Preaching to Preachers


Pictured: Bryn MacPhail and Alistair Begg at Parkside Church in Chagrin Falls, Ohio, 14/05/08

As I type this I’m sitting in a church dining hall that seats approximately 700. I’m in Chagrin Falls, Ohio, for the 7th consecutive year, attending a Pastors Conference at Parkside Church where Alistair Begg is the Senior Pastor. I just love this event. This is where I come to recharge my spiritual batteries.

The conference stat sheet says that there are 625+ pastors and church leaders here. I’m one of 35 Canadians who made the trip. The teaching is top notch…just what I needed. This year we’re being blessed by the wisdom of Jerry Bridges, Alistair Begg, and Voddie Baucham. Each speaker gives at least two key addresses. The theme of the conference is, ‘Preaching the Gospel to Ourselves’. What a fantastic theme. 600+ pastors who appreciate the need to taste for themselves the food they plan to serve to others.

As I consider all that I’ve heard and learned thus far, I can’t imagine summarizing this in a single blog post. But if you’d like a breakdown of the conference content, let me commend to you the blog of Tim Challies, a Toronto native, who is officially blogging for this conference.

This post is merely my opportunity to share how much I am being encouraged and blessed by the teaching, the fellowship, and the generous hospitality of the people at Parkside.

If you are a pastor, or a church leader, I’d like to strongly recommend making the trip in 2009. If you live near Toronto–well, maybe we can carpool!

It’s OK To Be Comfortable

Over the last number of years, largely out of habit, I’ve serviced my car at my local dealership. The mechanics at the dealership always did a great job. Not once did I have a problem with the quality of their work. I must admit, however, getting my car serviced at the dealership always took some coordination with my schedule. Some of you know exactly what I’m talking about. Even if the only thing you need is an oil change, you might be 2-3 hours without your car. Sure, the dealership shuttle takes you back to work (or home)…if it is available. When your car is ready, the shuttle comes and picks you up. Even still, you’re without a car for 2-3 hours. I’m not sure if this inconvenience bothers many people because we eventually get used to it. Besides, I remember my mom having to do the same thing with her car when I was growing up. That’s just the way the deal works…isn’t it?

The other day I drove into a Mr. Lube and immediately they were ready to service my car. They encouraged me to remain in my car. They brought me a cup of fresh coffee and a newspaper. They were friendly. They worked efficiently. Twenty minutes later and I was on my way home.

I don’t know if you’ll regard this as a strange analogy, but I wonder if, on some level, the difference between your traditional church ministry and a ministry that is highly attentive to the customs and preferences of people can be likened to the difference between servicing your car at your local dealership and servicing it at a place like Mr. Lube.

There are people, I am sure, that have never ventured beyond traditional church settings because that’s all they know. That’s all their parents knew. I also wonder if we’re inherently suspicious of something that presents itself as a more comfortable alternative……especially when it comes to the church. By way of example, most churches that I’m connected with still have wooden pews for seating (hugely uncomfortable). Call me crazy, by why should comfort and convenience within the church be regarded as a bad thing?

In my last post, I wrote about how ‘seeker-sensitive’ ministries are often accused of ‘watering down’ the message. I contended that congregations can minister sensibly to attendees without changing the message. We can add small comforts to our physical environment; we can introduce some efficient elements around the message without actually altering the message itself.

At Mr. Lube I got a real oil change. It wasn’t a partial oil change. The oil they used was in no way inferior to that used by the dealerships. However, that same oil change got flanked by a bunch of great conveniences. Some traditional inconveniences were stripped away. I left satisfied, and with my car in great shape.

Surely the church can learn a thing or two from Mr. Lube. We can deliver the timeless message of salvation even while we strip away cultural elements that are no longer relevant/helpful. We can deliver the timeless message of Christ’s supremacy, even while we’re gathered within a physical space that offers modest comfort and conveniences.

When The Well launches in September of this year, we will be seeking to offer the people of Central Etobicoke (West Toronto) an irresistible environment. Presenting a comfortable environment is part of what it means to be a good host, and we’re committed to being good hosts.

I’ll be the first to admit that comfortable chairs, familiar music styles, parking facilitation, friendly faces, fresh coffee and muffins do not posses the power to change lives for eternity. Nonetheless, if these things communicate care and concern to our neighbours, then maybe our neighbours will be more inclined to show up. And, in showing up, they’ll be positioned to hear a message that does possess the power to transform their life forever (Romans 1:16).

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Related to the analogy employed above, you may find the following video (commercial) humourous.

Watering Down The Word?

As I circulate within various Christian communities, and as I share a vision of what The Well might look like, I field a lot of questions. One question I hear frequently is, ‘What will the sermon be like?’ Sometimes, before answering, I will probe the questioner to see if I can determine what is prompting their question. Almost always, the question is born out of a concern that ministries like The Well sometimes water down the Word of God in order to connect with the ‘unchurched’.

I’m not in a position to speak for other ministries, although it wouldn’t surprise me if there were indeed ministries where the ‘sermon’ was largely stripped of biblical content. I suspect this after recently hearing of a ‘Seeker-sensitive’ ministry that actually did away with the sermon. That’s right, no sermon at all!

It is my firm conviction that the message isn’t the problem. The decline of church attendance in Canada in the 21st Century is not the result of some failure of the Scriptures. The decline might have something to do with some failings within the pulpit. That is to say, the decline might have something to do with the approach and manner of the preacher. I am convinced, however, that an ably delivered message saturated with biblical content is NOT the problem.

So when I’m asked the question, ‘What will the sermon be like?’, I eventually answer, ‘It will be a lot like what you normally hear from me.’ That is to say that the message will have its roots in the Scripture. The emphasis of the message will centre around Jesus Christ.

What will be different?

Informality. I won’t be wearing a preaching robe. I won’t be standing behind a pulpit. The tone of the message will be more conversational.

Vocabulary. The Well anticipates engaging folks with little or no church background. The Well anticipates engaging folks with little or no exposure to the Scriptures. Accordingly, I’ll need to tweak my vocabulary when I speak. For example, rather than throw around terms like ‘sanctification’, I’ll describe instead the process of becoming like Jesus.

I am confident that communicators of the Gospel can accommodate their language without compromising the message. Part of my thinking here relates to the principle of relevance. I regard the Bible to be hugely relevant (2 Timothy 3:16), and I cringe when I hear Christians say that they want the preacher to ‘make the Bible relevant.’ The Bible doesn’t need me to ‘make it relevant’, it already is relevant! My task is to demonstrate the relevance of the Bible and, to do this, I need to be sensible with my vocabulary. I need to take steps to ensure that my hearers understand what I am saying.

The approach of The Well may appear innovative on many fronts, but we will not innovate with God’s Word. We are working from the premise that the Gospel is the power of God unto salvation (Romans 1:16), and we are clinging to the notion that the Word of God is living and active (Hebrews 4:12). We absolutely will not water down the Word.

The message isn’t the problem. The message is Good News. The message is the best kind of news. The message explains how we can fill the God-shaped void in each of us. I’m so eager to get that message out. We’re taking down some traditional layers to be sure, but for The Well, the layer of God’s Word remains central.

Keep Your Joy

I think we all know what it is like to be joyful. Our challenge, I suspect, is to keep that joy. Most of us tend to have our mood governed by our circumstances. If things are going well, if we are enjoying a measure of prosperity, we are joyful. If we’re experiencing conflict, or if we’ve suffered a loss, we lament our circumstances and our joy dissipates. In the day of trial, our response likely includes a mixture of anger, bitterness, depression, confusion, hopelessness, and fear. And, from where I stand, that’s normal.

And yet, I can’t help but notice that, as I survey the New Testament there is both a command to and a promise for abiding joy. In other words, something bigger than our circumstances in meant to govern our disposition. Yes, the Bible commands the follower of Jesus to be joyful. I love that. I love that God cares about my happiness on a profound level. That doesn’t mean that life as a follower of Jesus will be easy. I’ve found that quite the opposite is usually the case. In order to acquire an abiding joy that transcends my outward circumstances, God often allows me to endure some immensely challenging things. With a view of strengthening my faith in Him, God often arranges for my faith in His goodness to be tested and stretched.

Pain is never pleasant. I get that. But it seems that God uses our painful experiences to give us a more acute sense of His love, and to more distinctly mark us with His nature.

I don’t like suffering. Much of the time, I downright hate suffering. But I do find myself delighting in what suffering produces. It seems that the more I suffer, the more I detect God’s presence and His concern for me. This realization compels and sustains my joy.

I think we all want that. We want to be joyful, and we’re frustrated by our fleeting encounters with joy. The New Testament offers help in this regard. This morning I spoke on a text from James 1:2-4. Here, James offers an unusual exhortation:

Brothers and sisters, count it pure joy when you face trials of many kinds.

How can this be possible? Have a listen to the message.

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Here’s my best take on how you and I can keep our joy.