The Wanderer

As I walked through the wilderness of this world …

Posts Tagged ‘church

The restoration of public worship (again)

with one comment

Having heard nothing yet from the Rt Hon Robert Jenrick MP, Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government, about the prospects of Christian churches meeting for worship as soon as possible, and given recent developments, I have written again. And, again, I put it here not as the last word, but in the hopes that others might also be able to make representations along these lines for a recognition of our duty and our right to gather responsibly for the worship of the true and living God.

Further to my previous letter of Wednesday 27 May, I would like to raise once more the issue of the worship of Christian churches of the kind to which I belong.

As previously stated, in the matter of Christian worship, the focus in the Bible is on the people who worship rather than the place of worship. While I am sure that many are glad that places of worship are now open for private prayer, for Christians who value the gathering of the church for corporate worship (that is, our worship as a gathered body of believers) it offers little help. We can and do pray at all times and in all places. As made clear in my previous letter, for the Christians for whom I speak, nothing can replicate or replace the distinct spiritual privileges of meeting together for worship as a church, according to the direction of the Bible and therefore our religious principles. Such gatherings encourage and express our deepest convictions and hopes as believers in Jesus Christ.

Recently, the Prime Minister tweeted this: “People have a right to protest peacefully & while observing social distancing but they have no right to attack the police. These demonstrations have been subverted by thuggery – and they are a betrayal of the cause they purport to serve. Those responsible will be held to account” (@BorisJohnson, 9:13pm, 07 Jun 2020). Would the Prime Minister, and you, also be willing to assure us that people have a right to worship God peacefully while observing social distancing and not attacking the police? We believe we can and should be able to gather for worship outside of our church buildings, and to do so at least as responsibly, carefully and safely as any comparable activities.

In that connection, we are aware of moves toward the reopening of cafés, pubs and restaurants, perhaps allowing responsible service outside while maintaining social distancing. If this is the case, whether in June or July, then it should be possible for Christians to meet for worship outside their existing church buildings. My previous letter outlined some ways in which we might be able to do this responsibly, carefully and safely. Given the nature of our regular gatherings, especially with social distancing measures observed, the impact on the R number of meeting in this way for worship would, at worst, be minimal.

I appreciate that there are countless calls on your time and energy at present, and we do pray for God’s favour toward our country and those whom he has put in government over the nation. I look forward to hearing from you, and to positive suggestions as to how the church which I serve, and others like us, can honour God in our obedience to him, while also honouring the civil authorities which God has established.

Written by Jeremy Walker

Thursday 11 June 2020 at 14:16

The restoration of public worship

with 3 comments

Encouraged by efforts in other places, I have written to the Rt Hon Robert Jenrick MP, Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government, about the prospects of Christian churches meeting again as soon as possible. The letter has been copied to Baron Greenhalgh, Faith Minister, and my local Member of Parliament. I put it here not because I think it is the last word, but in the hopes that others might themselves be encouraged to do more, better.

I hope that this communication finds you, and yours, safe and well during these still difficult days. My name is Jeremy Walker, and I am a pastor of Maidenbower Baptist Church in Crawley, West Sussex. I am writing about the government’s plans for the restoration of public worship in Christian churches.

As the government attempts to lead us out of lockdown, I am conscious of the difficult decisions and fine judgments that government and Parliament make and carry out, and the wisdom required. The church of Christ makes this a matter of particular prayer. We pray not as an issue of party political allegiance (1 Timothy 2:1–2) but because the church is a spiritual body rather than a political or even a social agency.

In this regard, I and others like me have been disappointed and even distressed to see the government’s plans for the restoration of public worship. At present, church buildings are in Step Three of the government’s plan (OUR PLAN TO REBUILD: The UK Government’s COVID-19 recovery strategy), in which the ambition “is to open at least some of the remaining businesses and premises that have been required to close, including personal care (such as hairdressers and beauty salons), hospitality (such as food service providers, pubs and accommodation), public places (such as places of worship) and leisure facilities (like cinemas)” (page 31).

When it comes to the matter of religious worship, the focus in the Bible is on the people who worship. The focus in government policy appears to be on the place of worship. When the focus is on the latter, the physical space and social dynamics of a church building lead to it being classified among other enclosed social spaces like cinemas, theatres and restaurants. When the focus is on the former, the question becomes one of facilitating our corporate gathering as what the Bible calls “the body of Christ”—the people who are joined to him by our faith in him, and who thus become the spiritual family of God.

I note that the Ministry of Housing, Communities & Local Government has established a taskforce developing a plan to reopen places of worship. However, it seems that Christians who share my convictions about our faith and life (Protestant and Dissenting) are substantially absent from that taskforce. For the Christians of whom I am representative, both in Crawley and elsewhere, it is the act of worship more than the place of worship that is important. So, for example, the government suggests that places of worship may be open for private prayer before Saturday 4th July. While we commend any move toward the safe opening of our church buildings, we can privately pray anywhere and at any time, and we do, together with other acts of private and family devotion.

However, for the Christians for whom I speak, nothing can replicate or replace the distinct privileges of meeting together as a church under the Word of God preached to us in person. Christians like me join believers in other nations in making clear that neither confessional Christian faith nor the church as a body can faithfully exist without a Lord’s day gathering. As others have said in other countries, the Bible and centuries of habit oblige Christians to gather weekly for worship and witness around the Word of God and sacraments—we need one another to flourish in our service to Christ (Exodus 20:9-11; 1 Corinthians 16:1-2; Hebrews 10:24-25; Acts 2:42, 20:7). This divine obligation and hard-won historic freedom supersedes all human legislation and regulation. The church is not comparable to any other social venue and cannot be dismissed as non-essential by an expert in any field. We say with respect that the church does not exist and is not regulated by permission of the state, for its establishment and rule is found in Jesus Christ himself.

The biblical rhythm of worship is weekly, gathering on the first day of the week to honour God and to receive spiritual blessings from him as his Word is preached. It is why the Bible commands us not to forsake the assembling of ourselves together (Hebrews 10:25). The language of weekly corporate gathering is used repeatedly in the New Testament, and to it are attached any number of divine encouragements to pursue it, divine promises regarding it, and divine warnings against neglecting it. It is essential for us, and we are beginning to see among us and around us the effects of the churches failing to meet, both in the impact on us and on those whom we serve in various ways.

We understand that love to God and to our neighbour, with respect for and cooperation with the civil authorities whom God has placed over us, has necessitated not forsaking but suspending our regular assemblies. As Christians who know the hope of resurrection through Jesus Christ we do not fear death but we do wish to preserve health and life. However, we are convinced that more needs to be done to facilitate a restoration of our regular practice.

At present, we are permitted to spend time outdoors subject to government guidelines. Step Two of the government’s plan begins on Monday 1st June. It includes such measures as phased returns for schools, opening non-essential retail, permitting cultural and sporting events behind closed doors, and re-opening some public transport. There is some scope for increased social and family contact (pages 30-31 of the plan to rebuild).

I respectfully suggest that during this second phase it should be possible for Christians to meet for worship outside their existing church buildings. While we recognise that this involves more than physical families gathering, we believe that we can meet and conduct our worship safely. For example, the church which I serve, and others like us, might:

  1. Use our own church grounds, where we have them, or sufficiently wide open spaces, where we do not, to prevent potentially obstructing or endangering others going about their own business. We would be willing to meet early or late, as common sense dictates, to enable us to meet at all.
  2. Communicate and enforce health protocols in our gatherings based on government guidance.
  3. Prevent access to our buildings to minimise any actual or potential risks from proximity.
  4. Ensure that individuals or family units attending outdoor services are and remain at least two metres apart from one another for the duration of our services, including arrival and departure.
  5. Encourage attendees to use appropriate personal hygiene measures including but not limited to regular handwashing, the appropriate use of hand sanitiser, and the wearing of masks.
  6. Continue online provision of religious services as we are able, so that those who are not comfortable with gathering or who cannot meet in person due to age or health challenges can engage in some degree.
  7. Require attendees to affirm explicitly that they have no symptoms, have not travelled out of the country within the last fourteen days and have not been in contact with anyone with the virus.

I would also suggest that the third phase should explicitly provide for the safe restoration of public worship, whether within or without church buildings. For this to be done well, it might include the following:

  1. Communicating and enforcing health protocols in our churches based on government guidance.
  2. The initial limitation of access to our services and ministries to approximately 40% of our building capacities to permit physical distancing, expanding that number as circumstances permit. This will allow for plenty of room between persons well beyond two metres in most facilities and acknowledges that not all church facilities have equal capacity. If necessary, we could hold multiple or staggered services to allow as many as possible to attend.
  3. Providing a clean facility including hand sanitisers and wiping down of common surfaces between services.
  4. Encouraging attendees to use appropriate personal hygiene measures including but not limited to regular handwashing, the appropriate use of hand sanitiser, and the wearing of masks.
  5. Continuing online provision of religious services as we are able, so that those who are not comfortable with gathering or who cannot meet in person due to age or health challenges can engage in some degree.
  6. Requiring attendees to explicitly affirm that they have no symptoms, have not travelled out of the country within the last fourteen days and have not been in contact with anyone with the virus in order to attend.

Our first concern is for the glory of God and the good of all those for whom the church of Jesus Christ brings God’s good news. We should be grateful for a response from you as soon as possible, and willing to consider any further advice you have to offer us. I look forward to your positive response, and to a continued good and respectful relationship with civil authorities as we seek to honour our Creator and Saviour in the country of which he has made us grateful and prayerful citizens.

Written by Jeremy Walker

Wednesday 27 May 2020 at 13:51

Lockdown: pastoral and preaching conundrums

with 4 comments

Various friends in ministry wrestle with the pastoral implications of the lockdown, as they serve in difficult circumstances locally, nationally, and almost globally. They are facing some particular questions, some apparently less substantially, many more so. Of course, many of those concerns and the responses to them are going to hinge, in large measure, on your sense of what preaching is and ought to be. Low and flat views of preaching are likely to prompt fewer and shallower questions. High and rich notions of preaching are likely to stir more and deeper concerns. Here are some of the common issues so far, with some thoughts toward answers.

Q: What vocabulary do I use to describe my activities when what I do falls short of the full-orbed reality?

A: I would not tie myself in knots about it. We have a common frame of reference for certain kinds of things, and we know when we are using a word for the right kind of thing without pretending it is the whole of that thing. For those of more tender conscience, I do not think you need to get wound up about whether or not you are using the right nouns and adjectives for certain activities e.g. if it is online, can you still call it a gathering or meeting, or do you need to keep qualifying it? If there is no congregation, must I avoid referring to it as preaching? There is some value in precision, as we shall see, but use the normal vocabulary and make the proper distinctions and qualifications when needed either to avoid confusion or make a point.

Q: How do I preach to a camera?

A: This is one of those examples where our casual use of vocabulary needs some particular nuance. We understand the question, but greater precision with our language assists with the answer. You do not preach to a camera. At the best, you are trying to do something as close as possible to preaching to the people who are through or behind the camera. The typical answer seems to be, “With great difficulty!” Some brothers broke down in tears the first time they tried to preach in an otherwise or largely empty room. Some found the pain got worse the second or third time, or the second or third week. Others found it shifted quickly to a kind of a dull ache. Some feel a near-perpetual flatness in preaching without a congregation, missing all the personal, pastoral prompts that keep a sermon lively in its delivery. We do not know how to adjust and to adapt in the act of preaching without the hints and tips that congregational posture, gesture and expression, those little prompts to shift our tone, pitch, and volume, or to tweak our substance to gain or keep the attention.

For some, the answer has been to shift more into teaching mode, delivering something more like a lecture from behind a desk or table at home, or standing in a living room. Others have tried to make that environment more ‘preacherly’ but have found it difficult to do so when accustomed to a very different environment. Those more accustomed to preaching and teaching in homes and other such venues have had an advantage here. Some are recording or broadcasting from a church building still, and have found the dynamic of being in a place where there is usually a congregation very hard. One or two have taken a wife or whole family along, and tried to preach as to a bigger congregation. This has proved hard for the preacher and for his wife and family, who also struggle with the unusual circumstances of hearing (especially younger children). One brother insisted on having no one else in the room, so that he could focus entirely on the camera, and speaking effectively to those who were or would be on the other side of it. This, he felt, gave him a more immediate focus and the closest thing to direct contact with his congregation. For myself, I have tried several different things, and confess again that nothing fully replicates or properly replaces the reality of a living man preaching the living Word among living people before the living God.

One could plot a graph along two axes: one is from livestreaming to recording, the other from a more intimate or informal to the more formal environment. So livestreaming in a more intimate setting will provide something of the immediacy of engagement but likely strip down some of the preaching dynamics, whereas livestreaming from a more formal setting (e.g. the pulpit of a largely empty building) will probably create a more ‘preacherly’ feel for the minister but less contact with those to whom he preaches. Recording from a study chair, or whatever, is likely to provide a measure of care in the instruction but cuts us off from the congregation almost entirely, making a sermon more like a shared private devotion; recording in a church building risks something of a performance but gives the preacher some expansion of soul, so long as he can remember that there are real people on the other side of the lifeless lens.

The congregational corollary of this, naturally, is, “How do I participate through a screen?” This, too, is a real challenge because so many of the normal constraints are lifted. I know some people are accustomed to wandering in and out of the services of worship on the whims of their children or the whimpers of their bodily functions, but to listen at home suspends so many of the normal and profitable disciplines of good hearing. Watching or listening on a device opens you up to the usual stream of device-based distractions, you can pause the preacher while you grab a drink, get a snack, use the toilet; you can adjust the volume, fast forward the ‘boring’ bits, replay the stuff you weren’t listening for, or just switching off. Some platforms tell you not just the number of views, but the length of views. It can be tough to see that a preacher captures most hearers for an average of about two minutes! More of this later.

It is massively difficult to ‘preach’ to a camera, and can be equally painful to watch or listen via an electronic device. I do not think there is an easy answer to this. To some extent, it will reflect the preacher’s own constitution and capacity, his previous experience of what it means to try to preach, and the kinds of responses that he is accustomed to from a gathered church. Most preachers have reported a distinct kind or unusual measure of exhaustion in different aspects of their humanity because of the intensity of concentration and focus required to communicate clearly and earnestly through this medium.

The short answer, then, is this: you do not preach to a camera. You preach to people. You might attempt to do something like preaching to people through the camera, and you will have to adapt many of the normal expectations and considerations.

Q: Am I performing when I am moved in preaching to no-one physically present?

A: Not necessarily, but it often feels like it. Typically, emotion involves reaction. We are often moved when we enter into the experience of others, whether joyful or miserable. Much affection is shared. Again, some of your responses may differ depending on your environment and your congregation (normal preaching place vs. other place, no live congregation vs. some live congregation, recording vs. livestreaming).

So, what is it that is moving us? Of course, we are not talking about the kind of preacher of whom Spurgeon spoke, who had the words, “Weep here,” scrawled in the margins of his sermon manuscript! We are interacting with God as we speak, and interacting with the truth. That truth is having an impact upon our own soul, or should be, under the influence of the Holy Spirit. That affectional force is usually heightened or amplified as it reverberates through living souls, and eye meets eye, and heart meets heart, and deep speaks unto deep. In the absence of such a spiritual echo chamber, we might still be deeply moved, especially as we consider the people who are not there.

So, you must know yourself. If, engaged with the truth of God and the God of truth, you are moved in the depths of your own being, then that is perfectly legitimate. If you are in your normal preaching place, you may forget yourself in the act of ‘preaching’ as you enter into something persuasive or pressing, visualising your usual congregation. Bear in mind, though, that—as ever—the spirit of the prophets is subject to the prophets. The presence of a living congregation can sometimes act as something of a healthy check on a preacher, on which more below.

Q: Why do my speed, pitch and tone change (typically flatten out) in the absence of a congregation?

A: Because the impact of his congregation on the preacher is quite earthy. Several are finding that they speed up and flatten out without a congregation to push them into a normal cadence with proper variation, and a healthy variety of pitch and tone. In the absence of such prompts, both of acceleration and braking, rising and falling, you will need to labour that much harder to be both measured and engaging, bearing in mind that the challenges of listening to you on a screen are only likely to intensify the challenge of hearing your high-speed monotone! That kind of self-awareness may prove a blessing, though, once you are back in the normal course of things, God willing. Certainly it forces us to ask questions and learn lessons about our public preaching.

Q: Am I bolder or more direct when preaching through a screen, and is that a defect in my regular preaching or a function of the medium? Am I discovering that I am, in fact, a pulpit coward, willing to say things in the absence of a real person that I would never say with them sitting in front of me?

A: Part of the answer to this lies in a fair comparison with your regular pulpit ministry. Part lies in an awareness of the way the medium works, and how it can betray you or assist you.

Perhaps it is not unlike the difference between the man who regularly preaches to fifty and the man who regularly preaches to five hundred. On the one hand, Mr Fifty can bring the word of God tellingly to all the flock, while needing to make sure that he does not so single out one or two that the rest of the congregation immediately know who or what he is talking about, while he hides behind the pulpit. On the other, Mr Five-Hundred may be obliged to be broader in bringing the Word of God to a greater variety of circumstances, but might also be more direct with regard to certain matters, striking hard at certain sins without being in a position to single out individuals, or loosing his bow at a venture and allowing the arrow to fall where it will.

However, distance also breeds coolness, and the camera and the screen impose a measure of distance. Again, take into account the lack of congregational, personal prompts. For example, many pastors know what it is to go to have a hard conversation with a member of the church, and to semi-script their difficult words beforehand, only to find that sitting down with that person introduces a compassion and a tenderness that was lacking in the imagined interaction. The same can happen in the pulpit. The ebb and flow of the sermon is influenced, under God, by those kinds of engagements with the real people sitting in front of you. You remember their humanity more readily.

Furthermore, consider that a certain hardness seems to be one of the typical functions of the hiddenness of so much online interaction, either a kind of perverse ‘digital courage’ or a lack of the empathy and responsiveness that should develop when face to face. People seem willing to say things or write things to or about others when they are at an electronic remove that they would not, one hopes, dare to say face to face. Could that be creeping into our preaching when there is an invisible congregation? We certainly need to take account of that.

But it is not only the preacher. As we shall discuss more below, online gatherings for instruction or prayer can be derailed by either a simple lack of awareness, or—worse—that same kind of digital courage manifesting itself in words and phrases that a more immediately personal interaction would not draw out.

So, yes, it is a good question to ask. Perhaps you could ask it of your fellow-elders or other mature saints? “Is the tone and range and thrust of my ministry noticeably different than it was a month ago? Is there any harshness or insensitivity creeping in?” Do not let the medium betray you into a coldness and a hardness, nor lull you into a dullness and a vagueness.

Q: How can I effectively communicate with and care for Christ’s flock under my charge in these circumstances?

A: With difficulty. ‘Pastoral visitation’ becomes much more limited when you cannot sit down and talk with someone in depth. You realise how much of the occasional and incidental business of pastoral care is carried out in the margins of church meetings, a word here or there, someone who catches you while you or they are coming in, going out, or hanging around. Those snatched moments, in person, when taken together, weigh quite a lot. The value of the written note should not be underestimated, nor of the simple text or email. Some of these can be general, others might be more personal. I think that trying to call round the congregation, if necessary dividing up the workload between elders, is a valuable process. Do not be surprised to find that it takes a great deal longer than you anticipated. Urge your ready availability upon God’s people: some will come and find you out, others will need to be dug out. Bear in mind how the extra dimensions of a video call might be a help in some situations, or a threat in others. You might quickly become aware of some who are more vulnerable than others—not necessarily susceptible to physical disease, but to spiritual or emotional or mental malaise as a result of their circumstances. Some of those suffering might surprise you, as might some of those lasting the course quite readily. Engaging the deacons of the church will be vital, because—under these circumstances—there will be a lot of investment that straddles that line between pastoral and diaconal business, with perhaps quite a lot of handing back and forth as a situation shifts, or parcelling out specific aspects of care. As key workers, you may have a little scope to visit personally, as even a cheerful face and voice through a window or at the end of a garden path can be a tonic to the soul. Remember, too, that in many congregations there will be members who have effectively been in something like isolation for weeks or months: members physically incapable of attending services, brothers and sisters with compromised immune systems who have been having to live at a distance during periods of illness or treatment. Some of them might have developed a certain resilience, and might help you understand what others are now facing. Others might find that this situation becomes the straw that breaks the camel’s back. There will be a lot of poised reactivity, of prepared responsiveness, that is required.

Q: Is shifting to ‘online church’ the easy answer?

A: Leaving aside the fact that ‘online church’ is a contradiction in terms, the short answer is: By no means! In fact, several using typical and typically average equipment and facilities have found at least as many problems online as offline, if not more. Again, it is not only pastors whose sensitivity and awareness suffers when contributing or participating online. Some report real insensitivity in prayer, because of a lack of awareness of who is digitally ‘present.’ Some of the problems are more basic: barely- or non-existent internet access for people, or faulty or older equipment, often leading to buffering problems with lags in video and audio. (You can tell when everyone else leans in to hear what, if anything, is being said.) Some people have never had to use their equipment in this way before, and all the settings and many of the functions are a new world. Some people, apparently fine with normal face to face interaction, cannot bear the idea of being in front of a camera or appearing on a screen. I imagine that some people are dressing for the occasion! Some either don’t or won’t turn of their microphones, or do not realise that once they are online we can all see and hear them leading to some interesting things heard and seen. (I got a beautiful comment on my appearance the other day, blithely broadcast to the entire group online.) Some people start spoken conversations, not realising that everyone is in on them, or that no-one knows to whom they are speaking. Some dominate online conversations because they can do so more easily, perhaps without realising. Some find the feel of people being in their home by device quite invasive. Some are persuaded that we are infiltrating their computers and causing permanent damage. Some find the feeling of half-connecting painful enough that they would rather not connect at all. Some preachers (and many others) struggle with the basic idea of framing a shot to be seen normally, and we end up with countless shots of one nostril and a lot of ceiling.

So, in addition to everything else that is lacking in terms of basic spiritual communication (see above), the online realm is just as fraught with issues as offline.

Q: Am I reaching a wider audience with ‘online preaching’?

A: Perhaps, but a number of men without a developed online audience have found that the numbers have rapidly declined after an initial burst of interest. In addition, some platforms allow you not only to see how many people have watched, but for how long. It can be a rather painful lesson to learn that the average time that your two watchers spent watching was about ninety seconds. Others have said how wonderful it is to have fifty or sixty people rather than twenty or thirty, but when it drops to fifteen or twenty, that can be disheartening. It is one of those situations in which we must weigh rather than count, or—if we do not have the tools to do either—to leave the matter with God. It may be a matter of casting your bread upon the waters (Ecc 11:1), and hoping to find it after many days. Perhaps some of those thirty second bursts of listening might stick in the soul and produce an abundant harvest in due course. Certainly, it is worth considering that there may be more gospel content online in real time and recorded formats in the last month than in the previous few years.

Q: So how much of this should we maintain when we get back to normal?

A: Who knows when that will be or what will be normal by then! Going back to the last question, how readily might people who have only heard the gospel online, and perhaps come to know Christ, come to make the transition to ‘real church’ rather than some sort of online pick’n’mix? How will we reach them, and bring them? Will they come of their own accord? What might be the fallout for church members who decide that actually they prefer a more remote life in which they can do what they want when they want with whom they want? Will this lead to a sifting as well as a gathering?

Will we have the opportunity to revisit our ecclesiology, and both emphasise and demonstrate some of the realties which, up to this point, were little more than theories in the minds of Christian men and women? It may be that the situation will have already enforced certain aspects of our churchmanship that before lay on the surface, but have now been driven deep into our souls. Our ecclesiology, not least our theology of a gathered church in a particular locality, might be either damaged or enriched, or perhaps both.

One brother said he was ready to drop all the online stuff like a rock once the situation was back to something more normal. He was expectant that most people would come eagerly back to the normal means of grace, and a little concerned that some would settle for what they considered was a ready replacement. I hope for the former, and I fear the latter. But I am also left thinking, with something of shame, that we have moved quickly and robustly when the whole church has faced these challenges. But, for many of us, there are men and women who have been and will remain isolated by physical circumstances. There are people who would drag themselves to church meetings by their teeth if they could only get there. Having been so quick to provide for ourselves under these circumstances, and without pandering to those who might abuse the opportunities, have we learned some lessons about how we can more effectively minister to those who will remain cut off when everyone else is drawn back in? Which of these modes and methods might remain in use, perhaps tailored to the dynamics of the new situation, so that we are not providing a short-cut to people who would rather not make the effort while still providing an escape route to people who would if they possibly could?

And, as we said, what will normal look like in a few weeks or months time? Who knows what sort of economic or social impacts will result? We cannot easily predict what the church might have lost or gained over that time, and what we will need to do in order to reset our corporate life. Those first meetings back might be difficult. There might be some gaps in the congregation that were not there before. There might be some new faces which were not there before. We might gather again in the house of feasting. We might gather in the house of mourning. Perhaps, as in the days of Ezra, we shall struggle to “discern the noise of the shout of joy from the noise of the weeping” (Ezr 3:13). I trust that we shall learn many lessons, and the end of a thing will prove better than the beginning.

Written by Jeremy Walker

Thursday 16 April 2020 at 15:23

The invisible congregation

with 7 comments

Yesterday evening, I sent out a brief and innocent tweet: “Preaching to an invisible congregation is more exhausting than I thought.” I was surprised by the tide of earnest response that it garnered from tired pastor-preachers.

Why should that be? What can we—pastors and preachers, and congregations—do about it? Answering that question will tell us a lot about our theology of preaching and our theology of the church, for better or for worse.

We must first take account of the limitations of pre-recorded or even livestreamed preaching. Perhaps the best way to communicate this is to give a précis of what I said at the beginning of our video recordings yesterday. It went something like this:

We are grateful to all who are joining us (from our own congregation and others) but we need to issue a necessary reminder.

While some means are better than others, because they have more dimensions of communication, recorded videos, livestreams, and the like are not a substitution for the gathering of the church, but reflect an interruption of it.

Genuine biblical preaching is a living man among living men before the living God: it involves a supernatural reality along appointed channels—both preacher and congregation subject to the immediate operations of the Holy Spirit and both communicating with each another under his influence.

In the absence of a congregation, those dimensions of real preaching are stripped away; the livestream or recording further diminishes that reality because of the extra distancing involved.

We are not, therefore, trying to accomplish what cannot be done. We are not setting out to replicate, by electronic means, the vital spiritual reality of the gathered people of God in the presence of our God under the Word of God.

These efforts are not a replacement for the gathered church but a supplement for the scattered church.

The situation we face keeps us spiritually hungry; this temporary and limited provision stops us spiritually starving.

These scraps will, with the blessing of God, keep you going, but they should also make us long for the restoration of the weekly feast and the laying of the eternal banquet.

That gives something of the backdrop to the challenges we face. Without denying the care of our Heavenly Father, or the goodness of the Good Shepherd, or the might and mercy of the Holy Spirit, the simple fact is that this situation robs us of the normal means and channels by which this act of preaching is normally conducted. That dynamic preaching triangle—in which the Holy Spirit is operating along three planes, involving God and the preacher, God and the congregation, and the preacher and the congregation, each operating upon each other with or under the Spirit’s superintendence—is missing one of its corners.

For the congregation, the mentality of ‘going to worship’ is reduced. Under these lock-down and shut-in circumstances, we are being encouraged to maintain a routine for home-working, to get into the groove of labour despite being not in the normal place of labour. In a similar fashion, getting up, getting ready, and getting out for worship, going to a particular place for that particular activity, helps to put us in mind of what we are about.

Add to that the fact that the congregation is now typically in a different and potentially distracting environment. One of the advantages of Dissenting chapel architecture is its deliberately clean minimalism, removing many of the elements which might otherwise take our hearts off the preaching and hearing of the Word of God. Now, the inventive or unfocused mind will find and have a hundred ways still to do that … the animal outside the window … the number of panels in the ceiling or wall … the play of the sunlight … the preacher’s verbal tic … the agitation of the family with the young children … the reflection of light from a watch face. Been there, done all that! But, the fact remains that many church buildings are uncluttered spaces designed to focus the attention on the preaching. Our homes are not the same. There are all the things that we are accustomed to do, all the things that we would not have to worry or think about if at home. We lack the gracious pressure of a whole congregation helping to establish a reverent and attentive atmosphere. We can get up and brew up, we can pause the preacher, we can relax in our comfortable chair and drift away. There is also the novelty factor, especially for those who have children. The fact that it isn’t ‘church’ can make it harder for our children to adapt.

And then, the preacher himself is not there to engage with them, to pick up on the ebbs and flows of a congregation and its listening. This is no longer a mutually responsive environment. Perhaps they are tuning in to someone else who is not even their pastor and usual preacher, so he is not even preaching with them in mind. The reality of this particular under-shepherd feeding this particular flock which he knows and for which he is, under God, responsible, is gone.

The preacher is, perhaps, aware of much of this. It may be that he has some very similar challenges for himself, for many were attempting broadcasts from a study or living room or kitchen. He is not in his typical environment for preaching. Perhaps he is sitting when usually he is standing, behind a desk when usually behind a pulpit. Distractions which are usually absent (barring those of the congregation!) are now painfully present.

Or perhaps he is preaching from a church building, and he has only before him rows of empty seats (perhaps a few family members), or just a camera (perhaps not even an operator). (Our recording involves a quick jog to press a button and back to the pulpit.) Now he is missing all the cues which, under God, normally stir his soul. The regular rhythms of gathered worship which so often generate spiritual momentum are absent. Worse, there are no people, no faces, no responses. And he is, or should be, conscious that—whether livestreamed or recorded—he has to overcome, under God, some of the congregation’s disadvantages, wherever they may be and under whatever circumstances they might be listening. And so he begins to preach … except it’s barely preaching. His normal thinking and feeling are all undermined by the absence of that natural and spiritual give-and-take which characterises real public ministry. He never was a mere automaton, spouting religious words. He struggles to concentrate, to maintain intensity, he has no external cues for the ebb and flow of the sermon, no external prompts for getting, keeping, or recovering the attention of a body of people. He is not so much leading the flock to the green pastures as pinging vitamin pellets at them with a catapult. Perhaps he is not sure where to look—at the camera, at the seats, out the windows. He does not want merely to read, but he struggles to do more than speak. Everything feels flat, and there is a possibility that he will over-compensate, and try to do what—under the circumstances—is nigh-on impossible to be done, and end up not with a flat mess but with a hot one.

And, then, perhaps worst of all for him, he may have an opportunity down the line to watch or hear a recording of himself, which—as most preachers know—leaves us ready to crawl into a deep dark hole of mourning and regret (or maybe just a real deep, dark hole), taking perpetual vows never to preach again, let alone in front of a camera, for his own sake, and the sake of all whom he loves and whose sanity he cherishes.

And that leaves us with the last point of that dynamic triangle: God. This is a good place to be left! If it were not for our Lord’s blessing upon regular ministry, it would be at least as bad as that usually, if not worse. It is he who, by his Spirit, establishes all those connections and makes them lively with heavenly forcefulness. The usual means he has appointed are no longer in place. The usual channels of blessing are dry or blocked. But, as a well-established Confession of Faith puts it, “God in his ordinary providence makes use of means, but he is free to work without, above, and against them as he pleases.” Praise God that it is so! What we are doing is just not church, and it is not quite preaching, but that does not stop the Lord blessing the usual means under unusual circumstances, using unusual means to usual ends, or even using unusual means to unusual ends. After all, there are many saints in many churches who are genuinely unable to attend regular services, and the Lord in his mercy makes what would normally be limited means sufficient not just to survive but even to thrive. Why should be not be able to do the same, even under these circumstances, for all of us?

With all that in mind, let me offer some practical suggestions. Members of congregations might plan to meet at a regular time (if livestreaming, this may be already in place). Whether individually, or as a family, prepare to be in a certain place at the appointed time, with everything set up and, if possible, tested. Do not go full slob: wash and dress as you would for church. Minimise distractions where possible—no food or drink, silence your phones, do not be preparing a meal or worrying about other responsibilities. Pray before you press play. Focus on the preaching of God’s Word. You may not be worshipping with the church, but you are and still can be worshipping God. Some technologies allow for commenting and interacting. Perhaps it is worth leaving that alone, and focusing on the listening? Pray afterward, alone or with others, for a blessing on what you have heard. Use what technology is available to interact with others afterward: pick up the preaching with family or friends, maybe send the preacher a message of encouragement to remind him that someone human was engaged and engaging. Be thankful to God for the wonderful means that are available for you to obtain something. And do pray for your pastor. He is trying to feed your soul from a distance. He is like a shepherd looking out over distant fields, seeing his sheep from afar, chained up and only able to lob something good in their general direction.

Pastors, too, should perhaps seek to maintain, as much as possible, their usual routines, even if their sermons are necessarily adapted to the present crisis and its particular circumstances. It is no bad thing to wash and dress as if you were ‘going to church.’ If you can, sing and pray, even if alone, so that your soul is stimulated and enlivened by those spiritual exercises. Whether at home or in a church building, it may help not so much to imagine as to visualise the congregation. Remember the faces to which and the lives into which you are normally preaching. In the same way as you normally preach to the people who are or who you wish be be in front of you, and not the people who might listen later, on this occasion speak as if to the people who are normally in front of you, regardless of who might hear it otherwise.Do not so much speak to a camera as through it. You may need to speak more briefly and pointedly, both to help you stay engaged and focused, and to help those hearing or watching to do the same. And then, when you have finished, do what you usually do—go to God with all your failings and feebleness, and ask him to bless what will lie dry and dusty on the surface of the soul without his gracious ploughing to carry it home and his refreshing mercies to cause it to spring up into life. Expect to be drained, perhaps in different ways or in different aspects of your humanity to the usual. Make sure you rest, and think about your labours, and learn how better to communicate truth under these circumstances, for as long as they may last. How thankful we should be that, though we may be physically far from the flock of Christ, we can still bear them up in our hearts, knowing that the Good Shepherd has promised that he will be with them always, even to the end of the age!

When all is said and done, do not expect it to be real church and do not expect it to be real preaching. Even with the blessing of the triune God, it cannot and will not be that. And so, let preacher and hearer alike be stirred up to eager anticipation for the day when we can once again see each other face to face, so that your joy may be full (2Jn 12), and when we—together in the presence of God—hear the word of life once more.

Written by Jeremy Walker

Monday 23 March 2020 at 16:34

A way to pray

with one comment

Although it seems a long time ago, it was less than a week back that I suggested a day to pray: Sunday 22 March 2020. Since then, much has changed, and church members are now largely distanced if not entirely isolated from each other, at least physically. If you were and still are hoping to embrace this opportunity, let me suggest—under these particular circumstances—a way to pray.

praying-hands-2

With some possible and slim exceptions, this will not be the gathered church at prayer. That does not stop us praying, because—while it may be particularly sweet and profitable to gather for prayer—we are not hindered by being in or out of any particular place, nor by being few or even one. That said, and acknowledging again that we are not heard because of our many words, nor because of many voices, there are particular encouragements in knowing that others are gathering together at the throne of grace to express, with one heart and one voice, the hopes and desires of our souls.

If you are a preacher, and wish to stir the hearts of the saints, might I suggest a sermon that is intended, under God, to direct us toward God with zealous faith. If you are a hearer or a reader, listen to something or read something that will, under God, have the same effect. I know that I have often preached on prayer, so I am confident that the saints I serve can easily find something along those lines, and I trust that the same will be true for you with your pastors. Likewise, there is such a wealth of excellent printed material on prayer that I hesitate to make any specific recommendations, but let it rather be briefer and warmer than longer and cooler.

Then, while it would be good to spend much of the day with an eye and heart heavenward, I also recommend setting aside particular times and finding a particular place, alone or with others, where you can give yourself to prayer. My intention is to be praying at the hours of our morning and evening worship (because I currently anticipate being at our church building at that time, I will incorporate it in the labours of the moment). If it helps, for me that will be about the hours of 11am and 6pm (GMT).

Find somewhere you can minimise unnecessary distractions; gather as a family if you can, or if you have friends willing and able to do so. If alone, it may be helpful to pray aloud, simply as a help to maintaining your focus and keeping your heart from wandering. If you are not accustomed to protracted seasons of private or communal prayer, then it will be better to pray briefly and often, occasionally and fervently, rather than to meander and struggle and feel as if you are making no progress. Expect prayer under these circumstances to be as much of a battle as it usually is, or more so.

If you choose to add fasting to your praying, then I would recommend reading this little piece by Samuel Miller, valuable particularly for its brevity and clarity and spirituality. It may help to know how to make the most of such an investment.

And how should we pray in substance? I am wary of over-regulating this, not least because there will be not only far more general petitions than I could begin to suggest, but also countless local, specific needs that will need to be brought before the Lord. However, if you are looking for a starting point, here are some suggestions, arranged around five points of adoration, humiliation, confession, appreciation and supplication.

Adoration

  • To the God who dwells in heaven and who does whatever he pleases (Ps 115:3).
  • To the Lord who kills and makes alive, who brings down to the grave and brings up (1Sam 2:6).
  • To the Lord who has, in mercy, not dealt with us as we deserve (Ps 103:10; Jon 4:11; Ezr 9:13).
  • To a God who is ready to hear the cry of his saints, and who is able to bring good out of evil (Ps 50.15; Gen 50.20).
  • To a God willing able to save all who call upon him, delivering from sin, death and hell (Ps 86:5; 145:8; Rom 10:8-13).

Humiliation

  • Because we are feeble and frail creatures who have forgotten our weakness (Ps 103:14-16).
  • Because it has taken such a season as this to bring us to God in this way.
  • Because we have imagined ourselves self-sufficient when we are utterly God-dependent.
  • Because we have placed too much trust and found too much satisfaction in the passing things of this passing world.
  • Because we are now utterly exposed in our need, and have no other recourse but to God.

Confession

  • That we deserve far worse than we receive, being sinful in nature and sinners in deed.
  • That we belong to cultures and societies who deserve the fiercest judgments, and that often our sins and our failings as God’s people are reflective of those around us.
  • That we have too often relied upon the arm of flesh rather than the Lord our God, and will be tempted to do so again.
  • That we struggle with sinful doubts and fears concerning the government and goodness of God.
  • That we have not been faithful as we should have been in warning and urging our neighbours as we should have done concerning their perilous condition outside of Christ.

Appreciation

  • That God, our God, remains in absolute control of all these events, and that we are safe in him, and can urge others to run to him to be safe.
  • That God has granted so many gifted people who are doing so much to hold back, treat, or cure this disease, and for the means we have at our disposal to survive and even thrive, spiritually and physically, during this season.
  • That, in large measure, our children are being spared death, and that so many people seem likely to recover.
  • For the common grace behind the courtesy and kindness which still characterise parts of our culture.
  • For the distinct opportunities we have been given to point men beyond what can be seen to what is unseen, and beyond what is temporary to what is eternal.

Supplication

  • That the Lord would be pleased to hallow his name, advance his kingdom, and secure his glory by all these events, and in mercy turn back the judgments he is sending on the nations of the world.
  • That he would grant grace to his saints to this end during this season, and that this experience would recalibrate our priorities not just for this season, but for all our days.
  • That we would be delivered from a spirit of fear, and rather know a spirit “of power and of love and of a sound mind” (2Tim 1:7), being characterised by genuine faith, manifesting a calm confidence in the God of our salvation.
  • That any time in which we are laid aside, whether well or ill, would be of lasting profit to our souls, rather than a season of decline and drift.
  • That believers who may, in addition to being in isolation, be genuinely isolated, might also be kept in good heart by the Lord, not least through his people’s love, and that Christians in difficult family situations, especially with unconverted family members, might bear a gracious and effective testimony during these days.
  • That Satan might be kept from sowing seeds of spiritual distance, discord and division among church members over any period of extended absence from one another, and keep our love for God and for one another bright and strong.
  • That the Lord would be pleased to spare the lives of his people, or to supply all needed grace that we might die well, and to spare those outside his kingdom who otherwise would be ushered into hell.
  • That he would give particular wisdom to the civil authorities and all those under their direction, concerning all the measures for control and eventual prevention and cure of this disease.
  • That our country might be spared panic and disorder during this time.
  • That this would be, in particular, a means of convicting, convincing and converting many who would otherwise have had no regard to their undying souls.

Written by Jeremy Walker

Thursday 19 March 2020 at 08:37

Social distancing and gathered worship

with 3 comments

What now? What next?

As expected, everything is shifting quickly. What I wrote just a few days ago may still be helpful in principle, but the practice is now challenging. In the UK, the government has given vigorous advice not to attend social gatherings (still only counsel, though strong counsel). I understand that in other parts of the world religious gatherings have been forbidden (by clear command). I expect, too, that everything will shift again quickly, and keep shifting, and we shall have to keep thinking out and applying our principles.

Please bear in mind that I am not suggesting here how we are to interpret these events, nor how we are to preach to them. That, perhaps, is for another time. This is about our attitude to meeting together under the present constraints.

It is important to remember, before we consider anything else, that government counsels and commands under these circumstances are not religious persecution as such. They may not be welcome, and we may be instinctively and strongly averse to them, but we should not put them, at this time and under these circumstances, in the wrong category. The governments of the world are, by and large, doing what they ought to be doing as ‘good’ governors, seeking to take care of those entrusted to their oversight. While I appreciate that almost no secular government has any real sense of what real Christianity involves, and that they lump all ‘faith communities’ and ‘religious gatherings’ together, I do not think we should instinctively resent these strictures.

Taking into account what I said before about respecting the counsels and commands of the civil authorities, I wonder if it actually makes things less complicated if we almost strip that issue out of our consideration.

What if we boil it down to this? “The first of all the commandments is: ‘Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one. And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ This is the first commandment. And the second, like it, is this: ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these” (Mk 12:29–31). Both of these will intertwine in this discussion.

Keep in mind, too, some of what we said before about principles of Christian liberty, and what it means to extend to others a proper freedom to act in accordance with an instructed conscience. This is difficult, because a member might not necessarily believe that the elders have chosen the wisest course, but should still be willing to embrace that course (provided that there is no question of the elders recommending something sinful, which may be a discussion that is required). None of us have the liberty to lord it over the consciences of others, and we must not allow our liberty to shackle others. You do not have the liberty simply to ignore your elders or trample upon the souls (and bodies!) of others, any more than you have the liberty to raise your fist against a government seeking to do its job well in a nightmarish environment. In this, “do not let your good be spoken of as evil” (Rom 14:16).

The key points in the UK are as follows:

  • everyone in the UK is now being advised to avoid “non-essential” contact with others and “unnecessary” travel.
  • people are also being asked to work from home “where they possibly can”, and avoid pubs, clubs, theatres and social venues (in a question in the House of Commons, this was explicitly applied to gatherings of the church.
  • people are now being advised to stay at home for 14 days if they, or anyone in their household, has either a high temperature or a “new and continuous cough”.
  • people in at-risk groups will be asked within days to be “largely shielded from social contact” for 12 weeks.
  • the UK is to scale up coronavirus testing in the coming weeks.
  • from tomorrow, mass gatherings will no longer be provided with emergency workers.

Notice this is still only governmental advice. It is currently counsel not command. How, then, ought churches to respond to this? (I recognise that in other countries, this is already a done deal, and that counsel has become command.)

First, what does it mean to love God?

As I suggested before, believers should commit to doing all we can to obey God’s commands and embrace the privileges of the saints. We must plan and prepare to make the most of every opportunity for this, now and under any future circumstances. To love God means to desire him and to delight in him, and that is nowhere more fully expressed than in the gathered worship of the church. There we hear his voice; there he lifts up the light of his countenance upon us, and gives us peace. That means a predisposition to gather together to worship him. The first four commandments require us to place God first, to put our trust in and worship him alone, to honour his name above all things, and to serve him with our time and energy on six days of the week, and to gather with his people on the day appointed for his worship, when not providentially hindered from doing so (I think it is worth pointing out both elements of that, not least because we have to contend with the government imposing certain restrictions not just on the one day but on all the days, and we might at least consider whether or not we are being consistent).

But, we are not a social gathering in the casual sense of the phrase. There is a vital spiritual dynamic at work which God’s people cannot afford casually to neglect. For these reasons, I do not think that we should quickly assume that absolute cancellations are the only way forward. At the same time, we are a gathering in which we will have quite prolonged and close contact, under normal circumstances. That will carry us to our concern for neighbours below. Even then, we should remember that many of us are likely to get this disease, or have already got it, and may be able to meet again afterward before too long, if we recover. We should remember the witness we bear to those around us by how we live, and what our priorities are.

Love to God does require a proper respect to the government that he has appointed, within the terms of the fifth commandment (which has application to the way in which we both exercise and respond to God-given authority). Among the things which we should do on the Lord’s day is to pray for our government.

Furthermore, love to God requires us to preserve his reputation, as it is carried by the church, both positively and negatively. We do, perhaps, need to take account of the fact that religious services of some kind proved a catalyst for major outbreaks in both New York State and South Korea. We must therefore avoid giving the impression that we are creating or exacerbating (even deliberately) an otherwise avoidable problem.

Loving God also means honouring his ability to bless us outside or beyond the ordinary means that we typically use for our spiritual wellbeing. Would we deny that God has, for example, been pleased to sustain the spiritual health of men and women who have been, perhaps for years, cut off from the normal means of grace? Can he not do the same under these unusual circumstances?

Second, what does it mean to love our neighbour?

It means, first, that we ought not to risk our own lives or the lives of others unjustly or carelessly. Whatever faith in God means, it does not mean the kind of bravado that flaunts itself. Whatever we do, we ought to take all reasonable precautions to protect and preserve health and life (in accordance with the sixth commandment). Anyone who does exercise their liberty in meeting should not make the gathering itself, or our behaviour at it, an act of bravado rather than of faith. Temple-jumping is not faith but folly – it is testing the Lord your God (cf. Mt 4.7). So, for example, if you choose to gather, you should observe not just the niceties of social distancing on the smaller scale, but take stringent and even aggressive measures to avoid any risk to health and life.

With this in mind, if you are at risk or a risk, you should act out of love to others, and absent yourself for whatever period is wise. If you are obliged to exercise your liberty in not meeting (with good reason), then you should do all you can to make the most of the Lord’s day, taking advantage of every means to enter into the spirit and purpose of the day. (Indeed, you should consider the best use of any other discretionary time forced upon you.) All those who are manifesting any signs of this sickness, or are within those periods of necessary wariness, should not attend; neither should those who fall within the ‘at risk’ or ‘high risk’ categories. If we can maximise the distance between those who appear to be a risk and those who are at risk, we can act with a clearer conscience.

We also need to think about the positive effect on our neighbours of continuing to worship God. Perhaps, for some, this will be the first time they have ever truly considered their mortality, and they need to know the God who saves. Perhaps the fact that we value God above all things, and place his worship so high on our list of priorities that, even in such a time as this, whether corporately or individually, we will organised our lives around its centrality, will be a blessing to them. Let them hear our hymns of praise sounding from our homes during the week and out of the church on the Lord’s day, even if only from a few voices; let them know that we are praying for them and for others; share with them opportunities to hear the Word of God immediately or remotely!

Elders, in making these decisions, must take into account that different congregations have different compositions. A congregation composed mainly of elderly saints might need to make some more radical decisions than one composed mainly of younger folks. If there are an unusual number of sick people scattered among the congregation, that will have an impact. If there are a number of spiritually immature people (whether a risk, at risk, or just a risk-taker!) who mistake folly for faith, pastoral instruction, admonition and rebuke might be necessary. If there are people of over-sensitive conscience, their consciences might need to be instructed.

It means that we need to use all the means at our disposal to feed the souls of God’s flock and to call sinners to repent and believe. Whether that means personal visits (within safe parameters, including standing six feet down the path!), regular calls, employing available technology to provide audio and video livestreams or recordings, or whatever it may be, we must not neglect to care for one another, body and soul. We need to press home upon men and women the fearful judgements of an offended God, and plead with them to turn from their sins, before a worse thing comes upon them. We need to explain that such horrors as these are the birth pangs of the great and terrible day of the Lord. The greatest love we can show to God and to neighbour is to preach the truth of his wrath against sin and his mercy toward sinners, of the salvation to be found in Christ for all who repent and believe, of the horrors of a looming hell and the glories of a promised heaven.

So, what will that look like for the church I serve? We have already stripped down to the bare minimum in terms of meetings and gatherings, a skeleton of Lord’s day morning and evening services of worship, and a Wednesday night prayer meeting. At this point in time, and unless and until the government’s advice changes again, I am anticipating that we shall do all we can to maintain that pattern, urging those who are a risk and at risk to take care of themselves and others by staying away, and enabling others to gather if they deem it wise and proper. We shall open the doors, probably a little earlier than usual. We shall encourage people to enter as individuals or tight family units, and sit accordingly, following stringent principles for social distancing, sitting apart from each other within the building. For the prayer meeting, we shall pray simply, successively, straightforwardly, and then leave quickly. On the Lord’s day, we shall do what we can to embrace all the normal scriptural elements of worship, but we shall probably do so in a more minimal fashion than usual, without feeling that anything is missing. We shall broadcast or record (both, if possible) our praying to the Lord and our preaching of his truth, so that God’s people can, in measure, enter in. While we appreciate the many good resources out there, I am God’s undershepherd in this place, and this is his flock under my care, and—God helping and sparing me—I am going to preach to the people I know and love until I cannot. When we have finished worshipping, we shall dismiss as individuals and families, giving people time to wash their hands and clear the building one after the other. And then we shall do it again when the next occasion comes.

And if we are actively forbidden for a time, for what appear to be good reasons, from meeting even like this? Then we shall consider meeting in the open air, well spaced out. And if that, too, falls under the ban? Then I shall probably go, perhaps with my family, or alone, to the church, and I shall preach my heart out to the saints and the sinners whom I love, even if they are not present, and I will use all the technology at my disposal to ensure that they hear it. And if I am obliged to self-isolate or to stay at home, or fall sick, then I shall either ask someone else, or tell everyone else to stay away, and then go and preach, or I shall find some way to preach at or from my home, so that the saints will be fed and the sinners warned. And if the Lord calls me home, I trust that someone else will take my place, and keep preaching his saving truth. All of this, if the Lord wills.

[A clarification drawn from a note to the church I serve: “Bear in mind that, as a scattered body, we are not trying to replicate what it means to be with God’s people gathered for worship; we are trying to minimise the impacts of our being scattered.’]

In doing this, I trust all of us who are involved, and who cannot be involved, shall be glad to remember that social distance from the saints is not necessarily spiritual distance from God. We shall remember that we may be absent in body but present in spirit, or that others are entering in from afar.

And, I hope, it will impress upon us who have become too accustomed to our privileges and too presumptuous concerning our blessings, that there is nothing on this side of heaven more like the heaven to come than the saints of God gathered in his presence on his day to worship his Name. May days in which spiritual scraps may become the food of our souls teach us to crave the banquets with which once we toyed! May enforced absences teach us the blessing and beauty of the church as she gathers before her God! May it stir up in us, and in many more, an appetite for God and for his Word which shall never leave us, as long as we are left in this world.

Written by Jeremy Walker

Tuesday 17 March 2020 at 21:26

A call to pray

with 2 comments

We know that prayer is not heard because of our many words, nor because of many voices. We also know that God has commanded us to pray, and to pray together, and that he delights to hear the voices and hearts of his people united in prayer.

In the UK, it would be a pleasant shock to hear the government do what it has historically done in times of national crisis or emergency, and call the nation to pray. If it did today, I imagine it would be a call to people of all faiths and of none to call on whatever gods or lords they trust or imagine to do whatever it is they are supposed to do.

But, if we are the people of God, we know that there is one living and true God who reigns over the nations, sitting on his holy throne (Ps 47:8), who has spoken through his servants, saying:

Trust in Him at all times, you people;
Pour out your heart before Him;
God is a refuge for us. (Ps 62:8)

I hope that, under the circumstances in which we find ourselves, Christians have already given themselves to particular prayer for God to show his mercy and grace to his church and his world, as well as thankfulness for mercies and goodnesses thus far. We must pray for the Lord’s name to be hallowed in all this, and for his kingdom to come, as well as the provision of our daily bread, and the forgiveness of our sins, and our deliverance from temptation and evil.

I trust that it might also prove a means of honouring him particularly, not least before the eyes of the world, and receiving particular blessings from him, if we were to devote ourselves to a season of prayer and fasting for God’s blessing upon the churches of which we are a part, as well as other churches we know around the world, and the country to which we belong, as well as other countries facing their own crisis.

I will be suggesting to the church which I serve that we devote Sunday 22 March 2020 to prayer. I happen to be preaching from Luke 11 at present, so prayer is right before us. For the church to which I belong, this will probably mean that we will ensure more extended opportunities on that day for us to pray together as a church, while the regular gathered worship will allow us to prompt and encourage such prayer, as well as to express it in distinct ways. We will encourage people to fast as appropriate and as they are able, but will not bind the conscience. We will further urge the members here, individually and in families, to set aside time and energy on that day to plead with the God of heaven for the glory of his name and the blessings which we need.

This is not the only thing we must do, but it is something we must do, among and before all the other things. We must “trust in God, and keep our powder dry,” employing all the means at our disposal to secure the ends we desire, but crying out to the Lord of heaven and earth to bless those means, and for his distinct mercies to be displayed in these days.

Will you join us? Perhaps your friends, your circle of churches, or your denomination, has already made such a commitment. Wonderful! But, if not, or if there is no clash, perhaps you would consider setting aside Sunday 22 March for earnest and urgent prayer to our merciful and gracious Sovereign for his distinct and enduring favour.

Written by Jeremy Walker

Saturday 14 March 2020 at 09:48

Posted in prayer

Tagged with , , ,

The church and the plague

with 4 comments

“Let every soul be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and the authorities that exist are appointed by God. Therefore whoever resists the authority resists the ordinance of God, and those who resist will bring judgment on themselves. For rulers are not a terror to good works, but to evil. Do you want to be unafraid of the authority? Do what is good, and you will have praise from the same. For he is God’s minister to you for good. But if you do evil, be afraid; for he does not bear the sword in vain; for he is God’s minister, an avenger to execute wrath on him who practices evil. Therefore you must be subject, not only because of wrath but also for conscience’ sake. For because of this you also pay taxes, for they are God’s ministers attending continually to this very thing. Render therefore to all their due: taxes to whom taxes are due, customs to whom customs, fear to whom fear, honour to whom honour” (Rom 13:1–7).

“Render therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s” (Lk 20:25).

“And let us consider one another in order to stir up love and good works, not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as is the manner of some, but exhorting one another, and so much the more as you see the Day approaching” (Heb 10:24–25).

“Greet all the brethren with a holy kiss” (1Thes 5:26).

“But Peter and John answered and said to them, ‘Whether it is right in the sight of God to listen to you more than to God, you judge’” (Acts 4:19).

“You shall not murder” (Ex 20:13).

“But I say to you who hear: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, and pray for those who spitefully use you. To him who strikes you on the one cheek, offer the other also. And from him who takes away your cloak, do not withhold your tunic either. Give to everyone who asks of you. And from him who takes away your goods do not ask them back. And just as you want men to do to you, you also do to them likewise” (Lk 6:27–31).

And then the government said, “Thou shalt not gather, no, not for religious worship, not even on the Lord’s day.”

So what do we do? How do we proceed? Are we capitulating to anti-Christian authorities if we fail to gather together on the Lord’s day? Or are we honouring the authorities which God has put in place over us? Where and how do we obey the civil authorities, and how does that connect with our duties to the Lord our God? I have some kind of innate resistance to the idea of civil government regulating the worship of God. I trust that I have developed, over time, a principled commitment to being among God’s people on the Lord’s day, and making the most of those opportunities. However, I am most concerned to work out how to honour the Lord in all of this.

In this regard, I have read some amusing comments suggesting that, because—as is well known—all Europeans are basically socialists, therefore they will obey their governments without question, demonstrating mindless submission to their near-totalitarian authorities, whereas free Americans, of course, will resist their government the moment the big boys start throwing their weight around. Not quite following the logic there, but it seems a somewhat simplistic reading of the situation.

So, we are to be subject to the governing authorities, appointed by God. If we do what is good, we shall have nothing to fear from them. We are to render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s. All this would include recognising the measure of oversight and national direction a competent and well-disposed civil government might be able to provide, and at least honouring the government’s intentions to preserve the health and life of its citizenry, maintain the economy, and so on. So, for example, if the government assures us that it has stockpiles of toilet paper, we don’t need to go on binge-buying toilet paper on the working assumption (working suspicion?) that they are trying to deprive us of toilet paper and hoard it for departments and officials of the state. If the government, for the preservation of life, urges or requires that we avoid public gatherings, including religious worship, we have—at the very least—an obligation to take that into account. In doing so, it is proper to take into account the difference between counsel and command: the government might advise us to do something which we choose to do or not to do, or to do in a certain way. In such an instance, we have a little more freedom of manoeuvre.

But what if the government forbids what God commands or commands what God forbids? Does it make a difference if it is temporary and a matter of outwardly good governance? God has commanded us to meet as a gathered church, has appointed the first day of the week as the proper day on which that should take place, and has made sweet promises in connections with those gatherings. Our love for God would surely carry us toward a dedicated commitment to gathering with his people in his presence for his praise. If we are healthy saints, we will have both a sense of our proper obligation and a proper appetite for the worship of God together. And, when we gather, there usually ought to be proper expressions of affectionate fraternity among us—whatever may be the equivalent of the holy kiss. Indeed, we might argue that such times as these are times when the gathering of the saints becomes more significant, not less so, as we come together to cast ourselves upon God, and receive the spiritual sustenance our souls need to keep faith keen, hope bright, and love strong amidst these challenges.

Now, what of the sixth commandment? We are told not to murder, and that commandment requires (to employ the language of The Shorter Catechism) us to use all lawful endeavours to preserve our own life, and the life of others, while forbidding the taking away of our own life, or the life of our neighbour unjustly, or whatsoever tends toward that end. Earlier this year I was struck down, for what may be the first time in my life, with proper flu. I was in bed for about a week, careful about exposing others to any potential infection for several days after that, especially when resuming my public pastoral duties, and particularly careful about not visiting more vulnerable members of the congregation for a further period of time. Under normal circumstances, I would probably encourage people with a high level of sickness to take particular precautions about spreading their illnesses. While I do not encourage people to cry off the worship of God for petty reasons, if someone is sick (especially infectiously sick), then—for their own sake and that of others—they should probably ‘self-isolate’, to use the current jargon. In that sense, we are simply applying the regular principle to an irregular situation. If someone is either unwilling or unable to make a wise decision for themselves, perhaps some diaconal counsel would be appropriate, even to the point of advising them to return home for their own wellbeing, and that of others.

Then there are those principles of love to our neighbour which are the very essence of our obligations to our fellow men, and which lie behind the sixth and other more ‘horizontal’ commandments. In encouraging God’s people last Sunday to think through this, I emphasised that much of what is required is simply the extensive and intensive application of Christian courtesy as well as particular wisdom. This might include properly washing your hands, especially if handling food others will eat; not shaking hands, embracing, or whatever your equivalent of a holy kiss might be, if the other party is not comfortable with it, or obliged to refrain from it for their own sake or yours; not being offended by someone who wants to take more precautions than you; taking particular care around the particularly vulnerable, whether the elderly or those whose immune system is already compromised or whose health is poor; taking unusual pains with cleaning the church building, especially those spots or rooms where the transfer of a virus might be more likely. How would love to our immediate neighbour work out if the government were to forbid gatherings for religious worship, or gatherings over a certain size? In the latter case, some smaller churches might be fine, while others would be over the threshold. What about love to the souls of men? How do we regard their eternal wellbeing? Incidentally, loving courtesy and care should extend to our ministry to those within the congregation who might need particular assistance, should they be necessarily self-isolating, and so isolated, or in need of particular care. Are we ready, if need be, to risk our own well-being for the sake of our brothers and sisters? What of those who are outside the kingdom, and may go to face the judgement unwarned and uninstructed if we do not warn and instruct them? That is a question that all Christians, especially the pastors of a flock, need to answer in principle now, before a crisis presses it upon us. What if other congregations have pastors laid aside by sickness, or by sensible precautions against sickness? Are we ready to travel to minister the Word of God? Are churches ready to adapt their meeting times and circumstances in order to accommodate every proper opportunity to hear the truth which saves?

And what of celebrating the Lord’s supper? That might present a particular challenge. It may depend on whether or not you believe that the Lord positively requires that you come to his table every Lord’s day. If you belong to a church or group of churches which celebrate less regularly, or much less regularly, it might not make much difference. What about the use of wine as against grape juice? Would the presence or absence of alcohol help? What about the use of a common cup? What about breaking or cutting the bread into smaller pieces ahead of time, if you use a single loaf? Does any of that make much difference if plates or cups are being passed hand-to-hand? This will likely say something about our theology of the Lord’s table. If it is nothing more than a memorial, perhaps we might more readily dispense of it. If we approach it as something talismanic, perhaps nothing will stop us taking it (unless the perceived danger renders our superstitions void for the time being). If we consider it a genuine means of grace, we will doubtless acknowledge that we need and desire it now, of all times, but other considerations may influence how or when or how often we celebrate it. Of course, given that it is not an ordinance for families, mates, or small groups, but for when “when you come together as a church” (1Cor 11:18), it may be that—leaving aside the context of division within the congregation—you acknowledge that, under these circumstances, the church is not truly gathering (and I am not suggesting that you cannot come to the table unless every member is present). Perhaps you can simply wait until the hopefully brief storm is over.

Let us try to work out some principles and some practices. I would suggest that we should be eagerly disposed to gather for the worship of God. Our primary commitment and expectation should be that, whenever and wherever possible, we gather with God’s people for worship on the Lord’s day. Let that be your working assumption. Let all your planning and preparing be carried out with the aim of enabling God’s people to come together to worship him and enjoy fellowship with each other as regularly and easily and as safely as possible.

If such gatherings were to become ill-advised, actively unwise, or even temporarily illegal, how might we then respond? There are a number of possibilities. First of all, I would expect that anyone actually or probably sick with coronavirus or any other such disease would be taking care of themselves and others by embracing such an illness as a genuine providential hindrance to gathering. I hope that goes without saying. So what of others? Perhaps a church could gather outside, with families in self-isolating units, with the requisite or recommended space between them. It might be a wonderful opportunity for evangelising, especially if there were properties nearby from which people could hear the good news. I think of the centre of our neighbourhood, with a square space surrounded by benches. One bench per family unit? Others standing or sitting in the spaces between? The opportunity to listen from the surrounding homes? It may be that the church building is big enough or the congregation small enough for such a gathering to take place within the building, with people sitting apart from each other, and proper care taken about the possibility of infection from mutual touching of surfaces like door handles. Under any such circumstances, proper measures for minimising risk would be essential (including parents taking pains to make sure that their children are looked after in this respect, like the young lads last Sunday who insisted to me that they didn’t like hot water and so were not going to wash their hands properly). Perhaps hand sanitisers (if they are still available) could be put at entrance points, with regular written or spoken reminders of good practice.

We might need to do a little ecclesiastical triage. Perhaps we could begin by stripping back some of the added extras to the essential rhythms of church life. For example, the church I serve has a number of additional meetings during the week, over the course of a month, or as one-offs, which we might need to review. While part of me says it is all the more important to preach the gospel under these circumstances, it is not necessarily a good idea to try to gather a crowd of strangers into one room at such times as these. So, we might focus on the morning and evening gatherings of the Lord’s day, and perhaps also meetings for prayer, which become more pressingly needful.

If other options are more limited, technology might be a particular help. For example, could the preacher go to the church building with his family, if healthy, and any others willing and able to attend? He could preach so that it could either be live-streamed to those who are not able to gather, or even recorded and/or streamed if no-one else can attend? We know, I hope, that there are spiritual dynamics associated with the gathering of God’s people to hear God’s word that cannot be replicated or transmitted by digital communication of the event, but such options at least keep in the loop those obliged to be absent, and might provide a temporary alternative (perhaps some instruction as to the pros and cons of such an arrangement might helpfully be given). Some churches already do this as a help to people already unable to attend, and this simply extends that provision on a temporary basis. It certainly has an impact on celebrating the Lord’s supper, as outlined above. Presuming I am available (and making plans if I am not), I currently intend to be at the church building on the Lord’s day, perhaps ahead of the usual hour if live-streaming proves a challenge with our limited resources, and making sure that audio and video recordings of the ministry were available for people to tune in at the regular times in order to give them some sense of normality and some necessarily reduced but still profitable dimension of church life. If things became more difficult, perhaps an elder could provide some kind of broadcast or recording from home, ministering to God’s people so that they could at least feed from the Word of God. If such technology lies beyond the church, there may be other faithful congregations providing a service that the saints could employ and enjoy, though every step of distance from the regular life of the covenanted congregation may well diminish something of the blessings that we derive, though the Lord knows how to shepherd his people in all seasons. Take into account, too, that in some cultures and contexts, such technological shortcuts may simply not be available. For some congregations, there may be older saints without the apparatus or awareness to use such means, and they might be the very ones who need most care of body and soul.

And what if the civil authorities were temporarily to ban all gatherings, including for religious worship? What then? I think I would be content, for the time being, to employ some of the means above to maximise the opportunities to preach the gospel to as many people as I could, within and without the walls of church buildings, and by as many legitimate means as I could find or devise. I am not persuaded that extravagant displays of civil disobedience, under these circumstances, are warranted or wise. And if, down the line, such government intervention became coercion or persecution, then I would feel perfectly at liberty to resist with a polite and humble disobedience any attempt to prevent the exercise of my God-given privilege to gather with the saints to worship him, despite my previous acknowledgement of the government’s counsels or commands in another context.

And liberty is important. It is worth taking into account the principle of Christian liberty. Not everyone will make all the same judgements at all the same points at all the same places. Some of our hypochondriac brethren may well already be living in a sealed unit with a lifetime supply of tinned goods and toilet paper, and have decided that the gathering of the saints is simply too dangerous for them and their families. I might not agree, but—as long as this is not taken to foolish extremes—I am unlikely to rebuke them for non-attendance under the circumstances, though I might counsel a little more robustness, in dependence on God. We do not honour God by blind panic, though we should by a loving caution. On the other hand, some who boast in God’s sovereignty might choose to display their confidence with a sort of bravado or abandon, turning convictions about providence into a sort of carefree or miserable fatalism. I might encourage them to use the means God has provided for their wellbeing, and that of others, and need to rebuke them if they are risking the sixth commandment. There may be many times when we simply give people the option and the opportunity, and leave them to judge in accordance with the light that they have, remembering that we are, in a real sense, a voluntary gathering. Liberty is also corporate. Some churches will take a different line to the one which you might take; they are free to do so, under God, so long as they do not violate clear principles of scriptural conduct.

Bear in mind, too, that current indications suggest that this will be a temporary measure. If the figures we know are to be believed, such restrictions might only last for a few weeks, perhaps a month or a little more. If the restrictions were maintained for longer with good reason, then we might need to consider again how we respond. If they were maintained without good reason, then we might more readily return to our more default positions.

In all this we do need to remember that there is a God in heaven, who does whatever he pleases, in accordance with his goodness, mercy, wisdom, and love. Bear in mind that you could take all precautions, and still fall sick, or even fall asleep in Jesus. You might take no precautions, and remain well. Believing in the sovereignty of God should not make us careless of the use of the means that God has appointed to accomplish certain ends. Even Hezekiah, promised a recovery from his deadly sickness, applied the poultice of figs which the Lord appointed the means to the ends of his recovery (Is 38:21). Neither mindless panic nor thoughtless bravado will honour the Lord. Stability and even serenity belong to those who trust in the Lord.

So, commit to doing all you can to obey God’s commands and embrace the privileges of the saints. Plan and prepare to make the most of every opportunity for this, now and under any future circumstances. As and when the wisdom either or the elders (in the ecclesiastic sphere) or the government (in the civil sphere) dictates, you may need, temporarily, to make the kinds of adjustments outlined above, seeking in all this to “honour all people. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honour the king” (1Pt 2:17).

Written by Jeremy Walker

Thursday 12 March 2020 at 09:19

It’s coming home

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This Wednesday evening something momentous is happening. All around the country, people will gather together. They will probably be keyed up all day, and it will only get more intense as the evening draws on. They will come together with expectation and hope in their hearts. Their songs will express these deep desires. After all, something will happen that is special in itself, with the prospect of much more ahead. By the end of the evening, those people might be rejoicing over something that has not happened, for most of them, in their lifetime.

And, if Wednesday pans out OK, there is more to which we can look forward. After Wednesday, Sunday. And on Sunday … well! Sunday could be the greatest of days! Sunday could be the day when glory, so long looked for and longed for, finally comes. Sunday could be the day we have all been waiting for. Again, that Sunday would be something special in itself, but it holds the promise of so much more. All those years of hurt never stopped me dreaming.

Yes, that’s right. For many of us, Wednesday night is the prayer meeting, and after that we look forward to the Lord’s day.

On Wednesday evening, many of us have the opportunity to seek the face of the Lord of hosts. Our brothers and sisters will expect us to be there with them. It is our assurance that, as we pray together, we shall do so at the very throne of grace, in the presence of our God. We gather together as Christians with the privilege of asking our Father in heaven for the blessings we most desire. As we do so, we anticipate that he will answer us. We shall do business with heaven. It might not be immediately spectacular, but there will be some celestial traffic, and we shall obtain good and needful things for our immortal souls and our often-painful pilgrimage. More than that, we might obtain not just drops but showers of blessing. This might be the night when the Lord draws near in a distinct way and shows his favour to us, granting the Spirit in a measure to which we are unaccustomed.

And after Wednesday, Sunday. And on Sunday … well! It is the day of resurrection. It is the Lord’s day. It is our chief of days. It is the day on which the risen Christ made it his pattern to meet with his disciples. It is the day when we anticipate that the Spirit will work among us so as to make his abiding presence with us sweet and profitable to our hearts. We shall, we trust, as the Word of the Most High God is declared to us, hear the voice of the Eternal. We anticipate the opportunity to enjoy the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. We shall sing his praises with our blood-bought brothers and sisters, encouraging one another in the Way. We shall seek his face again as a congregation, pleading for those blessings which the Lord delights to give. We will spend time together considering the things of God and serving our great King. We hope that this might be the day on which friends we have prayed for come to hear the truth, and to heed it. We long to see people being saved. We hope that God might condescend in a distinct way and show us his glory, so that we shall be changed, and never be the same again. We pray that we might get such a sense of eternity, such a grip upon heavenly reality, that we would spend the rest of our lives with a more sure and sweet sense of the things which are not seen but which are most real.

The problem in the eyes of many is that on Wednesday evening England are playing a World Cup semi-final. If they win, the final is due to take place on Sunday afternoon. And so it may come down to a simple choice. Who or what is more important? Football is fine and dandy, and this is a great sporting occasion. There is nothing inherently wrong with enjoying football. However, if you choose football over the Lord God, if you choose to prioritise worship in that way, then football has become your idol.

So, will you miss this or spoil this for a game of football? You might say, “But what if it’s another ordinary prayer meeting? What if it’s another ordinary Sunday?” Remember what you are doing, or ought to be doing, when you gather for prayer, when the church congregates for worship. It is never, in that sense, ordinary or mundane. And with whom and on what basis are you engaging? What would a World Cup victory mean when you lose your job, or your health, or your wife or child? What will it mean when you come to the end of your own life? How will it sustain you against temptation? How will it uphold you and enable you in the battle for real godliness?

Some might say, “Think of the opportunities for witness!” Actually, the best witness you can give is the plain evidence that the Lord is supreme, and that not even an otherwise-beloved sport is allowed to rival him.

Some might say, “What about the scope for fellowship?” Fellowship isn’t simply being together at the same time in the same place, not even united around the same object or activity. It is Christian engagement designed to stir one another up to love and good works, a communion with each other that flows out of union and communion with God. Even a bunch of Christian friends gathering to enjoy a game of football on another occasion is not fellowship, though it might be a joy in other ways.

Some might say, “Can’t we just slide it all around and still get a blessing? Why can’t we do both? Why not get the game in and then get to church before it starts, or at least before it’s over? I went this morning, why do I need to or have to go again?” Would you say to your wife, “I just want to spend some time with this other lass, and then I will get straight back to you?” How do you think that would go? Did you really get your fill of God? Truly to meet with God stirs rather than sates the appetite of a healthy soul. It never leads us to neglect further opportunities to meet with the Lord, but rather to desire them. Would you say to God in as many words, “I simply want to give my idol its due, but I will turn my attention to you just as soon as I have bowed before my other god.”

The point is that the choices we will make or the priorities we will establish are not actually about football. These words are not against football: football does not inherently fall into the category of sin’s passing pleasures. The choice we will make has to do with our attitude to and expectations of God and his worship on his day. If football trumps God, or if we offer God a cold performance with a grudging heart, then we will be saying with our attitudes and actions what we might never dare to say with our lips.

We are told – and these are the words that are used – that this is the chance for us to witness the potential immortals. But we already have the assurance of meeting with the actual Eternal One. What or who is most important? What is most sweet? What is most real?

Saviour, if of Zion’s city
I, through grace, a member am,
Let the world deride or pity,
I will glory in thy Name:
Fading is the worldling’s pleasure,
All his boasted pomp and show;
Solid joys and lasting treasure
None but Zion’s children know.

Written by Jeremy Walker

Tuesday 10 July 2018 at 22:20

The deal

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“I’m just not being fed,” s/he said. “This is not a very friendly church. No one really speaks to me. I am not the only one who feels this way. There are lots of people who are struggling. I’m just not sure that this is the right place for me. Why can’t we be more like Broadstreet Evangelical? I really think that I would be better off there.”

“I am very sorry to hear that,” said the pastor. “Might I suggest a deal? I recommend that you go to Broadstreet Evangelical for six months, but on the following conditions:

  • You must not arrive more than two minutes before any service begins. If possible, slip in just afterwards. You should leave as soon as it is over, or – ideally – just before it is properly finished.
  • Please do not attend more than one service a week, certainly not more than once on any given day. When you are able, miss occasional days altogether.
  • Please minimise all contact with others who attend the church. Avoid face-to-face communication at all costs, but – if possible – filter out any notes, cards, texts, emails, or any other such interaction. Cut right down on meaningful conversation.
  • You should not go to anyone’s home, nor invite anyone to yours.
  • Under no circumstances must you engage with the elders. Don’t call them or answer the phone if they call. If you can, wait until they are looking the other way or engaged with someone else before you leave. If necessary, find an alternative exit. Make all conversation as perfunctory as possible. Do not come to them for counsel, consult with them in difficulty, seek them out when distressed, or listen to their advice.
  • Cultivate a healthy sense of resentment (passive-aggressive behaviour is fine) toward anyone who might even begin to suggest that you could make some sort of contribution to the life of the church. Maintain the stance that your occasional presence is quite sacrifice enough.
  • If you must engage with others, seek out the least spiritually healthy in the church. As soon as possible, steer the conversation round to the faults of the church, her members, and her elders.
  • Maintain a healthy circle of worldly friends. Spend as much time with them as possible, going to all the places they attend, engaging in all the chatter they pursue, indulging in all the activities they embrace. Keep up a lively social media engagement with such.
  • Put the advice of friends, family, doctors, self-help books, and anything else really, above and before the advice of any spiritually mature Christian.
  • Should anyone seek to reach out to you to minister to you, cultivate unreliability: assure them of your best intentions, but evade, postpone, or cancel all such interaction with varying degrees of notice. Train them to expect you to seem vaguely positive but never actually available.
  • Sleep through some sermons.
  • Don’t read. Just don’t.
  • Don’t push yourself. You’re worth it!
  • Minimise private devotion, especially private prayer. Make sure that you are at least as busy with other significant demands as you have been for the last couple of years. Don’t read any ‘tricky bits’ from the Bible, and don’t overdose on the obvious stuff.
  • Take long holidays, and give yourself plenty of time on your return to ‘get back into the swing of things.’
  • Never volunteer. Avoid being nominated.
  • Under no circumstances make meaningful eye contact.
  • Look out for others now at Broadstreet who left this congregation for the same reasons as you are giving. If they are speaking, you might want to listen.
  • Also, if anyone at Broadstreet tries to pin you down, I would recommend an occasional visit to Gaping Lane Community Church. By all means be subtle, but make clear that if Broadstreet is becoming a little narrow, the open-minded congregation over at Gaping Lane might be the place for you.

“There’s some other stuff,” said the pastor, “but that should do for starters. It should not take a great deal of investment – no new skills to learn, no additional duties to embrace. Perhaps if you would be willing to give it a go for six months, and then come back and let me know how your soul has prospered and your walk with the Lord has developed? Then we can chat again. Deal?”

Written by Jeremy Walker

Thursday 25 January 2018 at 17:21

The social means of grace

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John Ashworth on the blessing of the various gatherings of the saints of God, not least the midweek meetings:

In all churches a love for the social means of grace is one sign of spiritual health in either rich or poor; and those that are the most anxious to increase their spiritual strength will esteem these most highly. When we try to find arguments against class meetings, church meetings, prayer meetings, &c., it is an indication that we are not very fast growing in grace: we need these helps by the way. The world daily rolls in uponus, and we need a strong arm to roll it back, to keep it in its proper place. Means are required, and the week-day means are often a powerful check.

So, will you make a happy priority of church attendance tomorrow?

Written by Jeremy Walker

Saturday 12 August 2017 at 18:31

Posted in Christian living

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The appeal

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Image result for image offering boxIf you have not heard it yet, you have probably not been online for a few weeks. If you have heard it once, you have probably heard it many times. For many organisations, institutions and associations, it is the time of year for the appeal. You know how it goes – something like this:

“The end of the year is fast approaching. The beginning of the next one is going to arrive a second later. For us, it is also the end of the financial year. And this is all the good we have done or tried to do, and this is all the good we plan or intend to accomplish. And yet … money is tight. With just a few pounds or dollars from many of you, or a good bundle of them from even a few of you, Ministry X can keep moving forward and can accomplish so much more in the coming months. Might I suggest a concrete sum or a specific goal to give you a sense of definition and accomplishment? Thank you! So, please, consider whether or not this is a cause to which you can donate. And, by the way, this is your last chance … for now!”

Before you respond to such appeals, I would also like to draw attention to an institution very much in need of your financial support. It is a longstanding institution in which you should have a personal investment on multiple levels, if you do not already do so. It generally stands in need of support, and does untold good, with the capacity for yet more good than can be imagined. It ought to have the first claim on your money.

I hope you know that I am speaking of the local church. This, my friends, is the one institution with direct divine sanction. It is the the one missionary organisation with a heavenly mandate. It is the one establishment with a celestial constitution. Its work is defined by divine fiat. It is the one body with a guarantee of perpetual existence and unending profitable service. And it is the one organisation which has the legitimate and primary claim on our financial contributions to the kingdom of God.

Please do not misunderstand me. There are many institutions and organisations which are doing fine work. Many of them are doing work that lies outside the remit of the church, and they deserve your time, attention and support. Some of them do not have the capacity or desire to clamour for your probably hard-earned cash. Some of them are known to thousands, some to few. Some of them are eminently worthy, others debatably so. You should consider supporting them financially, if you are able. I also understand that there are some avenues of service that are difficult to define in terms of the role of the church either as the direct instigator or overseer.

But that is not the point. The point is that the first call on your financial investment ought to be the church to which you belong for the work which the church is called to do. Beyond that, I would suggest that the second call ought to be the local church to which you belong for the work which that church is called to do. If you trust the elders and the deacons (one presumes that you do, if you belong to the church), and if they have a sincere and wise desire for kingdom investment (and I hope that they do), and if you have a little more that you wish to do (and most of us do), why not give a little more to that church of which you are a part? Most church officers and the congregations they serve already know where and how and why they might invest any further funds made available.

It is clear from the Scriptures that Christians should support the work of the Lord by systematic and proportionate giving made through the local church (Mal 3.8-10; 1Cor 16.1-2; 2Cor 8 and 9). Whether or not you take tithing as helpful principle, it is certainly indicative of the attitude of God’s people concerning giving to God’s kingdom. And what of gifts and offerings made according to one’s ability and willingness of heart (Gen 14.18-20; 2Cor 8.1-5; Ex 36.2-7)? Has there been no blessing from God, perhaps directly through the church and its ministry, for which a thank offering might not form part of an appropriate response?

And what of other churches? Do you know of congregations that are seeking to support missionaries or plant churches or erect or purchase buildings? Are there churches that struggle to support their pastors? If you have given all that you might and all that you could to your own congregation, might you suggest to the deacons that this could be a worthwhile investment? If your church is already involved in such support, and you have more in your pocket, why not pass it along independently and anonymously?

If, after that, you have discretionary funds or wish to make further sacrifices, then by all means go ahead. Might I suggest that you save those shekels for work that lies outside the remit of the church, rather than investing it in something that is replicating or replacing that work without a divine mandate? And, unless and until you find such a need, then look nearer at hand and, I hope, nearer at heart. Christ loves his church. It was to a church that Paul wrote concerning the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, that you through his poverty might become rich (2Cor 8.9). It is in and through the local church that the first response to this example ought to be made.

Written by Jeremy Walker

Friday 30 December 2016 at 16:25

Posted in Ecclesiology

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Converted to Christ and his church

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Brief, wise words from Joe Thorn:

Of course it’s possible to be converted and not be a part of the local church. Possible. And dangerous. You see, the goal–the mission of the church–is not to see converts, but to make disciples. Conversion is but a part of that process. The making of spiritually mature disciples who obey Jesus Christ can only fully happen inside the church. It is in the church where we discover and exercise our spiritual gifts; where we bear one another’s burdens, exhort, encourage, and rebuke one another; where we share in one body, one Spirit, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one Father.

Preach the gospel. Preach the hope of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection for sinners. Preach it with the aim of reconciling people to God and receiving them into the fellowship. The local church (in all it’s ministries and meetings) is “where it’s at,” not because it’s cool, entertaining, or perfect, but because that it is where Christ stands with his people, fellowshipping with them, and leading them through this life into the life to come.

Read a little more.

Written by Jeremy Walker

Friday 23 August 2013 at 07:49

Posted in Ecclesiology

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What is the church for?

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Martyn Lloyd-Jones on the main task of the church, via the Old Guys:

There are other agencies in the world which can deal with many of the problems of man kind. I mean by that, things like medicine, the State, even other religions, and cults, and psychology and various other teachings and political agencies. These are all designed to help, and to relieve somewhat, the human condition, to ease the pain and the problem of life and to enable men to live more harmoniously and to enjoy life in a greater measure. They set out to do that, and it is no part of our case to say that they are of no value. We must observe the facts and grant that they can do good, and do much good. They are capable in a measure of dealing with these things. But none of them can deal with this fundamental, this primary trouble at which we have been looking.

Not only that, when they have done their all, or when even the Church coming down to that level and operating on that level alone, has done her all, the primary trouble still remains. So I would lay it down as a basic proposition that the primary task of the Church is not to educate man, is not to heal him physically or psychologically, it is not to make him happy. I will go further; it is not even to make him good. These are things that accompany salvation; and when the Church performs her true task she does incidentally educate men and give them knowledge and information, she does bring them happiness, she does make them good and better than they were. But my point is that those are not her primary objectives. Her primary purpose is not any of these; it is rather to put man into the right relationship with God, to reconcile man to God. This really does need to be emphasize at the present time, because this, it seems to me, is the essence of the modern fallacy. It has come into the Church and it is influencing the thinking of many in the Church– this notion that the business of the Church is to make people happy, or to integrate their lives, or to relieve their circumstances and improve their conditions. My whole case is that to do that is just to palliate the symptoms, to give temporary ease, and that it does not get beyond that.

Written by Jeremy Walker

Saturday 21 July 2012 at 09:50

Posted in Ecclesiology

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Online life and church life

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Michael Kruger offers some interesting thoughts on rescuing church from a facebook culture. He writes:

I have to ask the simple question: What affect does “social media” technology have on the way we view church? What affect does it have on the way we conceive of life in the body of Christ? Of course, much of social media is positive. And the church has used this technology to advance the cause of Christ. Moreover, I cannot miss the irony of writing about the affects of technological forms of communication on my own website! Nevertheless, I do have some concerns—and so should you. Here are a few characteristics of a “Facebook culture” that we certainly need to reckon with as believers:

1. Short attention span/limited learning style.

2. Low view of authority/over-focus on equality.

3. “Surfacey” interactions/artificial relationships.

4. Lack of Physical Presence.

5. Low Commitment/Accountability.

Do read his explanations and conclusions and recommendations in full. They are thoughtful and careful, and worth considering. As he says, the problem is not that technology creates such patterns of sin and ignorance, rather that it provides a ready channel for the sin and ignorance that already exists in our hearts (I cannot imagine many pastors saying, “Yup, everyone in the congregation had a monster attention span married to a right view of authority until Facebook came along!”).

Written by Jeremy Walker

Saturday 5 May 2012 at 07:22

Posted in Technology

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Getting connected

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[There] are a lot of opportunities to connect with other people in the church. And in my observation, people who avail themselves of those opportunities almost always feel connected to others in the congregation. People who don’t show up for things, however, usually don’t feel as connected.

Feeling isolated? Only on the fringes? A little cut off from your brothers and sisters? Disconnected from the other members? Mike McKinley offers a simple and effective remedy.

Written by Jeremy Walker

Friday 16 March 2012 at 15:54

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Being there

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One of the ways which Reformed Baptist Churches have traditionally been distinct from many others Baptist churches is in regard to the serious nature of church membership. We believe that membership is biblical and that it is vital to the life of the disciple. We believe furthermore that members ought to be committed to the church and that they ought to express that commitment by attending all the meetings of the church (for instruction, worship, and prayer) unless they are providentially hindered from doing so.

In what follows I want to give four clear incentives to faithfully attending the stated meetings of your church.

The brothers at Main Things go on to give four incentives – Godward, selfward, saintward, and sinnerward – for our attendance at the meetings of the gathered church. Read them and remember that one of your simplest and best services to God and his people is simply being there.

Written by Jeremy Walker

Wednesday 29 February 2012 at 22:45

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Blessings with hindsight

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I distinctly remember it. I was sitting among a group of young people, some of whom were professing Christianity, some of whom were wrestling with God, and some of whom were neither. We were, most of us, in our mid-teens, and many of us had come from homes in which we heard and saw the gospel more or less clearly, more or less often. I cannot remember how the conversation turned as it did, but at one point a clear consensus quickly arose. Pretty much everyone who had been brought up under some degree of genuine Christian influence was wishing that they had lived utterly apart from God. A lot of this had to do with assurance: I think that the feeling was that when you have lived under a degree of restraint, knowing the truth by intellectual instruction if not by spiritual apprehension, there was a felt reduction in the degree of conviction of sin and a corresponding difficulty in discerning the transition from darkness to light. So far, so fascinating (perhaps).

I have learned some things, I hope, over the years since. Among them is the fact that outward restraint is no measure of heart sin, and that there is more than enough iniquity in the heart of the child trained up in a Christian home under the gospel to breed more than enough conviction of sin. The person who thinks otherwise merely needs a more accurate, Spirit-wrought sense of sin: the problem here is not so much reality as perception. I have also learned that the reason why some of us were confused is because not all of us who spoke were genuinely converted: some of those present were discussing the validity and reality of what they had never actually experienced or still needed to experience, as subsequent history has revealed.

But the point I wish to make runs along a different track. There we were, possessed of the incalculable blessings of growing up with parents who sought to teach us of Christ, who trained us and restrained us, holding back some of the worst excesses of our unregenerate hearts, who sat week by week under the faithful preaching of the gospel of Christ Jesus, who had pastors and other mature saints who taught and demonstrated the truth as it is in Jesus . . . and we were complaining that we wished we had been utterly destitute of any such influences, allowed to run in our own way absolutely, given over to sin.

Honestly, I understand the wish, but it is misguided. As I say, there is no need for us to live an outwardly, utterly Godless life in order to know ourselves sinners. Furthermore, I now thank God for the fact that I was so restrained, that my personal history is not more littered with extravagant external sins (there are more than enough), that the Lord removed at various times either the inclination or the opportunity, and laid upon my heart some of those constraints which – though substantially external in themselves – nevertheless were the means of keeping me from greater wickedness.

Then, another, more recent and positive memory: as I read books and blogs and watch videos and attend conferences and so on, I am sometimes struck by the apparent simplicity of a point being made (and subsequently applauded as profound), by the apparent confusion that reigns about points of doctrine which seem to me to be obvious, by the sense of novelty that surrounds material that I consider to be eminently familiar. Error may be no less enticing and engaging, but at least the truth is already in place by means of which to identify and expose the errors. These benefits hit me forcibly a few weeks ago, for example, during a discussion on the Trinity. It was not that it seemed ‘old hat’ to me; rather, as the speaker progressed, I had the sense of being on ground both common and familiar, and – when the time for discussion came – I found myself slightly ahead of the game, my point of departure different from at least some of the others participating. Or, more recently, I was left staggered at the theological naïveté of some of those participating in conversations to do with the Elephant Room. Were the issues not clear? Was the truth not known?

Does this mean that I am unusually brilliant? Am I blowing my own trumpet? Should I thank God that I am not like other men? Not a bit of it. I wish, rather, to record my gratitude to God for three particular blessings which were a means of laying such a foundation, and to encourage others to value and extend them.

The first is the blessing of godly parents. The value of the instruction and example of godly parents is too easily overlooked by those who are growing up under that influence, and who are often inclined to kick against the goads. Parental government may feel oppressive, aggressive, restrictive, excessive. Family worship, reading the Bible, prayer, catechesis, responsibilities required and restraints imposed, facing sin and resolving tensions – all may seem utterly burdensome and unnecessary. Nevertheless, if the Lord God is pleased to work salvation and apply the blood of Christ to the heart of such a child, the perspective ought to shift. All of a sudden, that framework of knowledge is imbued with a genuine (though incomplete) understanding. Those heavy chains of restraint are perceived in time to be God’s gracious means of keeping us from wickedness and even death. That drip-drip-drip of accurate and faithful instruction has laid a foundation all unnoticed, and provided a basis for further study and deeper appreciation which is hard to replicate except by the most eager latecomers to the gospel (sadly, there are many such who quickly outstrip those whose privileges ought to provide for their fast and straight progress in godliness, both doctrinal and practical).

The second is the blessing of faithful churches. Notice that they are not perfect churches. How I used to buck at some of the hypocrisy and shallowness that I saw growing up in a faithful church! How I used to wonder at the gravitas some people assumed in public and around “grown-ups”! Those people would often forget a child was watching and listening, and could see what they were really like in the attitudes, actions, antics and allowed life of their homes (I still know people whose boast of high standards of conviction and behaviour practiced in their homes, when I remember something very different, is grievous). But such – although they provide much fuel to the cynical fires of jaded youth – are not all that the church is. Again, we should not underestimate what is taking place as the Word of God is faithfully expounded Lord’s day by Lord’s day, morning and evening, in a particular place; as truehearted believers welcome children into their homes and hearts, and love them and care for them and teach them; as various workers labour to communicate something of Christ’s saving excellence to those under their care. Again, that inheritance – which may lie fallow for years or even decades – provides a phenomenal head-start if the Lord God is pleased to bring it to life by his Spirit. A bedrock is in place upon which future building can immediately take place.

The third is the blessing of good books. You do not need to be a great reader to benefit from the availability of the rich resources of good Christian publishing. Recognising that not everything is good, and that a sifting and selecting process has gone on even in providing that which is good, nevertheless the wealth of instruction and admonition and exhortation and correction to be obtained in reading is unimaginable. The man or woman who reads – and particularly who reads faithful old books – has an advantage, for there is nothing new under the sun, and the experience and understanding of those who have gone before is made readily available to anyone with the inclination to find or make the time and expend the energy on obtaining it. Why learn all your own lessons all over again when you can take a shortcut and learn them from wise men who walked the same paths in previous generations? This is not an argument for unthinking assimilation, but for aggressive engagement and interaction with the best of the past as a way of understanding and navigating the present. As Samuel Davies said, “I have a peaceful study, as a refuge from the hurries and noise of the world around me; the venerable dead are waiting in my library to entertain me, and relieve me from the nonsense of surviving mortals.” To have walked these ways in the company of faithful guides equips the saint today to serve God with a readiness and insight not available to those who have been deprived of the riches of a library.

Are there dangers here? To be sure. It is all too easy to be like a crown prince who has become accustomed by long exposure to the beauties and glories of the palace royal, but who has thereby lost his appreciation of the excellence of its galleries and the effectiveness of its armouries, and has so failed to value them accordingly. When he comes of age, he is all too inclined to cast away what his forefathers won with blood, sweat and tears. This is a travesty. We ought to be appreciative inheritors, not losing our sense of joy and the stimulating freshness of discoveries of fresh depth, but neither confusing that with an obsession with novelty.

But are there lessons here? I hope so! First, to parents: invest in your children. Do not make them little Pharisees, by any means, but model God’s grace in Christ and pour into them those truths and train them in that conduct which, enlivened by the Holy Spirit, will equip them for godly life in a fallen world. Second, to churches: keep preaching and teaching. Do not fall prey to all the fads and fashions that sweep the evangelical world, but go on drip-feeding and praying for those who may, under God, provide the future membership and leadership of faithful churches. Hammer home saving and sanctifying truth week by week and day by day: never underestimate the deposit that is being built up in the hearts even of your youngest hearers. Thirdly, to all: get some good books and read them. Read them in family devotions, at the bedside, in an armchair. Read them in the mornings and evenings, alongside and with your Bible to illuminate and explain and apply. Read them on the train. Read them (carefully) in the bath. Provide them and recommend them to others. Start libraries. Lend them and give them. Read them together and alone. Read them with pencil in hand. Read them actively: engage and argue with them, and learn from them. Mine the past in order to provide for the present.

These are not, for the most part, blessings which we get for ourselves. We do not appoint the families into which we are born, the churches in which we might grow up, or the books made available to us in our youth. We only realise in later life the blessings that our heavenly Father intended for us. That is why we cannot boast: “For who makes you differ from another? And what do you have that you did not receive? Now if you did indeed receive it, why do you boast as if you had not received it?” (1Cor 4.7).

So, we cannot get them for ourselves, and we do not merit them by our own efforts, but we can give them, and we can – with hindsight – learn to appreciate what we ourselves were given before, and how to pass them on to others.

Written by Jeremy Walker

Friday 10 February 2012 at 13:36

Posted in Christian living

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Points of note

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For those who may be interested, and who don’t snigger at what might charitably be called “late adopters,” this blog now has a Facebook page (see sidebar also). If you have a moment, please hit the like button on the sidebar or the page to follow the blog.

Also, I have continued to chip away on the pastoral theology page, and I have half a shelf of new books to work on, so please do check out the list of reviews from time to time.

Speaking of books, The Brokenhearted Evangelist is due to be published in a few days (the whisper is that it should be on the shelf either on 10th or 20th of this month). RHB have it available on their website for $11 at the moment. Might I encourage you to bag a copy at some point? More news will follow when I have it.

Mike Riccardi does a good job of herding the elephants, providing a useful chronological outline of the events and discussion before, during and after Elephant Room 2. This may yet prove to be a defining moment in the New Calvinist movement, as men are obliged to walk in the right direction or the wrong one (whether by plain approval or by fudging the issue). If you still care about the nitty-gritty of the process, as opposed to the principle, it’s worth looking at. What is slightly interesting is the re-emergence of the word ‘trajectory.’ A couple of years ago, when invited to comment on certain big players, other big players backed off and endorsed – if not quite the man and his ministry in its entirety – at the very least the “trajectory” they were on, which at the time might have been considered fairly positive. What is noticeable by its absence in some is a refusal to track the current trajectory of some men and say that it is either absolutely unacceptable or that it bodes much ill. It would be tragic to see men who have earned a reputation for the defence of the faith in recent years go down as the men who failed to draw the lines when the lines needed to be drawn.

UPDATE: Messrs Carson and Keller have provided a lengthy, interesting but largely inconclusive overview of issues they believe to be related to this debate here. I appreciate the information, and they have certainly demonstrated their erudition, but I am left a little confused about what they are trying to achieve. It is a substantially boneless piece, providing no definition, drawing no lines, reaching no conclusions. It is disappointing to see men who have a platform of unusual influence, and from whom a robust declaration of what matters and why it matters might have been expected, appearing to fudge the opportunity. I hope that more will be forthcoming upon further reflection, and that there will be some acknowledgements of failure and disappointment as well as some pontifications about dichotomies and tensions.

Finally, I thought that some might be interested to know of a recent introductory series on the church of God which I completed in the church here in Crawley. You can view the whole series here or check out individual sermons as follows:

  1. The nature of the church
  2. The identity of the church (1)
  3. The identity of the church (2)
  4. The identity of the church (3)
  5. The purpose of the church
  6. The calling of the church (1) Principle and pattern
  7. The calling of the church (2) Pursuit and process
  8. The worship of the church (1) Its object and spirituality
  9. The worship of the church (2) Its boundaries and liberties
  10. The government of the church
  11. The mark of the church
  12. The bond of the church
  13. The privilege of the church
  14. The discipline of the church (1)
  15. The discipline of the church (2)
  16. The rule of the church
  17. The delight of the church
  18. The gathering of the church (1)
  19. The gathering of the church (2)
  20. The vigour of the church
  21. The mission of the church
  22. The destiny of the church

Written by Jeremy Walker

Friday 3 February 2012 at 10:09

Please, sir, may I have some more?

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I know this sounds like a crazy notion. I’m not 100% convinced myself. But I’ve begun to wonder if there might not be enough public teaching in today’s church.

Kevin DeYoung reasons through what he fears may be a lack of teaching in the church. I think he has some valid concerns. How much of an appetite for truth taught is there in the church of Christ today?

Written by Jeremy Walker

Monday 23 January 2012 at 09:04

The most dangerous person

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Sure, we all can spot the unbeliever who doesn’t fluently speak the language of Zion, we can identify the person from doctrinally anemic backgrounds because they keep cutting themselves with the sharp knives in the theology drawer, and of course any Calvinist can sniff out an Arminian within 20 seconds.

But I submit that these types of people are not the most dangerous people that attend your church. At least, they are not in my experience.

Instead, the most dangerous person at your church is . . .

Find out who the Ordinary Pastor believes is the most dangerous person in his church. It is insightful. One fellow-pastor who saw this felt it was rather a case of the nail being squarely struck on the head.

Written by Jeremy Walker

Wednesday 5 October 2011 at 07:53

Posted in Pastoral theology

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A plea to prospective university students

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From time to time, in the weeks leading up to the beginning of the new school year, I receive enquiries about churches in particular places. They usually go something like this: “So-and-so has got a place to study this-or-that at such-and-such university in such-and-such a city. Do you know of any good church that he or she could go to?”

My initial response is almost always to hang my head in my hands, because I am grieved over the failure of the prospective students and their parents and perhaps their pastors to consider the consequences of their actions and to plan accordingly.

What would you think of someone who told you that they had made arrangements to move to a new planet, and then asked if you knew if the atmosphere was breathable? Or that they were on their way to a new country, but they were not sure if there would be any food there that they could eat, and did you have any recommendations? You would look at them as if they were mad! Air to breathe and food to eat: surely these are your first considerations when planning such a significant step, not the questions that you worry about once the business of getting there has been accomplished!

So why is it that year after year, professing Christians students (and their parents) plan their intellectual, academic, professional or social development (or invest in the development of their offspring), and only subsequently ask whether or not their souls will receive faithful and loving care in the only environment on earth that Christ has ordained for the lasting health of his people?

Consider this: those three or more years at university occur at a seminal time of life under peculiarly trying circumstances. For many, this will be the first time away from home, away from the protection of parents and the shepherding of the pastors they have always known. They will go into a stimulating, demanding environment with a host of new enticements, fresh temptations, different companions, peculiar challenges, and unexpected opportunities. For many, the regular and immediate outward restraints of knowing and being known, of parental government and pastoral oversight, will be removed for a prolonged period of time. And all this at a time when the character is only just being formed, when physically, mentally, emotionally and very often spiritually, there is a degree of uncertainty and instability alongside rapid development. The previous anchor points of life are necessarily (and not necessarily unhealthily) being altered, and the soul may drop its anchors in better places, worse places, or simply be cast adrift. And into this potentially fruitful, potentially devastating environment goes the student, and he or she often does so without any notion of where they will find Christian care, compassion, example and instruction over the long haul. Could it be that one of the reasons why we see so many professing Christians falling away or losing their way during their university years is that they have headed off to their colleges and courses without first determining where and how they will obtain their spiritual sustenance?

This is not an argument against Christian unions and the like, nor is it an argument for stay-at-home-or-local schooling, but such a situation reflects a cripplingly low and badly mistaken view of the church, and the Christian’s relationship to it. One fears that neither the parents nor the pastors of the church from which the prospective student comes have ever made clear the Christian’s priorities, or – if one or other have set them forth – they have been thoroughly rebuffed. If that is the foundation, what will be the building? How strange to see a Christian parent providing books, clothes, funds, food, and making countless other investments in the success of a university place, and then seeming to just hope that their child will not make shipwreck of the faith along the way without making any of the appropriate provisions for the care of their souls!

I acknowledge that the prospective student may not be a Christian, and may relish the prospect of finally being out from under the compassionate, concerned and determined government of church and home. Even so, surely a concerned parent or pastor might give well-meaning counsel in the hopes that – whatever the young person’s response may be initially – should there ever be a softening, or a need for care, there will be someone on hand to provide it with faithfulness and tenderness? Is there no prospect that a message could be sent to a pastor in the university town to keep an eye open for an uncertain or slightly disgruntled new face in the congregation over the first few weeks of term?

Of course, the same holds true of decisions relating to employment and other spheres. A fantastic promotion, much improved prospects, a more impressive salary, a lovely new home in a much better area, a wonderful school for the kids and so on and so forth . . . and a potential spiritual dryness that will hold back the spiritual development of a child of God for the rest of their life on earth.

Now, to be sure, we cannot predict or pre-empt the work of God in such things. We make foolish errors often, but believers have a heavenly Father who is working all things together for good, and the battles fought as a result of our mistake may make significant contributions to our spiritual formation and yet prove a means of blessing. Of course we might make the best plans we can, under God, and discover that a distant or well-meaning recommendation amounts to nothing; people can be mistaken, sometimes badly; beneath the surface of an apparently healthy church may lurk a looming disaster. Nevertheless, none of this is an excuse to act foolishly or disobediently and expect the Lord to tidy up the mess afterward: “Trust in God and keep your powder dry.”

For the Christian who is a prospective student, this may mean more work and hard choices. It may mean sitting down with lists of universities on one sheet and churches on another and working out where there is an appropriate correspondence. It may mean beginning with a long list of universities and doing the research on faithful churches in those towns and cities, with a line drawn through those halls of learning without halls of holiness in the vicinity – no matter how otherwise enticing the prospects or how creditable the courses. It could require a couple of visits to see how the rubber hits the road in a particular congregation. It may mean that you make your plans and decisions with the words ringing in your ears, ratcheted into your mind, or written on your paper: “Those who honour me, I will honour, and those who despise me shall be lightly esteemed.” Should unforeseen dangers and trials then come, there is a promise for the child of God to cling to: “Lord, you know that in my heart and in my plans I set out to honour you. Father, please now protect and prosper your child!”

In the coming year, then, as you contemplate any move, whether it be a application for a university place, a shift in employment, or any other such change of place, consider your soul, and therefore consider the church. Make every effort to get yourself into a spiritual environment in which you will not merely survive but are likely to thrive. Before you go among wolves, seek out and set out after God’s appointed environment and God’s appointed under-shepherds for the salvation, succour, support and safety of his flock.

Written by Jeremy Walker

Monday 19 September 2011 at 09:00

Concerning compromise

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Charles Spurgeon had the knack of straight talk with a cutting edge leavened with a cheerful spirit and a lively tone, even when dealing with a serious subject. Here he employs this composite skill on the subject of compromise:

Men seem to say—It is of no use going on in the old way, fetching out one here and another there from the great mass. We want a quicker way. To wait till people are born again, and become followers of Christ, is a long process: let us abolish the separation between the regenerate and unregenerate. Come into the church, all of you, converted or unconverted. You have good wishes and good resolutions; that will do: don’t trouble about more. It is true you do not believe the gospel, but neither do we. You believe something or other. Come along; if you do not believe anything, no matter; your “honest doubt” is better by far than faith. “But,” say you, “nobody talks so.” Possibly they do not use the same words, but this is the real meaning of the present-day religion; this is the drift of the times. I can justify the broadest statement I have made by the action or by the speech of certain ministers, who are treacherously betraying our holy religion under pretence of adapting it to this progressive age. The new plan is to assimilate the church to the world, and so include a larger area within its bounds. By semi-dramatic performances they make houses of prayer to approximate to the theatre; they turn their services into musical displays, and their sermons into political harangues or philosophical essays—in fact, they exchange the temple for the theatre, and turn the ministers of God into actors, whose business it is to amuse men. Is it not so, that the Lord’s-day is becoming more and more a day of recreation or of idleness, and the Lord’s house either a joss-house full of idols, or a political club, where there is more enthusiasm for a party than zeal for God? Ah me! the hedges are broken down, the walls are levelled, and to many there is henceforth, no church except as a portion of the world, no God except as an unknowable force by which the laws of nature work.

This, then, is the proposal. In order to win the world, the Lord Jesus must conform himself, his people, and his Word to the world. I will not dwell any longer on so loathsome a proposal.

Written by Jeremy Walker

Friday 26 August 2011 at 12:34

An assessment of preaching

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Hopefully, there will come a point in the life of a church when she is called upon to consider and assess the preaching gifts of men in the congregation. This is not the same thing as considering a man for the office of an elder, but it may be related to it. As the 1689 Baptist Confession of Faith says, in chapter 26, paragraph 11:

Although it be incumbent on the Bishops or Pastors of the Churches to be instant in Preaching the Word, by way of Office; yet the work of Preaching the Word, is not so peculiarly confined to them; but that others also gifted, and fitted by the Holy Spirit for it, and approved, and called by the Church, may and ought to perform it.

In other words, while it is a particular duty of the pastors as pastors to be preachers in some form, there may be others apart from the pastors of a church who – being appropriately gifted and equipped by the Holy Spirit – have a related obligation to exercise their gift for the edification of the whole body. The assessment of that gift belongs to the gathered church, who, under the oversight of the elders – are to approve and call such a man to the work. (Again, I do not think that this is a formal setting aside, but rather a more formal recognition that here is a man whose gift is to be cultivated and who should be given opportunities for its exercise. Of course, where a man believes he is called to the ministry as a vocational pastor, the same kind of process may be appropriate for the assessment of his preaching gifts as part of the wider consideration of his graces and gifts.)

But how does a church make such an assessment? Is there not a danger of cultivating a wrongly critical spirit, in which the congregation begin to sit as judges upon the preachers rather than come under the Word of God with an intelligent appetite? But is there not another problem of super-spiritualising the process so that the church fails properly to consider the man and his gifts, with a view to a serious consideration and righteous assessment, and utterly suspends the critical faculty, appropriately exercised?

I would hope that, in a healthy church environment, the gifts of the more occasional preacher (awkward phrase, but work with me!) might gradually come to light through his service and demonstration of character in other spheres. For example, his character and disposition are likely to gain him particular opportunities to serve. His measured, earnest, varied, well-constructed and Biblically-sound contributions in public prayer will gain the approval of the saints. Perhaps he will find an initial platform for his gifts in the Sunday School for children of various ages, or in an adult Bible class, and the children will give their usual honest assessment of whether the man has any ability to hold their attention and instruct their minds. There may be some evangelistic work, either on the doors or preaching in the open air, where his zealous spirit cannot be quenched and his heart for sinners is evident. His interaction with other saints will manifest a capacity to instruct. His Bible study and wider reading will show an active mind seeking to immerse itself in the things of God. Perhaps he will contribute to the leading of services, or some other more public sphere in which his gifts, exercised in dependence on the Spirit of Christ, will be evident.

There will come a point at which the elders might give him an opportunity to preach. This should probably be in the most regular meetings of the church, where the saints are gathered with an appetite for the Word and a prayerful anticipation and an eager hope that God will feed them through a gifted man. In other words, the congregation will be willing and expecting the best for and from this brother. The first sermon may be a blinder, humanly speaking, or it may be a complete disaster. In either case, it is too soon to make a decision. The pressures of the pulpit do not allow for a single essay into the labour of public preaching to determine whether or not a man has a gift for some kind of ministry. So he stands again, and perhaps the blinder is followed by a disaster, or vice versa. More likely there is a gradual development, for few men spring fully-formed as preachers into the pulpit. The pastors give feedback, and perhaps a few mature saints are called upon to provide some insights personally to the would-be preacher and to the elders. The pastors seek to cultivate the man’s gifts, honing his attitude to and aptitude for the work. There are many rough edges to smooth off, there are at least as many idiosyncrasies and shortcomings as there are in a more seasoned preacher, but – over time – there is discernible progress. Eventually, the matter comes to the church: the point has come at which the gathered congregation must assess whether or not this is a man that they are ready to recognise as gifted in some capacity to preach, and to what extent that gift should be exercised. What frame of reference do they have for making such an assessment?

Without imagining that this is the final word, here is a framework that we have employed in the church which I serve. It seeks to draw on the Biblical data concerning and examples of preaching, as well as some of the wisdom of gifted men through the years. It has been useful not only for looking at developing preachers, but also for mutual and self-assessment by the existing pastors of our own pulpit labours. In the hopes that others find it useful, I offer it here.

Are the following things present in the bud if not in the bloom? If they are not present all the time, are they regularly and increasingly in evidence?

Personal integrity: Do his character, behaviour, and family life make him credible in the things he preaches? Do his family and employment circumstances allow him to give the time and energy required for preparation and delivery of sermons?

Spiritual authority: Does the Word of God come with a degree of power? Is the preacher gripped by the truth? Are you conscious that you are dealing with the things of eternity? Do you feel the pressure of the truth on your conscience? Do you feel anything of the burden of the man for the salvation of his hearers, their entry into and continuance along the narrow path? Do you believe that he has grasped the true sense of his text and been mastered by it? Is there unction? Is he himself governed by the Word and Spirit?

Homiletical clarity: Is the exegesis (the explanation of the text) accurate and clear? Are the points plainly derived from the text? Is there structure, order, organization, flow, an underpinning and compelling logic to the sermon? Are his illustrations appropriate, accurate, lively and helpful? Can you follow the reasoning in his sermon and are you persuaded by his conclusions?

Theological accuracy: Is there evidence of broader reading and theological meditation? Is the sermon enriched by a genuine understanding of the scope and flow of Scripture revelation as a whole? Is he labouring to acquire a deeper foundation that will support and enrich preaching opportunities? Does his exegesis and application commend itself to you as careful and accurate, in accordance with the wider teaching of Scripture? Are the sermons full of Christ: do they proclaim him and presuppose him?

Emotional profundity: Does he enter into the heart and mind of those depicted in the sermon and its text? Is he connecting with the events and circumstances he describes? Are you made conscious of his concern for you as his hearers? Do you recognise a man who cares for your soul? Does deep speak unto deep? Do you get the sense that he is gripped by his material? Does his spirit rise and fall in sympathy with his material, and does he carry you with him?

Applicatory pungency: Are his applications thoughtful and accurate? Is it a ‘distinguishing’ ministry i.e. does it make necessary, careful and clear divisions between different spiritual conditions and states? Does he address such different groups in a lively and appropriate way? Are the applications searching? Do they go beyond the surface and demand a definite response? Are his applications predictable and avoidable, or urgent and pressing?

Vocal and physical capacity: How easy is he to listen to? How well does he gain and keep your attention? Is there a helpful range of tone, pitch, and volume in his sermon? Do his vocal range and gesture help to communicate the truth in its various aspects and emphases? Is there appropriate and natural expression of face and gesture of body that helps to communicate his meaning? Is there anything static or stunted about his delivery? Does he preach with his whole being?

  • Are your souls being fed by this man’s ministry? Are you being taught, reproved, corrected and instructed in righteousness?
  • Do you believe that God has gifted this man in some capacity as a preacher?
  • If so, to what extent? Would you be eager (or, at least, content) to sit under this preaching on a more regular basis? If so, how often? Roughly once, four times, six times, twelve times yearly, or more or less often?
  • Is he consistently reaching a standard of careful, close, effective public ministry, or is it still a little hit and miss? Do you need more time to make such determinations?
  • Would you be content to have this man go to other congregations and preach as a representative of your Saviour and this church?

Written by Jeremy Walker

Friday 26 August 2011 at 08:22

The local church

with one comment

The local church is the hope of the world. Unless we are physically unable, every Christian should be a part of a church. The church is where Christ gets glory (Eph. 3:21) and where we (not just I) shine as lights in the world (Phil. 2:15). The New Testament assumes that believers belong, not just to the church universal, but to a specific community of Christians. That’s why Paul wrote nine of his thirteen letters to churches and why each church in Revelation is represented by an individual lampstand. God’s plan has always been to establish a people, not simply a loose assortment of individuals.

Amen.

via Kevin DeYoung.

Written by Jeremy Walker

Friday 19 August 2011 at 12:42

Posted in Ecclesiology

Tagged with , ,

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