Recent sermon/lectures on Atheism: Is Religion Good? Is Religion True?

As a part of our 'Universe Next Door' series, just this week I spoke twice on the topic of atheism:

  1. Is Religion Good?

  2. Is Religion True? - includes Q&A

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Guest blogger: Get some historical perspective and be patient as we sort out doctrinal differences

Thanks to Laura Roberts, from Louisville, KY, for giving me permission to repost her Facebook Statue Update as a guest blog post:

You know, it's funny: those who study church history are often pretty philosophical about how long it took the church to settle disputes about this or that -- we say things like "only a generation" or "within the lifetime of" and things like that, which indicate 40, 50, 60 years. But so many of us are incredibly impatient about the disputes of the modern church, and so much more pessimistic, as though the disagreements we've had in the last 60 or so years spell disaster and doom.

Friends, let's try to remember: the earliest Christians were debating whether or not Jesus was God, surely a more fundamental issue than what some of our quarrels land on today, and they made it through, because GOD IS FAITHFUL and the preservation of his church is HIS JOB. If the folks in those first-century churches were kept, it was by God's power. He holds his own, and keeps them even when they are confused or in doubt -- praise God! We can contend for the gospel without being contentious, trusting that God will preserve his own people in the truth, and approaching all disagreements with a gospel philosophy, believing that God has saved and kept us in spite of our own blind spots.

A God who can save and keep both Philemon AND Onesimus, both Peter AND Paul, both Elizabeth AND the woman at the well, is a God who is able to save and keep the law-breaker and the law-truster, the conservative and the liberal, the traditionalist and the progressive -- perhaps even by making them more like one another, drawing them towards each other in life-giving love, crafting one new man out of the old, dead, divided one.

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Domestic abuse, headship and divorce

Julia Baird has published a couple of articles in the Sydney Morning Herald over the last few weeks, that suggest a link between the biblical doctrine of a husband's headship in marriage and domestic violence. The first piece, struck me as a bit unfair, seemingly without context, and making allegations about links without any justification from a 'growing number of theologians'.:

Submission is a Fraught Mixed Message for the Church

She has recently published a more measure piece that spells out ways in which Christians have sought to prevent abusive misapplication of the headship doctrine, while also sharing some actual stories of cases where the doctrine has been horribly misapplied:

Doctine of Headship a Distortion of the Gospel Message of Mutual Love and Respect.

Pity about the article headline which utterly perverts the message of the piece itself.

Domestic abuse is a horrible business. To hear people hijiack scriptural teaching to justify controlling, bullying, abusive behaviour is heartbreaking and provokes outrage in me. And to hear of women who feel scriptural obedience requires surrender to such destructive behaviours is awful. And then to know that church leaders and Christian communities have not treated this with great seriousness, is very very troubling.

Why would they do that? Rarely out of a thoughtful application of the Bible's teaching on marriage, I would think, honestly. Maybe well-intentioned, or uninformed, or highly-educated pastors with low emotional intelligence just not knowing the right advice to give? Maybe overly busy or even burnt out pastors who are disinclined to properly investigate - knowing that there's often more than two sides to any story? Maybe cultural factors of 'not wanting to get involved' and 'wanting people to work things out'? Whatever the reason, it's awful to think the church did not defend those in need of protection. I hope and pray that more churches are doing the right thing here than not!

1. A Couple of Related Pieces

In various Facebook threads I came across links to these two articles which were published 3 years prior:

By Amelia Schwarze on the Bible Society Website

By Phillip Jensen on The Briefing Website

2. How should we respond?

A couple of random bullet point questions - but I'd love your feedback:

  • Is there more training required for ministers and churches on understanding domestic violence?

  • Do we need to be more explicit and blunt about how separation-for-safety is a completely legitimate behaviour for partners in a Christian marraige?

  • Is a high view of marriage and a low view of divorce another big contributing factor to a tendency for some Christians to advise victims of abuse to stay in abusive marriage? Is the minority view that the Bible does not permit divorce and remarriage even in the case of unfaithfulness and abandonment an ever bigger contributing factor?

  • Is domestic abuse actually higher in complementarian Christian homes? Someone mentioned a study that found that domestic abuse was higher than average in the homes of irregular churchgoers, and lower than average in the homes regular churchgoers - I wonder?

  • Should our attitude to domestic abuse be 'zero tolerance'? That is, leave the house after the first instance and launch a full investigation at that point? It seems that Julia Baird would say anything other than zero tolerance is asontishing. John Piper on the other hand seems to think zero tolerance is not right. Thinking out loud on a very sensitive topic, but I wonder if there are unintended negative effects of a zero tolerance policy?

3. Some comments on defensiveness, repentance and reactions to media pieces

  • The reactions to these articles among my Christian Facebook friends have been all over the map. Some reacting to the unfair approach of Baird's first piece. Others focussing on the need for us to do more about domestic abuse. Others saying we need to admit we have a problem and do something.

  • But what is to be done? In one sense, Baird's article comes out of nowhere and changes nothing. What should have been done needed to be done before, and continues to need to be done. Reacting to a newspaper article with another newspaper article is not really the issue.

  • But of course newspaper articles give a voice to real problems and real pain. And as Baird's second article suggests, many people felt relieved that she has spoken out for them. So in this case, making sure we speak out for victims of domestic violence, in the various channels of broadcasting is one form of advocacy, and even one for of training and producing cultural change, that we can tackle.

  • Some people were criticised for being 'defensive' in reacting to Baird's first piece. If this is a problem we should stop defending ourselves and deal with the problem, they were told. I don't think that is healthy. A healthy, long-term solution is to deal with a problem with the internal resources of the church - and sloppy accusations about biblical doctrine don't motivate or equip the church to reform from within. That's why Baird's second article was helpful. In its more irenic tone, it was far more productive in moving the church to align its resources to care for the abused.

Love to hear your thoughts, ideas, suggestions, reactions and resources.

What denominations and movements are doing good stuff in this area?

What resources and organisations are out there that can help us?

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Mirrors 27th February 2015

  1. My recent sermon at Crossroads Presbyterian Church on The Existence of God.

  2. Fifteen reasons churches are not evangelistic. What do you think of this list?

  3. Rory Shiner says Providence Church is loving using 'Slack' to manage internal communications. I'm yet to be convinced. Reluctant to add another 'channel' for communication if email can just be harnessed better for the same outcome. Anyone else use it?

  4. Pete Ko helps church plant core team members understand and cope with the reality of Monday Morning Melancholy: You have an enemy, you have a body, you need the gospel.

  5. Steve Kryger suggests examples for how to better serve non-Christians with our church websites - how does your church website rate?

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A couple of things about lapel and kylie microphones while preaching

A few random bits and pieces, from a preacher and a congregation member, not a sound engineer:

  • Kylie mics look stupid but they are by far the best sound quality, avoid stormy noises and pops from breathing and saying 'P' into microphones.

  • Kylic mics are hard to position just right so they don't rattle around and get annoying.

  • If there is a sound engineer, don't feel embarrassed about asking them to set things up, including positioninig your kylie mic.

  • Make super sure it is muted before you join in congregational singing, a personal conversation or go to the toilet.

  • Feed microphone cords (for lapel or kylic mics) through your shirt - it looks yuck to have cords flopping all over you. And tuck excess cord into your pocket.

  • Get a kylie mic cord clipped onto the back of your shirt collar.

  • If you going to preach with a lapel mic, wear a shirt that has something it can neatly clip onto. Bunched-up t-shirt with mic clip makes me sad.

  • Wear a best and get the brick that a lapel mic gets plugged into strapped to the BACK of your belt. I don't know what women speakers do at this point.

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Big church is bad - What about big city? Big family? Big country? Big denomination?

Without a doubt there are all sorts of abuses unique to big churches, or easier to commit in big churches. And without a doubt some abuses become worse as the scale of the church grows.

So some people say that we should restrict the size of the church, to curb these abuses.

I wonder how this suggestion maps onto other things that get big? Because after all, one of the things that seems to mark the astonishing capcity of humanity (a part of our image bearing?) is about ability to build large organisations.

So should we limit the size of our denominations? Our cities? Our extended families? Our nations?

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Mirrors 16th January 2014

  1. Two sides to every story: an Islamic response to the Charlie Hebdo shootings - arguing that free speech always occurs within a particular cultural frame.

  2. There are some risks with digital storage that are greater than physical storage, when it comes to cinema archives.

  3. 100 years of population change in my home state of Tasmania.

  4. Al Bain reflects on this last year of preaching.

  5. Twitter for Business has a bunch of infographic rich articles about how to develop a social media strategy for your business (or church?).

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Mirrors 2nd January 2015

  1. I can't remember if I've linked to this or not: Kevin de Young provides an interesting 16th Century Scottish ruling that mums and babies should not attend church. An interesting counter-balance to the argument that we should keep all our kids in church services!

  2. This formula for paying a guest preacher is just bizarre from an Australian Reformed evangelical point of view.

  3. A forum from the recent PAX conference on religion and computer games. My friend Jason Imms is on this panel.

  4. Fun tool on cultural differences and working relationships.

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Mirrors 5th December 2014

  1. The unexpected challenges of the mission field: the challenges of furlough, downward mobility and others.

  2. Different glasses we can use to read the Bible: Dave's checklist is a good one to keep with your sermon prep materials and would provide a good series of workshops of preachers-in-training.

  3. What are reasons NOT to plant a church? Here are 9 reasons. I don't think the author makes a water-tight case, but does raises issues worth thinking through!

  4. An interesting interview between Mark Dever and Ken Mbugua about Chrisitanity in Kenya. It underlines the importance of providing solid theological training.

  5. Are you in sleep debt?

  6. Looks like a very helpful resource on caring for and ministering to homosexuals.

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Plateau church - 90-160 people

I think this captures the experience of many many churches I know:

Overgrown Small Church Style

The Plateau Church is an interesting church size. These churches are often called "Medium-sized" churches and have between ninety and one hundred and sixty in average attendance. They are called "plateau" because they are in many ways stuck between being small membership and large membership churches.

Plateau churches are uncertain of their identity, because they are caught between the relationship focus of the small church and the activity focus of the larger church. Their pastor is often busy being a repairperson or a gardener. The pastor is always pulling weeds, because they grow as soon as the back is turned. There is always something to fix whether it be relationships or hardware. There are always many small fires to be put out. A Plateau Church is often beyond the work of one pastor, but there are rarely the funds for additional professional staff. Burn-out is common among clergy and lay leaders for they are afraid to walk away for a few minutes because some other fire will crop up to be put out! The lay people and leaders in these congregations need to learn how to throw water on fires instead of gasoline.

Another characteristic of the Plateau Church is the development of small groups. This is one of the areas that will help the church move toward an activity focus like the medium church. Some members want to be nurtured through small groups, while others will want to be nurtured by personal pastoral care. Some want both! These churches often vacillate between the personal pastoral care and the activity focus. They will move upward or downward (neither is good or bad) on the type of church they are based on the focus (relationship or activity) of the day. They have a common problem that has to do with a growth barrier. They grow, hit the barrier and fall back again and again. They become larger than one person can handle for pastoral care and soon someone feels "not cared for" and average attendance drops back to a comfortable place for one-person-pastoral care. This will happen repeatedly over a period of years. People are aware of it but usually can not explain it.

Nicknames for these churches are Garden or House. There is always something to do, whether weeding or dusting and the work never really seems to get done!

From here.

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Movies, transcendence and love

I saw 3 movies recently about advanced intelligence, one ordinary film, one great fun film and one true masterpiece:

  1. Transcendence

  2. Lucy

  3. Her

All of them presented us with the gradually advancing intelligences. And part of the gradual advance of these intelligences was their distancing from human interest, passion and sympathy. It's a pretty common theme in science fiction in one way or another: that the more transcendent a personality becomes, the less concerned it will become with human affairs, and usually the less moral and compassionate.

This theme was especially refreshing in 'Her'. Here we find a subversion of the machines-take-over-the-world theme. Why would advanced machines be at all interested in the world? What interest would they have in taking it over?

All of this contrasts dramatically with the Christian revelation of God. The most transcendent and advanced of all intelligences is also compassionate and engaged wiht the affairs of human beings. Our God does not leave the issues of morality and compassion behind in his sublime state, but rather, God is light and God is love.

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Mirrors 10th October 2014

  1. I've been preaching through John chapter 1-5 at the Uni Fellowship of Christians this semester. You can listen to my sermons here.

  2. This article outlines the characteristics of how people think about sexual morality in the Western world today. These are the things we need to counteract in our discipleship, and interact with in our evangelism and cultural engagement: 1) Sexual acts don't have intrinsic meaning/purpose 2) Sexuality is subjective and intrinsic to our identity 3) Sexual agents are autonomous, rights-bearing individuals 4) Freely given consent is the watchword of sexual ethics 5) Beyond prevention of harm, seuxality should be free from constraint and stigma.

  3. A good fun 9 Marks podcast on how Mark Dever thinks about raising up leaders.

  4. A child welfare article on the positive impact fathers have on a child's wellbeing.

  5. I like this rule of thumb, from Dave Moore: being up the front of a meeting adds 10% of boring to you.

  6. Nathan Campbell's 10 tips on how to approach talking about sexuality as Christians.

  7. The different ways to use SMS, social media and email in ministry among young adults. I largely agree with Dave Moore's breakdown... although I work hard to train young adults to use email well, because they will have to in their working lives, so why not start in church life? It seems 'biblical productivity' is an aspect of discipleship in our electronic world.

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Ushers table, info desk and action tables

When it comes to hard copy information, our ministries are often in a muddle. We often don't have all the information we need, or it looks bad, or it's out of date, or we have too much irrelevant information, or it's in the wrong place. We probably do all of those things.

Here are some thoughts to sharpen up the way we make hard copy information available during our church gatherings and other ministry meetings:

1. Ushers table

This is the table exclusively for the things that everyone needs to be given, or at least offered, when they arrive. This is not for all the random promotional material. This is for the 'gold status' promotional stuff: the stuff you want to put in everyone's hands:

  • Bible and pen

  • contact card

  • whole church conference

  • weekly bulletin and songsheet

  • important budget update

  • upcoming mission event flier

  • newcomers guide, for newcomers

The great thing about keeping this separate from other kinds of information is that you can really sharpen up the main things you really want to promote, rather than overwhelming people with everything.

The important thing with the usher table (as with all the desks and tables in this post) is that the ushers actually put the stuff into people's hands. Don't leave it alone, you risk people walking by and not grabbing the necessary materials.

2. Information Desk

The stuff that is not for everyone to take for that specific meeting, should be put on a separate desk. This is the general information hub. The other materials you want to draw people's attention to, as it is relevant to them:

  • mission partners updates

  • events that you want to promote but are not high priority

  • detailed information on the church and its programs for people who want to find out more

  • books

Depending on how big your church or ministry is, you may have multiple information desks, for different ministries - for example a kids ministry info desk.

A few things are important here:

  • like the usher table, it needs to be manned, so we can actually interact with, and help people, who are looking at stuff... but it is a bit more like a retail sales assistance - offer help, but don't impose.

  • this can have more stuff on it than an usher table should, but still keep it clean, up to date and not over-crowded. I have noticed that often the smaller and more stagnant a church is, the more junk they have on their info table!

  • put your key 'about our church' and 'how to become a Christian' stuff front and centre.

  • put it somewhere that will help newcomers be able to hide-by-browsing. Generally that means near to doors and exits, so they don't feel trapped.

3. Action table

Finally, there's the place where people can go to take concrete actions: sign up for a newcomers night, register for a church camp, express interest in joining a small group.

This is more narrow than the information table in the sense that it is a call to action. It is not just general information. It may not necessarily even be a table at all, there are other ways of doing it, or multiple approaches you can use simulatenously:

  • it could all be done by filling out contact cards

  • it could be done with roving volunteers with clipboards

If there's anything you are going to make sure is always manned, then this is it. And ideally the people who man it are the people who are interested in the actions: if you have 'join a small group' on the table, then have some of your small group leaders there.

This action table may change or rotate its content over the year, depending on what the key next actions are. But there are some things that will be fairly constant.

It should definitely be near the main entry/exit... but this may be the after-church exit: in the main tea hall/social area. You may even need them in two places.

The power of the action table is that it doesn't rely on people knowing people, or having to initiate talk with strangers. And it also helps both the appointed volunteers and regular members broach the topic of next steps, in a more obvious manner.

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Expose ministry apprentices to great leaders and great opportunities

It can be easily, the longer you train apprentices, to slowly build a ministry machine into which they fit. They have their roles and you provide your curriculum.

But this is not the way to train great leaders.

Some people try to compensate for this by giving apprentices free reign in some area. They are given a blank canvas ministry opportunity. An open field to run (or build or farm) in. And this can help promote initiative and risk. But can also sometimes feel a bit artificial.

Another, complementary option is to deliberately build into their training 'exposure to great':

  • Find ways to get them meeting with, learning from, working with, helping and watching great leaders. Get them out of your ministry hierarchy, and get them sitting in on important skype meetings with important leaders, get them assist in planning the whole ministry program or strategy. Send them off for a season to work with a church planter.

  • Find ways to get them doing great things - far bigger and more demanding than a 'mere apprenticeship' might require. And rather than just throwing them in the deep end, commit a higher level of training, supervision and support than you normally give them in their regular duties.

This is especially the case if you perceive you have been entrusted by Christ with an exceptionally gifted ministry apprentice. You need to really stretch, grow, prepare and envision them during their time training with you.

Can you share examples of how you've done this?

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Andrew Heard’s critique of John Dickson’s ‘Hearing Her Voice’

Link to the PDF, hosted on Lionel Windsor's site.

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Evangelical liturgy: interviewing the guest preacher

One quaint bit of evangelical liturgy that comes up at conference events and even evangelical events, is the requirement that we do a 5 minute interview with the preacher before they preach.

There's nothing wrong with that. But there's something wrong with getting into a rut that assumes you have to do it. And there are a few reasons why you might not do it:

  1. It takes up time - especially in a full-program conference, using up time on a 5 minute interview is stealing time from the sermon.

  2. It introduces the preacher with off-the-cuff comments rather than their prepared introduction. I'd rather my first words of engagement and connection with the congregation be the carefully planned engaging words I've written, rather than the impromptu answers to getting to know you questions.

  3. It assumes that the 'real you' is your hobbies and family and minsitry experience. These are part of who the preacher is. But more fundamentally they are a child of God and a preacher of the gospel. And this is the main thing they are in front of us for.

  4. Building on this, implies we must have a 'friendship' connection with the preacher before they can preach to us. Now there are gospel principles that might lead us to choose to 'humanise' the preacher - for sure! And at the same time, we don't need them to talk make a couple of jokes and talk about their bicycle to show them to be humble and human.

  5. It relies on the preacher being a good interiew subject. Not all great preachers are great at public interviews or great at Q&A.

  6. It often lowers the event to a jokesy, folksy tone, right before the proclamation of the word.

  7. There are other perfectly adequate alternatives: a bio in the booklet, personal illustrations in the sermons, a brief introduction by the event MC.

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Lone Survivor, SAS Training and Ministry Training

Nikki and I saw Lone Survivor the other day. Brutal. Such powerful filmaking that it stopped the jingoism from ruining it.

At the start there's this brutal 'found footage' of Navy SEAL boot camp (a far cry from hot young things in lycra jogging in a local park - or church planters eating pastry and attending plenary sessions in a conference centre!). Harrowing experience. Who does this?

Some say the best ministry training should be like SAS or Navy SEAL training: to be the best you need to just be thrown in the deep end and be able to survive without too much hand holding. The idea is that too much pampering won't produce the kind of people we really need.

I kind of like that. I get it.

And at the same time, it's gotta be said: the people who survive in these kind of elite teams are ALREADY highly trained. In order to get in, and in order to surivive in them, you need to already be extremely capable.

So yes, we need to throw people in the deep end. But this is not a substitute for training and preparation. It is one element of larger process of skill and character formation.

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Mark Driscoll and Mars Hill removed from Acts 29 membership


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Gideons, doctrinal bases and the textus receptus ESV

I did a little bit of reading about the Gideons recently. I got Rocky Racoon stuck in my head as a result.

They have a curious doctrinal basis. It doesn't touch a whole lot of topics, but a few ones that in their focus and wording mark out the particular cultural background to the movement:

"The Gideons International is a diverse association in that our members come from many Protestant denominations with a common interest in spreading the gospel of Jesus Christ. All Gideons also hold important core beliefs:

The Bible is the inspired, infallible, inerrant Word of God.

The Lord Jesus Christ is the eternal Son of God.

Members must also:

Have received Jesus as their personal Savior.

Endeavor to follow Him in their daily lives.

Be members in good standing in their Protestant/evangelical churches.

Have the recommendation of their pastors."

They also emphasise belief in "the endless lake of fire for the unsaved" and the resolve to "follow Christ in your daily life".

What is good about these brief doctrinal markers? What is lacking?

They distributed the NKJV for a long time. But they have recently moved to the ESV. But it turns out they have a peculiar attachment to the Textus Receptus, and so the ESV publishers have produced a special Gideons version.

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I work as a home missionary for AFES, working at the Univeristy of Tasmania in Hobart. Like all missionaries, my ongoing work is funded through ministry partners.

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