Monday, July 17, 2017

Evangelism: How the Whole Church Speaks of Jesus by J. Mack Stiles

Crossway, 126pp 

Evangelism. It's about programmes, right? Special meetings, Christianity Explored, Life Explored. Centrally organised by the church. Partly, yes. Those things have value. But Mack Stiles' book is not about getting churches to buy the latest off the shelf programme. Results guaranteed. Rather, he wants to encourage what he calls a 'culture of evangelism'.

But first of all Stiles needs to define what he means by evangelism. Which he does:

"Evangelism is teaching the gospel with the aim to persuade."

The author then unpacks what that means, beginning with the gospel, the evangel we are meant to be ising.

You don't need to run a church programme to evangelise, or bring in an expert Evangelist. Evangelism so defined is a discipleship discipline for every believer. Just as much as prayer, Bible reading and faithful Christian living. 

A culture of evangelism means every church member will be looking to 'teach the gospel with the aim to persuade' as part of their daily lives. They will take it upon themselves to reach the unreached, build meaningful relationships non-Christians, offer to study the Bible with people who want to know more about the Christian faith, bring friends along to church where they will hear the gospel preached, and so on. 

Where a culture of  evangelism isn't embedded in the life of a church, people will tend to think that it's the responsibility of the organised church to do evangelism for them. An example is given of well meaning believers stuffing shoe boxes full of essential things a disadvantaged group of people. And then expecting a pastor with links to that community to dish them out. Why didn't they go beyond stuffing shoe boxes and make the effort to engage personally with the needy community? Someone else's job. 

I certainly agree with Stiles on the importance of creating a culture of every member evangelism. But church-organised programmes can sometimes help to prime the pump. We have a 'Door to Door' Evangelist working with the churches I serve. Members accompany him to visit people in our community. As a spin off from that a church member has organised coffee mornings where men get together for a chat at a local cafe. A mixture of Christians and non-Christians. That was his initiative, not the result of a directive from the church leadership. Similarly, there have been a number of opportunities for developing relationships with parents who attend our Parent and Toddler Group and other church-run activities.

It's not a matter of either/or. 

In fact, I picked up my freebie copy of this book at a Grace Baptist Partnership day conference on 'Evangelism and the Local Church', aimed at supporting a week of mission in the South West of England. 

The task of the 'organised church' is to equip the 'organic church' to live as everyday disciples of Jesus. An everyday disciple will also be an everyday evangelist. Organised activities can serve as a powerful catalyst for spontaneous, organic outreach by church members. But centrally organised activities can't be the be all and end all. The 'organic church' can and must go to places the 'organised church' simply cannot reach.

From the book it seems as though J. Mack Stiles is one of those 'speak to anybody about Jesus, anytime' extroverts. Not all of us are in that category. But the writer provides some practical hints and tips on Actually Sharing Our Faith that even the most shy and retiring introvert will find useful. 

If we are to succeed in the urgent task of winning people for Christ in this generation, we are going to need churches with a deeply embedded culture of every member evangelism. 

This title would be a useful aid for stimulating discussion in a Home Group, or a Bible Study series on how the whole church may speak for Jesus. 

Thursday, July 13, 2017

Devoted to God: Blueprints for Sanctification by Sinclair B. Ferguson

 Banner of Truth Trust, 2016, 277pp 

Back in the early 1990's I heard Sinclair Ferguson speak on sanctification at the Banner Ministers' Conference. The addresses made a lasting impression upon me. I remember being struck by the awesome fact that God calls believers to be holy as he is holy. Bits and pieces, of Ferguson's messages have lingered in my memory almost 30 years later. The biblical texts he expounded, the theological arguments he advanced and the practical applications he made have had a lasting impact on my Christian life. We have reason to be grateful that the teaching given at Ministers' Conferences and more besides has been gathered together in this book and made available to a wider audience. 

Books on 'holiness' can sometimes seem little more than a list of dos and don'ts. But that is holiness divorced from the gospel, which is no holiness at all. It is only through the Father's saving work in Christ and by the Spirit, that sinners can be cleansed from sin and devoted God. Ferguson places his teaching on sanctification within a framework of thoroughgoing trinitatian theology. For that is what the Bible itself does in the 'Blueprint Passages' the writer expounds such as 1 Peter 1:1-25 and Romans 8. 

Another key theme is that of the believer's union with Christ. As Paul teaches in Romans 6 and Colossians 3, the person who is in Christ has died with him to the old life of sin and has been raised with him to a new life of holiness. We must therefore put to death what is sinful (engage in mortification)  and bring to life what is holy (vivification). It is vital that we grasp the interplay of indicative and imperative, position and performance, dynamic and doing, so that our Christian lives are a conscious expression of who we are in Christ. The New Testament does not teach sanctification by guilt trip, but sanctification by gospel grace. 

The Holy Spirit's role is to fashion those who are in Christ into the image of their Saviour. The 'fruit' he produces in us is Christlike character. God's ultimate goal is that we should be conformed to the image of his Son by grace and in glory. 

Ferguson gives attention to the role of the law in sanctification, where he defends the traditional Reformed perspective over and against the 'New Covenant Theology' position. He argues his case with fine exegetical insight, theological skill and practical penetration. While the law in itself cannot sanctify any more than it can justify, it is none the less God's law that provides us with a pattern for holy living. Jesus has fulfilled the law, not abolished it. That same law is fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit. The gospel turns the duty of obedience into delight. An appendix is devoted to the Fourth Commandment. 

The writer anticipates and responds to the objection that while Paul may be helpful when it comes to the general principles of sanctification, he does not enable us to get to grips with  nitty-gritty practical matters. The chapter In for the Kill nails that one, showing how Paul provides the mindset, motives and method for sanctification. 

While sanctification is a deeply personal thing, Ferguson avoids an individualistic approach by giving due weight to the importance of the church as the community in which we give expression to our devotion to God through love for one another. The 'fruit of the Spirit' in Galatians 5:22-23 are deeply relational and are brought to ripe maturity in the fellowship of God's people and as we serve the Lord in the world. 

Devoted to God has the makings of a contemporary classic on holiness. It deserves to be read carefully, prayerfully and reflectively. Robert Murray M'Cheyne famously prayed, 'Lord, make me as holy as a pardoned sinner is able to be made'. This work will have the reader echoing that prayer. A life changer. 

Friday, June 30, 2017


We went to see this the other Saturday. In my last film review I noted that when we go to the cinema most of the other movie-goers tend to be getting on a bit. Possibly due to our film choices  these days. Well, for this one it was my good wife, me, another (older) couple, and that was it. Like a private screening. Don't know what the other random couple thought they were doing, gatecrashing our exclusive viewing. Cheek of it. 

Churchill, the filmHistorically speaking almost a case of 'never in the field of cinema have so many facts been sacrificed for so little dramatic effect'. The central conceit was that our eponymous hero was dead against D-Day, haunted as he was by the epic failure of the Gallipoli campaign during WWI. Admittedly, it had been a while since I read Churchill by Roy Jenkins, but as the film unfolded, that didn't seem quite right. It wasn't. Churchill may have had some reservations concerning Operation Overlord, but to depict him calling upon the heavens to thwart the allied landings was pushing it a bit. A lot.

Some have called the film a 'hatchet job', but that's not quite fair. Churchill comes good in the end and delivers his rousing D-Day speech to the nation. Just like the ones he used to give during the Blitz. And they thought he was past it. 

Brian Cox gives a towering performance as the war leader. In turns melancholy, meddlesome, ill-tempered and yet ever the Great Man. Miranda Richardson is almost as imperious as his Clemmie. Verdict: a triumph of acting over plot, but still worth a look. At least you'll have plenty of elbow room in the cinema. 

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

London Seminary 40th Anniversary Thanksgiving Service

On Saturday we attended the London Seminary's 40th Anniversary Thanksgiving Service. I attended the seminary from 1988-1990. Former principal Philip Eveson chaired the meeting and gave a potted history of the college. It was encouraging to hear that around 400 men have been trained for the pastoral-preaching ministry at the seminary. Its reach has extended to five continents. The ethos of London Seminary can be summed up in the words of Paul in 2 Corinthians 6:7, "by the word of truth, by the power of God". The college was founded in 1977 by Dr. D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones. He wanted the seminary to help equip men to proclaim the word of God in the power of the Holy Spirit. It has remained faithful to that vision. 

Leaving students spoke of how the seminary had helped prepare them for ministry and shared concerning the work to which the Lord was calling them. Outgoing Principal Robert Strivens gave a report on the work of the seminary in the current academic year. Incoming Principal Bill James read the Scriptures and prayed. 

Dr. R. Albert Mohler, Jr, President of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, Louisville, Kentucky preached the word. His message was based on John 15:18-25. Jesus told his disciples that they would encounter hatred from the world as they heralded the gospel. Not exactly an encouraging thought for budding pastors and preachers. But a healthy dose of realism is needed for those setting out to minister God's word in an increasingly hostile secular world. To withstand this opposition, Mohler reminded us to abide in Christ (John 15:1-8), to expect the help of the Holy Spirit (John 15:26-27) and that Jesus had prayed that we will be kept from the evil one (John 17:14-19). The preacher commended the work of the seminary, which is on a much smaller scale than the one he leads, commenting that faithfulness is measured not in numbers, but density. This particularly dense alumni is certainly grateful for that. 

An excellent buffet tea was served after the meeting. It was good to catch up with some old friends connected with the seminary. Hard to think that it's almost 30 years since I began my studies there. I was in my early 20s - around the same age then as my son is now. Spooky. 

If you are interested in training for the pastoral-preaching ministry that is biblical, theological, practical, contemporary and affordable, why not consider the London Seminary?

Thursday, June 15, 2017

Democracy, the worst form of Government

For years to come pundits and political historians will discuss why the predicted Conservative landslide failed to materialise. Was it the unpopular Tory manifesto? The Brexit factor? The youth vote? Who knows? One thing’s for sure, you can never be sure what the Great British Electorate is going to decide. Not these days anyway. Now we have a weakened government that faces the huge challenge of negotiating our exit from the EU on the best possible terms.

Democracy, eh? Winston Churchill once rather gloomily mused, “Many forms of Government have been tried, and will be tried in this world of sin and woe. No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed it has been said that democracy is the worst form of Government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.…”

Benign dictatorships usually end up malignant, corrupt and oppressive. The same goes for rule by a small group that cannot be held to account by the people they govern. Tony Benn suggested that five questions should be but to those in power: 1. What power have you got? 2. Where did you get it from? 3. In whose interests do you exercise it? 4. To whom are you accountable? 5. How can we get rid of you? Every system of government needs checks and balances to stop rulers abusing their powers. That is why in our system the government is held to account by parliament and is subject to the rule of law.

These checks and balances are necessary because as has been said, ‘Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely’. We might wonder why that is the case. Churchill gives us a clue in the words quoted earlier. We live in a ‘world of sin and woe’. Human beings have a destructive tendency to mess things up spectacularly. We daren’t give too much power to any individual because we are all sinners. That’s why ‘democracy is the worst form of government apart from all those other forms’.

Democracy can’t solve the problem of sin, it can merely help stop it getting out of hand. But of one it is written, ‘You shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins’. 

* For White Horse News, News & Views & Holy Trinity Parish Magazine 

Thursday, June 08, 2017


Given a choice between the unelectable and the uninspiring the latter got my vote. Not so much 'things can only get better' as, 'could be worse'. Much worse. 'Red Tory' has it. 

Wednesday, June 07, 2017

A choice between the unelectable and the uninspiring

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I don't know. In my political convictions I'm stuck somewhere between Red Tory and Blue Labour. Progressive when it comes to the state using its powers to help people from disadvantaged backgrounds to get on in life. But a social conservative when it comes to traditional marriage and the family, the importance of work, the need for society for have strong moral values, and so on. Big on the importance of free speech. Robust discussion of political, moral and religious matters are a Good Thing. I have little patience with factional identity politics. 

Not convinced at all by Corbyn's leftist tax & spend programme. Soft on defense. Cosying up to the IRA, Hamas, etc. Diane Abbot [get well soon]. Lib Dems need to suck up Brexit and move on. Leave we must. Remainers (like me) are just going to have to hope that we get the best possible deal on exiting the EU. Tim Farron has had a disastrous campaign. Ukip? Nope. 

But the Tories. What an uninspiring lot. 'Strong and stable' became 'weak and wobbly' when manifesto commitments subjected to scrutiny. The dementia tax debacle. There's a good argument to be made in favour of the policy. It's an improvement on the current situation where people have to sell their homes when still alive to fund their care, with only £23k protected. You could even say that it's progressive to get people with valuable properties to fund at least some of their own care costs. We brought nothing into this world and we can carry nothing out. Leaving 100k for middle class, middle aged kids to inherit isn't so bad. Personally, I'd prefer some kind of social insurance against care costs to spread the burden, but there we are. Pressure was applied and the PM buckled.

Security should have been May's strong point, having been Home Secretary for so long. She sounded impressive in the wake of the Manchester Arena and London Bridge attacks. But it's no good saying 'enough is enough' when you have been in personal charge of the nation's security. Especially as it seems clear that the terrorists involved in both atrocities were known to the authorities, but left at large to kill and maim at will. What's been going on under Theresa May's watch? Would we be any safer under Corbyn & co? Diane Abbot as Home Sec. Please.

On education, what we need is fairer funding for all schools that keeps pace with increasing pupil numbers. No additional Grammars. Under the Tories the education system is a messy hybrid. We have a mixture of LA die hards, Orphan Annie stand-alone academies [it's a hard knock life for them] and MATs in which schools are deprived of their autonomy while crazy money is awarded to CEOs. A mess.

I could moan on some more, but that'll do.

This election presents us with a choice between the unelectable and the uninspiring. 

Tuesday, June 06, 2017

Voting Intentions

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No, I'm not going to try and suggest who you should vote for on 8 June. 'That's a relief' you might respond, 'I wouldn't have taken any notice anyway.'  Fair enough. It isn't really the job of church leaders to meddle in party politics.

Elections, eh? Some people cast their votes tribally because theirs has always been a Tory/Labour/Lib Dem family. Couldn't think of voting any other way. Others take a more considered approach. They read the manifestos, watch the TV coverage and consider what the newspaper columnists have to say before making up their minds on who they would like to see running the country. Then there's the, 'don't vote, it only encourages them' brigade. Personally I just can't be bothered with that kind of apathy. 

After all, governments have the power to make a  difference in a whole range of areas that impact on our everyday lives. Defense and security, law and order, the economy, education, health, etc. And through the ballot box we the people get to have a say on who wields that power. 

That said, we shouldn't pin all our hopes for a better world on politicians. They are only human after all. Their grand plans and promises are often  overtaken by unforeseen events. Plans may need to be adjusted and sincerely made promises may prove impossible to keep. The Bible wisely warns us, “Do not put your trust in princes” (Psalm 146:3).

Only God is worthy of our total trust. He was willing to send his own Son, Jesus to die on the cross and be raised from the dead that we might be forgiven and enjoy new life. We can be sure that God’s plans will never fail and his promises will always hold good. “For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord... to give you a future and a hope.” (Jeremiah 29:11). That gets my vote. 

* For June's Holy Trinity and News & Views  parish mags. 

Thursday, May 04, 2017


We wanted to see this in the cinema, but it wasn't mainstream enough for our local Odeon, so we had to wait until it was on the telly. A powerful film on the civil rights movement in 1960's America. At that time blacks in the Deep South were denied their constitutional right to vote by an obstructive voter registration system. The town of Selma was a case in point. British actor David Oyelowo plays Martin Luther King Jr. The civil rights leader masterminded peaceful protests in Selma with the aim of pressurising President L. B. Johnson into legislating to remove barriers to black people registering to vote. 

Fellow-Brit Tom Wilkinson plays the President. The clashes between MLK and LBJ are well done. The President explains that as a politician he has to be concerned about many things, while as an activist King is only focused on one thing. Johnson sympathises with the cause, but needs time. King wants urgent action. 

All the main parts are well acted, offering convincing portrayals of the characters involved. You'll wait in vain for Oyelowo's rendition of the 'I have a dream...' speech, as the King family denied the film makers the rights to make use of MLK's speeches. The sermons and speeches shown in the film have been cobbled together, but they seem to hit the right tone. 

Things turn nasty in Selma when black people attempt to stage a protest march from the town to Montgomery, the Alabama Sate capital. The road was blocked by police at the far side of the Edmund Pettus Bridge. The police charge the protesters, mercilessly beating unarmed men and women. A black man is shot in the clear up operation. King rallies people of all colours to the cause, especially inviting Christian Ministers to join a second march to Montgomery. 

King leads the marchers to within sight of the police line that once more blocked the road at the end of the Edmund Pettus Bridge. Rather than risking another confrontation, the preacher drops to his knees in prayer and then turns around, leading the protesters back into town. 

The act of preaching is rarely explored in Holywood movies, so it was interesting to hear the dialogue between two Ministers involved in the protest as they discussed King's actions. One of them complains that Dr. King had betrayed them. He called and they came, yet at the crucial moment he turned back. The other suggests that MLK's actions may have been instinctual, "like in preaching when you are just flying. You are not on your notes, not on memory, you're tapped into what's higher, what's true. God is guiding you....Maybe that's what happened to Dr. King on the bridge. He prayed, God answered, and he had the courage to do what God had said."  

On third attempt a protest march to Montgomery finally took place, winning much needed publicity for the cause. Publicity turned into political pressure and Johnson comes round in the end. His 'We will overcome' speech is a highlight of the film. The Voting Rights Acts was passed August 1965, paving the way for black votes without obstruction.

Like all films based on historical episodes this one doesn't let the facts get in the way of a good story. It's not a documentary after all, but the main message comes through clearly without it being too preachy (for a film about a preacher). All human beings are created equal. On that basis racism, whether  casual or institutional is a moral outrage and should be opposed by all people of good will. 

Tuesday, May 02, 2017

Banner Ministers' Conference 2017 report

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There was something special about this year's Banner. Can't quite put my finger on it. Was it the new venue, Yarnfield Park Conference Centre, Staffs, rather than Leicester Uni? It proved a fine place for the conference, but it wasn't that. Was it waking up on the Tuesday morning to an unexpectedly snowy scene? That was great, but, no. The theme of the conference was 'The Living and Enduring Word'. There was a clear focus on Scripture as the Word of God and also on the One who lies at the heart of Scripture; Jesus Christ, the Word made flesh. But the overarching theme doesn't in itself explain what made this a vintage Banner conference. Doctrine can be dry and deadly, even the high and holy doctrines of Scripture and Christology. 

In his second address on 'A Functional Doctrine of Scripture: the Living Word of God' Garry Williams urged us to consider whether the reason why some people have introduced elements of drama into their services was that our communication of the gospel is lacking in that dramatic element. Preachers mustn't play act their sermons, but we should know and feel something of the wonder of the truth we are proclaiming. The preaching of the Word should also equip our people to play their roles in the drama of redemption, not just stuff their minds with doctrine. Now we are getting there.

In his opening sermon Jeff Kingswood tried to explain what it was to be a 'Banner Man' in terms of Ezra 7:10: Ezra was a man who Loved the Word, Practiced the Word and Taught the Word. Helpful stuff. But as the conference showed, while we would all aspire to model ourselves upon Ezra, there is no such thing as an identikit 'Banner Man'. Each speaker had his own cast of thought, way of putting things and manner of delivery. That's the way it should be. 'Banner Men' aren't peas in a pod, but they share a common burden for a certain kind of preaching. A ministry that is rooted in Scripture and centred upon Christ in terms of content. And that is expositional, doctrinal, practical and experiential in style. It's about preaching the whole of Scripture's witness to the whole Christ to the whole man in the power of the Spirit.

Seeing and hearing that exemplified by speaker after speaker was what made this year's conference so special. Sinclair Ferguson led us through Philippians 3 in three sessions on 'Christ at the Centre' under the headings: 'Conversion to Christ', 'Communion with Christ' and 'Consolidation in Christ'. His expositions were full of exegetical insight, theological depth and were warmly experiential in tone. In his first address Garry Williams spoke on 'A Functional Doctrine of Scripture: the Literary Word of God', urging us to give careful attention to the details of Scripture in order to keep our preaching biblically grounded and fresh. David Johnston showed us how Hebrews provides us with 'A Paradigm for Preaching' and set before us 'The Word at Work' by the empowering presence of the Spirit in Nehemiah 8. Stephen Clark spoke on 'Christ's Witness to Scripture' and 'Scripture's Witness to Christ'. It was good to hear a couple of younger men preaching. Andy Young spoke helpfully on 'Marks of the Master's Ministry' from Luke 4:13-30. Ed Collier gave the closing sermon on the Parable of the Sower from Mark 4:1-20, emphasising that as we sow the seed of the Word there will be frustrations and fruit. 

On top of the organised programme of ministry sessions, there were opportunities to have fellowship with old friends and meet some new people too. On Wednesday evening we had our traditional Taffia meeting of Minister who are Welsh or have a Welsh connection. Geoff Thomas held court as usual. Sinclair Ferguson was the special guest. I bought Devoted to God: Blueprints for Sanctification by Sinclair Ferguson from the bookshop. 

I haven't attempted to provide a breakdown of each address, as my friend Gary Brady has already done that and you can catch his live blogged reports here. Banner have posted videos of each message here. I left the conference with a renewed desire for deeper communion with Christ and a revived passion for preaching the Living and Enduring Word of God. If that makes me a 'Banner Man', so be it. 

Next year's Banner Ministers' Conference is due to take place on 23-26 April at Yarnfield Park. 

Friday, April 28, 2017

Their Finest

Time was when we'd take our two to the cinema to see the latest Disney release, surrounded by other youngish parents and their brood. Additional soundtrack: sweets loudly unwrapped and chomped, some brat having a tantrum because the popcorn's run out, etc. Quite liked the Toy Story series and other kid-flicks. Up was amazing. So, didn't mind all that. 

Years went by and our two became teenagers. Then it was all Marvel actioners, and (please don't tell) High School Musical sequels - for our daughter's sake, honest. Additional soundtrack: noisy sweet wrappers, popcorn crunch, coke slurps, and stupid smart Alec remarks from teenagers unaccompanied by a responsible adult. A year or so ago the wife and I went to a Marvel movie and it dawned on me that I don't actually like all that Super Bat knocking down skyscrapers stuff any more. Once you've seen one moody bloke in a cape wrecking things...

Last Saturday Sarah and I went to see Their Finest. Looking around I suddenly realised that all the people in Odeon Screen 6 were old. Apart from us. And we're the older side of young. Additional soundtrack: hushed mansplaining. 

We enjoyed the film. Nostalgic, gentle, but with a real emotional pull. It was all about the production of an uplifting propaganda film during by World War II. Loosely based on the escapades of twin sisters involved in the Dunkirk rescue [kind of]. But without allowing 'facts to get in the way of the truth'. Gemma Anderton's character, Ebbw Vale girl Catrin Cole showed that when it came to script writing she was as good, if not better than the chaps. She ended up doing far more than writing 'slops', the women talk scenes between the more actiony stuff. 

A fine comic turn by Bill Nighy as past his best actor, Ambrose Hilliard. Not exactly keen on the 'corpse part' of the twins' drunken uncle, but coming good in the end. 

For film goers interested in the process of movie making Their Finest is a treat. Tricks of the trade revealed; scripting, retro  special effects, the more difficult than you'd think business of acting. Some great lines on the relationship between cinema and real life, 'film is life with the boring bits cut out'. In movie-land, points out jaded writer Tom Buckley, stories have a structure and purpose, which isn't always apparent in real life. Not without some notion of Providence, anyway. 

Unsure why a 12A aimed at a 'mature audience' had to feature some bad language. Pity. But there were laughs aplenty and heart strings were pulled. 

The trailers flagged up some more WWII flicks for 2017 including Dunkirk and Churchill. Think we'll give the next Thor vs Hulk tosh a miss, though. Getting older has its compensations. 

Monday, April 24, 2017

Banner Ministers' Conference

Off to this later. Looking forward to what promises to be a good time of ministry and fellowship. Will hopefully post a report when I get back. 

Friday, April 21, 2017

1966 and all that: an evangelical journey by Basil Howlett

EP Books, 2016, 128pp 

I was a student at the London Theological Seminary (now London Seminary) from 1988-90. During the summer of 1989 I did a summer pastorate alongside Basil Howlett when he was pastor of Copse Road Evangelical Church, Clevedon. I was only there for a month or so, but during that time I learned some valuable lessons from him concerning the work of the ministry. 

The seminary was founded in 1977 by Dr. D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones who was concerned that evangelicals were having to train for pastoral work in colleges dominated by theological liberalism. Rather than being fired up to preach the word, they were struggling to maintain their faith in Christ and love for him in the face of sustained attack from teachers who had little time for the biblical gospel. 

In October 1966 at the Second National Assembly of the Evangelical Alliance, Lloyd-Jones had issued a call for evangelicals in the mixed denominations to come together and form a loose alliance of gospel churches. Why should they remain any longer in denominations where the gospel was being denied?

Some have tried to suggest that the preacher's call was something of a damp squib. But in fact it was a turning point for evangelical witness in the United Kingdom. Basil Howlett for one was becoming increasingly unhappy with his situation as a Baptist Union pastor. His training for the ministry was undertaken by men who denied and indeed derided essential gospel truths. A number of Basil's fellow BU ministers were evangelicals, but others were out and out liberals. Church members were not as clear as they should have been on basic Christian beliefs and principles of godly living. Partly as a result of Lloyd-Jones' call, Howlett and the church he served took the costly step of leaving the BU. Many other evangelical ministers and churches in Baptist Union, Congregational, Presbyterian and Anglican denominations did the same, 

Evangelicals today have become used to belonging to church groupings like the Fellowship of Independent Evangelical Churches, In these groupings we stand unitedly for the gospel and there is no argument over essential truths. Time is not wasted on trying to advance the interests of a evangelical 'wing' of a denomination. Men can train for pastoral ministry in evangelical seminaries and colleges. These gains are at least in part a consequence of  '1966 and all that'.   

Basil's story is a reminder of the price that was paid by his generation of preachers as they endeavoured to ensure that churches were gospel-centered, and that the church groupings to which they belonged were united in biblical faith, not just denominational allegiance. It was prophesied that those, who, like Basil left their denominations were heading for the wilderness. But as his account shows, the Lord blessed their faithful stand and much fruitfulness followed. 

The basic principles for which Lloyd-Jones argued back in 1966 still hold good today. We need to be clear on the gospel, what it means to be a Christian and what is a church. The gospel must be allowed to define the limit and extent of fellowship between churches. Where false teaching is rife in a denomination, separation is called for. Secession should not involve sectarian isolation, however, for the gospel of grace unites us together in faith, love and mission. "Come out of it! But also come together" urged Lloyd-Jones. 

I for one found this a very moving and challenging read. Evangelicals in the 'mixed denominations' today would do well to review the lessons set out here. Is "in it to win it" a realistic, let alone biblically faithful strategy? Those of us who have "come out of it" need to devote ourselves afresh to the pursuit of deeper evangelical unity that respects differences on secondary matters, even as we "strive together for the faith of the gospel". (Philippians 1:27). The need of our nation is greater than ever for a bold and united witness to the message of salvation in Jesus Christ. To that end, let us be prepared to stand alone together. 

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Battle Hymn of the Tiger Teachers: The Michaela Way edited by Katharine Birbalsingh

John Catt Education Ltd, 2016, 309pp

This was a, 'what's all the fuss about?' read. And there's sure been a lot of fuss about this book. Cheerleaders gonna cheer and haters gonna hate. Not being especially biased either way, I wanted to give the book a decent hearing. You'll have to judge for yourselves whether or not this is in fact a fair minded review. Also, the 'hymn' bit in the title appealed to me. Most of the books I read are in the fields of theology and biblical studies, or have something to do with me being a Baptist Minister. Knowing a good hymn when I see it is part of the job. I'm also chair of governors of a LA maintained secondary school, hence my interest in the world of education. 

First up, the things that got my goat. Michella exceptionalism. You know, the 'we're the only school that does this, that and the other' bit. Even as you're thinking, 'Eh? We also do this, that and the other in our school.' Things like every day is an open day, the promotion of an ethos of hard work and kindness among students, and so on. No doubt, like all schools, Michella has its distinguishing features, but sometimes it felt a bit like me as a Baptist preacher leaning over my pulpit one Sunday morning and grandly telling my flock, 'Look, we're the only true Baptist Church in Britain, holding to the doctrine of the Trinity, baptising believers, and such.' I can imagine our longsuffering people responding, 'No we're not, silly, how about all the other ones?' Well, yes. Michaela's exceptionalist tone is alienating, where instead the school could have positioned itself as a unifying force for the new educational traditionalists on the block. Whether they find themselves in free schools, academies, MATs, or bog standard LA comps. 

Plus, a bit premature, isn't it? I mean, writing a book on how amazing your secondary school is, when you've only got a Key Stage 3. All progress measures must be based on internal assessment. No GCSE or A Level results to benchmark how you are doing against the national picture. How's your Attainment 8/Progress 8 figures/Post 16 performance measures? That's the proof of the pudding. I hope that Michaela lives up to its promise and results are up there with the top 10% of schools year in year out, but that remains to be seen. Not having a Key stage 4 also means you haven't got Year 10 & 11s coming into that 'difficult age'. That's where things can start to get complicated. More to behaviour management then than getting kids to pick up a grape without throwing a strop. May have been better to have waited until there was some hard evidence to back up the claims made here. 

Then there's the martyr complex, 'everybody hates us' thing. Look, it's not just new-fangled free schools that get dissed. Try turning around a forever RI comp and you'll have grief. Shed loads, occasionally. So what? It's all about ensuring the best outcomes for students. Worth taking a bit of negative publicity for that, isn't it? You could call it the 'Luke effect', "Woe to you when all people speak well of you, for so their fathers did to the false prophets". (Luke 6:26).

Multi-author works can often appear fragmented and lacking in coherence, which is fine if the book is a collection of essays exploring variations on a theme. Not so fine if the work is billed as an exposition and defence of a 'way'. I wasn't expecting expecting the conceptual clarity of the Definition of Chalcedon, but the title seemed to promise an orderly and systematic presentation of the Michaela 'creed' and doesn't quite deliver on that front. The book could have done with an introductory chapter that set out the 'Michaela Way' as an integrated educational vision. The following chapters could then have shown how aspects of the 'way' worked out in practice when it came to curriculum design, pedagogy, pupil discipline, and so on. As it was, I left the book a little puzzled as to where the 'Michaela Way' came from as an educational philosophy, its underlying presuppositions, and so on. That lacuna made the work seem more like a high grade how-to book than an attempt at offering a compelling and coherent educational vision. 

Despite these misgivings, I must admit that I found myself joining in with the Battle Hymn of the Tiger Teachers at many points. Even without the benefit of a 'vision thing' chapter, it is clear that the driving theme of the Michaela 'battle hymn' is that progressive education is bunk. Absolutely no truck is given to child centred learning, relativistic approaches to pupil behaviour, or pedagogy that places the acquiring of nebulous skills above that of solid knowledge.

I must 'fess up' at this point and admit that most of what I know about pedagogy has been gleaned from bits and pieces I've come across on Twitter. But from what I've seen, an increasing body of research evidence seems to show that teacher led instruction is a more effective way of conveying knowledge and enabling mastery than pupil discovery-based models. (See here and here, for Nick Gibb on this). The chapters by Joe Kirby on Knowledge, Memory and Testing and Olivia Dyer on Drill and Didactic Teaching Work Best demonstrate how Michaela has drawn upon some of the latest research in developing its curriculum and in-house teaching style.

It is arrant nonsense to say the advent of the internet means children no longer need to be taught stuff because now they can look it up on Wikipedia. Students of all backgrounds benefit hugely by being taught the best of what has been thought, said and done by teachers who are experts in their fields. Knowledge mastered and remembered is power. Aside from cultural empowerment, we also need to factor in the additional weight given to terminal exams in the new style GCSEs. A facility for Googling is of no help in the exam hall.

I also appreciated Michaela's hard-edged approach to inclusion, where all students are expected to make excellent progress, whatever the disadvantages of their background or SEN issues. To suggest otherwise is to succumb to soft bigotry of low expectations. As is making allowances for bad behaviour on the part of some pupils. At Michaela all are required to work hard, be kind and cultivate an attitude of gratitude. Similarly, when as chair of governors I speak at parents' evenings I make it clear that we expect our students to be considerate, conscientious, and courteous - all of them, at all times. Rigorous and consistently applied systems need to be in place to ensure good behaviour is appropriately rewarded and bad sanctioned.

Now for the theology bit. Aside from the 'hymn' reference in the title, the book is peppered with biblical allusions. Joe Kirby draws on 'the Matthew effect', citing Matthew 25:29. In the blurb on the back cover Michael Gove writes, ''This book is their testament and my gospel." But the 'Michaela Way' is not and does not purport to offer a Christian vision of education. Many aspects are certainly in harmony with the Christian faith such as the rejection of Rouseeau's Romantic view of children, the recognition of teachers as authority figures, and an emphasis on personal responsibility and discipline. Education at Michaela is seen as the pursuit of truth through acquiring knowledge and an exercise in character formation.

Can't argue with any of that. But a distinctively Christian vision of education would flow from the realisation that, "the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom". We come into our own as homo sapiens (wise people) by understanding ourselves and the world around us in relation to God. As the Reformer John Calvin put it, "Our wisdom, in so far as it ought to be deemed true and solid Wisdom, consists almost entirely of two parts: the knowledge of God and of ourselves." (Institutes of the Christian Religion 1:1:1). It is for Christian parents with the support of the church to provide their children with a God-centred vision of education. That holds true whether they homeschool, or send their children to schools in the private or state sectors. 

In Michaela's 'us against the world' dictum I discerned a faint echo of the words of Athanasius, champion of the orthodox doctrine of the Trinity in the fourth century AD. With the support of Roman emperor the heresy of Arianism had gained acceptance in the church. Athanasius was having none of it. People tried to browbeat him into submission saying, "Do you not realise the whole world is against you?" To which the church father is reputed to have replied, "Then Athanasius is against the world." His doggedness won the day and the church was restored to its confession of one God in three persons. A similar determined resilience will be required on the part of those who set themselves against the world of progressive ideas and practices that for far too long have held back educational outcomes in England. 

That said, the trad/prog divide shouldn't be absolutised. Traditionalism at its worst is incapable of embracing necessary reform. Progressivism at its worst refuses to learn from the wisdom of the past and is therefore doomed to keep on finding new ways of repeating old mistakes. An element of creative tension is needed between preserving the best of the past and rising to the challenges of the future. We should not romanticise the 'good old days'. I well remember being bored out of my tiny mind by lessons that comprised of little more than 'dictation', punctuated only by a pause by the teacher to chuck a board rubber at daydreaming pupil. Double physics with Mr. Whatshisname, complete with bow tie, winklepicker boots and a mission to put generations of children off the wonders of science for life. Who'd want to go back to that? 

Readers won't find everything in these pages to their tastes. The Michaela approach to pupil discipline can seem a tad harsh. I think performance related pay has its place in improving the quality of teaching and raising standards. Group work isn't all bad when carried out in lessons that are predominantly teacher led. If it is, how come many Russell Group Universities use it in their science and engineering courses? The quality of the chapters is uneven. Some writers are quite didactic in style, referencing scholarly studies. Others are more 'chatty' and anecdotal. The work is characterised by a defensive stance, adopted to fend off anticipated brickbats. Reflective self-criticism can be lacking. On occasion the pride contributors have in their school seems a little self-congratulatory. Such quibbles aside, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Teachers is a thought proving read that deserves serious attention from anyone who has an interest in the future of education.

As I say, I'm a governor, so I will conclude with some thoughts on how fellow govs might find this work useful. Not that we should attempt to turn our schools into mini (or maxi) Michaelas, but there's no harm in reflecting on what might be be learned from this trailblazing school. Some questions for govs to ponder as they seek to sharpen up the strategic leadership and accountability they give their schools:
  • Does your vision for the school include a commitment to academic excellence and pupil character development?  
  • Is the curriculum sufficiently broad, enriching and rigorous, both in its vocational and academic elements? Or are some subjects taught simply to boost the school's standing in the Performance Tables, although they are of little benefit to students? (Like the discredited ECDL). 
  • Does the in-house style of teaching help ensure the mastery and memorisation of knowledge by students, with the result that rapid and sustained progress is made by all? Is this evidenced in internal data reports and exam results, for all types of pupil? 
  • Are systems of pupil behaviour and discipline implemented with rigour and consistency, leading to children being considerate, conscientious, and courteous at all times? Can this be seen when governors visit the school? What do student panels say? What do parent surveys say? What is attendance compared with the national average? What about exclusions? 
  • Are school leaders burdening teaching staff with excessive workload due to systems of data collection and work scrutiny? What do staff surveys say?
  • To what extent is CPD aimed at deepening teachers' subject knowledge, as well as enhancing their skills? Do governors receive reports on the CPD programme and its impact? What do staff surveys tell you about the quality and effectiveness of CPD for all teaching staff from NQT to UPS?
  • Is inclusion hard-edged, with the same high expectations concerning behaviour and academic progress for all pupils? How are governors monitoring this? Are all students making at least the expected progress, given their starting points?
Enough. We've had Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother and now Battle Hymn of the Tiger Teachers. Apart from a brief foreword by the Michaela Governing Body, governance barely gets a look in here. Shame, that. Maybe the time has come for Battle Hymn of the Tiger Governors? Set to the wonderfully strident tune Rachie by Caradog Roberts. 'All together now...'

* I am grateful to the publishers for sending me this complimentary review copy.