Wednesday, 10 February 2010

Attracting Listeners to Sermons

I have been reading a book called The Scottish Pulpit by William Taylor. Various well-known preachers are assessed by the author, including Samuel Rutherford. In his assessment of Rutherford, Taylor proposes a way of having a successful preaching ministry. This is what he suggests:

'Grosart says of Rutherford's practical discourses that their one merit is "that they are full of the exceeding great and precious promises and truths of the Gospel," and that "they hold forth with wistful and passionate entreaty a crucified Saviour as the one centre for weary souls in their unrest, and the one hope for the world." But, after all, is not that the "one thing needful" in all preaching? And it is for that especially that I would hold him up for an inspiration to you. Like him preach the living, personal Christ, once crucified, but now risen and reigning as the Saviour and Sovereign of men. Unfold His loveliness. Proclaim His merits. Hold up Himself. Let the truth which you declare to be the truth as it is in Him. Let the faith to which you urge be faith in Him. Let the loyalty which you enforce be loyalty to Him. Let the heaven which you hold before your hearers be to be with Him, and to be like Him. "Hold you there," and let your words be such as love to Him shall inspire, then you shall not lack hearers, and shall not need to lament the absence of results.'
I have no idea whether or not such preaching guarantees success. But all I can say is that it would be a nice way to be a failure.

Tuesday, 9 February 2010

Church Planting by Psalm Singers

Last night at our meeting of presbytery, a good friend asked a question to this effect: ‘Can effective church planting involving praise marked by exclusive psalmody without musical accompaniment take place outside Free Church areas of influence?’ It was a reasonable question, and one which I decided to take some time to consider rather than open my mouth without thinking (I am not implying that those who did speak were guilty of such a response). So I have thought about it and here is my response. Probably there is nothing new here for others, but it did help me clarify an aspect of my thinking.

Given that I believe the New Testament teaches that worship in first-century churches used unaccompanied singing of metrical psalms (music, as is acknowledged by historians, was not introduced until centuries later), it would be easy for me to say that the answer to the question is ‘yes’. That answer is sufficient for me, but I suspect those asking the question might want additional reasons. So here are three, and they can be classified as history, motive and understanding of success.

First, from a historical point-of-view, the answer is that such churches did plant similar churches – hundreds of Reformed churches in Scotland (and elsewhere) were planted, each of which was marked by inspired praise and no music. This was the case in virtually every denomination that existed in Scotland between the Reformation and the second half of the nineteenth century – it was not until then that hymns and musical instruments became common. The Free Church itself engaged in an extensive church planting activity after 1843 all over the country, and these plants did not use hymns and instrumental music. I suppose the question can be phrased another way: ‘Have more churches been planted in Scotland since hymns and instrumental music were introduced than were planted before then?’ Obviously I am not denying that church plants have taken place in groups that used hymns and music, but I would say that the evidence we have historically is that they are not essential for successful church planting. But I wonder what is the answer to my rephrased question mentioned a couple of sentences ago.

Second, the original question raises another question for me: why do we plant in non-Free Church areas? If the only answer to the question is, ‘Because we want to tell people about Jesus,’ then are we not duplicating the activities of other evangelical churches already in that area? While there are large sections of Scotland that do not have a Free Church, there are very few areas which do not have an evangelical witness, be it by Baptists, Brethren, Charismatics, Pentecostals, Church of Scotland (at times), and various independent churches. It seems to me that if all we want to do is ‘tell people about Jesus’, then we should join groups in these communities that are already doing so and help them.

Personally, my reasons for praying for, and supporting practically if possible, Free Church plants are based on more than initial communication of the basic gospel message. I would like to see Free Church plants because I have concluded that New Testament churches should practice covenant baptism (unlike Baptists), have recognised, ordained teachers (unlike some Brethren), regard spiritual gifts such as tongues and prophecy as limited to the apostolic period (unlike Charismatics and Pentecostals), have exclusive male eldership (unlike some evangelical Church of Scotland congregations), and have a commitment to specific doctrines, summarised/stated in the Westminster Confession of Faith (unlike most churches). In addition to these features, since I have concluded that New Testament worship involves unaccompanied inspired praise, and since this is the current practice of the Free Church, it is inevitable that one reason for planting Free Churches in non-Free Church areas is to have churches with this feature. If we move away from the items I have listed, then our contribution ceases to be Free Church in particular and becomes an undefined church plant. At present, the distinctives that stand out from most other evangelicals are our view of baptism (not just its mode, but also its meaning) and our current practice of praise. I see no valid biblical reason for modifying either of them in a church plant situation. This does not mean I don't want other groups of Christians to prosper in winning souls for Jesus.

Third, of course, we all want to have church plants that develop into self-sufficient congregations that go on to church plant (at least, I hope we do). But is that the only kind of successful church plant? Is ‘success’ based on a large number of individuals coming along or is it based on the number who become committed to what we believe? Sometimes the number who come along consists of a small group of committed people, at other times it becomes larger and larger. Does God denigrate the plant composed of committed people that remains small? Does he disapprove of their desire to remain loyal to his Word? Unfortunately, despite having made an attempt at answering the question raised by my friend, I cannot give a definite answer to the question in the previous sentence because the public answer will not be given until the Day of Judgement. But, without being presumptuous, I think I know what God’s Word says about it.

Friday, 5 February 2010

Revival – some questions

I would like to ask some basic questions about revival that affect us in the Scottish Highlands in particular?

First, can revival come to a Christian community that is divided (as the church in the Highlands is)? Obviously, division is not desirable, but does its existence automatically prevent revival coming? The answer from church history is that it does not. For example, the Erskine brothers, who had separated from the Church of Scotland, disagreed strongly with George Whitefield’s practice of preaching in evangelical Church of Scotland congregations and spoke harsh words against him. The disagreement resulted in an open breach. Yet both Whitefield and the Erskines continued to enjoy periods of revival through their preaching.

This is not to say that divisions will not produce aspects that mar the beauty of a revival, such as believers not praying together for converts or rejoicing together over converts. Nor does it means that God-sent revival will not result in unity being restored eventually. In fact, to maintain a wrong spirit in times of revival is a dangerous response from a Christian. Nevertheless although we live in a divided Christian community, we should not be discouraged from praying for revival.

Second, can revival come to a community that is diminished in population (as many parts of the Scottish Highlands are)? Sometimes the impression can be given that revival only occurs in places where there is a large number of people. When we picture in our minds a congregation experiencing revival, what do we imagine? We think of the vast crowds that listened to Whitefield and Wesley or that used to gather at communion seasons in the Highlands during the years of revival. What we forget is that often these crowds were swollen by large numbers who often travelled long distances. The reality is that the presence of revival in a small community can only be gauged by the effects in that area. And if every person in that area was converted, it would still not be a large number. So revival does not need large numbers to be called a revival; it all depends on whether a sizable percentage in a community is converted.

Third, what would be the point in God giving a revival to small congregations in communities with a declining population? There are many possible answers to this question. Here are three:

A first answer concerns the glory of God: revival in a small congregation shows that progress is not by human might or power, but by the Spirit; Jesus is to be honoured in small communities as well as larger ones.

A second answer concerns the present state of the church: revival can raise up in a small community a group of Christians that would be mighty in prayer, not just for its immediate community, but for the entire nation, and for the spread of the gospel throughout the world.

A third answer concerns the future: revival in a small congregation should ensure that there will be a Christian church for the foreseeable future in that community; it should also maintain the existence of Christian families from who may come individuals who will be used by the Saviour decades from now, long after we are no longer here.

Fourth, what methods will bring revival to us? There are several spiritual blessings that may be known without revival being experienced. These include dedicated Christian living (many believers have lived devoted Christian lives without seeing revival), harmonious church experiences (sense of God’s presence in the public meetings of his people), biblical preaching in content and manner, hearty witnessing to one’s faith etc. The reality is that revival comes primarily through earnest, insistent, reverent, communal prayer to God that King Jesus would send the Holy Spirit in gracious power.

Encouragements for prayer for revival are many: the purpose of God (often he uses revival to achieve conversions), the promises of God (there are many promises concerning revival in the Bible), and records of previous revivals (I can understand why many Christians do not like to read heavy theological literature or books of sermons or ponderous biographies, but I cannot understand a Christian who would not enjoy reading accounts of the great days of spiritual blessing of the past; reading them expands our estimation of what God can do in our communities today).

I have been reading about a three-year revival in GlenLyon in Perthshire that happened in the second decade of the nineteenth century. Glen Lyon was hardly the centre of national life at that time, yet its experience of revival had both widespread and long-term effects. They were widespread in that many of those blessed during the revival moved elsewhere, including abroad, and took its influence with them; also other parishes in the country were encouraged to pray for revival and, for all I know, that revival may have been a catalyst for the country-wide spiritual movement that preceded the Disruption. The effects were long-term because I noticed that several biographies of nineteenth-century ministers that I have read recently (selected without me knowing the connection) ministered to a spiritually healthy congregation in that out-of-the-way community.

Of course, this leads to one more question: when did the effects of that revival die out, or perhaps they are still being felt somewhere in the world?

Revival – some thoughts

I suppose many definitions could be given of revival, although most of them would be related to historical records, which means that there is the fact of revival. There are so many records of such spiritual occasions that only a perverse person would deny they occurred.

Further, many factors related to it can be assessed biblically, which means that there is a theology of revival. A theology of revival attempts to explain God’s action in promoting his kingdom through the gospel. It looks for biblical doctrines that describe, for example, the involvement of the risen Jesus in revival, the work of the Spirit in revival, the activity of the devil in such periods, the contribution of prayer made by God’s people for such times and in such times.

A third aspect of revival are features that are absent from some revivals and present in other revivals, which indicate that these features are not necessary for a revival to occur. Most of these things would come into the category of social consequences, and they may be beneficial or not for the community. For example, some revivals are accompanied by great improvement in the living standards of the poor (the revivals connected to 1859 in Britain and America had that consequence). Other revivals are followed by increased persecution of God’s people, resulting in loss of living standards (this happened throughout the twentieth century in communist countries).

A fourth feature of revival is that we inevitably visualise it through our own understanding of it. There have been frequent revivals in the Highlands, particularly the Outer Hebrides during the last two centuries and details of what took place in them have become part of our spiritual heritage. The knowledge of what God did then creates within us a longing for him to do it again. As I have listened to these accounts during the last three decades since I was converted, I have sensed that many people assumed that, when the next revival comes, it will be a repetition of what occurred previously. But while the gospel message will not change and the response of repentance and faith will be essential, there may be features in the next revival that will be totally different from previous ones.

For example, if a revival began tomorrow, what would be the contribution of modern technology? Revivals in the eighteenth century occurred within the limitations of the time: information containing points for prayer was conveyed by letter that could take months to reach their destination, preachers travelled on horseback or walked between places, and sometimes places experiencing revival were unaware that communities twenty miles away were also enjoying God’s blessing in a similar way (it also meant that some communities were unaware that a revival was taking place anywhere). Revivals in the nineteenth century utilised the invention of the telegraph and the development of printing of books to help spread the revival. A revival thirty years ago had the means of tape recordings and telephones to help it (we may not be familiar with that because we have not experienced a revival in which they were used.) But if a revival comes tomorrow, it is likely that the Lord would use our current technology as one of the means of bringing people to repentance and assurance. Sometimes, we look at the millions of people in our society and we ask ourselves, ‘How can we reach all these people?’ The question usually expects a negative answer. Whether God will bring a revival or not tomorrow, it is obvious that through modern technology the gospel can be preached to millions of people simultaneously.

And if God poured his Spirit out on our nation, it would not be difficult for the gospel to get prime time slots on TV schedules. The forms of media (newspapers, journals) that existed in times of previous revival were quick to report on revivals, and there is no need to imagine that modern media would ignore a widespread revival.

Wednesday, 3 February 2010

Encouragement from the past

I suppose there are a variety of encouragements that a minister can have. Obviously, he will get encouragement if he looks up to God in prayer and asks him to fulfil his promises of blessing. A preacher can also receive encouragement by looking round and observing the way God may have used him to some effect in the lives of other people. I have received some encouragement by looking back, not to events in my own life (although there are plenty years to explore), but to what God did in my city long before I was born.

Encouragement from those days is dependant on written records and I have been reading about two servants of God who came to Inverness in the past. They were quite different from one another and came here through different means, yet the consequences of their comings was of great significance to the town.

I have to look back a long time to see what God did through Robert Bruce (not the king). He is best known today for his book on the Lord's Supper, but in his own time he was famous for his faithful preaching. In those days, Inverness was not a holiday resort; instead it was a small village on the verge of nowhere and a suitable location for a king to banish preachers who had guts as well as words. Bruce was banished twice to Inverness by James VI (the man who later arranged for the King James Version), but the king on his second occasion (1620s) did not realise that he was extending the Presbyterian cause that he so much detested.

Bruce was by then an old man and not very well. He spoke a different language from the Gaelic of the Highlanders (although he may have been able to speak it somewhat). Yet his time in Inverness was much blessed by God as thousands travelled from all over the north of Scotland to hear the gospel from his lips. This had been anticipated by Bruce because, as he was about to leave for Inverness, he received from the Lord a special commission to go to Inverness and plant a seed that would last for a long time. He received this commission through an experience that many modern Reformed people would shake their heads at (a kind of trance as he was about to mount his horse), but which many Highland Reformed Christians would have regarded as to be expected. My encouragement is not that Bruce had such a profound commission (I have not experienced anything close to it), but that a man in his later decades of life came to this city and was used by God to such an extent that echoes of his ministry were heard in Inverness for over a century – a supporter of the Jacobite rebellions in the first half of the eighteenth century blamed Bruce's influence for the poor support they received in Inverness area (although Invernessians today are quite happy to benefit financially from visitors to Culloden etc.).

I do not have to look back so far for the other story that gives encouragement. Robert Findlater came here two centuries after Bruce, but almost two centuries ago (1820s). He came to a town in which religious controversy was alive, where large numbers of visiting workers were ignored, and where the ecclesiastical systems were ineffective in dealing with the increased population. Prior to coming to Inverness, he had been involved in a three-year revival in Perthshire and so was able to assess between genuine spirituality and formal religious behaviour. He noted that much of what he saw, even in his large congregation of 1800, belonged to the formal.

His response was to preach sermons that exalted Christ and not to use the pulpit for the minutae of Christian experience (he dealt with that in private meetings with individuals). He also realised that it was pointless asking visiting workers to church if they did not understand the message of the gospel. So he supported the setting up of Sunday schools in which such could be educated (today we call it pre-evangelism, but as an Invernessian I am pleased that the idea was here two hundred years ago). His method was successful and people were converted.

Why am I encouraged by Robert Findlater's ministry? Because he shows that focussing on Christ and using a bit of initiative resulted in making the gospel relevant to a growing centre of population.

So looking back as well as looking up helps me to look forward.