Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Center Church by Timothy Keller

Center Church: Doing Balanced, Gospel-Centered Ministry in your City,
by Timothy Keller, Zondervan, Kindle Edition

You've got your fundies on the one hand; right on many things, but also a bit repulsive. Not being very into engaging the culture and that. And then you've got your liberals on the other; wrong on most things, but also quite nice. They don't so much want to engage the culture, as have it tell the church what to believe about stuff. Someone's got to. Between these two extremes is Keller's 'Church of the Third Way', or 'Center Church' as he persists in calling it. Look, I know it's 'Centre', not 'Center', but I'm contextualising my spelling as it's an American book I'm reviewing and spelling isn't their strong point across The Pond. OK?

Anyhow, a 'Center Church' is thoroughly evangelical when it comes to believing and proclaiming the gospel, but is also culturally engaged and socially active. The 'Center Church' vision is especially apt for big cities like New York, where Keller ministers, but other global cities such as London, Paris, or Mexico City would fit the bill. I serve town and village churches. There isn't much resemblance between New York and Westbury. or West Lavngton and Manhattan. We don't have sky scrapers, yellow taxis, or Woody Allen, and they don't have a massive White Horse carved into a hillside. As far as I know, anyway. Despite these drawbacks, there is enough in Keller's work to provide food for thought for those who, like me, are involved in small town-based ministries.

The book begins with a clear, compelling and unambiguous statement of the Gospel that the church has been called to perform and proclaim. Only the gospel can tear down our idols and reconnect us with the one true and living God who is Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Keller is careful to distance himself from those who are so concerned to promote social activism that they neglect or even reject evangelism and disciple making. Above all else church exists to fulfill the Great Commission. That is done as the 'scattered church' goes out into the world, bearing witness to the gospel in everyday life. But Keller also emphasises the importance of gospel preaching in the context of the 'gathered church'. Old Testament revelation held out the expectation that the nations would come to know the Lord as Israel declared his praises. In the New Testament we have indications that non-believers were present in church meetings and that the Word had a saving impact on their lives, 1 Corinthians 14:24-25.

Keller has a lot to say on engaging the culture. While the gospel doesn't change, that essential message needs to be communicated in culturally appropriate ways. We see glimpses of that in the New Testament. Paul's approach in Acts 13 was quite different to the way he went about things in Acts 17. In the USA and UK the culture is increasingly 'post-Christian' and the church cannot simply assume that non-believers are familiar with the basic elements of the Christian faith. 'Defeater beliefs' that stand in the way of faith need to be challenged in a winsome and persuasive way. Do we preachers work hard enough at relating the eternal Word to the concerns and issues of our own day and age? As we marshal arguments for the gospel in our preaching will will not only speak to any non-Christians in our congregations, we will also help our people to be more effective in giving a reason for their hope in personal witness.

We preachers are often quite negative when it comes to speaking about the culture. It's all, 'things are getting worse and worse. Have nothing to do with it'. I've even heard preachers say with some pride, 'We don't compromise by trying to be contemporary.' But that's just silly. Being a bit quaint and old fashioned is not a litmus test of faithfulness to the gospel.  Keller's approach is helpful here. Rather than blanket negativity, he suggests that in any culture there are aspects that the gospel confirms, completes and contradicts.

The gospel confirms the unique value of each individual human being. Our culture by and large (under the influence of Christian teaching no doubt) agrees with that. Hence legislation that outlaws discrimination on the grounds of gender, race or disability. In our culture people are questing for meaning and purpose in life. Some do so through pleasure seeking, others by steadfastly pursuing their careers. But it's only the gospel that can provide complete fulfillment and satisfaction by reconciling us to God. Sadly there are things in our culture that the gospel contradicts. Abortion, for example. And when that is the case, the task of the church is to announce God's shuddering, "No!" and call for repentance.

But by God's 'common grace' the culture isn't all bad and Christians are called to engage with it through artistic pursuits, in the workplace, and by getting involved in their local communities. If all preachers ever do is denounce the culture, that will lead to Christians disengaging from life in the world, rather than seeking to be salt and light in it. The church should help believers understand what it means to put their faith into practice in the whole of their lives. Preachers should apply what the Bible says not only to the life of the gathered church, but every area of life. It's only right that churches and individual Christians should seek to build bridges to their local communities by running parent and toddler groups, contributing to food banks, supporting the sick and troubled, getting involved as school governors, and so on. It's not a matter of either evangelism, or seeking the well-being of the community, but gospel faith working by love.

I reflect on what Keller has to say on the interplay between faith and culture as it touches on the 'Two Kingdoms' view in another post.

The writer has some helpful things to say on every member ministry and what that looks like in practice for both the 'gathered church ' and 'scattered church', or 'organisational church' and 'organic church', as he puts it. His preferred method of reaching cities for Christ is church planting. I'm fully behind church planting ventures. As a fellowship we support the Grace Baptist Partnership. But such strategy isn't necessarily viable for small town churches, let alone village works. In those cases it's more a matter of revitalising existing local churches and reconnecting them with their local communities.

Keller's constant attempt to grab the middle ground can grate a little, You can grow tired of, 'On the one hand this extreme, and on the other that, but the Centre Church will position itself slap bang in the middle'. Some of the stuff he has to say is more relevant to a big city church with an arty, white collar membership. That isn't my lot. But there is thought provoking stuff here that caused me to reflect on my own practice and that of the churches I serve. Two big questions: How effective are we engaging the culture with the gospel in ways that confirm, complete and contradict it as appropriate? And how can we ensure that the 'organisational church' with its leadership structures, meetings and activities is equipping the 'organic church' to serve and bear witness to Jesus in today's world?

Thursday, September 17, 2015

The Pastor as Public Theologian: Reclaiming a Lost Vision by Kevin J. Vanhoozer and Owen Strachan

The Pastor as Public Theologian: Reclaiming a Lost Vision 
by Kevin J. Vanhoozer and Owen Strachan, Baker Academic, 2015, 221pp.

Theology is sometimes viewed as a somewhat abstruse body of knowledge, beloved of academic pointy-heads, but of little use to believers in their everyday lives. Or worse. In an episode of the classic BBC sitcom Yes Prime Minister, head of the Civil Service, Sir Humphrey advised the PM on his duties with regard to appointing a Church of England Bishop. He explained that the church was run by theologians and that 'theology's a device for helping agnostics stay within the church'. [See from 9  mins in on this episode]. That was back in the days of the Liberal ascendancy when Runcie was Archbishop of Canterbury, so perhaps the remarks had some justification. But they represent a sorry slur on theology and theologians. At its best theology is not about obfuscating unbelief, but faith seeking understanding of what is in Christ. And understanding what is in Christ and living in the light of that reality is of the essence of the Christian life.

Hence this book, co-authored by Vanhoozer and Strachan. It has long been an ambition in the former's body of work 'to make the pastoral lamb lie down with the theological lion.' (The Drama of Doctrine: A Canonical Linguistic Approach to Christian Theology, Kevin J. Vanhoozer, WJK, 2005, xii). The central thesis of this book is that the pastor is a public intellectual; a theologian for the sake of the people of God. That point isn't widely understood, even among Evangelical churches. All too often the church has borrowed its understanding of leadership from the world. The pastor is seen as a CEO, counselor, or kindly social worker. We need to return to the biblical model of Minister as pastor-teacher, whose main role is to communicate what is in Christ to the people of God.   

This vision is rooted in the Scriptures. Strachan devotes a fascinating chapter to the differing ways in which prophets, priests and kings functioned as theologians to the Old Testament people of God. He argues that pastors now function as prophets ministering truth, priests ministering grace, and kings ministering wisdom. Of course, Christ is the great Prophet, Priest and King. In a very real sense all God's people share in these three offices under the new covenant. But Strachan sets out the lines of continuity between the key Old Testament offices and pastoral ministry as described in the New Testament. Indeed, his case may have been strengthened had he made mention of the way in which the Old Testament kings were called 'shepherds' and that pastors have been appointed to 'rule' in the church as part of the eldership team (1 Timothy 5:17, Hebrews 13:17). Strachan also traces the historical development of the pastoral office over the course of church history. 

Next Vanhoozer gets us 'In the Evangelical Mood: The Purpose of the Pastor-Theologian', giving attention to the indicatives and imperatives of the gospel that the pastor is to inhabit and minister. According to the philosopher Heidegger, human life is afflicted with a nagging sense of anxiety concerning our finite condition. The human being is a being-towards-death. But the good news of Jesus Christ transforms believers into beings-towards-resurrection.They have been delivered from the fear of death and look forward in hope to a new creation that has already begun to dawn in Christ, and through Christ, in them. The focus is not so much on ousia (being in general), as parousia (being in the light of Christ's coming). Pastors are called to minister this reality by setting out the grand indicative concerning what God has done in Christ for his people. They help the people of God to grasp what is in Christ and what they are in him by ministering the word, thus nurturing believers in biblical literacy. Being equipped with 'canon sense' will also help Christians to understand, critique and relate the gospel to the culture in meaningful ways. But the pastor's task is not limited to declaring the good news of Jesus in the indicative mood. They must also set out the imperatives that flow from participating in what is in Christ; getting wisdom, walking in love and imitating Jesus. Thus, pastors help the people of God to play their roles in the great drama of God's redeeming grace.

The practical skills that pastors need to accomplish their work are the focus of attention in the next chapter, 'Artisans in the House of God: The Practices of the Pastor-Theologian'. They include building the church as a disciple-maker, proclaiming what is in Christ as an evangelist, teaching what is in Christ as a catechist, celebrating what is in Christ as a liturgist, and demonstrating what is in Christ as an apologist. These differing facets of the pastoral ministry are explored with a good mix of sound biblical insight and shrewd practical application. The use made of Ezra-Nehemiah in the section on building the church made for interesting reading, as I've not long completed a series of sermons on those Bible books. Vanhoozer concludes with Fifty-Five Summary Theses on the Pastor as Public Theologian

Interspersed between the major chapters of this book you'll find twelve 'Pastoral Perspectives', short pieces written by pastors that aim to show what it means to be a 'pastor-theologian' in the context of everyday church life. One of them is by yours truly on The Drama of Preaching. I can't really vouch for that bit, but I'd recommend that all aspiring and serving pastors give this book a thoughtful and prayerful read. If the pastor as public theologian is a lost vision, this well written and passionately argued book certainly makes a grand attempt at reclaiming it. Anything that helps pastors to minister what is in Christ more effectively must be good for us, the people whom we have been called to serve, and the world that so desperately needs to hear the life-transforming message of the gospel.  

Sunday, September 06, 2015

Amy Carmichael: 'Beauty for Ashes', A Biography, by Iain H. Murray

Amy Carmichael: 'Beauty for Ashes', A Biography,
by Iain H. Murray, Banner of Truth Trust, 2015, 168pp

Must confess that I didn't know an awful lot about Amy Carmichael. Apart from what I'd read years ago in psychiatrist Gaius Davies' [no relation] Genius and Grace. Bit of a nutter, apparently. An hysteric with a penchant for melodrama. Cared for vulnerable children in India, which was nice, but set herself as a Protestant 'Mother Superior'. Something of a poet.

Iain Murray's brief biog presents a more rounded portrait of the missionary-poet and her work in founding the Dohnavur Fellowship, which was originally set up as a refuge for children who were in danger of being dragged into ritual prostitution. Hers is a fine story of faith and fortitude, well told by Murray. 

I used some of my birthday money to buy the book with the intention of reading it on holiday. So gripping was Murray's account that I'd finished it within a day or two of our summer break. Admittedly, Carmichael isn't your typical 'Banner Woman'. Her piety was that of Kewsick-mysticism rather than  experimental Calvinism, but she evidently loved  the Lord and had a deep concern for needy children. Murray highlights the value of her devotional writings and commends her example of sacrificial service.  

Murray is critical of Carmichael's take on guidance by spiritual impulse and acknowledges that she could sometimes be headstrong and hot-tempered. But he defends her of Davies' charge that she could brook no disagreement from her co-workers and would send dissenters packing. That is how Davies explains Amy falling out with Stephen Niell, whom the psychiatrist describes as 'the brilliant Bishop of Tinnevelly'. Murray points out what Davies neglects to mention - that Niell rejected the inerrancy of Scripture. Carmichael's disagreement with him was not so much a personality clash, as a serious doctrinal disagreement. Murray devotes a chapter to exposing the detrimental impact of a critical view of the Bible on the cause of world mission. 

Not the author's best biog by a long chalk, but an inspiring little book none the less. Well worth a read.