Worship – Loud, Lived and Located

Here at the Baptist Church we’re currently thinking about what it means to be a church. It’s not always easy to define what that really means, but I would contend that a ‘church’ is basically a family of Spirit-filled Jesus-following children of God.

As part of this process we’re looking at various aspects of our life as a church community. One specific topic in the series was about being a worshipping church, which in itself is a complicated (and sadly sometimes controversial) concept!

Christians tend to focus on three particular aspects of worship, namely Singing, Serving and Sundays – or, with my preferred alliteration: our worship should be Loud, Lived and Located.

Loud: The Bible insists that we should sing God’s praise, and shout to the Lord for joy. We have every reason to sing and shout the praises of the God who loves us and died for our sins and defeated death and is coming back to reign forever with mercy and justice.

Also, Jesus told us to be his witnesses, which necessitates being heard by the people we’re witnessing to – and the more joyful our worship, the more likely it is that people will hear and want to know more about this Jesus we’re so enamoured with!

Lived: The Bible tells us to honour God with our lives, to offer our entire lives in worship “as a living sacrifice” (Rom 12:1). Whatever we do, whether at work or at home or in between – even at church! – we should aim to please our heavenly Father by loving our neighbours and “throw[ing] off … the sin that so easily entangles” (Heb 12:1).

Located: The Bible tells us to gather together for mutual encouragement and collective worship. It’s sad that churches haven’t been able to gather regularly over the last year, but we’re getting there; and as we do, remember that if you are part of the family of God, regular get-togethers with other family members are a part of life – and you have to admit that singing God’s praises is much more fun with other believers doing the same thing!

Three Book Suggestions

The weather is (tantalisingly slowly) getting warmer,1 and the holiday season is upon us – so it must be time for another book recommendation!

I didn’t use to like biographies – or rather, I used to think I didn’t like biographies. It’s true that they can be quite dull, and sadly some are badly written, but don’t let that put you off! Here are three that are both gripping and well-written, with one overarching theme: how God is at work in the world and in people’s lives.

Seeking Allah, Finding Jesus is the story of a young Muslim man in the West who finds himself confronted with the claims of Jesus, especially the resurrection. He fights against his growing conviction that Jesus really did rise from the dead, but eventually he has to surrender. The story moves forward inexorably, while incorporating a fair bit of apologetics on the way.

Bruchko has been around for a while – I read it in Swedish when I was a teenager – but the story is still worth telling! Bruce (aka Bruchko) is an American teenager who meets Jesus and finds himself called to become a missionary among an unreached Indian tribe in South America. Somewhat recklessly he goes off all on his own, with no financial support and no experience of the jungle. He eventually finds the tribe and – well, I won’t give it all away! Suffice it to say that he went out there in 1961, and only recently retired from the area…

Missionary… Me? is a bit closer to home, as the author and main character Matthew Skirton actually lived in Highcliffe for a part of his life. His life story starts with a teenager who didn’t like church and would never become a missionary; just another example of God intervening to change people’s heart as well as their plans, since Matthew ends up being a missionary in Moldova (1995 – 2015)…

Books like these are inspiring and encouraging: even if your life is nothing like theirs, they demonstrate that God is interested in and able to use very ordinary people – which is both a relief and a challenge: what may he want to do through you?

1] Apologies if you live in the southern hemisphere…

Church, Simple As

Our church has just started a two-month series looking at what it means to be church, which will end with a chance to think about our church in particular and where God might want to take us next. There’s no way I will be able to include everything in my sermon series, so here’s a reminder that whatever else we talk about, ultimately it’s all about Jesus:

Christ   

Has

Unfailingly

Redeemed

Contrite

Humans

Simply put, the Church is the sum total of all who have put their trust in Jesus as their Saviour and Lord. Our own congregation is really just a local, temporary expression of that eternal, universal army that spans the centuries and which can’t be defeated by any human or satanic ruses – it’s protected by the blood of Jesus and equipped by the Spirit of the living God.

And never forget: if you are a follower of Jesus, you are a part of this victorious Church and will live forever with Jesus, enjoying the fruit of his triumph. Not a bad deal, I would say!

Easter and Pentecost and Everything Else

I originally wrote this just after Easter, whereas it was published (in paper form and on this site) a bit later, half-way between Easter and Pentecost. And those two festivals really sum up what makes Christianity unique.

Christmas isn’t unique in the same way: most religions can tell birth stories of various important people, and without further explanation it’s not obvious how Christmas makes a difference to us today.

On the other hand, it’s fairly obvious even to the casual reader that Easter and Pentecost should make a very powerful and noticeable difference. At Easter, a brutally executed person returns triumphant from the dead; at Pentecost, the faithful followers of this risen Messiah are suddenly filled with the presence of the living God. You can’t just ignore events like that.

It’s easy (and quite common) to hear the Christmas tale and not be impacted: nice story, but what does it have to do with me? But you can’t really look at Jesus dying on a cross and coming back from the dead, and think it has nothing to say to you and your life. And it shouldn’t really be possible to discover that it’s possible to live in close communion with God, to have the Creator actually dwell inside you, and just assume it’s not relevant to you.

Well, it seems a lot of people do know those things and still choose to live as if that wasn’t the case. But they should at least know what they’re rejecting. There are obviously many reasons why people don’t want to follow Jesus – there is often a price to pay in the form of personal sacrifice – but let’s make sure it’s not because of us, the followers of Jesus.

If we live and act as if Jesus’ resurrection was just a religious doctrine and the Holy Spirit just a divine comfort blanket, rather than the world-shaking and life-changing realities they really are, people are not going to be interested in our message. And not only that – we ourselves are missing out on the riches of what Jesus is actually offering!

So let’s not make that mistake. Let’s keep marvelling at the divine love that put Jesus on the cross; let’s keep tapping into the divine power that raised him from the dead; and let’s keep asking the divine presence in us to convict us of sin, guide us into all truth, and transform us into the image of Jesus – all to the glory of God the Father!

May Has Come, Come What May

Well, soon we’ll know if rough winds will shake the darling buds of May, as they most certainly have done during April – but we still hope to be able to have our services outside again very soon. The main advantage of that is of course that we will be able to sing as part of the actual service!

The shifting seasons is really a wonderful blessing from God. It’s a testimony to his creativity, as well as to his provision for us. We may not be as aware as our forebears of the ploughing – sowing – harvesting cycle, but the seasonal turn-over still provides both stability (= security) and variety (= stimulation): it’s the same every year, and yet new and exciting every time.

On the social level, there’s a similar pattern of change and continuity, although less obvious (and maybe less desirable). We’re currently living in a pandemic; but there have been many epidemics in the past. There have always been times of war as well as times of peace, times of political unrest as well as stability; times of economic security as well as famines and financial crashes.

This means that if we pin all our hopes on politicians, economists or virologists, we will be disappointed. They have very little actual control over the shifting sands of human circumstances, especially when they involve viruses, hurricanes and coastal erosion.

The only one who knows exactly what’s going on, where it’s all heading and what to do about it is God our Creator. He’s on the throne at the centre of existence, he’s the beginning and the end, and he is our loving Father; so our best bet is simply to cling to him and his promise to bring us through it all, whatever the weather.

Thank You for the Music

Have you ever noticed how often music features in the Bible? In the NIV, the word “music” features 103 times, “song/s” appears 110 times, various forms of “sing” 150 times, “singer/s” eight times and “musician/s” 25 times. And that’s without listing the various instruments mentioned!

Some people (especially Baptists) think the sermon is the most important part of the church service, and you might think that as a preacher I would agree. As a matter of fact, I don’t. To me, the most important part of the service is the worship – and even though worship is a lot more than singing, I have to say that I find the musical aspect of our worship services more powerful than the rest.

With one caveat: it depends entirely on how you do it. And no, I’m not referring to the style of music or the exact instruments involved. Such matters will vary with the time and place, and should reflect what comes naturally to the local congregation. No, I’m referring to the attitude of your heart.

Worship – in whatever shape and form – is ultimately about expressing awe and adoration and love and surrender to God our Creator, and it has to be an act of the will. If you just sing the appointed hymns with no real thought for the God you’re singing about, it doesn’t matter how nice your voice or how beautiful the instrumental arrangement – it’s not worship. On the other hand, if you joyfully sing heartfelt praises to your King and Saviour, it doesn’t matter how tone-deaf you are: the Lord will gladly accept it as a beautiful sacrifice of praise.

You may have guessed I’m rather sad that we haven’t been able to sing together for so long. But at least there’s a lot of worship music (of whatever style you prefer) to be found online or on CD, and no one can stop you from singing along at home!

And one glorious day we will be able to sing together again. We actually booked the village green for the traditional Good Friday service, even though sadly we weren’t able to hold it on public land. However, we are currently allowed to sing outside our own building, which is something at least. But wherever and however you sing, just make sure that your proclamation of Jesus’ glorious victory over sin and death is exuberant, joyful, genuine and contagious!


Postscript: a couple of weeks ago I recorded this 5 minute video on whether or not we’re commanded to sing…

Happy Easter!

There is news.

There is good news.

And then there’s Easter.

I think it’s fairly self-evident that in the eyes of society around us, Christmas is the biggest and best of the Christian feasts. Last year we were even allowed to sing carols outside, despite the ongoing COVID restrictions (at the time of writing, there’s no sign of any similar concessions for Easter).

But actually – take it or leave it – whatever the world may think – whether we sing or not: there’s no doubt that among biblical festivals, Easter is King. Obviously all of them celebrate essential aspects of the execution of God’s plan of salvation through Jesus; but it’s at Easter that the main action takes place, the revolutionary events that give meaning and purpose to the other celebrations.

At Easter, Satan is definitively and defiantly crushed under the foot of Jesus the Messiah.

At Easter, sin is stopped in its tracks by the sacrifice of Jesus the Lamb of God.

At Easter, death is thrown into reverse by the resurrection of Jesus the Son of God.

At Easter, eternal peace is proclaimed to a battle-scared world.

At Easter, unshakable hope is offered to a desperate humanity.

At Easter, irresistible joy bursts forth in the hearts of sinners saved by grace.

Hades took a body, and discovered God.
It took earth, and encountered Heaven.
It took what it saw, and was overcome by what it did not see.

Christ is Risen, and you, o death, are annihilated!
Christ is Risen, and the evil ones are cast down!
Christ is Risen, and the angels rejoice!
Christ is Risen, and life is liberated!

(John Chrysostom, around AD 400)

So let us celebrate with the church of all times and all places: Jesus is alive, and we will live with him!

Resurrection!

[Background: our church is coming out of lockdown on Easter Sunday, and as you can tell, I am very much looking forward to it!]

Hallelujah – finally we get to celebrate Easter properly! OK, it’s not quite the same as normal, but it’s still going to be better than last year…

Of course it’s sad that we’re not able to celebrate the way we’d like to, and nobody is happy about having restrictions imposed on our collective worship. But let’s not forget that there are places in the world where followers of Jesus have always had to gather in secret, and others where they meet knowing that they could be violently attacked and killed, simply for proclaiming that Jesus is alive.

And still they gather to celebrate – and so must we; because the gospel message of resurrection and new life is too important to hide, too revolutionary to keep quiet about. And at least we can do it without fear of persecution!

I know it’s not always easy to share the good news with people, especially when they don’t seem particularly interested. But if anyone asks why we’re so keen on gathering for worship, we can at least try to answer by pointing them to the reason for the season – the reason Easter is so important:

Jesus died for your sins!

Jesus rose from the dead!

Jesus is King forevermore!

Happy Easter!

The Old Testament and the Way to Easter

This spring I have been preaching a series on “Signposts to Easter”, and even though it seem to have been well received, I think some people have been a bit surprised: as it’s all about Jesus and signposts to Easter, why is it all based on the Old Testament?

The Old Testament sometimes gets a bad press among Christians: it’s full of strange laws and ancient rituals, unknown countries and unpronounceable names – so why should we bother?

Because everything that happens in the world, big or small, is part of a chain of events that influence and illuminate each other, and the life and death of Jesus is no exception. The coming of Jesus was the culmination of a long series of events described in the Old Testament, including the calling of Abraham and the exodus from Egypt of his descendants, the Jews. Jesus was himself a Jew, a member of God’s chosen people who had been prepared over the centuries for the arrival of the Messiah.

Basically, without the Old Testament we wouldn’t have any of the necessary background to Jesus. Not only would we know nothing about Israel’s calling, priesthood, Temple and Law; we also wouldn’t have any concept of sin or sacrifices dealing with sin, or about the promised Deliverer who was going to deal decisively with the problem of sin. We wouldn’t even know who the God is that sent Jesus to be that Deliverer.

Virtually every book of the New Testament has quotes or allusions to the Old Testament, and Paul tells us that all of Scripture – by which he means the Old Testament, since the New hadn’t been written yet – is inspired and useful for teaching and edifying believers (2 Tim 3:16). It’s there for a reason, and we ignore it at our peril!

Putting Ourselves in the Worship

[The February edition of Premier Christianity magazine featured an article by Matt Redman about worship. I wrote this letter to the magazine as a reply / comment; they published a very abbreviated version of the letter, so I decided I should publish it here as well.]

It’s interesting to note that the format and content of our worship services continue to be a topic of intense discussion – nothing new under the sun!

Matt Redman’s article was good and thought-provoking, even though the argument against me-centred worship songs has been around for several decades. He is 100% right in saying we need to worship God for his infinite worth, ‘irrespective of whether or not it enriches our lives’. If those are the only two possible motivations, I totally agree: we don’t worship God because he is ‘helpful’!

Sam Hailes makes the same point in his editorial: worship shouldn’t be about what I get out of it, but what God gets out of it. True – but it also made me think: well, if all I get out of the church service is that the Bible is irrelevant and God has a strange taste in music, it’s unlikely that God will get anything out of my presence either… so I think we still need to take the reality of the worshippers into consideration.

And I think Redman’s article is missing the main reason most worship songs (of every era) use the pronouns “I” or “we”: because of Jesus, who ‘was delivered over to death for our sins and was raised to life for our justification’ (Rom 4:25, italics added).

Songs where the worshipper is included in the story are nothing new (I’m Not ashamed to Own My Lord 1709, And Can It Be That I Should Gain 1739, I Need Thee Every Hour 1872, It Is Well with My Soul 1874) and I think that’s as it should be. Of course we should sing of God’s majesty and holiness in themselves, and Redman is probably right in that we need more songs like that.

But we must never lose sight of the awesome mystery of the gospel: that this holy and majestic God has acted in Jesus to restore creation, including humanity, and I can be included in the restoration of all thing. It is right and necessary to put ourselves in the picture as recipients of this amazing grace – after all, that’s what the Bible does all the time.

What I’m trying to say is: let’s not throw out the baby with the bathwater! It’s true that there are churches and movements where worship seems to be mainly about experiencing emotional kicks, what I can get out of God, rather than actually pouring our hearts out in worship to a holy and awesome God who deserves our worship come what may.

However, there are also believers (and probably entire churches) who haven’t really grasped that God actually loves them personally, that they can rest assured that Jesus is theirs. For their sake, I passionately believe we need both songs that emphasise what Jesus has done for (and help me express my response), and songs that emphasise who God is in himself. There’s no need to pitch the two against each other.