

“Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”

The book of Acts is a record of the Gospel being preached, men and women being saved, and Churches being planted.

As the Apostle Paul explains to the Romans,

“If you declare with your mouth, “Jesus is Lord,” and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. 10 For it is with your heart that you believe and are justified, and it is with your mouth that you profess your faith and are saved. 11 As Scripture says, “Anyone who believes in him will never be put to shame.” 12 For there is no difference between Jew and Gentile—the same Lord is Lord of all and richly blesses all who call on him, 13 for, “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.

14 How, then, can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them? 15 And how can anyone preach unless they are sent? As it is written: “How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!”” (Romans 10:9-15)

We repeatedly discover that the Church is God’s given means through which he will display his purposes to the world,

“His intent was that now, through the church, the manifold wisdom of God should be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly realms, according to his eternal purpose that he accomplished in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Eph 3:11-13)

I suspect the shift that we are seeing from evangelism to community work and from church to community results from several factors. For example:

  1. Planting a garden is more socially accepted than planting a church. The former is easier when it comes to gaining council approval, local funding, and people warm to the idea.
  2.  We look for immediate results. Church planting is a long term, patient work with no guarantees of immediate fruit whereas a garden bed or community program is tangible.
  3. Poor teaching on ecclesiology has resulted in breeding unhealthy churches and therefore a lack of confidence in churches.
  4. Cultural pressures have diminished our view of God and removed the Bible’s portrait of sinful humanity.  Another problem is how too many Christian no longer believe in sin and in a God who judges nor believe that personal repentance and faith in Jesus Christ is necessary.
  5. Confidence in God’s word has taken a beating through the exegetical and hermeneutical minefields laid down by Christian liberalism, who keep telling us that the Bible can’t surely mean what it says.

I attended a denominational workshop several years ago where the speaker was encouraging attendees to think about mission. It soon became apparent that his shtick was, “mission today depends on finding ‘new and innovative methods’”, and that verbal proclamation wasn’t one of them. When I asked a question about evangelism, the response given was, “I guess one might think about that as an option”. In other words, evangelism was not a necessary component for participating in God’s mission. At the very least this demonstrates a deficient theology of the Gospel.

If the biblical pattern is to preach the Gospel and plant Churches, why push these tasks to the periphery and instead focus on gardening or cafes or teaching life skills to kids? Again, I’m not dismissing these activities; I think they can wonderful ways to serve others and to show people God’s love. They may well serve as part of what we do as Christians, but let’s not pretend it is mission, unless we are also using these ministries to create conversations about Christ or as a jumping off point to begin a Christianity Explored course or reading the Bible 1-1.

As Ed Stetzer famously quipped, “feed the poor and if necessary use food!” Of course, he was responding the famous saying that is falsely attributed to Francis of Assisi, “preaching the Gospel, and if necessary use words”.

I suspect mission has joined the growing list of words that are becoming meaningless due to the loose ways Christians have been applying it. A 1000 people might sit in a room and mention mission and everyone will shout, ‘Amen’. The problem is, we’ve either defined mission so broadly as to make the term redundant or because of reluctance to deem any activity as not conforming to God’s mission, we avoid defining it all together.

My contention is this: if we view mission without Gospel proclamation and without view to building Christ’s Church, we have strayed a long way from the vision God has revealed in his word. Even worse, these ministries cease to be good works and become stumbling blocks to the Gospel.

For the third time, I am not saying that it’s a mistake for Churches or Christians to create ministries in their communities that provide services or helps. I say if it’s a constructive way to love neighbours in your area, go for it. May we not give up on doing good works and loving our neighbours in all manner of ways, but let us not blur our vision of what God’s Kingdom is about by taking our eyes off God’s word and believing what God has spoken about his mission in the world.

In the parable of the sower, the Lord Jesus tells us the secret of the Kingdom,

“The farmer sows the word… Others, like seed sown on good soil, hear the word, accept it, and produce a crop—some thirty, some sixty, some a hundred times what was sown.”

Surely we can trust God to produce a great harvest, even in this age of skepticism in which we find ourselves today. Our role in mission is to obediently plant His seed (the Gospel) and to keep asking the Lord of the harvest to make it grow, for the good and salvation of people and for glory of Christ.

By all means, plant potatoes, peas, carrots, and pumpkin seed but please don’t neglect the seed that is the word of God, the only word that gives life to sinners.

Beer, Bible, and a Baptist?

Ok, let me clear my glass from the outset, I don’t drink beer. And no, it has nothing to do with being a Baptist. To my episcopalian skeptics I will retort by pointing out that for some years we had a group of  ‘underground’ beer brewers at our Church!

Leaving my personal drinking preferences aside, connecting the Bible and beer isn’t that novel an approach. After all, according to Martin Luther the Reformers held a Bible in one hand and a beer in the other,

“I simply taught, preached, and wrote God’s Word; otherwise I did nothing.  And then, while I slept, or drank Wittenberg beer with my Philip and my Amsdorf, the Word so greatly weakened the papacy that never a prince or emperor did such damage to it.  I did nothing.  The Word did it all.”

In what is possibly a first though, the Bible Society has joined arms with Coopers Brewery, with Coopers tagging 10,000 cartons of their light beer with a Bible verse, and with links to the Bible Society’s 200th anniversary. While Coopers may or may not benefit financially from this partnership is, I suspect, beside the point. One Aussie company is celebrating our nation’s oldest continuing organisation. There is nothing new about this; Aussie companies have noted and branded all kinds of Australian symbols and celebrations over the years, and this is just another…until one checks their twitter feed!

As part of the Bible Society’s anniversary, they have produced a series of short videos featuring Aussies discussing current topics. The first video was released this week with Federal MPs Tim Wilson and Andrew Hastie talking about same-sex marriage. Unlike the Bible versed cartons, Coopers Brewery has not sponsored the videos.

Yes, the video is light hearted

Yes, it’s promoting the Bible. Is that so wrong?

Yes, it is staged, but that doesn’t make the two politicians any less genuine with their comments. I don’t know Andrew Hastie, but I have met Tim Wilson, and I found him to be a decent Aussie bloke, who is clear about what he believes and who is also willing to let others express their views.

I’m sure a lot of Aussies will appreciate the video for what it is, a nonchalant signal that Australians can still sit down and talk about real issues, without name calling and speaking down to the other. However, it was clear from my Sunday afternoon twitter feed that not everyone is so happy.

One Melbourne politician and LBGTI advocate tweeted, ‘Nothing ‘civil’ about homophobia, and that’s what opposition to LGBTI equality is. Boycott @coopersbrewery’

Christine Milne is calling for Aussies to boycott Coopers! It’s okay Christine, I never have.

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Apparently we should never buy Coopers beer again, and the video reeks of homophobia. I’m not quite sure how that works given that Tim is openly gay and an advocate changing the marriage act.

It is sad to see how our society has reached the point where notable public figures have self-determined that civil discourse is no longer permissible unless it conforms with their particular brand of secular humanism.

I am not sure whether peoples grievance is over the fact that the Bible Society is behind the campaign or because two politicians have dared demonstrate a courteous disagreement about marriage. Either way, this short video breaks the narrative that social progressives would have the public believe, and for them, this is unforgivable. 

When society no longer permits the dissenting voice, as reasonable and gracious as that voice may be, we have abandoned any true sense of the phrase ‘liberal democracy’, and we have entered a very dark and dangerous pathway to authoritarianism. I do hope that we can see the light and steer away from such a direction.

I am reminded of when Christianity first arose in Jerusalem and then spread to neighbouring regions, and eventually throughout the Roman Empire. The Acts of the Apostles records how the apostles and first Christians won over people with persuasion and reason, with impassioned argument and kindness. There may or may not have been a beer in hand, but there was often a Bible, and that is ok. Should we hide the reasons for our beliefs and values? Is not owning up to them a more honest and ultimately more productive approach to public discourse and dialogue? And who knows, maybe next time we’ll drink coffee instead!

Australia’s Oldest Organisation Turning 200 years old

This weekend, Australia’s longest continuing organisation is celebrating it’s 200th anniversary. Few institutions survive 200 years, let alone continue to flourish after such time. The organisation which is reaching this rare milestone is not a bank or a theatre company, nor a business or school; it is the Bible Society of Australia.

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I suspect that if this were any other type of organisation, the coverage would be wide across our news and television. Let’s admit it, a 200 year anniversary doesn’t happen very often in Australian history.

The Bible Society had started in England some years earlier, with the purpose of distributing copies of the Bible to military servicemen, and later to Welsh speaking Britains who could not read an English translation of the Scriptures.

It was Governor Macquarie who in March 1817 encouraged the birth of the Bible Society of Australia.

The aims of the Bible Society have changed little in its 200 years. They exist to bring the Bible to Australians, whether in English or  by translating the Scriptures into many other languages so that people can read the word of God for themselves. They also support many translations projects across the world.

According to McCrindle research, approximately 45% of Australians now own a Bible (and that percentage shrinks to 32% for Gen Y), although Bible websites are visited by Australians in huge numbers, one site alone has over 50 million visits a year by Aussies. 

The Bible remains the most read book throughout the world, and has been translated into more languages than any other book. Despite a smaller number of Australians owning and reading the Bible, it remains enormously influential across our culture, including in politics, law, and the arts. And while some Australians have put is aside, many thousands of new Australians are keen to read this most astonishing book. Like the foundations of a building, or the innumerable kms of pipes that traverse underneath our streets, both are unseen and yet we depend on them every day, so to  the Bible has provided a bedrock with out which our society would be considerably weaker and less certain.

Think about it…the Bible is, to use its own description, the words of God, the very breathed out words of the living God for us. The Bible is the words of God, about God, and for us so that we might know him, and understand the world and even ourselves.

“The law of the Lord is perfect,

    refreshing the soul.

The statutes of the Lord are trustworthy,

    making wise the simple.

The precepts of the Lord are right,

    giving joy to the heart.

The commands of the Lord are radiant,

    giving light to the eyes.

The fear of the Lord is pure,

    enduring forever.

The decrees of the Lord are firm,

    and all of them are righteous.

They are more precious than gold,

    than much pure gold;

they are sweeter than honey,

    than honey from the honeycomb.

By them your servant is warned;

    in keeping them there is great reward.” (Psalm 19:7-11)

The Bible is without parallel in human thinking in regards to its view of God and design for humanity. It portraits God in ways that make the Sistine Chapel appear like a cistern, it penetrates the human psyche more deeply than a hydraulic drill piercing deep into ancient bedrock. It is more glorious than the music of J.S Bach and more comforting than the closest friend. It is more honest, more confounding, more rational, more mysterious than any other text we will read in our short lives. And yes, it chiefly tells us the story of redemption, of the God-man Jesus Christ, who has accomplished the impossible for us.

In a season when many Aussies are less inclined to consider God, I love the Bible Society’s anniversary slogan, Here for Good. Perhaps it sounds a little presumptuous, but 200 years isn’t a bad beginning, and for a book that has been changing the world for centuries longer, might I suggest that the presumption lies with those skeptics who would wish us to close the Bible once and for all, or to lock it up in a Museum’s glass case with the nation’s relics. The problem is, the Bible is a living book and it will continue to transform future generations of Australians, long after every other book has been forgotten.

This weekend there are formal celebrations taking place around the nation, but people are welcome to drop in to a church near them. If you live around Mentone/ Cheltenham, we’d love you to join us this Sunday at 10am, as we open the Bible together and hear of wonderful thing from God.

Also, the Bible Society is giving away free Bibles to anyone interested. If you’re visiting Mentone we are also very happy to give you a free Bible.

Why I value expository preaching

Yesterday while enjoying a final day of annual leave, as a family we visited another church in Melbourne, which we enjoyed. The preacher took us to Colossians 1:15-29, exhorting us from Scripture to avoid domesticating Jesus and instead capturing a vision of this Lord of creation and Lord of the Church. It was a hot day and the building didn’t have any air conditioning. Did I mention, it was hot?! The poor kids did well, although they let out the occasional groan, as a reminder to Dad and Mum that they were feeling the heat. That aside, it was a joy to hear the Bible being opened, and the truth of Jesus Christ being affirmed and expounded.

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One of the highest and most humbling opportunities I have as a Christian minister is to preach God’s word. Preaching is an exciting yet fearful task. It brings immense pleasure and yet requires great earnestness.

Paul writes in 2 Corinthians,

“We have renounced secret and shameful ways; we do not use deception, nor do we distort the word of God. On the contrary, by setting forth the truth plainly we commend ourselves to everyone’s conscience in the sight of God.”

According to Paul, the aim of preaching is not to mystify people or to promote a personality or to gain profit, rather it is to ‘set forth the truth plainly’.

In one of the most famous charges ever given to a pastor, Paul says to his apprentice, Timothy,

“Preach the word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage—with great patience and careful instruction.  For the time will come when people will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear.” (2 Timothy 4:2-3)

This is such a helpful passage for understanding the work of the preacher:

  • We’re told what to do: preach.
  • We are told what to preach: the word.
  • We are given a context for preaching: all the time is the season for preaching. 
  • We are given a set of aims in preaching: to correct, rebuke and encourage those listening.
  • We are given instruction as to the manner in which we preach: with great patience and careful instruction.
  • We are not however given a method. Having said this, I believe the Bible comes closer to methodology than we at first realise, for the content and aim of the sermon must surely drive the method. Not for a moment am I suggesting that there is only one way to preach. There are several valid styles of preaching including topical, doctrinal and narrative. Even among expository preachers we discover slightly different approaches: Dick Lucas, Don Carson, Tim Keller and Phillip Jensen are all well known for their expository preaching and yet no two are alike in their preaching. 

Broadly speaking, all preaching ought to be expository preaching, in the sense that the content of our sermons must come from the Bible. The authoritative, true and sufficient word that God has given to us is the Bible, and as 2 Timothy 4:2 reminds us, it is a God given mandate that our message be this word.

Evangelistic, topical and doctrinal sermons all can and ought to be exposition of Scripture. By this I don’t mean the verse by verse exegesis and application of consecutive passages, but that the point of the sermon must be grounded in and shaped by the word of God. In fact, a sermon may pool together several different Bible passages and yet teach them in such a way that they are being explained and applied correctly.

More specifically, expository preaching is an approach where the preacher takes a self-contained portion of the Bible (usually a book, which is subsequently divided into its constituent sections and then systematically preached over a number of weeks or months). He then explains and applies that passage according to the natural parameters set by the text, which includes genre of writing, the original audience, place in salvation history, its theme and tone. This may take the form of a careful verse by verse exposition, or it may cover several chapters in a single sermon with the preacher teaching and applying the main points that are contained within it.

While this method for preaching is not dictated in Scripture, it is the approach to preaching that I have found most helpful as I seek to be faithful to 2 Corinthians 4:2 and 2 Timothy 4:2.  Here are 8 reasons:

  1. Expository preaching shows that the authority lies in the word not in the preacher
  2. It helps ensure that it is God through his word who is setting the agenda, and not the preacher or the congregation or issues around us.
  3. Expository preaching helps me to be clear in my preaching. There is a structure and message in the text. My role isn’t to create a message, but rather the passage gives me the parameters.
  4. I want to be faithful to the whole counsel of God. All Scripture is God-breathed and is for our benefit, so we should aim to eventually preach through the entire Bible (one very long term project!).
  5. I want the church to value the whole Bible. Scripture is an incredibly rich book and I want people to explore all of it.
  6. Far from creating dull or irrelevant preaching, expository preaching keeps me interested and challenged in my preaching, and it pushes my congregation There are 66 different books in the Bible written at different times in history by different authors, in more than 12 different genres, exploring hundreds of themes. The literary diversity of the Bible also helps the congregation to sustain interest in the preaching.
  7. It helps the church to follow the preaching from week to week as they can read ahead.
  8. It is harder for the preacher to ignore difficult and unpopular topics.

In a season where confidence in God’s word is diminishing as people read the Bible less, and the Bible is less frequently read and preached in Church, expository preaching offers a significant antidote.

There is more to preaching than method, and admittedly, there are potential dangers in preaching expositorily, but they have more to do with the preacher than the method: i.e. a lack of training, limited experience, or a preacher who takes short-cuts in their preparation. If I am aiming for my preaching to be faithful, clear, interesting, and compelling to the hearer, then expository preaching will serve me well.

The preacher’s task is immense: heaven and hell are the outcomes, life or death are on offer. Surely it is wise to pursue an approach that will help our preaching to be as faithful and clear as can be.

Answers to Difficult Questions

This Sunday at Mentone Baptist Church we are beginning a 3 week apologetic series, examining 3 hot topics:

1. Should Christians object to same-sex marriage? (April 3rd)

2. What is a Christian response to refugees? (April 10th)

3. Is the a reason for suffering (April 17)

Everyone is welcome to join us. Following each service there will be a QandA session to explore in further detail questions relating to these topics

ApologeticsforWeb

 

It’s all Dutch to me

You may have read these startling words a few days ago:

“profit from making misery out of the lives of others”

“Australians are harming themselves and others”

These statements were among others released last week, raising suspicions as to what pernicious if not terrorist plans are being mounted in Australia.

Why are they calling for people to take advantage of those in desperate circumstances? How are Australians harming others, and who are these others? Syrians? Iraqis?

Far from belonging to a foiled terror plot, all three sentences were in fact spoken by Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, as part of a speech he gave last week at St Vincent’s hospital, Sydney. He was announcing the release of a report looking into the terrible trauma that the drug ice is inflicting on our society.

Without context, each of these lines could be interpreted in a range of ways, including a worst case scenario.

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You may be one of the million or more people who have now watched on youtube, ‘The Holy Quran Experiment’. Last week, two Dutch filmmakers, Sacha Harland and Alexander Spoor, had the bright idea of taking a Bible and disguising its cover to  look like a copy of the Koran. They then walked the streets asking people for their reactions to certain ‘shocking’ verses that were read to them from the “Koran”. The Koran  of course was never cited, only Bible passages were read, such as from Leviticus ch.20 and ch.26 and from 1 Timothy ch.2.

People were genuinely convinced that the Bible verses being read to them where sayings from the Koran, and they offered comments such as,

“To me this sounds like they want to oppress you and force you to believe what they believe.”

“If you’ve been raised with this book and these kinds of thoughts, it’s going to influence the way you think.”

At the start of the video, Harland and Spoor offer this explanation for the experiment, “Muslims have been accused of following a faith that has no place in our Western culture. What about Christianity? A religion that has influenced our culture greatly”.

This “comic” Bible-Koran experiment might possibly reveal something about Dutch attitudes toward Islam, but what it really proves is sadly how illiterate people are when it comes to knowing the Bible (and also the Koran).

If the intent was, as the video suggests, to demonstrate how Christianity contains awful ideas and practices, they haven’t done a particularly stellar job. Ripping Bible verses out of their context says no more about Christianity than what you learnt about Malcolm Turnbull when I cut and pasted from his speech on fighting drugs. Phrases and sentences have historic and literary contexts, without which, they lose the meaning given to them, and thus we end up reaching all kinds of strange conclusions that were never intended. That is not to say that the Bible doesn’t describe some pretty shocking events or contain ideas that challenge our modern sensibilities, but reciting words without their context helps no one to understand either the Bible or Islam. If anything, these Dutch comedians haven’t mocked the Bible, they’ve  made a bad joke about their own methodology.

I wonder if Australians are as biblically illiterate as the Dutch? I hope not, but I suspect so. Perhaps there is a lesson here though, read the Bible more not less!