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Posts Tagged ‘contextualization’


Our worship has come a long way. Those who plan and play work hard and do well. I want to make sure I’m thinking and making good improvements as needed. I want our worship to be faithful and meaningful, not stale or divergent. As a result I still read books on worship from time to time. This might be my emphasis for the year since I’ve got one in my queue for vacation.

Recently I saw Rhythms of Grace: How the Church’s Worship Tells the Story of the Gospel on sale and picked up a few copies. One for me, and one for our music director. Seeing a liturgy that reflects the history of redemption is a good thing.

The book is by Michael Cosper who is worship pastor for Sojourn, which produces some music for churches. I don’t know much about the church aside from what he says about it but he comes across as a new Calvinist (baptistic, non-confessional, NCT & non-denominational) that has invested time to learn more about worship from church history. He’s read some of the books I have: particularly Bryan Chapell and Reggie Kidd. He’s also has spent time at the Calvin Institute for Christian Worship. Some of this may explain the inconsistency of the book.

In some ways it was like I was reading two different authors. The first sounded young, hip and trying to be cool (like I used to be, trying, that is). It had a Mark Driscoll-esque feel to it which I now find less appealing. The second half sounded like a mature guy, at ease with himself and how his church worships. But maybe that is just me.

The book has a forward by Bob Kauflin, and blurbs by Matt Chandler, Sandra McCracken, Al Mohler, Scotty Smith, Joe Thorn and Kevin Twit. That is a good cross section of people who are either “new Calvinists” or old school Calvinists connected with the PCA. I wonder if they felt the same thing as me. Did they overlook it in love? Am I being picky? I don’t know.

His goal is good. He’s writing because of concerns he has about church culture pertaining to worship. Many of our worship leaders have no formal training. This book is written, in part, to help them form a better theology of worship that helps the congregation grow towards maturity.

“You know,” I thought, “if the gospel is supposed to be central to the Christian life, we should craft our worship services in such a way that they rehearse that story.”

He also states that his book is not a debate about the regulative principle and normative principle. He was not going to delve into that so people interested in such a discussion should just move on. He also briefly stated what he means by worship:

“I go to some effort here to make clear that worship is both an all-of-life, “scattered” reality and a uniquely communal, “gathered” reality. I also want to make a significant effort to clarify that Jesus is our one true worship leader.”

So, with those caveats in mind, let’s press on to look at this book.

The first part of the book focuses on explaining the Story of Redemption. There is only one place to begin a book on worship that is patterned after redemptive-history: the Garden. That’s where he starts, with creation. He spends time talking about the Trinity and Adam’s role as worship leader among creation. Borrowing from G.K. Beale he writes about Adam as expanding the Garden, which is intended to be a temple for the worship of the triune God. On the next page he quotes N.T. Wright. He uses a diversity of sources reflecting his influences. There is nothing wrong with the Wright quote he uses. But the fact he favorably quotes him may put off some people. But since he’s not arguing for the Regulative Principle of Worship many of those people will be off put anyway. But his bottom line in this chapter is that we were made to worship.

When Adam sinned he continued to worship, but he worshiped the wrong things. We are incurably religious, but as a result of our fallen nature we are idolators.

“Worship is essentially about ascribing worth. … The broken worship they share with the serpent leaves them naked and humiliated.”

It is the next chapter, Worship in the Wilderness, where I begin to feel like I was reading a Driscoll book. He makes a number of good points in this chapter, particularly concerning idolatry and entertainment. My issues start with his discussion of Cain and Abel, and why one’s worship was accepted and the other’s wasn’t. While I’d just jump to Hebrews 11 and say “faith” in addition to the lack of the blood of a substitute, he seems to make it a bit more complicated. He does quote Bruce Waltke in his longer than it need be explanation. Abel, he says, recognizes God’s lordship over creation, and gives God the best. Cain, he says, “is just showing up.” Eventually Cosper gets to Abel offering the sacrifice by faith, but the problem still seems to be Cain’s “rote obligation” instead of unbelief resulting in no sacrifice for sin. He, interestingly, characterizes this as “the first of history’s many worship wars.” I thought that was a chapter earlier, in Genesis 3, but I get the point. People were fighting for the first time, even though one didn’t know there was a fight.

The next chapter, The Song of Israel, focuses on Abraham, Moses and David as key figures in the worship of Israel. On the first page of this chapter I wrote “Trying to be too hip?”. He states that both Abram and Sarai were sterile (not the word I use) but since Abram actually had quite a few kids this seems to miss the point. But in light of that in correctly pointing out that Abram was a broken man, talks about him “willing to prostitute his wife, and all too eager to jump into bed with one of his slave girls”. That he did, but I’m not sure how eager he was. He’s sinful enough, we don’t need to make him out as more sinful.

In speaking about his descendants this continues: “They are a family of lushes and adulterers, liars and lunatics, chasing voices in the wilderness,…” I missed all the drunkenness, except for his nephew Lot who was seduced by his daughters after they got him drunk. I’m not sure who the lunatics are either. He overplays it. The Bible isn’t hagiography but we don’t need to add sins and problems to their ledger.

Yet, he continues, “they are broken ne’er-do wells whose significance goes to highlight that God is the one who remains faithful.” Yes, they have faults, but again I think this is an overstatement. And on the next page, “The song of the patriarchs is a song born of weeping, of too much drink …”. Why does he keep finding drunks where I find none? Is this some Baptist thing? Additionally, “It sounds far more like drunken sailors, wailing a hazy lament in a land far from home…”. Is there some apocryphal book in there I haven’t read?

He shifts to the worship of Israel after the Exodus. It was a bloody mess, and he does well to communicate this. Sin’s cost is revealed. We generally view life as cheap. We regularly see people die in movies or TV. We play all kinds of shooter games. But as Covid-19 has revealed we have a real problem with real death. We live in a fantasy world where people don’t actually die. We, who let the butcher do our dirty work, would really struggle with worship according to the Mosaic Covenant.

This chapter does have a good section on worship, wrath and holiness. “We misunderstand the wrath of God if we think it’s only emotional rage, like an angry, frustrated parent.” We worship a God who has wrath because He’s holy. He rightly notes we underestimate both God’s holiness and our sinfulness. Proper worship has to grapple with these realities. We can’t avoid sin and wrath as if they didn’t exist. When we ignore them we distort the gospel and turn worship into superficial sentimentality.

After Creation and Fall comes Redemption, or The Song of Jesus. In the midst of this otherwise good chapter there is this: “The Lord of the Sabbath breaks the Sabbath laws.” Has he been listening to Steven Furtick? Jesus did not break the Sabbath laws. He didn’t celebrate the Sabbath according to the tradition of the Pharisees, that isn’t the law. This is a huge difference and this statement is problematic to say the least. He then talks about the crazy things we do for love, sounding a bit like Francis Chan. But it does get better as he writes about Jesus as the Temple, our Priest and Worship Leader. He discusses worship as participation in the life of the Trinity.

“That’s the story of worship: God creates, sin corrupts, but Christ redeems.”

Okay, he left out the hope of the consummation. But from here he focuses on worship, and the guy trying to be hip disappears. What leads up to this is essential, but the rest is the best of the book. He briefly discusses the worship wars. People argue about instrumentation, and depth vs. contextualization. Part of the struggle is between the attractional church and the missional church. Cosper reminds us of his definition of worship and then suggests a framework for thinking through these issues: Worship One, Two, Three.

  • One object and author (God)
  • Two contexts (scattered and gathered)
  • Three audiences (God, congregation and the rest of the world)

“The gathered body teaches the Word and proclaims it together: we speak the truth in love as we sing, read the Scriptures, and remember the gospel together.”

A few words about the third. God is part of our audience. Our worship is pleasing to God due to the finished work of Christ. This doesn’t mean we can do anything in worship. We still strive to please Him with our worship. The rest of the congregation is also our audience. We remind one another of the gospel as we sing. We are there not just for our own benefit, but for the benefit of the rest of the congregation (and they are there for yours). We also worship before the world as we proclaim the gospel to them, too. I generally put this as exaltation, edification and evangelism. But Cosper has a good framework.

He argues that many of our disputes in worship have to do with confusing categories. For instance, if we think we sing for an audience of one our worship doesn’t need to be comprehensible. But we also have 2 other audiences who need to understand our songs, prayers, litanies and sermons. Keeping the world in mind we keep our language simple and understandable. We can over-emphasize one context over the other instead of realizing that each reinforces and facilitates the other. He notes we can also overemphasize particular audiences. Ingrown churches emphasize edification. Churches that emphasize evangelism quickly become too superficial for growing Christians.

He then moves into Worship as Spiritual Formation. In the live CD from the Ryman, Kevin Twit notes that “worship is formative.” Cosper gets this. We are formed by the habits of worship. They should reflect and communicate the gospel to us so we learn how to pray, confess our sins and faith as Christians. He begins to explain worship as forming the spiritual community through story-telling and covenant renewal. Here he develops the difference between worship as concert hall and worship as banquet hall. The concert hall is a performance, though some in the audience sing along. But it becomes about the “show”. In a banquet hall there is community around a table, so to speak, as we tell stories and the Story so we are nourished and encouraged to face the realities of life after we leave.

He also sees worship as spiritual warfare. We turn from our idols to the living God each week. We declare that Christ is supreme and sufficient, while they are empty and worthless.

From there, he spends some time discussing the shifts in Christian worship over time. His focus is on the Western church. This is overly brief and at times seems a bit reductionistic. I’d say his grasp of English church history is a bit lacking. For instance, Presbyterianism existed long before Independency. Just saying.

After the Reformation he talks about revivalism. From this revivalistic emphasis on emotions, John Wimber developed the Temple Model of worship where the goal is not the gospel but “moving into the presence of God”. Yes, the goal of the gospel is to bring us into the presence of God, but through the gospel sung, preached, read and prayed. The Temple Model focuses more on mood and style to create the feeling or experience of personal encounter with God. He compares it to Roman Catholicism with the worship leader as a new priest paving the way into the holy of holies.

Cosper then talks about liturgy. This subtly gets us back to spiritual formation. Liturgy is the habits of worship that form our community. He argues for a gospel-shaped liturgy similar to Bryan Chapell. This is Bryan Chapell for non-Presbyterians. He structures the worship by redemptive history (Creation, Curse, Cross, Consummation). In light of the Curse we should sing laments, and pray them too. Worship isn’t about being happy. It is about seeing life from God’s perspective and being honest about where we are. As he works through the liturgy he provides some practical suggestions.

He then moves the discussion to singing. This is a common command in the Scriptures. He gets into the issues of what to sing; preference and deference. He spends time unpacking Colossians 3. We are wise to sing songs for a variety of time periods in church history.

“Our faith is a sung faith.”

The body of the book finishes with The Pastoral Worship Leader. He moves from the liturgy to the leader. This is an important chapter. He mines the life of Isaac Watts to discuss healthy contextualization in songs. We want the songs to be understandable, to clearly convey gospel themes to people utilizing metaphors they understand. In this he discusses the Psalms and some criticisms of exclusive Psalmody.

In thinking about contextualization he asks: Who’s here? Who was here before us? and Who’s not here but we’d like to see here? You have to minister to the people you have because they’ve been entrusted to you. You also need to consider who you’d like to see there. He’s not advocating faking it. He wants you to identify your stylistic center, the place you gravitate toward naturally. But you can’t stay there all the time. At times you sing songs outside of the center to address the smaller demographic groups in your congregation.

The appendices have some helpful information with sample liturgies, resources and some technical advice regarding sound.

Overall this was a helpful book. In my opinion there were some factual errors, mis-statements and attempts to be hip that just distracted me. Those shouldn’t keep you from benefiting from the book. You could possibly have benefited more, but there is much that is helpful here.

As a result of this book I’m hoping to:

  • Make our implicit redemptive-historical pattern explicit.
  • Regularly explain elements of our worship.
  • Talk with our music director about our stylistic center. We struggled with this but in the last year I think we’ve gotten there. Now we can venture out for songs. Before it seemed we were struggling between two centers.

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Much has changed in America since I became a Christian during Reagan’s second term in office. The church has had a variety of reactions from assimilation to abdication.

What is a Christian to do? How are pastors to guide and direct people?

In 2016 I prepared my people for a new set of circumstances by preaching through Esther and then 1 Peter. While “evangelicals” seem to have won they battle of the election, they seem to have lost the war for the culture as numerous articles blame Trump’s victory on them. The disenfranchisement many felt has only deepened with new charges of x-phobia.

Image result for faith for this momentRick McKinley’s new book, Faith for this Moment: Navigating a Polarized World as the People of God, caught my eye. McKinley is the pastor of Imago Dei church in Portland, OR. He shows up in Blue Like Jazz as Donald Miller’s pastor for a time. Like Driscoll, he seemed to fall into the Emerging (not Emergent) Church movement that held to historic Christianity applied to new circumstances.

On the surface this book seems to be The Benedict Option for millennials. I haven’t read BO, though it has been recommended to me often. It seems a bit retreatist to me. It sounds a bit too much like abdication. I could obviously wrongly judging that book by its cover. This book, I read.

I appreciated the overall tone and message of the book. I had some issues with the details and some of his analysis. It is not a long book, so it doesn’t flesh everything out as much as some may like. He’s trying to move people in a direction more than giving them detailed instructions. So, what is that direction?

He begins with the Moment in which we live, how we got here, and then how we should move forward as God’s people. That last part sounds the most like BO as he seeks to reclaim some distinctive Christian practices to help us live faithfully in a world, a culture more precisely, that has become hostile to our existence.

The Moment for him was the aftermath of the Pulse shooting. Christians, in the eyes of an unbelieving culture, we known less for Jesus and His sacrificial love than our opposition to homosexuality and defense of firearms. Though a Muslim, many show Mateen as in line with the “God and guns” crowd that President Obama disparaged.

Lost in the moment was the compassion shown by many churches, locally and in other parts of the country. Lost was Chick-Fil-A providing food to responders on a Sunday. Somehow we were at least partially to blame.

And then came the results of the 2016 election. The backlash is still a popular narrative: evangelicals voted for Trump because they are racist, misogynist, anti-immigration and homo-phobic. This is a world without nuance painting all conservative Christians with the same (wrong) brush.

“We are a society that is messy and complicated, and it appears that Christians, whose voices have been drowned out by misrepresentation and misunderstanding, have little to say about the things that matter most to the world.”

Image result for adam and eveChristians have moved from a group with relative power to being marginalized as a minority group. This happened without moving in a foreign country. We’ve lost our sense of identity and place. We’ve also lost our sense of practice: how we live or act, what we do, because we follow Jesus. Most Christians are caught between “denial and despair”. McKinley is not going to lead us in a pity party, however. Nor is he going to encourage us to go with the flow. He reminds us that for significant periods of time God’s people have lived as the marginalized, the exiled, and have flourished despite that.

He begins with the original exile. Adam and Eve were removed from the Garden of Eden because of their sin. Life changed forever, so it seemed. There was no going back for them. The consequences would be disastrous as one son killed another as sin ran rampant. Abram and Sarai willingly went into exile in following the call of God. They had promises and a covenant but they were strangers and aliens in Canaan.

“This shows us that while exile is a place of loss, it is also a place of hope, because the God who is sovereign over the times in which we live is the one who sustains us in exile.”

He continues with Jacob, Moses (what about Joseph??) and the wilderness generation. He identifies Jesus as the True Exile who voluntarily (like Abram) left “home” to come to this far country to live among us, and suffer with and for us. He entered exile to bring us back to the Garden, but better.

McKinley then focuses on Babylon as a real exile and a picture of subsequent exiles. Babylon didn’t make all of Israel slaves. They were invited to partake of Babylon’s prosperity, similar to the materialism and consumerism of America. Prophets like Jeremiah, Ezekiel and Daniel were calling them to faithfulness in exile. They were not to abandon their faith and assimilate with Babylon. They were to seek the good of the city and put down roots there. Their welfare was wrapped up with the welfare of the city.

“Exile can be a place of deep spiritual transformation and kingdom advancement if we are willing to step into it with courage and faith.”

It is easy to miss that Israel was in exile due to her sin. She lost her place because she forfeited her faith. It was time to regain her faith in exile. The church in the west, in particular in America to whom McKinley writes, has lost its place because it largely lost its faith. It fell for the American Dream instead of the Kingdom of God. It is time to regain our faith in Christ and His kingdom.

He focuses on that passage in Jeremiah in Baptize It, Burn It, or Bless It?. Here he discusses Christendom, both its rise in Rome and its fall here in America. Christendom is the blending of Christianity with the dominant culture such that you have a civil religion that largely reflects the culture. It is a largely assimilated faith. Racial pride, ethnic price, economic pride etc. are identified with Christianity.

While I agree with him, I also struggle with some of his points. For instance, on the issue of a border wall he sounds reductionistic to me. The threat is not the “other” so much as the lawless for many. He rejects just war theory as if it were the same as “manifest destiny”. For instance, he writes “When our hope becomes misplaced in these things, we begin to see other countries as a threat rather than a neighbor.” We live in a world of sinners so all our homes have doors, with locks. Every home in my neighborhood has a fence because there are boundary lines. I don’t hate my neighbor or fear my neighbor. Many politicians and celebrities who chastise us about a wall live behind walls and travel with armed security. That is wise in a world of sinners. Are nations to eschew wisdom for foolishness?

Another example, this time of overlooking details. In the context of same sex marriage he mentions that the church has done little to reduce its own divorce rate. I agree that some portions of the church have high divorce rates. But he seems to ignore the movement toward “covenant marriage” in many states in the Bush 43 years. These laws made getting a divorce more difficult for those who chose to enter that kind of marriage.

In response McKinley focuses on piety. He lays great weight on these practices to remain distinctive. He appears to lose the connection between being and doing. Theology informs our being. To be fair, he could have teased more of that (theology) out of his first practice. But he sees theological distinctives are part of the problem.

“The way forward will require us to move beyond doctrinal divides of conservative and liberal. We will need to find a set of practices, born from faith, that can make us distinct in our identity and our way of living in this moment in which we find ourselves.”

Image result for the borgHe is right that cultures make disciples. “You will be assimilated! Resistance is futile!” cries the Borg. Here he brings in some Lesslie Newbegin and contextualization. The gospel is a-cultural. It transcends cultures instead of being culture bound. The church is called to “navigate its relationship to the culture it finds itself in at this moment.” We embrace elements of culture in agreement with biblical norms and reject those in conflict with biblical norms. He breaks out what looks like a triperspectival triangle. The gospel is the norm, the church is the existential perspective (who we are) and we live in the circumstances of a particular culture. The gospel does not change. It is the norm that is intended to transform both church and culture- though in different ways. The church lives out the gospel in culture, and addresses that unchanging gospel to the particular culture it finds itself in a way that the culture can understand and applied to the culture’s problems.

McKinley expresses this in the terminology of “windows of redemption and opposition.” Each culture has ways we can address the culture “in its own space and through its own language and values.” But there are also “values, beliefs, and practices that are at odds with Jesus and the gospel.” If your gospel doesn’t present any offense it probably isn’t the biblical gospel. If it is only in opposition to culture, it probably isn’t either.

He then moves into the history of his congregation to show how this worked out. They needed to repent, often, of their lack of involvement with their community and culture. We often act like strongholds, at odds with those around us instead of seeking their holistic welfare.

“We must be willing to be honest with ourselves, to be broken over the state of our own hearts and the part we played in making the church the way it is.”

The book moves into the final section focusing on the spiritual practices he advocates. It seems strange to me, to compare us with Muslims (or the Amish or Hasidic Jews) as identifiable by dress and customs. I’m not sure about focusing on such externals. He does point us to practices that may standout, but not dress. The goal he notes is to turn us around (repentance) and “fully enter the story of God in our everyday lives.”

“Too many of us are exhausted from the pressure of the empire, and we find ourselves binging on its pleasures to short-circuit the anxiety we feel, even if those pleasures are only a temporary fix.”

He begins with that story in the practice of listening and obeying. Scripture is to be the story that shapes our worldview. The Story of redemption should shape how we live, eat, work etc.. He then moves into hospitality. He misses the point at times, focusing on how our government welcomes some immigrants and not others. I get that our hospitality is intended to be distinct from the governments, but the government has a different mission and goals than the church does. He doesn’t really develop the differences between the church and the state. This warps some of his statements.

In the chapter on generosity he seems to misunderstand some basic economic principles. Capitalism isn’t built on supply and demand. It certainly honors that reality in a way that other economic theories but it is built on the idea of using capital to create supply to meet demand. He also confused greed with capitalism on that same page.

The fourth practice is Sabbath. The practice of ceasing from work and engaging in rest and worship is contrary to the consumerism of America. We regain our focus and become refreshed so we can be better and more principled workers as a side benefit. He doesn’t want us to complicate it, but some of his quick encouragements seem to miss the point. Like, light a candle.

The last practice is that of vocation, seeing God’s call in our lives in work. God calls us to work and gifts us to work. It is not about money, but the gospel calls us to work out of love for God and others. We flourish, generally speaking, when we work to help others flourish.

As I mentioned earlier, this is more a big picture book than detailed book. I think that the practices are good for us. I do have some concerns with his pietistic bent that in some ways de-values theology. This can be a helpful book as long as one spits out the bones. More conservative readers will find a fair number of bones in his political references and perspectives.

[I received a complimentary copy of this book for the purposes of review.]

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I’m not wild about books about preaching. I often feel overwhelmed; how can I fit all that into a sermon? I already feel like I’m trying to do too much in my sermons.

But I know I can become better at my craft. This year during study leave, I decided to read some books on preaching. One of the books was Preaching: Communicating Faith in an Age of Skepticism by Tim Keller. I want to do a better job of reaching those who aren’t “fully on-board” in addition to communicating the Reformed faith to those who already believe. I think Tim Keller is pretty good at that.

This book is not so much about the nuts and bolts of sermon preparation (there is an appendix that addresses much of that). It focuses on the bigger issues of preaching- how to communicate with people.

The introduction talking of the three levels of the ministry of the Word. The ministry of the Word is not the exclusive province of pastors. The ministry of the Word extends far beyond the sermon. Every Christian should have a ministry of the Word in that they should be able to communicate basic Bible knowledge and teaching to others. This is a very informal level of ministry. If the Word dwells richly in us, this is doable.

In between this informal ministry and formal ministry is those who have a gift of teaching but who are not ordained to preach. It is a formal setting, but doesn’t entail formal education or an office. Small group leaders, SS teachers, personal exhortation, counseling, and evangelism are examples of this second level of teaching. This book would be helpful for people in the 2nd and 3rd levels of ministry.

In the midst of this, Keller defends preaching from the attacks of those who want it done away with in our day. While God transforms churches through all three levels of the ministry of the Word, preaching is still an important part of that transformation. We see preaching as normative in the New Testament. It should be normative for us as well. He positively quotes Adam in saying the gospel ministry should be “pulpit-centered, but not pulpit restricted.”

Good preaching is faithful to the text, and the people to whom God calls you to preach. Great preaching lies mainly in the work of the Holy Spirit in the heart of the preacher and the listener. Later he’d refer to Martyn Lloyd-Jones talking about “logic on fire”. I recently watched the documentary on him and can identify with those moments during preaching when you are caught up in the truth you are preaching. A shift takes place in you as you preaching becomes worshipful, for lack of a better term. You are lifting up Christ to them, and yourself.

“Spiritual eloquence should arise out of the preacher’s almost desperate love for the gospel truth itself and the people for whom accepting the truth is a matter of life and death.”

Great preaching preaches Christ to the cultural heart. The preacher connects with the heart of the culture to challenge its conclusions and point to Christ for the fulfillment of its legitimate aspirations. Keller is an advocate of redemptive-historical preaching, connecting each text with the central message of the gospel for the justification and sanctification of those who listen.

He starts with preaching the Word. He explains the difference between expository and topical preaching. He advocates for focusing on expository preaching. He doesn’t think you should never do a topical sermon, but that it should be the exception, not the rule. He cautions against some forms of expository preaching which spend so much time in one text that book studies take 5+ years. The people will not hear the whole counsel of God this way.

“Preaching is not only explaining the text but also using it to engage the heart.”

I am generally an expository preacher. I have one text and preach it. During Advent, Lent or Reformation Day I may do some topical or thematic sermons. My goal is to preach the text, and point them to Christ through that text. I’ve spent about 2 years in a book like Genesis or John, but I try to balance that out with shorter series like Esther, Jonah or a summer series in Psalms. In my 7, nearly 8, years at my current congregation I’ve preached on Genesis, James, Colossians, John, Esther, 1 Peter, and Jonah. In addition to the summer series on Psalms, there have been series on the sacrifices, Advent Songs in Luke, the dreams in Matthew, prophecies of the Messiah and others I can’t recall at the moment.

I pick series based on my perception of the congregation’s needs. Expository preaching will drive us to preach on difficult texts and subjects we’d prefer to avoid as well as keeping us from our hobbyhorses and pet issues.

In the second chapter he focuses on our need to preach the gospel every time. We need to connect our text with the context (paragraph, chapter, book, Testament, whole Bible). We don’t want to merely provide moralistic “biblical principles” or generally inspire them. We need to show them Jesus because He is the One they need generally and in the particulars of their lives. I’ve heard too many sermons that never get us to Jesus.

Keller talks about law and gospel. He relies much on William Perkins who doesn’t divide the Bible or texts into law and gospel. It is more helpful to see law and gospel as uses of texts rather than categories of texts. Therefore we use the text to reveal the law and therefore need for the gospel, and how Christ fulfills that need. In this context he points us to Ferguson’s work (from the Marrow Controversy) on legalism and antinomianism. Both have the same root in the lie of the serpent that God is not good but withholds good from us. If you read only one chapter in this book, this is the chapter to read. This should filter into our preaching so that we bring the gospel to bear against both legalism and antinomianism. Both miss God’s loving grace, the loving grace we need to present to them each week. We can trace their idols down to these roots and show that Christ is the real answer.

Keller, without really saying it, indicates what gospel-centered preaching isn’t. He mentions two dangers to avoid. I have actually heard sermons that said “gospel” 50 times but never actually explain the gospel. Such a sermon is NOT gospel-centered preaching. Keller warns us to avoid preaching without preaching the gospel. You can mention Jesus frequently without mentioning His substutionary obedience, death, resurrection and ascension. You can mention Him without talking about imputed righteousness, union with Christ, His humiliation and exaltation etc. We can also preach Christ without actually preaching the text. Spurgeon did this sometimes. We need to know the main point of the author and spend time with it and going from their to Jesus. Spurgeon tells a story of a Welsh pastor telling a young pastor that every city in England had a road leading to London. Not every road led there, but one did. Every text has a road to Jesus (sometimes more than one), find it and go down that road with the people.

In the next chapter, he spends some time showing how to do this.

The section I really had interest in was about preaching Christ to the culture. This had much to do with proper contextualization so you are connecting too as well as challenging the culture. This is a hard balance. Antinomians accommodate the culture and legalists tend not to connect to the culture because they are overly critical. While culture is the produce of sinful humans, it is also the product of people made in God’s image and necessarily has some remaining connection points.

“We adapt and contextualize in order to speak the truth in love, to both care and confront.”

He notes a shift in Edwards’ preaching after he left Northampton. He took the Native Americans’ experience of suffering into consideration in his preaching. He used more narrative as well. He adapted his preaching style in order to connect with a different culture, a different audience.

“If you over-contextualize and compromise the actual content of the gospel, you will draw a crowd but no one will be changed. … You will mainly just be confirming people in their present course of life.”

He advocates for using respected cultural authorities to strengthen your thesis. Just as you may drop a few Calvin quotes for a Reformed audience, you may want to consider quotes from non-Christians or others who are generally respected by the non-believing members of your audience. Additionally you want to demonstrate you understand doubts and objections. Address the resistance instead of simply ignoring it and plowing through it. He brings up “defeater beliefs” people hold, that if true Christianity can’t be true. Acknowledge them and address them or people will just tune them out if they have those beliefs. He advocates affirming cultural narratives in order to challenge them. Often the aspirations are good but the means are not biblical. Affirm them as on the right track, but point them to Christ and His work as the real means to fulfilling those aspirations.

In the next chapter Keller addresses preaching to the modern and late modern mind. He talks about the impact of individualism, the web of secularity and the borrowed capital used by atheists. He tries to help pastors move from the cultural narratives into idols and true freedom and fulfillment in Christ.

Keller than addresses preaching to the heart. You preach the text (normative), addressing the culture (situational) and the heart (existential). We have to exegete all three and preach to all three. Each of us finds one of these easier and another harder. Tim is great at the culture in my opinion. The text must impact the heart of the pastor to help him impact the hearts of the congregation. He again draws on Edwards and his work on the affections. Truth produces holy affections. We are passionate and imaginative when we address the heart. We want to show them that Jesus is greater than the things they love. This is gospel motivation; more love to Thee.

One of the keys is getting out of the echo chamber. He doesn’t use that term, but we need to listen to a diversity of opinions. That can come from friendships, social media, sources of information and more. But don’t just listen to people you agree with. This will help you have broader understanding of the application of texts.

The book ends in discussion the demonstration of the Spirit and power. This includes the call to holiness. Giftedness will get you only so far. Holiness is essential to great long-term preaching. We are more convincing if we actually find Him to be great, not just assert He is great.

This is a very good book for covering the big picture of preaching which affect how we say it more than what we say. It is a challenging and encouraging book. I’d highly recommend this contribution to the science of preaching.

 

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I just finished Proclaiming a Cross-Centered Theology after laboring over it far too long.  I just haven’t had as much time to read as I like (this may shock some of you who think I read too much).  It is a collection of messages from one the Together for the Gospel conferences (sample pages).

I found it to be a very uneven book.  There was a great disparity in the length of the chapters, as though some speakers were given far more time than others.  Some of the shortest chapters were from those I most wanted to hear.  Yet, some of those (while good) sounded an awful lot like other messages they’ve done.  Since I don’t preach on the conference circuit, I am probably expecting too much for them to come up with a new message to fit the occasion.  When I was ‘only’ doing pulpit supply during my transition, I would preach the same text a few times, tweaking it depending on the congregation.  But no one travels hundreds, or thousands, of miles to hear me speak.  This was a tad disappointing.

The book kicks off with a rather long chapter on Sound Theology by Ligon Duncan.  He defends systematic theology as necessary for the life of the church.  It is popular today (and most days) to decry systems, but we should be able to summarize doctrine to promote understanding of the whole.  Preaching and teaching should be both expositional and theological, and Duncan notes.   This is, in part, because our theology must be biblical.  Yet, you don’t build a doctrine on only one text.  That is a HOV line to heresy.

“Systematic theology is tied to exegesis.”  John Murray

Duncan notes some problematic views that have popped up.  His charity is on display in that he doesn’t name names.  His goal is not to stigmatize anyone, but point out flaws in certain positions which tend to be anti-theological.

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I made a joke on a friend’s Facebook wall the other day.  He lamented playing too much ping-pong in seminary.  I joked that his ministry would be more effective if he hadn’t.  It’d be more like mine …

I figure he’s having a pretty effective ministry.  The church I pastored closed (lots of reasons for that).  I, by no means, took Winter Haven by storm for the Gospel.  But I had some meaningful ministry over those 9 years, and in the 1 1/2 years since then as I’ve done pulpit supply.

Lest we make too much of that (failure), let’s consider the Apostle Paul.  I did while trying not to wake up this morning.  Paul didn’t take every town he visited by storm.  Yes, he saw conversions- I saw a few of those.  He saw Christians grow- saw some of that too.  But he was run out of more than a few cities.  There were riots, a stoning, death threats and more.  Being run out of town might say something about you, but it also says something about those who ran you out of town.

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“We have to test everything.”  That’s what it says on the back of Rob Bell’s book Velvet Elvis: Repainting the Christian Faith.  That is completely consistent with 1 John (Test the spirits), and Isaiah (Unless they speak according to the Law and the Testimony they have not the light of day.).  I’ve heard a few Rob Bell sermons, and they were good.  I’ve enjoyed some of the Nooma videos.  Rob is great at asking questions.  My question is, what are his answers, if any?

Rob in fairly controversial, which in itself is not a problem.  Afterall, Jesus was controversial.  But is he controversial in the same way Jesus was?  Or is he departing from orthodox Christianity?  Or is he orthodox but leading others to ask questions without giving them biblical answers so they depart from orthodox Christianity?

Mark Driscoll pointed out some troubling statements in this book in his message at the Desiring God Conference (awesome message, which I listened to again yesterday during a walk).  My sister-in-law wasn’t too wild about some of Rob’s statements, so she gave me her copy.  Any quotes & notes will be from the paperback edition.

“As a part of this tradition (the Protestant Reformation), I embrace the need to keep painting, to keep reforming.  By this I don’t mean cosmetic, superficial changes… I mean theology… We must keep reforming the way the Christian faith is defined, lived and explained.”

Depends on what you mean by that.  If we are gaining a better understanding of biblical truth & contextualizing timeless truth, I can go there.  But to re-theologize, to invent a novelty (which Luther, Calvin et al did not do)… I cannot go there.

He sort of qualifies it on the next page (13): “It’s just that every generation has to ask the difficult questions of what it means to be a Christian here and now, in this place, at this time.”  Sounds like contexualizing, but he seems to bring us elsewhere at times.

On page 22 he talks about theology as the springs of a trampoline (hence the jumping man on the cover).  He talks about the trinity as a spring added later, that the church had existed for hundreds of years without.  Well, this would be a great time to talk about progressive revelation and how the church grew in its understanding of truth.  That is not the same as “adding it later”.  This makes it sound as if it was something men made up, rather than summarizing what the Bible says about God.  God is bigger than our words, but God uses words to tell us who He is.  As Calvin says, God lisps to us.  Language exists precisely so we can know God and how He saves people.

On page 26 he begins his section that drew Driscoll’s attention.  He relays a message he heard from a pastor who compared doctrines as bricks.  Perhaps this guy, not Bell, went with the metaphor of a wall.  I’m not wild about that metaphor, regardless.  Scripture uses the metaphor of a foundation.  If you start pulling bricks out of the foundation of your home, I’m thinking you’d be a little concerned.  Some bricks are more important than others.  Some bricks are essential to orthodox Christianity (God, Christology, doctrine of salvation etc.).  Some bricks are not essential (who should be baptized, or mode of baptism).  The brick he mentions is the virgin birth.  He affirms the virgin birth, but thinks that if we reexamine or redefine one brink/spring (page 27) it is not that big a deal.  Depends on the spring or brick.  If Jesus was not born of a virgin, we lose the God-man who was able to bear our sins on the cross.  Jesus becomes a great example, and that is it.  The virgin birth is very important!

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