January 31, 2012

Three Anniversaries to note

The last three days have marked three milestone days in the history of Christianity:

January 31.  Charles Haddon Spurgeon, perhaps the greatest preacher the English language has ever known, died on this date 120 years ago (1892).  Tim Challies has a piece marking this anniversary.

January 30.  Francis Schaeffer, the great American evangelist/apologist was born on this date 100 years ago (1912).  Justin Taylor has a brief memorial, as well as some good deals on Schaeffer's books.

January 29.  Thomas Boston, one of the greatest of many marvelous Scottish pastors (and my historical hero), began the manuscript for his classic work Human Nature in its Fourfold State 300 years ago on this day (1712).  In the generations following Boston's death, it is said that in nearly every humble Scottish Christian cottage could be found a copy of the Bible, of the Pilgrim's Progress, and of Boston's Fourfold State.  Heady company!  This book, written by a then-obscure country parson, is also said to have been the instrument of more conversions than any other book of its generation.  If Boston is unfamiliar to you, listen to this excellent introductory biography by William Hughes.

January 30, 2012

The Offering

Part 6 in a series on the church’s “liturgy

One part of Lord’s Day services that is often overlooked is the offering. It’s not that churches or individuals overlook it altogether, but that we may be prone to overlook the fact that the offering is actually a part of the worship service.

Yes, we collect tithes and offerings because they meet very practical needs in the church’s weekly, monthly, and yearly operations. Without the offering, we would have no lights, no sound system, no bulletins, no Windex for the front doors, no gas for the lawn-mower, no salt for the parking lot, no benevolence fund for families in need, no support for our missionaries, no full-time pastor, and so on. So, yes, the money we collect every week does serve very practical (sometimes even mundane) purposes. But that’s not all that – or even mainly what – the offering is about! No! The offering is actually an act of worship!

To believe that, of course, you have to believe that the church grounds, lights, sound system, front doors, missionaries, and pastor are actually God’s possessions, not merely those of the church. For your offering to be an act of worship, you must believe that you really are giving the money to God … not just to Kurt and Tobey, Midge, and the various committees of the church! When our hearts are right, we realize that we are putting our money, not simply into the offering plate, but into the hands of our Lord (see Leviticus 27.30, Malachi 3.8, and Matthew 25.40)!

This is why we (like the early church, 1 Cor 16.2) include the offering as a part of Lord’s Day worship, rather than simply having a deposit box in the foyer, or a PayPal account online. The money, of course, would spend the same way no matter how it came into the church’s bank account. But that money is not simply going into the church’s account, but into the hands of the living God! And so, to help us remember that, we offer our money to God each week at the same time we offer Him our hearts, and voices, and spiritual gifts, and ears. That is not to say it is impossible to truly worship God while giving your gift some other way. But there is something about giving our gift to God when we are gathered with God’s people, having just sung His praises and listened to His word, that I think would be very difficult to duplicate online, or standing next to a deposit box in the foyer, or even dropping your envelope into the plate before the service (as I used to do).

But here’s the thing. Even though we do collect the offering as part of worship; even though we do present our money to God right alongside our praises, it is possible for you or me to do so only in a perfunctory way. We may drop our envelope into the plate without really even thinking about what we are doing … just doing our duty, or waiting to get to the next song or scripture. But let’s not miss this once-a-week opportunity, not simply to give to the church, but to say to the Lord Himself: ‘God, this is for You! You have been so good to me – physically and spiritually. And I want to show my thanks. I want this gift to be a token of my love for you and my recognition that you are worthy of my praise. God, I place this little envelope into the passing plate as a real, conscious, deliberate act of worship!’

A good word from Africa

Ministers, especially, should read this blog post from Conrad Mbewe: Faithfulness is important, but it is not enough.

January 23, 2012

Public Reading of Scripture

Part 5 in a series on the church’s “liturgy

“Give attention to the public reading of Scripture.” So said the apostle Paul to Timothy, his protégé, in 1 Timothy 4.13. In other words, when the people of God gather for worship, they ought not simply hear someone talking about the Bible; they ought also to be given the privilege of simply hearing the Bible itself!

That seems very straightforward, does it not? In fact, it might seem obvious that Timothy would read the Bible aloud without Paul having to tell him to do so. So why does Paul command it? Why would Paul have felt the need to write Timothy, urging him not to forget to read the scriptures aloud in public worship? Perhaps because he knew that Timothy and his people (like most church leaders and congregations) might well be eager to get to the more ‘engaging’ parts of the liturgy – to the singing, the preaching, and so on. It’s human nature to want to quickly get to what we ourselves have prepared for the service, and to bypass the simpler, less theatrical things. So Paul reminds Timothy not to skim past the scripture reading, but to “give attention” to it.

This element of worship was doubly important in the early church era. In those days, many of the church members were illiterate slaves – intelligent enough, mind you, to follow Paul’s difficult logical arguments; but unable to decipher the language in which they were written! Add to that the fact that the printing press had yet to be invented, and we realize that even those church-goers who could actually read would have been unlikely to have a personal copy of the scriptures for private perusal. Therefore, for most Christians, the only time they got to hear the Scriptures was when they came to church! What a tragedy it would have been, therefore, to come on a Sunday and hear a sermon on a single verse (like Matthew 27.46 this past Sunday), but to have no other Bible read to you on this one weekly occasion for hearing it! So, in addition to the sermon (which was vital, in Paul’s estimation), attention needed also to be given to reading longer portions of scripture … so that a broader access to the whole Bible might be achieved for each member of the church.

Now what does this mean for us? We all have Bibles at home, and can read them any time we want, right? So maybe the public reading of scripture is not quite as important for us as it was in Paul’s day. Maybe. But it seems to me that, though our generation has more access to the Bible (in every imaginable format!) than any generation before us, we are still, overall, the most biblically illiterate generation since the Protestant Reformation! Even those of us who know quite a lot of Bible would have circles run around us by some of the illiterate folks of centuries gone by! Why? Because, as much emphasis as we put on private Bible reading and study, most Christians aren’t as consistent as they’d like to be. Most Christians don’t get near as much Bible into their systems as we ought! Therefore I conclude that the public reading of scripture is as vital today as ever! Even if we ourselves struggle to stay disciplined at home, at least we can know that, if we are in church 52 Sundays a year (and maybe on Wednesdays too), we are going to hear a significant chunk of the Bible in spite of our private inconsistency!

Let me also point out that the public reading of scripture is invaluable in several other ways as well.

Having heard the scripture read aloud enlivens our subsequent singing and praying. Surely, having heard God speak, we are in a much better frame for speaking to Him ourselves, than if we’d just opened our lips cold turkey.

Hearing the scripture read by another will often help us notice nuances of meaning we may have missed on our own. When the Bible is read publically, it is to be hoped that the reader has given enough prior attention to the passage to be able to emphasize repetitions, grammatical constructions, and even voice inflections that might be overlooked when simply reading flat words on the pages. Very often, those changes of voice or cadence will help his hearers see something quite valuable in the text that they would not have noticed at home.

The public reading of the scriptures sends a subconscious message to the congregation that God’s word really is important. We come to church, not merely to speak or sing to God, but to heard from God. And we come, not to hear the pastor’s thoughts on a given topic, but to be given God’s thoughts! And we are greatly helped to remember these facts when we actually set aside a few minutes in the service when no one but God is voicing his or her thoughts, ideas, studies, emotions, or even praise.

These are the reasons is why, whether in prayer meeting, or on Wednesday night, or in our Lord’s Day worship, we always include a scripture reading. And these are surely the reasons why God has commanded that we “give attention to the public reading of scripture.” I hope you will join me as we all give that attention!

January 16, 2012

Pastoral Prayer

Part 4 in a series on the church’s “liturgy

One of the great lessons I learned in college came to me in quite an unusual way. I learned it, not in the classroom, but from the Sunday morning worship service. Nor was it taught me in the church which I myself attended … but by the pastor under whose ministry Tobey sat week in and week out. Even more out of the ordinary was that I never heard this man preach, nor attended a service in his church! And yet I learned something from him that, to me, has become vitally important.

After we were married, Tobey and I were talking one day about how much she had enjoyed her time at College Hill Presbyterian Church, pastored by Alan Cochet (that’s CO-shay in Mississippi, y’all!). The thing that she seemed to remember and appreciate the most were the pastor’s prayers for his congregation – his pastoral prayers, as we call them at PRBC. Having never experienced such prayers myself (that I can remember), I was keenly interested in what she meant by – and what Rev. Cochet did during – the pastoral prayer. In essence, he did not simply sprinkle in brief, cliché filled prayers to serve as tokens and fillers in the worship service. Rather, each Lord’s Day morning, he carefully and thoughtfully worked his way through a whole host of praises and requests on behalf of his congregation, the community, and so on.

Rev. Cochet, in his weekly pastoral prayer, gave his people a small taste, it would seem, of the careful and thoughtful way he must surely have prayed for them in the privacy of his closet or study. And at least one college student, rather than being put off by prayers that necessitated several minutes of closed eyes, was actually enthused by and thankful for such pastoral care for the flock! Having heard her enthusiasm, I have tried to imitate some semblance of what she heard on those formative Sundays. Along the way, I’ve learned that pastors have been praying such pastoral prayers for centuries - imitating the masterful examples laid down by the apostle Paul (see Ephesians 1 and 3) and the Lord Jesus Himself (John 17)!  Allow me to suggest a few reasons why I believe this practice has become so tried and true. Pastoral prayers are:

Actual prayers. Private prayer is not simply comprised of brief sentences sprinkled here and there (I hope). So why should we pray that way in church? Surely if there was ever a time to set aside a few minutes to really pray for all the various concerns of God’s people, it ought to be on Sunday morning during worship!

Instructive prayers. If the pastor never seriously prays in front of his people; if he always offers only brief segue-prayers between various points in the service; if they never hear how the shepherd prays for a variety of people and issues, many people (new Christians especially) may have a difficult time learning how to pray for such things themselves!

Recyclable prayers. When a pastor actually prays for Sam’s job interview, and Suzie’s surgery, and the missionary’s fruitfulness … folks in the congregation (hopefully) say to themselves: ‘Aha! There is something I ought to be praying for, too.'  Thus, they may add their silent ‘amen’ as the pastor goes along … as well as their own personal prayers as the week goes along.

Comforting prayers. The hope is that, like Tobey in her college days, far from feeling overburdened by a 4-5 minute prayer each Sunday morning, Christians will be comforted to know that their shepherd notices and cares about their needs; that he has his eyes on the flock closely enough that he can pray very specifically for them.

Finally, let me point out that my own pastoral prayers are invariably modeled after the ACTS method of prayer. Noticing my method may help you PRBCers to follow along even more fully:

I begin with Adoration – hoping you will join me in praising God for His various attributes (usually selecting traits drawn from the opening song of praise).  Next we engage in Confession – including a silent moment for you to confess your own sins specifically (and for me to confess mine).  Third, we pray prayers of Thanksgiving – for the forgiveness we just requested, and for the various blessings God has recently poured out on His people at PRBC.  And finally, we conclude the prayer with Supplication – requests for various members of our congregation, for churchwide needs or projects, for our missionaries, for various current events, and for the day’s services.

I hope you’ll join with me (or your own pastor), each Sunday morning, as we weave our way through the pastoral prayer. And I hope that this form of shepherding is as helpful to some of you as Alan Cochet’s example was to Tobey (and to me) so many years ago.

January 11, 2012

Public Prayer

Part 3 in a series on the church’s “liturgy

The idea that Christians should gather together in prayer is surely obvious. The example of the New Testament church alone should be sufficient to convince us along these lines. “They were continually devoting themselves … to prayer” (Acts 2.42). But what kind of prayer? At least three sorts are mentioned in the New Testament:
  • Personal, private prayer – alone in your closet (e.g. Matt. 6.5-6)
  • Corporate, shared prayer – as in family worship, or the church prayer meeting (see Acts 4.23-31, Acts 13.1-2, James 5.14-15)
  • Public prayer – when one person prays aloud on behalf of the gathered group (such as Jesus’ prayer in Acts 17, or Paul’s prayers in Ephesians 1 and 3)

It is this latter sort – public prayer – with which we are concerned in this article. When, why, and how are we to engage in public prayer when we gather for our worship on the Lord’s Day? As we said last week (concerning thoughtful silence), there are no hard and fast rules that govern the length, topics, or particular persons involved in such prayers. But it is clear that they ought to be a part of Christian worship. When we gather for worship, there surely ought to be prayers offered – and publicly so. We all benefit from hearing our brothers pray aloud, and from joining them with our own silent ‘amen.’

In our context at PRBC, there are usually a minimum of five public prayers as a part of each Sunday worship service – the pastoral prayer (with which we’ll deal next week); the offertory prayer; the sermon prayers (before and after the message); and the benediction (or closing prayer).  The order of service is, perhaps, similar in your own congregation.  But what is going on (or what ought to be going on) during each of those times of prayer?

The offertory prayer. It is no small thing to handle God’s money! Thus, when we pray for the offering, we are not simply filling time, or giving people a few seconds to dig their checkbooks out. It’s important that we sincerely plead with God to bless and use our offering! So I charge you who offer these prayers to do so earnestly and thoughtfully.

The two sermon prayers. In some ways, these 30-60 second snippets can become just another part of the service – even for the preacher who prays them! But let’s not allow it to be so! Your pastor desperately needs God’s help every time he opens his mouth in the pulpit. And you need ears to hear! So would you join him, in those two brief prayers, by silently and sincerely asking God to help both you and him to love, believe, and apply what we are about to hear, or have just heard? Perhaps the single greatest thing a Christian can do for his pastor is to pray for him … especially when it comes time to proclaim God’s truth!

The benediction. If you are called upon to conclude the service, a helpful way to pray is to thank the Lord for whatever truths you have just heard from His word … and to ask that He seal these truths upon the hearts of His people as they embark upon another week of walking with Him.

Allow me, also, to offer a few general rules of thumb as to exactly how public prayer should be undertaken. Prayers, prayed aloud, should be:
  • Scriptural. Do your best to use the words of the Bible when you pray aloud. One function of public prayer is to edify those who are listening. And there is no greater edification than to hear the word of God. So bring the language of scripture into your prayers!
  • Original. That is to say, don’t wade in the shallow waters of the same old prayer clichés – ‘bless the gift and the giver,’ ‘lead, guide, and direct us,’ ‘bless her in a special way,’ ‘forgive us for the many ways we fail Thee.’ Surely you can be more thoughtful than to simply say the same exact (often thoughtless) words every week … and to cause people to tune out because of it!
  • Plural. In other words, the person praying aloud ought not be the only person praying! We pray aloud, yes, so that people can hear and be edified … but also so that people can join in! So, as you listen, do more than simply listen. Add your silent ‘amen’ to the various petitions of the different prayers. Pray along with them! For, while God surely hears when one man prays along, there are unique promises given (Matt. 18.19) when God’s people “agree” together in prayer!

January 2, 2012


Part 2 in a series on the church’s “liturgy

Some years ago, we added a new element to our Sunday worship – times of quiet meditation at either end of the service; a few added minutes, simply to think, and reflect, and pray. But why? Why do we have a season of personal preparation at the beginning of the service, and a time personal reflection at the end?  And what might you do to incorporate such times of silent thought if they are not built into your own church's service?

The answer to why we do what we do is partially that Justin Harig suggested it several years ago. He had experienced this practice after heading off to college in Louisville, and came home encouraged by the helpfulness of it. But what Justin experienced in Louisville, and suggested to me, is also biblical! That is not to say that there is any portion of Scripture that specifically commands moments of silence in public worship. But there is biblical precedent and instruction concerning thoughtfulness in the house of God. And this kind of thoughtfulness is usually best achieved when we cease from the very important acts of singing, and listening, and preaching … and simply meditate in the silence of our hearts.

In this regard, I love what King Solomon wrote in the first two verses of Ecclesiastes 5:

“Guard your steps as you go to the house of God and draw near to listen rather than to offer the sacrifice of fools … Do not be hasty in word or impulsive in thought to bring up a matter in the presence of God. For God is in heaven and you are on the earth; therefore let your words be few.”

Aren’t those marvelous words? Before we open our mouths in the worship of the Lord, or even in public prayer, there ought to be forethought and preparation. We ought to guard our steps and quiet our hearts as we come into worship on Sundays. Hopefully, many of us take time out to do just this before arriving each week. But, even if we do, the hustle of getting kids to nursery and/or Sunday School; the rush of getting ourselves together for some role we may be playing in the Sunday service; and the opportunity to visit with one another in the moments leading up to 11am all have the potential to disquiet our hearts. Thus, it is surely wise and beneficial if, as part of our worship, we begin with a few moments to focus our minds and, as I say each week, prepare our hearts to meet with the Lord. Quiet prayer, confession of sin, or meditation on one or other of the day’s Scriptures or songs can be wonderful ways of doing so. I encourage you to make good use of that time!  

At PRBC, we also have a time of quiet reflection just after the sermon, too.  Why have we set that time aside? Think of those still moments as a chance to push the seeds that God has sown in your heart just a little further into the soil. As Jesus taught us in Mark 4, the devil delights in coming, like a blackbird, to snatch up the good seed of God’s word from before it can take root in our hearts. And a quick dash out the door on Sunday morning can greatly aid him in the process! Therefore, before we finish our worship each Sunday morning, we have that minute or so of reflection – a time to think over what we have heard, and let it sink in. That time is not adequate of course (which is why God has given us an entire day free from other pursuits); but the quiet reflection at the end of worship is at least a start, and perhaps a foretaste of the meditation that might continue throughout the Lord’s Day!

Now, if you attend a church that does not set aside moments, like these, for reflection and stillness ... then carve out the time yourself!  Start by arriving in the pew (or stacking chair!) a few minutes early, closing your eyes (so no one will disturb you) and quieting your soul before the Lord.  Then, at the conclusion of the service, do the same thing.  People around you will eventually come to realize what you are doing ... and may even pick up the habit themselves!

However we do it, may we diligently use (and may the Lord kindly bless) these efforts toward personal silence and thought – both to prepare the soil of our hearts for the good seed, and then to thumb that seed in deeply and profoundly!

A Good Word for the New Year ...

... especially if you're in Cincinnati on this wintry day:

Wash yourselves, make yourselves clean;
Remove the evil of your deeds from My sight.
Cease to do evil,
Learn to do good;
Seek justice,
Reprove the ruthless,
Defend the orphan,
Plead for the widow.

“Come now, and let us reason together,”
Says the LORD,
“Though your sins are as scarlet,
They will be as white as snow;
Though they are red like crimson,
They will be like wool.
If you consent and obey,
You will eat the best of the land;
But if you refuse and rebel,
You will be devoured by the sword.”
Truly, the mouth of the LORD has spoken.
Isaiah 1.16-20


Part 1 in a series on the church's "liturgy"

Liturgy. Sometimes it almost comes across as a bad word in evangelical circles. We hear the word and immediately imagine bells and smells, robes and rites, hats and holy water. These forms of worship are often part and parcel of what are called liturgical churches. We, however – along with most other gospel-preaching churches – have none of the above. By design, our services are fairly simple … and free of elements not found in the New Testament. But the fact that we are not a liturgical church does not mean we have no liturgy. After all, the word liturgy simply means ‘order of worship’ – and of course we have that! We do have a liturgy!

So there are liturgical churches – so called because of their focus on liturgy, ceremony, and so on. Then there are non-liturgical churches, like ours – so called, not because they have no liturgy, but because they intentionally desire that their order of worship be biblically simple. We might compare the difference to a woman’s choice of vase for her dining room table. She can choose a vase that is itself a work of art – so that her dinner guests leave her home admiring both the vase, and the lily placed in it. Or she can be so taken up with the beauty of the flower itself that she intentionally selects an understated vase – so that the flower, not the container, is what her friends remember when they rise from the meal.

We have deliberately chosen the understated vase, when it comes to our worship – not because we are plain and simple folk, but because we believe that Jesus, “the lily of the valley,” is far more worthy of attention than the container in which we lift Him up week by week. We want an order or worship that simply holds Him up for all to see, rather than attracting attention to itself.

That does not mean, however, that we have no order or structure to what we do. Every flower needs a vase. Nor does the simplicity of the vase we have chosen mean that our order of worship should be homespun, slapdash, or off-the-cuff. There is a difference between a simple vase and an ugly, poorly chosen one! So the goal of our weekly liturgy is to provide structure with simplicity; to create beauty, but understatedly so.

Hence, a good bit of thought goes into each week’s orders of worship. A good deal of biblical insight has also been given to us on these matters. The Bible is concerned about liturgy – not the precise order in which particular things are done, but the fact that certain elements ought to be a part of New Testament worship (things like prayer, the public reading of Scripture, the preaching of the word, the singing of psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs, and the collection of offerings).

Over the next few weeks, my plan is to use this space to walk through each of the elements of our particular liturgy – explaining why we do what we do, what we hope to accomplish by it, and so on. My hope is that, if we understand what we are doing and why, we might be all the more moved to do it well – with an elegance and beauty that befit the lily of the valley; but also with a simplicity that keeps the attention centered on Him! Will you join me in this pursuit of structured simplicity and understated beauty?