Why we should be grateful for Vicky Beeching

undividedI recently talked a little about Vicky Beeching’s book – Undivided – and why I think it is dangerous for the church. I stand by what I said there – but, at the same time, I’ve been thinking a lot about this lately and I think there are reasons to be grateful to Vicky Beeching. In particular, I think the book exposes the truth in two ways:

1. It exposes the truth about people.

One of the things which has really come home to me over the last month is the lack of depth and theological understanding in the UK church. It is pitiably weak in certain quarters.

Vicky’s story is a powerful one, for sure – but in a church which knew the Scriptures and the gospel, it wouldn’t have made a dent. My heart weeps for the many faithful Christians who will read this book and be swayed by it. Why are they swayed? Because they do not know the Scriptures deeply enough. This has something which I have hitherto only suspected – but Vicky’s book has brought into painfully to light.

There’s an intriguing moment at the end of John 6:

On hearing it, many of his disciples said, ‘This is a hard teaching. Who can accept it?’

Aware that his disciples were grumbling about this, Jesus said to them, ‘Does this offend you? Then what if you see the Son of Man ascend to where he was before! The Spirit gives life; the flesh counts for nothing. The words I have spoken to you – they are full of the Spirit and life. Yet there are some of you who do not believe.’ For Jesus had known from the beginning which of them did not believe and who would betray him. He went on to say, ‘This is why I told you that no one can come to me unless the Father has enabled them.’

From this time many of his disciples turned back and no longer followed him.

It’s interesting that Jesus doesn’t dilute his teaching to make it easier for people to follow him. The words he speaks are “full of the Spirit and life”. If you want to follow him, you must follow it all – or it will be worth nothing. Vicky Beeching’s book – and the question of gay marriage in general – exposes people for who they really are: are they followers of Jesus, who take up their cross and follow, however hard it may be? Or will turn back and no longer follow him at this point?

Joshua said to the people of Israel as they entered into the Promised Land: “choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your ancestors served beyond the Euphrates, or the gods of the Amorites, in whose land you are living. But as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord.” (Josh 24:15). We are at the point where the church has to choose whom it will serve – the gods of equality, sexual liberation and personal fulilment – or the God of the Bible. It cannot be both.

That said, if people do not know the Scriptures deeply enough, then they do not entirely have themselves to blame:

2. It exposes where the church has gone wrong.

If the church had been teaching the faith as it should have been, there would be no problem. I’ve been realising, however, that the church has not been teaching the faith – in particular, I think the church has failed in catechesis: teaching a basic systematic understanding of the faith. This is where I think many evangelical churches fall down – they preach the Bible week by week, which is vital, but neglect other things which are vital. I talked about this a little when I started my New City Catechism series.

In particular, I think the church has lost the understanding of sin that was so key at the Reformation: the idea that sin is pervasive and infects everything – our desires, our minds, our wills, everything. Too often people have a fairly weak view of sin as ‘bad things we do from time to time’. Children are often taught that kind of understanding to begin with, but sadly it seems that many adults never move beyond it. I know this from personal experience – I think for many years I saw sin as being something I did rather than something more fundamental, a matter of the heart. As Jesus said in Mark 7:21 “it is from within, out of a person’s heart, that evil thoughts come”. We’re not sinners because we sin – we sin because we are sinners. Because our hearts are wicked and corrupt, we bring forth the fruit of sin.

Recently in our church we’ve started using Order Two communion – the order in Common Worship (the standard CofE liturgy) based on the Book of Common Prayer. The confession has generated a bit of discussion, and it struck me that it’s the understanding of sin which is under question. (I should say that I minister in a conservative evangelical church which has had a strong Bible-preaching ministry for forty or more years!) I’m not saying this to criticise the church, but rather I think it illustrates that even among solid evangelical churches there has been a failure to adequately teach the faith which can leave believers exposed when error comes in. If people are rocked when they read Vicky Beeching’s book – or, more personally, when a close friend or family members ‘comes out’ – then it shows the church has not properly equipped them.

We as a church have often focussed so much on the ‘nice’ bits of the faith – worship and praise, the love of God, etc – that we’ve neglected the important doctrines of sin, the holiness of God, the wrath of God, hell, etc.

One of the things I’d like to see – as an Anglican – is a revival of the theology of the Book of Common Prayer. I honestly think the church wouldn’t be in half the mess it is if the prayer book had been retained as the staple diet of the church – or its theology, at least. Common Worship (released in 2000, which almost every church uses now) waters down so much of the gospel content that you can bend it to almost any theology. In our midweek communion service we’ve been using Order Two for nearly a year now – and it’s like balm to my bruised soul: I am free to be just exactly who I am before God – a sinner who is saved by grace, nothing more, nothing less. Hallelujah!

My wife had an interesting perspective on this – she grew up on Common Worship (or its precursor) – and didn’t really understand communion. She made the comment to me that the communion service suddenly became much clearer when using the Prayer Book style service. The BCP communion preaches the gospel in a way that Common Worship doesn’t.

What happens now?

I think there are reasons to be grateful, and reasons to be confident. Now that Vicky Beeching’s book – amongst other things – have exposed the truth, we can do something about it. I feel that for too long in this country we’ve been muddling along as a church, saying a few nice ‘Jesus’ things where appropriate but staying in the shallows, theologically speaking. That won’t work any more.

What this country needs is a revival, and a revival will not happen without people who are committed to living out Jesus’ teaching in every area. People who are willing to take up their cross and follow him. People who are willing to stand up and be counted.

This has been the case before in previous generations – as I mentioned when I talked about the hymn O Jesus I have promised. It can be so again. I think God often allows these things to happen to purify the church – to turn halfhearted people either out of the church, or move them to obey him in a more wholehearted way.

A wholehearted church can make a big difference – I was encouraged earlier today to read Ian Paul’s post on revival – Christianity eventually became the dominant religion of the Roman Empire by growing at around 3.42% per year. That’s not a huge amount – and yet it changed the course of history.

So what practical difference should we make as a church? Many things, of course! But in practical terms, in broad brush stroke terms, what I’d like to see is:

  • Pastors and teachers who are trained properly and able to teach their congregations the faith. I only realised the value in theological training after spending three years at theological college – I’m so glad the CofE made me do it, otherwise I’d probably have said “I’ve got the Bible, I’ve got a commentary… now let me at it! No need for this academic stuff!” Any church serious about growth needs to invest in the quality of its theological education. Putting down deep roots into the Scriptures and theology are essential for surviving testing times – and only people who have those deep roots can help others to gain them.
  • A revival of catechesis – as I’ve already talked about.
  • A renewed commitment to church planting. I am heartened that so many churches seem to be talking about church planting at the moment. I was talking to someone recently who said that the best way of reaching people is by planting a church – if the church in the UK is serious about reaching the unreached, we need to be serious about planting new churches. I was taught at college “Growing churches are church planting churches” – and I think this is true. The UK needs more churches.

Above all, we should have confidence in the glorious truth of the gospel – that we have a God who saves sinners, and even today is still drawing men and women to himself. I was reading a book yesterday – Matt Lee Anderson’s book on questioning – and in the chapter I read last night he said that the purpose of questioning is to fasten our minds on the truth. There is an objective truth out there, and we are only deluding ourselves if we deviate from it. This is what our society is finding out the hard way is it tries very hard to write out the fact of God’s truth. We as Christians know God’s Word, his truth, and we should be confident in proclaiming it as we know it is the way that God transforms lives and societies.

I finish with the words of Paul to his protege, Timothy, his charge which I look to to describe my ministry and I think are appropriate here:

In the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who will judge the living and the dead, and in view of his appearing and his kingdom, I give you this charge: preach the word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage – with great patience and careful instruction. For the time will come when people will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather round them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear. They will turn their ears away from the truth and turn aside to myths. But you, keep your head in all situations, endure hardship, do the work of an evangelist, discharge all the duties of your ministry.

A few years ago we preached through 2 Timothy, and it struck me then that it is one of the most prophetic books in the Bible – it describes our situation exactly in the church at the moment. And yet, the solution is the same: preach the gospel. Let’s have confidence in doing just that.

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Preaching, Rhetoric and Michael Curry

OK, OK, I know everyone is bored of talking about Michael Curry now. But I wanted to pick up on one thing which few people have really talked about – the delivery and style of his sermon, rather than the content. In my previous post I said that it was powerful, and Ian Paul has already written what preachers can learn from him. But I think, having had a week to reflect, there is more to say – which is that the sermon wasn’t a great sermon in terms of a piece of communication. Let me try to explain by reflecting on what I try to do in a sermon. These are some of the lessons I’ve picked up over the last few years of preaching – I do this in the hope it may be helpful for others preachers or public speakers.

1. What is the main message you are trying to get across?

One of the best lessons I ever learned when it comes to preaching was – before you write the sermon, you need to come up with a short – preferably single sentence – aim of the sermon. Can you boil it down to the ‘in a nutshell’ version? If you can’t – chances are, it won’t be a good sermon. This is one of the real insights I got from Haddon Robinson in his classic book ‘Expository Preaching’.

What most new preachers do is look at a passage, and try to come up with a few helpful things to say about it – but there’s often nothing to hold it together, no overarching theme.

I’ve found the most effective sermons are those with a particular aim / purpose. You have a particular truth about God, which flows from the Bible passage, that you want to communicate. I’ve found this will be enormously helpful in preaching – because then when you preach you won’t be saying random things, but rather trying to communicate a particular truth.

At theological college, in my first year preaching class we learned to ask four deceptively simple questions about our sermon: What do people need to know? And why? What do people need to do? And why? A sermon is not simply a transfer of information, it’s a call to action. In order for that to be effective you need to have a clear purpose of the sermon, a goal, an aim.

Let’s think about Michael Curry for a second: did he do this? I’m not sure that he did. He talked a lot about love – he mentioned it over 50 times – but was there a particular message? If anything, his message was “wouldn’t the world be a better place if we all tried harder to love each other” – which, leaving aside the problems I’ve already talked about – I’m not sure is a particularly coherent Christian aim.

2. The ‘So What?’ test

Another factor of a sermon, as I’ve already mentioned, is a call to action. That is – preachers don’t want people simply to understand something. They want them to do something. In every sermon I preach I try to think about ‘application’ – that is, how the particular theological truth I’m communicating connects with people’s lives – how they can put what I’m saying into practice. Sometimes this is easy, sometimes this is not so easy – but it’s really important to do.

For example, if you’re teaching on (say) Romans 8:28, rather than simply saying “God works everything for good in your life” – it would be much more effective to say “think about the toughest situation you’re facing right now. God can and will use even that situation for good.” I’d maybe give an example from my own life of how God used a tough situation.

In other words, don’t just give people the abstract truth – ground it in concrete things.

Did Michael Curry do this? Again – he talked a lot about how love can change the world, but he didn’t really talk about what we should actually do – beyond simply ‘love each other more’. I don’t think that’s really a helpful application – particularly given that we find it difficult to love. That’s the thing: the rubber hits the road in preaching when you talk to people about how to deal with genuine struggles they have. If you don’t deal with people’s sin, you haven’t really preached.

3. Talking like a normal person

Another of the really helpful things I’ve learned over the years about preaching is that God uses the whole person to preach. God doesn’t call preachers to leave behind everything when they come into the pulpit. God uses me, a sinner, to preach to other sinners, to talk about finding his grace. God has given me my personality, my life, my experiences, gifts, etc – I bring them all with me into the pulpit.

In other words, when people see you in the pulpit, they should see ‘the real you’. I think this is another mistake people who start out preaching (or public speaking) often make: they write out sermons in full, and them read them as if they’re reading the news. I’d say – God has given you a personality for a reason. Don’t become someone else in the pulpit – just talk as you would talk to a friend. In this day and age, authenticity is a big thing – people can perceive when you’re trying to put on an act. Being genuine matters a lot more than it used to.

You need to engage with people on an emotional level – and in order to do that, they need to see you as a real person – not someone you’re presenting to mask the real you. (On a practical note – I’ve found it helpful to get away from writing out a full script with sermons. We write differently to how we talk. But it’s not time to talk about that here,)

Did Michael Curry do this? This is a tricky one because I certainly think his personality shone through. At the same time, I’m not sure he came across as very authentic – he didn’t talk about himself or reveal anything. I don’t think he really connected emotionally. To me, the sermon was like listening to Blur – it may sound technically impressive but didn’t get you in the heart like Oasis. (Yes, I’m an Oasis man rather than a Blur man. I know that many people prefer Blur, so this point is of course subjective… if you don’t know what I’m talking about, look up ‘Britpop’)

4. Leave them with Jesus

The apostle Paul wrote these words in his first letter to the Corinthians:

And so it was with me, brothers and sisters. When I came to you, I did not come with eloquence or human wisdom as I proclaimed to you the testimony about God. For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. I came to you in weakness with great fear and trembling. My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power, so that your faith might not rest on human wisdom, but on God’s power. 1 Corinthians 2:1-4

What had prompted him to write this? It’s possible there were others coming in who the Corinthian church thought were brilliant because of their excellent preaching – they were rhetorically gifted and their sermons sounded learned and wise. But they weren’t preaching the true gospel. Paul, by contrast, says that he did not come “with eloquence or human wisdom” but rather preaching “Jesus Christ and him crucified”, “with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power”. Why? “So that your faith might not rest on human wisdom, but on God’s power.”

I think this is the heart of the matter: true preaching leaves people with Christ. There’s a lovely line in the last verse of the hymn “May the Mind of Christ my Saviour“:

May His beauty rest upon me
As I seek the lost to win,
And may they forget the channel,
Seeing only Him.

“May they forget the channel, seeing only Him.” I think that’s a wonderful description of good preaching: people are left with the beauty and glory of Jesus, rather than the preacher. This is what I love about Spurgeon – he was extraordinarily gifted with words, but he always, always, always brought people to Christ. Spurgeon knew, as all good preachers do, that Christ is what we need. People don’t need a good sermon for its own sake – people need Jesus.

Did Michael Curry do this? I think it’s hugely telling that after the sermon people weren’t talking about Jesus – they were talking about Michael Curry. Straight after the sermon, the commentator Huw Edwards summarised the sermon by talking about love – and not at all about Jesus. And that, to my mind, is the biggest failure of the sermon.

I am not a great preacher, but in every sermon I try to commend Christ in some way. I was preaching at a wedding this afternoon, and I said to them – if you want to love, don’t look to yourselves, look to Jesus. Christ is the one we proclaim, not ourselves. Judging by what people have been talking about this last week, Michael Curry did a pretty good job at proclaiming himself… not so much a good job at proclaiming Christ.

I pray that it may never be the case for me that people talk or think about me and the sermon more than they talk or think about Christ.

Preaching and communication: Lessons from the Sermon on the Mount

Over the last few weeks I’ve been spending a bit of time in Matthew 5 preparing for various sermons. As well as being struck by how rich the Sermon on the Mount is – you could easily do a sermon series on the Beatitudes, for example – I’ve been struck by how profound Jesus is as a communicator. Jesus is a wise, learned and skillful communicator – he communicates deep truths in a way which we can understand.

I think there are lessons to be learned here for preachers – not least myself! Here are a just two of the things I’ve found to learn from with Jesus’ preaching, I’m sure there are many other things you could say.

Use positive and negative examples

Several times Jesus uses this technique. We are to be salt and light – salt, in the sense of being distinctive and preserving and preventing decay, and light, in the sense of doing good deeds. We are to avoid taking revenge but positively love our enemies. The negative – what we are to avoid doing – coupled with the positive – what we should do.

How often in my sermons do I only focus on one or other of those? I think it’s very helpful to have both together. What bearing does this particular passage have on my life? What should I not be doing? And what should I be doing instead? Christians sometimes have a (not totally undeserved) reputation for being ‘Thou Shalt Not’ people. But we need to hear both the negative and positive side: our vision needs to be transformed.

How do we turn away from our sins, and what do we turn to instead? I think this is helpful to think about as a general rule in sermon preparation.

Use (several) everyday examples

Jesus used salt and light as an example. Everybody knows what salt and light are – it makes it easy to understand his point. Jesus illustrated complex, abstract points with simple, concrete things. I think this is a big challenge for me: I like to deal in fairly abstract ideas, it’s a lot harder to ground them in reality. This is one of the things Chip and Dan Heath say in Made to Stick. George Orwell wrote about this as far back as 1946 in “Politics and the English Language”. People can latch on to things which are concrete and specific, ideas and concepts can be harder to grasp.

The other thing is, Jesus often illustrates with several practical examples. In the passage I’m preaching on Sunday morning (Matthew 5:38-48), Jesus says: “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” – before giving no less than four practical examples of what that might look like.

One fairly short principle, followed by lots of very practical application. Quite a difference from my sermons.

Although we often focus on the content of Jesus’ teaching – rightly, of course – I think it’s good sometimes to take a step back and look at how Jesus taught. It’s something I know I need to bear in mind each time I preach. Am I showing people what obedience to God would look like – positively and negatively? And do I help ground what I’m saying in regular, everyday experience?