It’s all about the Cross

IMG_2578A long time ago I heard CJ Mahaney refer to a book that, he said, “defines Christian ministry for me”. Whatever problems Mahaney has faced in recent years, I’ve always admired his relentless focus on the Gospel. I heard him speak at a major leadership conference with thousands of church leaders present, and rather than offer up your typical conference message guaranteed to get the crowd going, he instead chose to preach on Golgotha. His little book, The Cross Centered Life, changed the way I understood my faith. It radically refocussed my life (along with The Discipline of Grace by Jerry Bridges and a series of messages on grace by Terry Virgo). So, when Mahaney said that a particular book defined Christian ministry in his mind, somehow that lodged in my mind.

But for whatever reason I never got around to picking up that book until a few days ago. It’s The Cross and Christian Ministry by DA Carson. In this book he’s explaining a few sections of First Corinthians. It’s absolutely brilliant. There are echoes of Dr Martyn Lloyd-Jones (but with a little more balance). Here are a few selections well worth thinking about.

On the temptation to pursue ministry strategies v. preaching the cross:

“At the moment, books are pouring off the presses telling us how to plan for success, how ‘vision’ consists in clearly articulated ‘ministry goals,’ how the knowledge of detailed profiles of our communities constitutes the key to successful outreach. I am not for a moment suggesting that there is nothing to be learned from such studies. But after a while one may perhaps be excused for marveling how many churches were planted by Paul and Whitefield and Wesley and Stanway and Judson without enjoying these advantages. Of course all of us need to understand the people to whom we minister, and all of us can benefit from small doses of such literature. But massive doses sooner or later dilute the gospel. Ever so subtly, we start to think that success more critically depends on thoughtful sociological analysis than on the gospel; Barna becomes more important than the Bible. We depend on plans, programs, vision statements—but somewhere along the way we have succumbed to the temptation to displace the foolishness of the cross with the wisdom of strategic planning.”

On the tendency to platform celebrities to make our churches seem more credible:

“Why is it that we constantly parade Christian athletes, media personalities, and pop singers? Why should we think that their opinions or their experiences of grace are of any more significance than those of any other believer? When we tell outsiders about people in our church, do we instantly think of the despised and the lowly who have become Christians, or do we love to impress people with the importance of the men and women who have become Christians? Modern Western evangelicalism is deeply infected with the virus of triumphalism, and the resulting illness destroys humility, minimizes grace, and offers far too much homage to the money and influence and ‘wisdom’ of our day.”

These first two quotes come from his comments on 1 Corinthians 1.18–2.5. This final one, from later in the book, rounds the ideas off well. He’s making the point that a church must be built on the foundation of the Gospel or it isn’t a church.

“If we see this clearly, then many other things will fall into place. We will perceive that it is God’s revelation to us of his Son that is of paramount importance. Recognizing the need for the Spirit of God to illumine the minds of men and women who otherwise will not grasp the gospel, we will emphasize prayer. We will live and serve in the light of the final judgment, for we must give an account of our ministry. It is not that we shall refuse any practical help from those who have something to say about technique or sociological profiles; rather, we will remain utterly committed to the centrality of the cross, not just at vague, theoretical levels, but in all our strategy and practical decisions. We will be fearful of adopting approaches that might empty the cross of Christ of its power… and the only approval we shall seek is his who tests the quality of each builder’s work on the last day.”

Why preaching from memory or reading your notes might not be a good idea

microphoneThis brief article by Lisa Evans from Fast Company covered a few mistakes people make in public speaking. There’s a section in there that just about perfectly captures my own concerns when preachers attempt to memorise their message, or worse still, read it out. The article is summarising some of the tips from Laura Sicola, founder of Vocal Impact Productions, and the first problem she identifies is the tendency to sound disengaged from your message. Quoting Sicola, Lisa Evans writes: Continue reading “Why preaching from memory or reading your notes might not be a good idea”

Some of the reasons why John Piper doesn’t own a TV


It’s likely that nearly everyone you know owns and watches TV, but it’s rare to hear someone lay down a strong case against TV watching. Back in 2011 Andy Naselli put together a blog post in which he collated a lot of what John Piper has said or written about why he doesn’t own a TV. It’s a long post, and well worth reading in full, but here are a couple of my favourite quotes: Continue reading “Some of the reasons why John Piper doesn’t own a TV”

The questions Jesus asked

Jesus was able to do more with a question than others can manage in hours of speaking and persuading. With his questions he had the power to undo men, or put them back together. His questions cut through all pretense and hypocrisy. His questions expose and often wound. They also minister faith and strength to those who lack it. Jesus chose his questions carefully with the wisdom of one whose mouth was well taught, and in an instant accomplished great damage against an enemy, or great help to a friend.

Jesus used questions in his teaching to arrest the attention of the listener, and enable them to be honest with themselves. He also used questions as weapons against his accusers. They were unable to hide their true motives, or their sheer ignorance, when he turned his great mind and insightful heart upon them and asked them the question they did not want to hear. Their logic was overturned, their safe place exposed, and their self-assurance destroyed.

A question punches through your certainty. It knocks you off balance. It exposes your bluff for what it is. It makes you doubt your doubts and question your assumptions. A well-placed question is like an ear worm; it gets inside your head, and it’s difficult to shake. It gnaws away at your foundations, and exposes your inconsistencies. It makes you panic. A question might also enable you to catch a glimpse of light when all is darkness. Continue reading “The questions Jesus asked”

What happens when Pride writes your Sermon

This is one of the those paragraphs that hurts in a good way:

“How frequently does pride go with us to our study, and there sit with us and do our work! How often does it choose our subject, and, more frequently still, our words and illustrations! God commands us to be as plain as we can, that we may inform the ignorant; and as convincing and serious as we are able, that we may melt and change their hardened hearts. But pride stands by and contradicts everything, and produces its silly ideas. It pollutes rather than polishes; and, under pretence of gripping illustrations, dishonours our sermons with childish ornaments: as if a prince were to be dressed in the clothes of an actor, or a clown. It persuades us to paint the window, that it may dim the light, and to speak to our people in ways they cannot understand. If we have a plain and cutting passage, it takes off the edge, and dulls the life of our preaching, under pretence of filing off the roughness, unevenness, and excess. When God charges us to deal with men as for their lives, and to beg them with all the desparation that we are able, this cursed sin controls everything, and condemns the most holy commands of God, and says to us, ‘What! Will you make people think you are mad? Will you make them say you rage or rave? Can’t you speak soberly and moderately?’ And so pride makes many men’s sermons; and what pride makes, the devil makes; and what sermons the devil will make and to what end, we may easily guess. Though the subject may be of God, yet if the style, and manner, and purpose is from Satan, we have no great reason to expect success.”

(Slightly paraphrased from Richard Baxter, The Reformed Pastor)


There’s no such thing as “Practice Preaching”

A few days ago I was talking with a friend who is learning to preach. As part of his learning, the guys involved preach to one another on set passages, and then sit down and talk about how well they did, what they could improve, and so on.

To my recollection, I have done this once (many years ago) and decided never to do it again. Why?

I begin with the understanding that preaching is only preaching when you stand there with authority. It’s not your own authority, it’s derived from the word. But you still have to regard what you’re doing as delivering God’s word into the present context. That is how I understand the force of Peter’s encouragement to speak “as one who speaks oracles of God” (1 Peter 4.11). So the preacher has to have the correct self-understanding. Now, I grant you, there’s room for error here. The preacher might think that in order to speak the oracles of God he needs to adopt a foreign tone, or work it up. But it seems to me that despite the possible mistakes and errors a preacher can fall into, the most important thing is that he has a deep-seated conviction that he’s speaking God’s word. If he’s not delivering it in that way, with that conviction, and with that authority, I doubt he’s preaching at all.

So when we think about trainee preachers gathering together to preach to one another, and then offer critique, it seems to me that this is training in how not to preach. The guy stands up with his material and delivers it in the most technically correct way he can (right intro and flow, strong and clear points, good illustrations, perfect landing). But the artificial environment makes it near-impossible to stand there and deliver a message with the authority of God and his word, the very thing that makes it preaching in the first place.

The result can be that the trainees are technically capable, but they don’t really know what it means to speak God’s oracles. So, as I said, they’re being trained in how not to preach.

I would suggest that the only way a person can learn to preach is by preaching; not for critique, but for edification; not focussed on technique, but on delivering an actual message.

Now, I don’t want to set up a false dichotomy here. It’s possible to learn to preach well (with a mind to technique) and receive critique after the event, whilst also preaching a message with the necessary authority and boldness. But I doubt it’s possible to do this with a bunch of mates who are gathered for the sole purpose of offering you feedback, and I would reckon that this is counterproductive in the long-run if the goal is to train an actual, bone fide preacher.