From Embers to a Flame 4

Chapter 7: Revitalization Strategy 5: The Priority of Intercessory Prayer

child-prayingHarry Reeder reminds us that prayer is the oxygen that the flame of renewal needs to ignite the flame of renewal. He notes that the church at Jerusalem, described in Acts 2, was “conceived in a prayer meeting” and “birthed in a sermon.” Chapters 7 and 8 stress the importance of prayer and the preaching of the Word.

The Priority of Prayer. The early church was one that was devoted to prayer. Prayer was so important to the leaders of the church that the office of deacon was instituted so that the apostles could focus on “prayer and the ministry of the Word” (Acts 6.1-4). Reeder suggests that a lack of prayer is why many churches decline and die:

They may have charismatic leaders or slick programs, but they have become ineffective because the church has stopped praying. On the other hand, any church that commits itself to prayer, no matter how bad things may have become, can be renewed and rebuilt by the power of the Spirit (98).

Trouble in the Early Church. Reeder identifies the prayer of the believers in Acts 4:23-31 as especially applicable to revitalizing the church. The believers had gone from enjoying the favor of the people (Acts 2:47) to being persecuted. And it was in prayer that they found the energy and encouragement to continue with God’s mission, despite opposition.

The Priority of Praise. The believers’ prayer in Acts 4 does not begin with a laundry list of requests. No, it begins, as proper prayers do, by praising the Sovereign Lord. Reeder observes: “By orienting our minds to the greatness of our God, we are then better able to pray according to his will and to have the confidence that this great God can indeed grant our requests” (100). Reeder also observes that this prayer is “permeated by  scripture,” phrases drawn from the Hebrew Bible. Reeder suggests identifying specific scriptures that relate to church revitalization and employing them in prayers, both public and private.

Prayer and Predestination. Reeder, coming from the Reformed/Presbyterian tradition that we share, lingers over verses 27-28, which state that the authorities and the people who rejected and crucified Jesus were doing what God had predestined to take place. (Here the NRSV translation is clearer than the NIV). Often this precipitates the question: Why pray if God has already decided what is going to happen? But the early church found comfort in God’s sovereignty, in the fact that he is Lord, and not the authorities or even the Emperor himself. Reeder correctly observes that these first believers “knew that the same God predestines has also chosen to accomplish his sovereign will through prayer, not apart from it. Put another way, the purpose of prayer is not for us to change the plan of God, but for us to participate in that plan” (101).

Pleading and Petitions. Reeder encourages us to be specific and bold in our requests to God. He suggests that you make a list that “contains all the great things that God could do in and through your church as it is revitalized by the power of the Spirit. Begin praying diligently about every blessing that you can possibly imagine, and then watch as God does more than you can even imagine!”

Prayer Works? Reeder next makes an important point about who works in prayer. Prayer is not a technique, as in the theologically suspect Prayer of Jabez that was popular some years back. Prayer is not a way of manipulating God. Instead of saying “prayer works,” it’s better to say “God works through prayer.” The focus is not on our prayers, as if it’s all up to us, but on the power of God who answers our prayers. Reeder: “God is the change agent, and he has ordained to change things through praying people” (105).

Chapter 8: Revitalization Strategy 6: The Primacy of Preaching

The Ministry of the Word.

“The church in Jerusalem was conceived in a prayer ministry (Acts 1) and birthed in a sermon (Acts 2).” And as mentioned above, the Apostles devoted themselves to prayer and the ministry of the word (Acts 6:4). The word of God in scripture was the foundation of the early church, as the first believers “devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer” (Acts 2:42). Reeder points out that the latter three activities have their foundation in the ministry of the word: “The apostles’ teaching is the Word proclaimed…their fellowship was the ministry of the Word shared…the breaking of the bread was the ministry of the Word visualized, and…prayer was the ministry of the Word returned” (108). So the whole ministry was rooted in scripture.

Reeder suggests that the letter of 1 Timothy “can be considered and studied as a textbook on this topic [of church revitalization]” and thus it is important to note the Apostle’s emphasis on the ministry of the word in this letter. Reeder’s analysis of the letter is interesting, but definitely slanted toward a certain interpretation. He says that in 1:3-11 Paul instructs Timothy to oppose those who are teaching false doctrines, and that in 2:11-12 “Paul addresses the importance of women’s receiving instruction, rather than giving it to the men in the church” (108). But as I am demonstrating in another series of posts, Paul’s warning is better understood as specific instructions for the women in the Ephesian church who have fallen prey to the very false doctrine Paul mentions at the beginning of the letter and throughout his instructions to Timothy. Ensuring that only men, and not women, teach in the church is not a principle of renewal and revitalization; in fact, one could argue that interpreting I Tim. 2:11-12 as a timeless, universal principle could be a hindrance to renewal and revival. In any case, a reliance on the scriptures resounds through both of Paul’s letters to Timothy.

The Message Preached. Paul places the scripture at the center of the gospel ministry in his instructions to Timothy (2 Timothy 3:14–17, NIV)

But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have become convinced of, because you know those from whom you learned it, 15 and how from infancy you have known the Holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. 16 All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, 17 so that the servant of God  may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.

Reeder analyzes this text and identifies seven aspects of the biblical message that is to be preached in order to revitalize the church:

  1. We must preach a gospel message. Timothy was taught the scriptures from childhood–but this was before there was such a thing as the New Testament, so the scriptures here are the Old Testament, the Hebrew Bible. This means that the good news is all though the Bible, and that even when we preach from the Old Testament, we preach the good news of God’s grace, which he demonstrates in the fullness of time by sending his Son, Jesus Christ.
  2. We must preach a Christ-Centered message. (See above).
  3. We must preach a God-Given message. The message we preach should not just be our opinions; rather, we must faithfully study and wrestle with scripture in order to convey what God is saying through his word. In the Reformed and Presbyterian tradition, we insist on expository preaching, that is, sticking very close to scripture, explaining it, and applying it.
  4. We must preach a profitable message. Reeder here argues that as long as one is faithfully expositing scripture, it will be profitable. He could say a lot more here. Also about the responsibilities of the listeners to profit from preaching.
  5. We must preach a life-transforming message. The scriptures are useful or profitable for “rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness.” In other words, preaching must apply the teachings of scripture to everyday life. The gospel is not just preaching about something God has done, but also about the “So now what?” What does this mean for me? How should I seek change in my life? How is God challenging me?
  6. We must preach an equipping message. Here Reeder makes an interesting point that is also controversial: “Our services should be primarily focused on encouraging, strengthening, and training Christians, so that they can then take the gospel to those who need to hear it” (116). The church should “gather to worship and scatter to evangelize,” Reeder says. The risk of focusing on non-believers in worship is that believers become undernourished. They are not being sufficiently discipled, nourished by the meat of the word, when only the most basic message of the gospel (what the Apostle calls “milk,” 1 Cor. 3:2) is being preached. Reeder’s experience in several different congregations led him to the conclusion that “it is not necessary to be seeker-centered to experience numerical growth.” That is different from being seeker-sensitive, that is, being considerate of the presence non-believers in the service.
  7. We must preach a sufficient message. It is the scriptures that will make Timothy “thoroughly equipped for every good work.” Not his rhetorical skill, or his knowledge of the social sciences, or anything else. The Bible is sufficient; God’s word in itself has power to change people’s hearts, when the Holy Spirit softens their hardened defenses.

The Person Preaching. Reeder then expounds on the qualities and habits of a faithful preacher.

  • The person of God lives and speaks in the presence of God. When one steps into the pulpit, one should be very aware of being in the presence of God. (This, by the way, is one of the reasons why I wear the Geneva gown in the pulpit, because it is a reminder to me that the office is a holy one, not to be taken lightly, and because it is a form of dress taken from the university, it reminds me of the Reformed emphasis on teaching the word to God’s people).
  • The person of God lives and speaks in light of the return of Christ. In other words, preachers have the task of calling people to remember that the judgment day is coming, and they will have to give account of themselves, and to whom they belong, to their Creator.
  • The person of God is diligent in preparation. In 2 Timothy 4:2 Paul says: “Preach the word; be prepared [ἐφίστημι–stand ready] in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage—with great patience and careful instruction.” The preacher must spend a great deal of time, throughout one’s career and not just in seminary, in the study of the Bible, learning more and more the context of the whole Bible, so as to better bring out and apply the meaning of individual passages.
  • The person of God is determined and patient. Well, I have one of those. Reeder says “many times we have to tell people what they do not want to hear. We must commit ourselves to speaking the words of God, regardless of how we think the people might respond” (122).
  • The person of God is serious about their work. Here Reeder, in my opinion, misses the boat completely, and goes off on a tangent about avoiding too much humor. But when Paul tells Timothy to be “sober minded” (2 Tim. 4:5, ESV), he means mentally disciplined and self-controlled. This is why I don’t use the English Standard Version (ESV), by the way. Where the NIV is often too loose, the ESV too often is wooden and overly literal. This is why pastors also need to learn Greek and Hebrew continue to use those languages in their diligent study of the word.
  • The person of God is focused and purposeful in ministry. Reeder says that pastors need to be more focused on fulfilling God’s purpose in ministry than in being personally fulfilled in ministry. However, Reeder fails to emphasize how those things actually go together and contribute to each other, or how when things go badly, both can be affected.

The Role of Church Officers in the Ministry of the Word. Reeder here emphasizes how office-bearers, and particularly pastors, need time to devote to prayer and the diligent study of the word. Reeder here emphasizes that “elders, deacons, and other leaders in the church must step up to the plate and fulfill their ministry so that the pastor can fulfill his.” He says that most pastors “spend about fifteen hours in preparation for a good sermon, and ten more if they preach a second time that week” (125). I would say at least that much. He concludes by saying: “If you are an elder or a deacon, prayerfully consider how you and your church can make more time available for your pastor to pray and study.”

For part five click here.

From Embers to a Flame 3

Chapter 5: Revitalization Strategy 3: Gospel-Driven and Christ-Centered Ministry

The First of the First Things. Harry Reeder’s pattern for revitalization is: remember, repent, and recover the first things. And the first thing to be recovered is the gospel itself. The Church at Ephesus is an example of a congregation that needed to practice this recovery. Jesus says to them: “…You have forsaken the love you had at first. Consider how far you have fallen! Repent and do the things you did at first….” (from Revelation 2:4-5).

Back to the Basics. What the church needs, Reeder argues, is not some complex or totally new strategy, but to get back to what the church is about, the basics of making disciples.

Putting “First Things” First. The first thing that we need to recover is the gospel of grace itself. When Reeder became pastor of a dying church that was close to being shut down, he preached on the importance of personal faith. He found that many of the remaining members needed to make a public commitment to Christ, and he tells the story of two members, a deacon and an organist, who actually made a commitment to Christ, even though they were already integral members of the church.

A Closer Look at the First of the First Things. The basic gospel message must be at the center of any church renewal process. I like Reeder’s emphasis on the fact that we need to be evangelized throughout our lives. Reeder says “we can go deeper into the gospel, but we can never go beyond it.” Believing and unbelieving sinners need to hear the same gospel.

Understanding the Gospel of Grace. Reeder explains: “The gospel is sin-conquering, sin-canceling, and life-transforming.” The gospel includes these elements:

  • Salvation from the Persuasion of Sin–Effectual Calling. This refers to when you not only understand the Christian message about Jesus in your mind, but you are convicted that it applies to you personally: that Jesus died for you, that you need forgiveness, etc.
  • Salvation from the Power of Sin–Regeneration. This is when God gives us rebirth, or birth from above (John 3:3). Christianity is not a crutch to get through life, Reeder says, it is an entire life support system!
  • Salvation from the Penalty of Sin–Justification. God declares us not guilty of our sins, even though we are in fact sinners and commit sins. But because Jesus Christ has stood in our place, and because we are united with him, God credits his perfect obedience to us.
  • Salvation from the Position of Sin–Adoption. Sin separates us from God, but the good news is that God, through faith in Jesus Christ and the work of his Holy Spirit, brings us into his family, making us the children of God rather than the children of wrath, and he adopts us as his own, making us heirs of his coming Kingdom.
  • Salvation from the Practice of Sin–Sanctification. Sanctification means: the process of being made holy. In one sense we are saved when we believe; but we are also being saved throughout our lives, by the work of the Holy Spirit within us. Jesus accepts you as you are, but he loves you too much to leave you that way. This is the process of following Jesus Christ in your daily life, putting off our old self, and putting on the new self (Ephesians 4:22-24).
  • Salvation from  the Presence of Sin–Glorification. In one sense, our salvation is still future, because we struggle with sin and brokenness in this life. In the New Heaven and New Earth, there will be no more trace of sin to mar God’s good creation and his creatures.

Applying the Gospel of Grace in your Church. Reeder notes that focusing on the gospel of grace does not mean that we can only talk about “milk,” and never proceed to the “solid food” of the gospel (see Hebrews 5:12-14). And he emphasizes that “we must avoid at all costs the kind of preaching and teaching that is mere moralism.” That is, we cannot preach as if the gospel is nothing more than a list of rules and restrictions, as if it is all about one’s behavior. That is the error of the Pharisees.

Avoid Errors that Distort the Gospel. Some of the misunderstandings that warp the true meaning of the gospel are two opposite errors: one Reeder calls “passivism,” the attitude that we just have to sit back and let God work in us, without making any effort. The other is “activism” or “moralism,” namely, the idea that says that my sanctification and spiritual growth is all up to me and my efforts, and minimizes the power of the Holy Spirit. Or another set of errors: a view of the Christian life that is legalistic and all about rules, or one that says there are no rules, and ignores obedience and holiness. Reeder observes that Scripture calls us “not to work for our salvation but to work out our salvation,” because it is God who is at work within us (Philippians 2:12-13).

Focus on Jesus Christ. “A gospel-driven church is a Christ-centered church because he is the embodiment of the good news.” In the process of church renewal, we must remind ourselves and each other that it is not my church or our church; it is not the denomination’s church; it is Christ’s church. It is Christ who builds the church and he promises that the gates of hell will not prevail against the church (Matthew 16:18).

Chapter 6: Revitalization Strategy 4: Personal Gospel Formation

The Discipline of Grace. The gospel of Luke tells us that the young boy Jesus “grew in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and man” (Luke 2:52).

  1. Wisdom–Intellectual Discipline
  2. Stature–Physical Discipline
  3. Favor with God–Spiritual Discipline
  4. Favor with Man–Social/Relational Discipline

Here again, Reeder emphasizes the importance of getting the gospel right:

“The Christian life is not lived in order to be saved; it is lived because we are saved. The Christian life is not the foundation of our salvation, but it is a necessary evidence of salvation. James does not say that you are saved by your works; he claims that saving faith works” (84-85).

Reeder talks about these four areas of discipline, but he provides barely four lines on the first, intellectual discipline. This is an unfortunate choice, especially in our Christian Reformed tradition, in which loving God with all our mind is very important (even though sometimes we have tended to make it excessively important). He spends more time on physical discipline, though the Bible speaks more about training in doctrine than training in the gym (though Paul often uses athletic imagery precisely to speak of spiritual discipline).

Reeder gets into more detail on spiritual discipline(s). He divides them into two categories:

  1. Disciplines of Denial and Abstention. He puts these disciplines in the context of putting off the old self, the sinful nature, and putting on the new self. He identifies six virtues or disciplines here:
  • Simplicity in Life. Live an uncluttered life. Very hard for hoarders.
  • Frugality in Life. “Frugality in life is living within our means while giving beyond our means.”
  • Silence in Life. Here Reeder points out that the Christian life is not only intentional but also contemplative.
  • Sacrifice in Life. Reeder could say more here.
  • Chastity in Life. And here. Especially as the church becomes more responsive to single persons and deals with radically changing views of sexuality.
  • Fasting in Life. Here Reeder argues that fasting is never about repentance but always about helping us focus. Personally, I doubt it. Fasting is very often associated with repentance in the Bible (for example, when the Ninevites hear Jonah’s call to repentance, 3:5). But despite the fact that fasting makes me think only about food, I suppose that helping one’s focus could also be a use of fasting (e.g. Jesus fasted in the desert and had no need for repentance; on the other hand, he represents Israel and so may also be embodying the True Israel who needs to repent, as he becomes sin in a sense (Romans 8:3f.) Fasting, more likely, enables us to feel in our body a hunger for God that may find a parallel in the soul.

2. Disciplines of Devotion and Development. Here Reeder lists the following:

  • The study of God’s Word.
  • Intercessory and Contemplative Prayer.
  • Meditation and Memorization.
  • Reflection.
  • Confession.
  • Consecration. (Dedicating ourselves to God’s mission).

Here I would have liked Reeder to offer some reflection on Christian virtue. In addition, he seems at times to paint these disciplines in a very individualistic and private shades. But true Christian discipline and growth almost always happens in community, in fellowship (koinonia / κοινωνία) with other believers. I would like to see more emphasis on this communal element of spiritual discipline, particularly in our self-absorbed North American context.

Disciplined Christians are Found in Discipling Churches. Reeder points to the early church (Acts 2:42) to illustrate that a vital, growing church is one that practices spiritual disciplines.

Finally, Reeder emphasizes The Necessity of Church Discipline, that is, formal church discipline. To be a disciplined and discipling church, “you will have to teach and practice church discipline.” He rightly points out that this is some of the most difficult work of the ministry, and yet it is clearly commanded by the Lord Jesus himself (Matt. 18:15-17) and the Apostle Paul (I Cor. 5:12-13).

For part four click here.

On Being a Missional Church

First Cutlerville CRC Focus article, June 2015

“Missional” is a fairly new term for describing a church that is intentionally outreach-oriented. The term is new; the idea is as old as the church—even older, if you go back to Abraham’s calling in Genesis 12. My family was evangelized into a missional church long before the term was fashionable. But not every congregation is outreach-oriented. Some are much more inwardly-focused. That kind of church can be very comfortable, as long as you’re not a visitor, or someone new to the congregation. That kind of congregation can be supportive; it can have good fellowship, solid preaching, and attractive programs. It might even have a nice outreach statement on paper. But an inward focus not what it means to be church.

Ultimately, an inward-focused church will not grow. It may grow in the short term, but not from evangelism. Growth will largely come from people switching churches based on their preferences. But members will also leave when things change, because the most important thing has become: Does the worship experience fit my needs? It is a consumer approach to church.

Tim Keller, pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City, knows what it means to be genuinely missional. He planted a congregation in the most gospel-resistant part of the nation’s largest city, in Manhattan. It’s now a multi-site congregation with over 5,000 members. But it’s rather different from most mega-churches. It is confessionally Reformed. The worship employs liturgy and readings. The sermons are deep and doctrinal. The music is mostly classical, with some services that use jazz or contemporary worship songs.

Worship style is not what makes a church missional. Style varies and changes with time. What is more important is being intentional about outreach. A church that makes it their number one priority to reach people with the message of hope and new life in Christ, and embodying that good news in concrete ways—and a church where that is more important than whether I feel comfortable or feel I get all my needs met—that is a missional church.

Tim Keller ministers in a very secular and skeptical context. But in reality, our context here to the southwest of Grand Rapids is heading in the same direction. We can no longer assume that people believe in God or an afterlife. We cannot presume that people will take the Bible as God’s Word. But Keller reminds us that it’s not all about making a rational argument for the existence of God, or the reliability of the Bible. He emphasizes that we have to show that Christianity makes emotional sense before we can talk about it making rational sense. (By the way, Tim Keller has written an excellent book about how the Christian faith makes sense, entitled, The Reason for God). In other words, we have to show people that the gospel really changes us in order for people to take seriously the claim that the gospel can change their lives. We can show that the good news of Jesus makes “emotional sense” by our hospitality, by our welcoming embrace of our neighbors, by our willingness to tolerate unsanctified language and undisciplined children, by our commitment to persons and families that are deeply broken, and often chronically broken.

Tim Keller talks about six characteristics of a missional church. Stay tuned…I will talk about those six features in the next edition of the Focus!