A few notes on postmodernism

I have been doing an excellent free Open Learning Course by Monash University professor in French studies Christopher Watkin on the topic "Postmodernism and the Bible: Understanding Derrida and Foucault". Great to have this kind of Christian academic thinking happening in Australia!

Here are a string of half-thoughts that I've tweeted out as I've gone through the course material:

  1. People with complex & impenetrable theological theories say "You haven't  understood me properly." This seems like a kind of gaslighting: They say one thing, then deny they meant it and call you foolish.... until eventually you doubt your own mind and submit to them.
  2. Pondering the irony of how structuralism/post-structuralism removed confidence in language... but boosted confidence in knowing motives/fantasies of speakers.
  3. Derrida asserts that a philosophy of ‘diffĂ©rance’ is not a ‘negative theology’. I’m not convinced. Seems like it to me.
  4. A Christian philosopher's summary of Derrida's ethics. He doesn't say 'It's all relative'
  5. From my lecturer: the ethics of Derrida & Levinas is seeking how a philosophy without God can make sure the Holocaust can never happen again.
  6. The irony of postmodern politics: You accept that hidden power structures shape society beyond conscious human intention... so then you try to police those hidden power structures with conscious human intention.

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Mirrors 28th April 2017

  1. The management feedback model gone toxic
  2. In their typical world-weary way, @firstthingsmag discuss M. Pence & women at 33 minutes. I largely agree with them.
  3. Michael Jensen says 1) Xns still have lots of social power 2) We should be following The Benedict Option regardless 
  4. Hebrews 9:16-17 is referring to confirming covenants with God by sacrifice, not enacting wills by death of testator
  5. Calvin: The forms of our church life exist to give decency and order. They are ‘arbitrary’ in the sense of not fixed. But these forms of church must never be infused with religious obligation or compared to the worship of God. forms for church are ’merely’ for common help. Still, it’s right to submit to them if they accord with Bible. Institutes 4.10.27-32
  6. Some good advice on encouraging people to be more engaged with weekly church attendance.But the slippery slope argument ‘If ppl attend church less than weekly now what’ll happen in 10rs’? Isn’t strong. I suspect there’s more to this: social change, inaccurate nostalgia, more holistic church life, less rigidity.
  7. A reply to the Gospel Coalition article about church attendance. Thanks Stephen McAlpine.

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Clarity about the gospel mission

What is our distinct mission as Christians? What should concern us uniquely as the people of God in these last days?

At our AGM the Vision 100 Network committee adopted, with a slight addition, the new Geneva Push doctrinal basis as an expanded expression of the the doctrine that unites us as a network (see http://ift.tt/2qgPo1d)

We wanted something with a bit more depth, to clarify matters of primary and secondary importance that spell out both our understanding of the fundamentals of the gospel and the realities, consequences and responibilities surrounding the gospel.

I want to quote and reflect on the section entitled ‘The Mission’:

As God's redeemed people there are many important duties and good deeds he has prepared for us to do. However the mission that we are explicitly and uniquely called to and entrusted with is to making disciples of all nations. Christlikeness will include growing in a desire to see all people saved.

We believe that the gospel should be urgently proclaimed to all people so that through the preaching of God’s word by the power of God’s Spirit all people might believe and be saved.

Good deeds provide opportunities for evangelism, they dictate the conduct of the evangelist, they are the necessary and inevitable fruit of genuine conversion and so they commend the gospel to our hearers. But they remain distinct if rarely separate, from the gospel preaching mission itself.

First of all, this item recognises there is more to the Christian life than evangelism.

The many duties of God’s people

There is more to the Christian life than evangelism and edification, prayer and praise. Because although the mission is important, it’s not the entirety of our duties to God and our neighbour. God calls us to love him with our whole selves and live lives of self-denying love to our neighbours 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

Christian teaching is about the formation of a Christian worldview. Christian discipleship is all of life discipleship. Our worship of God touches every area of our existence and has relevance to every corner of our world.

The unique mission of God’s people

Among these many duties and opportunities is a distinct and unique mission: the preaching of the saving work of Jesus Christ to all nations. Proclamation of the gospel, and supporting its proclamation has a special centrality and importance for God, and so for God’s people.

So important is our obedience to Christ in the advance of the gospel, that blessings of God’s world are rightly forsaken and good deeds left undone.

The mission is rarely on its own

The relationship between evangelism and good deeds is complex. We often get opportunities to share the gospel in the context of charity or hospitality. So also our credibility is boosted, or damaged by the purity and integrity of our lives.

There are some occasions where gospel proclamation occurs almost in isolation, such as more broadcast forms of evangelism. But normally evangelism and good deeds occur together.

The mission is distinct

Nevertheless, while gospel mission and godly love belong together, and influence and fuel each other, they remain distinct. Gospel preaching is a distinct thing from things that are the good and even necessary consequences of gospel preaching.

Our duty to make disciples of all nations can and should be understood, discussed and pursued with careful clarity and distinction from other possible Christian activity.

And so Christian programs of education, family life, political or economic structure, artistic expression, legislative reform or charitable effort must not be given the conceptual or spiritual imperative of the Great Commission. Although should be affected by our mission, they are not in themselves our mission.

The outer boundaries of discipleship

In the broadest possible sense, of course, as we make disciples and teach them to obey everything, we teach them to worship God with their whole lives and this touches on all these other areas. Absolutely! So perhaps an additional distinction is needed: there outer boundaires of discipleship that are less clearly black and white, less foundational, and not always necessary for us all to explore. These are the wisdom areas where our disciple-making mission should rightly give the tools to explore, but where we are unable to be as concentrated and dogmatic.

That is, there may are many other things, indeed urgent and important things that grab our attention and draw us to action: matters on a personal, local, national and global scale; ranging from moral, political, cultural, ideological, economic and environmental matters. As Christians we will seek to respond to this things shaped and motivated by our faith. And we may well differ on the best goal, the most appropriate response and the relative importance of these matters.

But while we may differ on some of these matters, what brings us together with a shared commitment and conviction is the wonderful truth of the saving death and resurrection of Christ and the duty and privilege to preach it to a lost world. This is the gospel agenda of God’s people.

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A few notes on power and problematic things

  1. Just because something could plausibly be explained by a framework of power or desire doesn't make this explanation the right one.
  2. A group or person may lose the 'right' to the dominant view on a topic. But it's not true to say "You have no right to comment on this".
  3. Something can be 'problematic' without it necessarily being a Problem.
  4. A word or act can be possibly expressive of a greater abuse of power or corrupt desire, but this doesn't make it as bad (or necessarily bad).
  5. There's something cruel & vengeful about saying someone has no right to suffering if they have previously been (or still are) privileged.

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Analysis of the dangers that lie in Christian ministry ambition

In a great section of Col Marshall and Tony Payne's The Vine Project they say "one of the culture changes that many churches need is a revolution in their level of gospel ambition. Putting it baldly, we need to think big." They make a biblical case for gospel ministry 'ambition'. Yes!

But then they have a few really searching paragraphs that analyse the dangers for finite and sinful people in gospel ministry ambition:

There are of course dangers in thinking big. There’s the credibility danger of creating disillusionment in the congregation by setting some pie-in-the-sky goal that we’ll never achieve. And if we talk big but act small (like not providing for more people on Sunday, or not equipping ministry leaders), then no-one will believe us. 

There are also spiritual dangers in having ambitious plans:

  • you might begin to lust for the glory and reputation that accrues to the minister of a large and growing church
  • you might be tempted to build a feel-good, people-pleasing ministry in order to attract the crowds
  • you might start to treat people like objects, and lose the compassionate inefficiency that leaves the 99 in order to seek after the one
  • you might start exaggerating or fudging the facts to protect your credibility (i.e. by making out that goals are being achieved when they’re not)
  • you might fall into the unprincipled pragmatism that follows any ministry method that ‘gets results’. 

(Page 300, emphasis mine)

'Compassionate inefficiency' is a lovely turn of phrase, isn't it? But the whole thing is spot on. It's helpful to take the time to list these various temptations and corruptions like this. Rather than careless and general warnings, this kind of specificity is really shocking in a good way.

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Mirrors 23rd April 2017

  1. An unrequired love letter to the lost rollerbladers of Brisbane. Nothing to do with 'Christian Reflections' particularly.
  2. Do I lead my ministry/organisation in such a way that it won’t be too bad if I left? Awesome article
  3. Simone Richardson responding to the Twitter hashtag #ThingsOnlyChristianWomenHear. I like how she categorises 4 different types of quote, it makes it a lot easier to hear when quite different things aren't conflated in one stream. I do wonder, regarding 'category 1': what IS the acceptable way to talk about modesty in dress?. And with category 2, I'd suggest it's not just 'wrong view of highest callings' but sometimes rather an 'over-extension of right view recognition of very common calling'.
  4. Nathan Campbell tells us how we can like Frozen BETTER.
  5. John Calvin on Christian liberty (Institutes III.XIX) could have been written yesterday. Still so wise, insightful and pastorally sharp.

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One of the first books on church planting I ever read

Is there anything more gross than this?

It's almost so disgusting it's cool again. It's one of the first books on church planting I ever read. Back in 1999 or something, when Limp Biskit and Korn were considered to be a good idea and every Christian Union in the country was doing Matrix-themed evangelistic sermons. Evidently I thought there was something good on page 33 and 41.

It seems you can still buy the book from Koorong.

I found the book thrilling: it laid out the need for new churches and steps to starting one. It gave warnings about things that could get in the way of a new church thriving and advice on how to help it grow.

I also found the book boring, for the same kinds of reasons I still find church planting plans boring: stuff about demographics and finances. Kill me now. But it also provided a fairly simple way to think about those things.

Thinking about it now, there are clearly things that are dated, just because culture and technology have changed.

But also most of it is the same as every book on church planting since. In the end you figure out what you're going to do, gather people, and do it!

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Mirrors 14th April 2017

Happy Easter!

  1. Join me in Sydney on 22/5 to discuss a super important topic: 'Living well in God's creation, or dying to self in the last days?'
  2. My @ufc_utas sermon on Hebrews 10:19-39
  3. I've started a podcast about rollerblading :-P
  4. The Gospel Coalition Australia is going to do a series of posts on Tim Dreher's book on the Benedictine Option. Here's the first installment.

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Repost: Creating Ownership (October 2007)

[Update: The Vision 100 IT Team has indeed grown in ownership and momentume in the 10 years since this was posted. What helped build ownership?

  1. Quarterly 'sprints' getting everyone together to drink V and hang out and get a big chunk of work done in the same space.
  2. Giving people unique 'projects' to own within the wider team
  3. Raising the standards of team members and holding people to account: better a smaller team with high ownership than a bigger team with dead weight

If you want cheap, consistent, ongoing IT help targets at small to medium sized churches and committed to mobilising volunteers, then contact it@vision100.org]


I'm currently overseeing an inter-church IT group. It's a good idea, but I'm not doing an awesome job.

It was a reaction against our small churches having disorganised IT. It goes like this: a whole lot gets done by an over-eager volunteer. Then no-one updates the content. And they get a job interstate. And the domain name is not renewed. And only one person can do the tech support. And. And. And.

We are now much more organised... and are also very unmotivated.

So I'm now trying to think how to, with little available time and energy to inspire and energise the team. Should I send them out to dinner together? Should we take on some mammoth, technically demanding task? Should blow it all up and start again?

I like the idea of us being a virtual IT community, with minimal time wasted on meetings. But the reality is, I think, that if you want high degrees of ownership and empowerment you need to have a human face. You need to be letting down Mikey, not letting down an internet mailing list.

Also, to have a high degree of ownership you need to feel in control and in charge. So the challenge is to correct against the over-correction. I need to let our IT guys get excited about something and make a mess of things... without going to the extremes of old and without controlling them too much.

In the end, I need to channel some of that energy into getting them excited about doing the routine things I want them to do.

And I don't want to put too much energy into this particular group, because I am a preacher and an evangelist, not an IT manager. And I want a pony. And a laser gun. And I want Mark Driscoll to be our associate minister. And I want a gigantic water slide.

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Mirrors 12th April 2017

Forgot to post this last Friday — sorry!

  1. Michael Jensen exegetes the first two songs of Ok Computer by Radiohead.
  2. Gnostic liberalism: if you separate personhood from creatureliness you end up with ethical problems 
  3. Pilgrim's Progress appeals to children because it's kind of not quite suitable for them. It's suitably unsuitable
  4. I feel like this article over-corrects, while saying some good things about Mike Pence and the Billy Graham Rule
  5. Love the stuff on publicity in this article, which also talks positively about the Billy Graham Rule
  6. Short round table discussion about the beauty of gender complementarianism 
  7. Wow! Al Mohler battles Bryan Chappell on young earth creationism. Great model of gracious disagreement!
  8. "“Complaining to you allows your daughter to bring the best of herself to school. Instead of being rude or aggressive toward peers or teachers at school, your daughter contains her irritation and waits until she is safely in your company to express it.” A helpful parenting article.

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Topics for training MTS apprentices or for conference workshops

I stumbled across a crusty old list of training ideas for MTS apprentice training. I don't think I'd looked at the list for years, but it is a pretty good list. This is the kind of stuff you can do with a ministry apprentice (see more at mts.com.au) or even as the topic for a workshop at a conference. Here's what it has:

  • Basic reading a Bible passage and discussing it together — at an MTS apprentice level.
  • Discuss people you are ministering to (Christian, young Christian, trainee):
    • What are you doing with them? What can you do for them practically? What can you learn from them? Where are they at spiritually? What's the next step forward for them? How might you help them get there?
  • Contact evangelism: as above
  • Do some cold contact evangelism and then debrief on it.
  • Adopt a book of the Bible for a long period of time and study, discuss and read other books about this book. Listen to and critique sermons on this book. Whenever you have to do any Bible teaching stuff, try to do it from this book.
  • Assess what role prayer has in your life and ministry.
  • Check in on progress of reading whole Bible.
  • Write and review a reading list of Christian, nonfiction and fiction books.
  • Saying the Hard Things that need to be said.
  • Ministry of the pew
  • Different learing styles
  • Critique different religions
  • Ministry training philosophy and principles
  • The doctrine of the atonement
  • The doctrine of predestination
  • Getting Things Done
  • 7 Habits of Highly Effective People
  • Manager Tools
  • Duty of Care and Work Health and Safety and Privacy
  • Basics of managing finances for a ministry
  • Ecclesiology
  • How to do one to one ministry
  • How to lead small groups
  • How to do follow up
  • Review different evangelistic courses
  • Men and women in ministry
  • Work in a team
  • DiSC profile/Myers-Briggs
  • Friendship in ministry
  • When something's worth doing it's worth doing badly — when it's right to take shortcuts
  • Counselling
  • Church size barriers
  • Ministry to children, youth, young adults, mothers, workers, middle-aged, elderly, sick
  • Music ministry
  • Diaconal ministry
  • Sexual ethics
  • Church and culture
  • Political theology
  • Biblical theology and systematic theology
  • Visit other churches and critique
  • Why plant churches
  • Rest and holidays and pacing yourself
  • Gospel-driven godliness
  • Church discipline
  • Exegesis — perhaps using something like How to read the Bible for all it's worth
  • Politics and the English language
  • Denominational distinctives: even attend a denominational meeting
  • Time use assessment (write down every half hour for 1 working week how you are spending your time and then analyse)
  • Delegation
  • Coaching
  • Reflect on your trainer's ministry style
  • Preacing, clarity, gesture, posture, vocal use, illustrations, rhetoric
  • New Testament Greek
  • Post college plans
  • Christian heresies
  • Science and faith
  • Technology and ministry

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Mirrors 31st March 2017

  1. A Christian philosopher's summary of Derrida's ethics. He doesn't say 'It's all relative'.
  2. To get why Lorna Jane has those slogans or why movie characters make those decisions you need to get existentialism. My sermon-lecture from last year.
  3. Des Smith sermon on Using the Bible in Ministry 
  4. A well written article showing how a Christian kid who understood the faith lost the faith
  5. Don't overstate or totally deny the experience of Christians being persecuted in America (or Australia) 
  6. Craig Tucker on scaling up leadership
  7. The 1st episode of Alpha ends with a sustained 'pitch' to come back & do the whole course. I think my and most ministries I know generally rush our 'come back' pitch. It's a big decision, we need to reason with people about it.
  8. "It seems ridiculous to me for Christians to call for a boycott or removal of a character based on their sexual preference .... It communicates that anyone who’s attracted to ppl of the same sex is not... even welcome  in the world Christians inhabit." from Following Phoebe

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Reply to “God and the problem of sincere disbelief”

A friend of mine shared this article with me and a few others this morning. I thought it was a great read. A sad and real story. It was clearly written by someone who had lived among the kind of Christians I am and I know and I love. It did a fair job at representing Christians in a generous and faithful way, as the author sees and hears and understands it. I have friends whom this guy reminds me of: people who know enough about Christianity, and care enough about Christians, to want to speak well of it.

It struck me how honest this guy was about the grief and complicatedness of falling away:

I didn't want to lose my faith. It hurt, a lot

The opening line of novelist Julian Barnes' book Nothing To Be Frightened Of has stuck with me since I first read it almost a decade ago:

I don't believe in God, but I miss him.

And again:

My family has never been anything less than loving towards me, but there have been plenty of times when I've wished I could go to church with them and not feel like an imposter. When I've wished I could say "amen" during grace at a family dinner and actually mean it. When I've wished I could answer my parents' prayers that their prodigal son would return. And most of all, when I've wished I still had the comfort of knowing God is looking out for me.

But what I wanted to reflect on is the two central points this article makes. Two reated things that he found increasingly implausible, that can be summed up in one setence: That not all unbelievers are wicked and purposeful in their unbelief.

First, having grown up in the church he was shocked to find many unbelievers were good people. And second, he was shocked to find they were ambivalent and unpersuaded about the existence of God and the gospel of Jesus.

A few thoughts:

  1. The Bible does sometimes speak in simplistic black and white terms: In apocalyptic literature, the New Testament letters and the teaching of Jesus we are given a sharp distinction between the children of God and the children of the devil, those who love light and those who love darkness. These black and white descriptions remind us that there is one fundamental issue that ultimately defines our lives: whether or not we have faith. Faith upholds us despite our failings. And without faith, even our most noble deeds fall far short. But the Bible doesn't only speak in simplistic black and white terms.
  2. If we only speak in black and white terms, young people will find Christianity increasingly implausible: The Bible also recognises how most evil human fathers seek to give good gifts to their children, that misguided Isarelites are zealous for God (but their zeal is not based on knowledge), that tax collectors love those who love them and so on. The Bible tells stories of the faithful doing wicked things, and the wicked doing noble things which put the faithful to shame (Abraham and Abimelech in Genesis 20 for example). If young people are only ever fed a diet of 'Christ vs Culture', where The World is demonised in simplistic, cartoonish terms, where no subtlety or nuance or disclaimer is ever uttered — then they will get a shock when they go to university. For they will discover this sub-biblical perspective doesn't match the real world.
  3. If our churches and our families are so coccooned from non-Christians that our kids never interact meaningfully with non-Chrsitians then they will get a shock once they make a friend or two at uni. Thoughtful, gracious but truthful and faithful interaction with real non-Christians will help young people in Christian homes see the gospel truly and clearly and give them confidence that it has something great to say, even to the good, nice, open-minded and intelligent unbeliever.
  4. We need to be clear that Christians can do bad things and atheists do good things. I don't know who's to blame here, the Christian community, or deliberate misunderstanding: probably both. But it is not true to say that Christians are always good people and atheists are always bad people. Christians are forgiven sinners, and while we are regenerated and gradually sanctified, we are not yet glorified and perfected. And atheists remain God's image bearers capable of good and noble things. Many hold to religions and philosophies with high moral ideals. The Bible nowhere teaches that everything Christians do is always good, or that everything atheists do is always bad. Nor does it teach that any given Christian will be morally superior to any given atheist.
  5. We need to spell out the relationship between morality and Christianity and atheism. There is an argument about the relationship between morality, Christianity and atheism, but it is more subtle. It is often misrepresented by academics and punters alike. Perhaps this should tell us we need to be more careful and clear in how we express it? The true argument is: while atheists may do good things, they don't have a consistent philosphical basis for this. On the other hand, when Christians do good things, they do so for very solid religious and philosophical reasons. To put it simply: while Christians don't always act morally, when they do, they are being consistent with their religious beliefs. And the inverse is true: while atheists don't always act immorally, when they do they are not being inconsistent with their atheism.
  6. Condemnation is not in the first place for failure to believe the gospel, but for original rebellion against God, and everything that comes after. A pretty common question runs like this: Why would God send someone to hell for not believing in him? But this question fails to recognise that while there is an additional guilt that comes on those who refuse salvation, this is not our primary guilt before God. We are not guilty for failing to believe in Jesus or even for failing to believe in the existence of God. It is not as if we were all on a neutral moral footing until God decided that he wanted everyone to believe in him, or Jesus or whatever. Rather, we are all, as a unified human race, guilty as rebels before God, in Adam. And even if this is hard to believe, surely even the author of this article would agree that all human beings do plenty of evil in their lifetime? God's gospel and command to believe in Christ comes to us as already guilty people. To reword the question shows how odd it is: "Why would God not save someone who refuses to accept God's offer of salvation?"
  7. Responsibility does not rest solely on each individual being rationally convinced. The article develops a variation on this question about unbelief. Because it says:

It always seemed unconscionable to me that someone could be denied salvation not because of a moral failing, but because they simply disagreed about the evidence for God.

This is where we need to be clear that our condemnation does not depend on individual persuasion. This is clearer if you think about moral guilt: Even if someone claimed that they were unconvinced that murder was wrong, we would hold them guilty if they killed another human being. Morality doesn't require consent to be binding on an individual! So also, God's reality, and our guilt before him, doesn't vanish because we are not sure he's there.

You see we inherit more from Adam than just a share in his guilt and a sinful nature and a mortal body. We are all born into a human society whose ideologies and social patterns make faith and obedience to God implausible or undesirable in various ways. And the mercy of God doesn't just overcome our hard hearts and guilty consciences, but also needs to correct our distorted thinking! Just as God needs to work providentially to ensure I get to hear the gospel spoken, he also needs to work to enable me to be able to give it a hearing.

It is true that the Bible teaches that we reject God because of sin. But it does not follow that this sin is crassly selfaware and defiant. Sin may have set up a whole orientation of life in which I reject God. I have been born into a life that loves darkness on this fundamental level, so that I don't want to come into the light... but I might not even consciously think of 'the light' as light at all!

8. Is talking about the role of sin in unbelief an ad hominem attack? That's what the author of this article claims. That to talk about how unbelief is ulitmately the result of sin is an ad hominem attack. This would be the case if Christians used it as a  justification to not give reasons for their faith or interact with the questions and challenges of unbelievers. But what have I been donig for this whole blog post? And I have no doubt that the author has also encountered plenty of rational arguments for Christian belief. 

But the author is claiming that any mention of sin as a cause for unbelief is an 'ad hominem attack'. But an ad hominem attack is not in and of itself illegitimate. If it is the sum total of an argument, a refusal to deal with substantive issues then an ad hominem argument is a fallacy. If it is pointing to an irrelevant aspect of a person to discredit their arguments, then it is a fallacy. But if one is discussing the various reasons why an individual might hold a belief, it is perfectly legitimate. Because one is no longer simply discussing the merits of the idea in abstract, one is discussing the reasons a particular person holds to a belief. It is naive to think that people form most of their beliefs for purely rational reasons. In fact people can hold true beliefs for inadequate and incorrect reasons, and false beliefs for rational reasons!


A great article, encourage some good reflection, don't you think?

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Repost: Why does Hebrews quote from the Psalms so much? (January 2013)

A strange thing about Hebrews is that the author loves quoting from the Pslams. More than that, he often uses a Pslam to help interpret other parts of the Bible - for example Psalm 95 used to understand Sabbath and creation rest, or Pslam 40 used to interpret the sacrificial system or Psalm 110 to interpret Melchizedek.

Why the Psalms? I often think of it as a more poetic, subjective book, with some great (isolated) prophetic moments, rather than a major hermeneutical key to the Bible.

As I pondered this here are four thoughts:

  1. Hebrews has very much a ‘Son’ theology. And if you want to unpack who the Son is and what he does, Pslams is a very important place to go. It is not just the songbook of Israel. It is the songbook of the Son.
  2. Connected with this, perhaps we could say that whereas Paul might interpret the OT through the grid of the promise to Abraham, Hebrews complements this by interpreting the OT through the grid of the uniqueness of the Son.
  3. Of course Pslams should be a key hermeneutical point: it comes at the high point of the Old Testament - the manifestation of the OT ‘kingdom of God’. As a result it is natural that in the Pslams we will both find much (typological) information about God’s work.
  4. And since the Pslams comes at the high point of the OT we also ought to expect to find the OT types begin to get critiqued - a work that the prophets go on to do more explicitly.

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Mirrors 26th March 2017

  1. Critique a preaching ministry, not just individual sermons: yes, @Roryshiner, yes! 
  2. My article on clarity in evangelistic communication
  3. Greg Clarke CEO of the Bible Society talks about the Coopers fiasco 
  4. Love a lot of the First Things critique of Sherlock Season 4
  5. This First Things episode makes me want to rewatch The Exorcist film & read novel for the first time: is possession meant to make us lose compassion for physical creatures?
  6. A lot of conservative Xns agree with the words in this apology, but mean different things by them than Equal Voices. It's cause a some confusion among the studends in our Christian Union.

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Briefing theological students on college mission before attending a local ministry event

My colleague Andy recently send this message to an SMBC mission team in preparation for their involvement in our Uni Fellowship Engage conference with the CU.

Drawing on his own experience as a theological student, he was careful to brief the team well about the nature of our ministry and the details of the event. But he also gave some pointers to how they could make the most of this participation as a learning experience, and how to avoid making a mess of their attendance through clumsy conversations:

Making the most of your time

  • Observe what goes on, what we do and why. All Uni Groups are different for numerous reasons even if you have been involved in one.
  • Chat to students, get a feel for who they are, how they might be similar or the same to Uni ministries you've experience before
  • Be aware some of the student might not be Christains or totally on board with us even thought it is a training event!
  • Be mindful that the students might not be as switched on or in the theological zone as you. A fair number come from churches that can be fair 'light' and discounted in how they approach the scriptures
  • Encourage them on the important of uni ministry and doing an MTS

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Mirrors 17th March 2017

  1. Lots to like in @nm_campbell 's analysis of the Coopers/Bible Society furore.
  2. Some Don Carson gold on American politics and the Benedict Option.
  3. Intriguing taboo black vs white vs trans vs outrage media vs commercialism in the meta "B. A. N." episode of Donald Glover's 'Atlanta' (language warning)
  4. "Tomorrow Coopers will wake up with no respect for the Bible Society, and the Bible Society will be nursing a huge hangover the Bible Society will be left wondering how one thing led to another & it ended up not getting its calls answered." Cheeky, Stephen McAlpine!

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Is the individual Christian the ‘watchman on the walls’?

Almost every time I talk about personal evangelism, and describe the need to be tactful, respectful and wait for the opportunities that God gives us, rather than just downloading on people uninvited, I'll have a question that goes something like:

But knowing what we know about heaven and hell, isn't it better to tell them the gospel, and risk the possibly of them getting offended, than not at all?  They may not get another chance to hear!

The spirit of this question is very much present in Ezekiel 3 and 33: that the watchman on the walls who fails to warn people of the coming judgment will have blood on their own hands... whereas the watchman who sounds the warning will be innocent of their blood if they fail to listen to the warning. It seems that the apostle Paul is also echoing these words in Acts 20 to describe his own ministry and implicitly passing them on to the Ephesian elders too.

A common example is: 'I picked up a hitchhiker: I may never see them ever again. This is my one chance to preach the gospel to them and possibly their one chance to hear it — what do I have to lose?'

It's right to speak up because of the gospel's urgency and importance 

Most of the time when I get this question I take it as a helpful corrective, and so affirm it. The gospel is the power of salvation, it does need to be told to everyone because Christ could come back any minute. If we believe that, we should want to tell people whenever we can.

Inded urgency and moral seriousness create different social standards. A sympathetic witness will allow someone more leeway in being urgent and confronting, if they appreciate that the person feels moved by conscience. It is true that some people are arrested and challenged by this kind of other-worldly moral and spiritual seriousness. Because the gospel is not just a discussion of preferred shoe brands, it should not be discussed in the same measured and civil tones, necessarily.

I agree, there is something good and right about the conviction and compassion and desire to preach Christ. If there's nothing of that impulse, perhaps we aren't seeing the world as God does? Isn't something better than nothing? Can we stand silently by?

An individual Christian may then push beyond what is comfortable and normal and polite to get a hearing for the gospel.  That's awesome. But that is different to implying or commanding that if we are not pushing the envelope we are not being faithful, not believing the gospel enough, or worse still, have blood on our hands. 

The different between a watchman and a citizen

It is worth remembering that Ezekiel (and the apostle Paul and the Ephesian elders) have a leadereship role in their communities. It is their responsibility before God and function in their community to lead, teach and warn. If they in their role stay silent, they truly are guilty of neglect. They are appointed and stationed as watchmen on the walls.

But the average Jew in Ezekiel's day, or the average Christian today, is not appointed and stationed in quite that same way. Although we belong to the community entrusted with the message of the gospel this doesn't mean we all have the same functional and moral role in its proclamation.

There is a difference of responsibility here, and also a difference of role. A preacher/teacher/leader has a role and function, and a certain cultural 'permission' or expectation to proclaim and warn. We may not like their message, but at least we acknowledge that it is their role to speak directly about it. As a result, a preacher/teacher/leader also has a platform to speak from in their own religious circles, often has the invitation to speak in other cirlces, might reasonably request the permission to speak in other circles or even create entirely new contexts in which to speak.

As I've already said above, an individual Christian may do a little bit of all these things. And depending on their spiritual gifts the urgency and importance of the gospel will motivate a whole bunch of Christians to take on something of a lowercase p 'preacher' or lowercase c 'chaplain' role. That's awesome. Which is why there is something that resonates in the appeal for us all to be like watchmen on the walls. We should see the world from God's point of view, so that this is stirred up in us. 

But that is different to implying or commanding that if we are not pushing the envelope of creating these kinds of 'teaching' platforms, we are not being faithful, not believing the gospel enough, or worse still, have blood on our hands. For it remains the case that your average Christian is not appointed the particular role of watchman in quite the same way.

We all must have a deep and earnest desire and prayer for the lost to be saved. By the power of the Spirit we must not be ashamed of Christ but identify with him (and his preachers) before the world. We must generously and relationally and organisationally support missionary work at home and overseas. We must live in a way that adorns the gospel and takes every oppotunity to give a reason for the hope that we have. Within this context, extending invitations for people to find out more, giving them books to read and so on, are all expressions of a general responsibility that is not quite the same as the 'watchman on the walls'.

So while it might well be good and right to ask for permission to share the gospel with a hitchhiker — 'I know this is a strange thing to bring up, but I'm a Christian, and I wonder if you've ever had someone explain the Christian message to you before?' could be a way to broach the subject — it is not a moral imperative for every Christian.

The ways the gospel is heralded to a population

We often preach evangelistic responsiblity, and conceive of evangelistic responsibility, very individualistically. Each of us individually has to convert people. Each of us individually has to make sure each other person individually has heard the gospel from an individual.

But is that a full account of how the the gospel is spread? Is that even the primary way the gospel is heard? Does the 'blood stay on my hands' until I personally say to you personally that you need to repent and believe? Until someone has had that conversation have they not been 'warned'?

I want to suggest that this an oversimplifcation and really a distortion of how human beings live and how God deals with us. We are aware of things much more widely than one to one converations: through word of mouth, observation and various media. I wonder if that's something of what 1Thessalonians 1 describes about how the 'word of God rang out'? Likewise in Acts we have little narrative comments about how the rumours of the gospel were spreading throughout the Roman world.

There is little explicit instruction or description of systematic, cold, inter-personal evangelism in the Bible. Acts describes the apostles going to (or creating) settings where they might speak, such as synagoges, public meeting halls and the Areopagus. We do hear about Paul going to the marketplace in Athens, but it is anachornistic to imagine this is similar to our standard 21st century city shopping mall. Post-radio societies don't have anything quite parallel to the town square of the 19th century village or the marketplace of the 1st century Roman city. There are plenty of hints and suggestions about all sorts of relational conversations in Acts and the apostolic letters, but nothing like a modern doorknocking campaign. I'm not against doorknocking campaigns, I'm just wanting to untangle them from some kind of scriptural imperative. They are a possible strategy for gospel proclamation, not a necessary one.

In that sense a person can know that there are people who believe in God, that some of them are called Christians, that they believe Jesus saves people and gives them peace with God — all without ever talking to a Christian one to one, or going to a Christian event. In fact they can even have access to the Christian scriptures in any number of ways. This is what the missionary societies mean when they talk about 'unreached people groups'. This doesn't mean we have done everything we could or should do to seek to reach people, but it does in one sense mean that the 'blood is off our hands'. If the watchman on the walls sounds the warning, the blood is off his hands even if he hasn't had a one on one conversation with every citizen!

The power of the gospel and God's providential work

A whole other can of worms is how God's providential work relates to his supernatural saving work. It is true that the gospel is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes. Faith comes from hearing the message and the message is heard through the word of Christ. But what makes someone listen? What gets them into a setting where they are invited to hear the message spoken? What motivates them to accept that invitation?

The miraculous work of regeneration comes by the Holy Spirit as he works through the word of God. And yet God works providentially behind the scenes in millions of ways to bring people to the point of hearing and receiving the word of God. Although the word of God is needed to bring eternal life, a complex of wordly motivations and circumstances, under God's sovereign hand, will suffice to bring someone into earshot of the gospel to begin with.

Why am I speaking?

And last of all, this brings us into a very important issue that relates not only to gospel preaching but to all sorts of moral conversations: do I speak to make myself feel better, to release myself of a burden or to benefit my hearers?

Especially when we are deeply concerned about a matter we can slip into the pattern of speaking up about it whenever we encounter it. If we have lost a relative to lung cancer caused by smoking, we stop smokers on the street; if we are passionate about vegetarianism we make comments about a colleague's ham sandwich; if we are a Christian we roll out a quick sermon on grandpa's death bed.

But why do we speak in these cases? Is it to persaude the other person? Possibly not. Possibly we don't even really think in those terms. We definitely don't stop to ask whether this circumstance, with this relationship and this manner will be persausive or offputting. Indeed they might have already heard our message from someone else, perhaps even some in a better position to communiate it. But our concern is not with them hearing, let alone accepting the message in that moment. Our concern is really with ourselves: we want to know that we've said something. 

Perhaps we remember the Ezekiel passage spoken above, where the LORD says that 'whether they listen or fail to listen'. So there is a sense in which it is right to speak the truth, to call out evil, to preach the gospel and to warn of the coming wrath no matter what the response. True. But once again we are somewhat begging the question: we are assuming that this passage is speaking to every person about every relationship in every circumstance. Is that an accurate representation of the passage? I think that is not explicitly the case. There is a sliding scale here.

It can be right to speak the truth no matter what the response... but all of us will draw some kind of limit on that, otherwise we would be talking about the gospel to everyone all the time all day long. Since we all eventually draw some limit on this indiscriminate speaking, it is at least legitimate that some might narrow the scope only to what the consider to be meaningful and effective contexts.

There are many people who hate smoking, but who walk past smokers, even their friends who smoke, and say nothing day after day. Why? Because although they have a great conviction and moral urgency, they recognise that there is little effective difference that their lecturing the person will actually make about them quitting smoking. So instead they volunteer for the Quitline, give to the Cancer Council, pray that the person might quit and offer to be a sponsor if someone makes a passing comment that 'these things are getting expensive' or 'I really should quit'.

In the same way, a Christian might well seek to explain the gospel to a hitchhiker. Or they might just be friendly and take the opportunity if it comes up, because they recognise that all things being equal, an awkward exchange in a stranger's car probably won't be the defining moment in someone's conversion. It might be, but then again something else might be too :-)

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Mirrors 13th March 2017

  1. Planning and implementation idea: Break down the year into 4 month “episodes” and focus on implementing existing ideas during that episode
  2. My first sermon in the Uni Fellowship of Christians Semester 1 series on Hebrews.
  3. Want to start a not-for profilt? Upcoming webinar.
  4. If it looks like homeschool and butter churning and quacks like homeschool and butter churning... Stephen McAlpine on the 'Benedictine Option'
  5. Don't think  agree with 90% of this. But a fun read about Christianity and comics.

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O Week Mission 2017 Debrief

We repeated our O Week Mission from last year, trying to capture 'lessons learned' along the way.

Below are a few quick reflections:

1. Different incentive

We didn't want to do keep cups two years in a row, both because they are more expensive, but also because we wanted them to keep their 'wow' factor.

We tried to get free pizza vouchers donated without success, so we ended up going with earbuds:

These were cheap ($2 each) and attractive. But nowhere near as much as the keep cups. So we dropped about 30% our participation rate (from 1100 to 678), and we suspect that partly it was the incentive.

I still think it was right to save money and hold back the keep cups for a year. But there you have it.

2. Electronic data entry and follow up

We spent HEAPS of time setting up and troubleshooting Elvanto to make the most of as many automations as possible.
Last year the amount of effort spent in data entry and follow up emails/texts was horrendous. And the amount of data that got corrupted through illegible handwriting or faulty transmission was pretty high.

So this year we set up:

  • the survey in Elvanto Forms
  • has this automatically add people who wanted to find out more to our database and a People Flow
  • set up automated SMS and email to be sent through Elvanto on the same afternoon that they were processed
  • set up our follow up 3 times inviting peopel to have coffee as four steps in a People Flow with automated SMS and email.

We had purchased 4 iPads with some grant money last year, so we had them at our survey stalls, but this wasn't quite enough for the amount of people queuing up. So we also set up QR codes so students could access the survey themselves.

Interestingly, most students would rather wait 3 minutes for the iPad than figure out how to use a QR code. So we then also added the survey to a link from our website ufcutas.org. But even THEN they would mostly rather wait fo rthe iPad. Interesting, eh?

Along with the inentive being less attractive, I think the electronic surveys led to a lower participation rate. However, I suspect a decent amount of what we lost in overall numbers, we gained back in time, energy and accuracy. And I think we can do some things to get more participation next year, knowing that students would rather use our technology than their own phones.

I don't think we can justify buying more iPads for only an annual use. So next year we will ask staff and others rostered on to consider brining their tablets and laptops while they are rostered on, to have more machines on the stalls, in addition to our iPads.

3. Better lead up and buy in

We got the grant late last year and so didn't have a good lead up to the O Week Mission 2016. This year, peopel had already experienced it, and seen it 'work', and we had a big lead up in the end of 2016. So it was much easier to get engagement, enthusiasm and ownership. Heaps more volunteered and engaged, both from among our students and local churches.

4. Fliers for pizza parties

We gave out fliers advertising our evening pizza partires to those who completed our surveys this year, rather than just relying on email and SMS. We weren't sure if this would lead to lots of freeloaders who didn't want to know anything about us.

Happily we saw an increase in attendance at these events, without it being a locust swarm of cynical gatecrashing students. We had over 100 attend across the 3 evenings, and except for Wednesday, most were connected with effectively.

5. Pizza parties on campus

We moved one of our parties to the campus due to a double booking at our event venue. And this move still worked fine. The advantage of the church venue is we could say 'This is where our main meeting is: come back on Thursday night!'. The advantage of campus was it was more neutral territory.

The Wednesday afternoon pizza party was at the same time as the TUU Societies Day and this led to the largest attendance of all 3 nights, but also the most transient and 'freeloading'. Our students and staff still worked hard to connect with people as best we can. But now that we know this is waht to expect, we will need to order a lot more pizza, and embrace this event as a hyrbid 'social connection' and 'free giveaway' event. We will definitely also deploy more staff and students to be ready to mingle at this event.

6. Public event in week 2

Our two main meetings are monthly: our monthly Citywide Gathering on Thursday evenings and our monthly Breakfast Sessions sermon on Tuesday mornings.
In previous years, we put both of these on in O Week, to begin with a bang. This year we moved Breakfast Sessions to Week 2, so that there was a public event to invite people to after O Week. The other advantage of this is that Tuesday 7:30am is too early into O Week to be a good invite event.
But Tuesday Week 2 was much better. Our first Breakfast Sessons of the year double from this time last year — so that was a good move!

7. Survey Results
And what were our survey results this year? Similar to last year. Click here to see the photos of the survey result charts on Facebook.

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