The Prodigal God


We’ve just started Tim Keller’s Prodigal God study series with a group from church. If you haven’t seen it, it is a series of studies that go with Keller’s book on the parable of the prodigal son.

Overall I’m really happy with the format and content of the course. Keller has a particular focus on the older son which I think is the actual focus of the parable, and very pastorally helpful in a church situation.

I do however have one question about Keller’s exegesis of the parable. He suggests that Jesus not only intended the older brother to be a rebuke to the self righteous Pharisees, he also intended him to point people to a ‘true’ older brother who would go and look for the younger brother and bring him home ie. as a pointer to the ministry of Jesus himself. It’s a very nice idea, but I just can’t see this what Jesus originally intended when he told the parable

Posted in Book Review, Theology | 2 Comments

Compelling Church Part 2

So what does make church compelling? I actually don’t think there is one single answer to this question. Clearly different people find different things compelling.

The other important thing to keep in mind is that, ‘compellingness’ is not the only criteria by which to judge a church service. It’s first and foremost an opportunity to meet as God’s people to meet with him and to encourage each other. As such, prayer, Bible reading, Bible teaching, praise and mutual encouragement are non-negotiable, however compelling or otherwise they might be.

With that in mind, here are some thoughts on being compelling.

1. Relational warmth is a big key to compelling church. Love is supposed to be the defining characteristic of God’s people. And I think a warm and loving community that shows that love to visitors will cover over a multitude of other less compelling features of church. I was talking to a guy on Saturday who goes to a church where I was a student minister in 2002. And he came up to me and said ‘You were the first person who said hello to me when I arrived at church. I can remember we came in and sat down. And you came straight up and introduced yourself, and we thought this is pretty good, and we’ve been here ever since.’

You can’t manufacture relational warmth, but you can help your services reflect relationship warmth with good welcomers, warm and smiling service leading and having morning tea afterwards.

2. A length of service that matches the gifts of those leading. If you have music lead by professional musicians, An internationally renowned speaker and a full time pastor in charge of running your church service who spends his whole week putting together the program, you can probably run a very compelling 2hr church service. The average suburban church however, that has a pretty standard program every week and a normal faithful preacher should probably keep to 1hr.

I can’t see any Biblical reasons why longer is better. The Lords prayer indicates that prayers should be clear and to the point. And everything I can see about preaching suggests that simple to the point preaching is to be preferred to long involved sermons.

From a purely pragmatic point of view, I find nothing less compelling than a drawn out church service. There are certain settings and certain preachers where I am happy to listen to 35min plus sermons. But on the whole I think it’s un-necessary and un-compelling.

On the topic of timing I also think it is compelling to have consistent timing. If people know that they are coming for a 1.5 hr service every week, then that’s fine. But if it’s 1hr one week and 1.5 the next week, then it is not at all compelling.

3. Congregational Involvement. I think it’s compelling to have people from the congregation involved. It’s relational, and it communicates that this is a community/family, not just a minister. Some care of course needs to be taken to get the congregation involved in a way that uses their gifts appropriately.

4. Good Music. This is just a pragmatic thing. Good music is more compelling than poor music. I’d also argue that unless you’re going to focus in on a particular demographic, contemporary music is the most compelling for the most people.

I can’t see that the amount of music in the service is a Biblical issue. If the songs have rich biblical lyrics I can’t see a theological downside to people singing more. There is however the pragmatic rule that I established above about length and gifting.

These thoughts are a bit random, and I would actually be very interested in seeing more research about what people do find more and less compelling about Church, rather than just relying on anecdotal evidence.

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The Peacemaker

The Peacemaker sounds a bit like an action movie starring George Clooney, which it is, but it is also an excellent book on Biblical peacemaking by Ken Sande. I’ve been reading the book over the last few weeks and I think it has some great principles for helping Christians to work through conflicts wherever they may face them, from marriage to neighbours to the workplace.

The book outlines a four step process for resolving conflict as follows:

  1. Glorify God. Biblical Peacemaking is motivated and guided by a deep desire to bring honor to god by revealing the reconciling love and power of Jesus Christ….
  2. Get the log out of your eye. Attacking others only invites counterattacks. This is why Jesus teaches us to face up to our own contributions to a conflict before we focus on what others have done….
  3. Gently restore. When others fail to see their contributions to a conflict, we sometimes need to graciously show them their fault….
  4. Go and be reconciled. Finally, peacemaking involves a commitment to restoring damaged relationships and negotiating just agreements…

Real strengths of this book are that it tries to take a distinctively God and Gospel centred approach to conflict resolution – something seriously needed in our culture. It is also extremely practical and makes all kinds of suggestions for things like insurance claims against other Christians and seeking damages from the government/large corporations. Whether or not you agree with all the suggestions he makes, it is great that he tries to take a consistent approach to the nuts and bolts of conflict in 21st century western culture. On the whole I think he succeeds.

A minor reservation about the book is the occasional forced use of Bible passages to establish that a particular approach is Biblical. However on the whole I highly recommend this book as a resource, and I am currently seeking to put some of the principles into practice in some situations I’m working with.

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Compelling Church Gatherings

According to the Sydney Anglican Research Project, the first reason why generally sympathetic people do not become regular attenders at church is because our gatherings are not sufficiently compelling.

If this is the case, what should we do about it? I think this is a question that needs some serious ongoing thought (I think most ministers have thought about this many times).

In his briefing article, Tony Payne helpfully observes that he brings a set of theological convictions to his reading of the research. I am sympathetic to his position here and agree for example that even if the research shows that prayer and bible reading are unpopular, they are an essential part of church, whatever the research says. However it seems to me the Tony is too quick to jump to theological conclusions without letting the research challenge our convictions. He states confidently –

Consequently, it would be foolish to conclude from the Research Project that we should dumb down our church gatherings, shorten the preaching, reduce the Bible readings, cut back on prayer, and have lots more music in order to be more appealing to visitors.

I have two problems with this statement. Firstly I it seems to imply that more music and shorter preaching ‘dumb down’ our church services and are therefore definitely a bad thing. But what if the preaching is shorter because it is better prepared and more succinct, and what if people actually learn more from shorter sermons because they do a better job of communicating a single memorable point. And what if there are more songs that capture the gospel in a deep and meaningful way.

In other words, I don’t want to give up my theological convictions either, but it seems counter productive to dismiss so quickly questions that the research raises about our methodology.

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Why aren’t we growing Part 2

The observation about transient populations was really just an aside on the way to the central findings of the research project into Sydney Anglican Churches.

According to the research, there is a surprisingly large amount of respect/sympathy in the community for churches and Christianity and a large number of people visit churches occasionally. The big problem seems to be that people don’t join churches after they visit.

The Research project suggests 3 reasons why people don’t join churches.

  1. The content and presentation of our church meetings are not sufficiently compelling.
  2. Lack of genuine spiritual growth among congregation members.
  3. Follow-up is inadequate.

I would say that our experience at Scots matches closely the findings of the research project. There are plenty of people who visit for different events. Parents are very happy to have their kids in RE and even say things like ‘we really should get along to church some time.’ But they never make quite make it. Obviously there are some genuinely hostile people in the community. But there are many who are simply busy and unmotivated.

So, what to do about it? Guess if I had the answer these posts would have a different title. But  I’ll have some thoughts in the next post.

Posted in Ministry Strategy | 2 Comments

Why aren’t we growing?

Great question for our church, and for churches in general. Some business analysts down in Sydney have been doing a big study looking at the state of the Anglican church down there, and there is a write up/analysis of some of the findings at the new Briefing Website.

The first finding that caught my eye was:

The high degree of social mobility in our cities makes the environment even more tricky for Sydney Anglicans—and indeed for all churches. Nearly 40% of our congregations will leave every five years, simply because they have moved house.

This is certainly our experience in Clayfield. And as the study points out, while you do also get the corresponding 40% who move into your area, it has quite a destabilising effect on the congregation.

Don’t think there are any easy answers, although encouraging people to stay put for the sake of the Gospel is definitely something that needs to be done more.

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The unexpectedly sticky sermon.

According to the book ‘Made to Stick’ by Chip and Dan Heath, (find a full summary on my favourite blog, What’s Best Next)  one of the six key features of ideas that stick in people’s mind is the ‘Unexpected’. I’m convinced this is also a key feature of good sermons, but when you’re dealing with a Bible and a Gospel that don’t change, being unexpected is a challenge. Here are three strategies I use to make my sermon’s unexpected.

1. Exegetical insight. This is the best way to be unexpected – help people understand something new about a Bible passage, or see how it fits together for the first time. Of course there is a danger in simply adopting novel interpretations of passages just to be unexpected. However in my experience there is a stack of stuff that most people don’t understand about most passages, especially on how the overall argument/big idea ties together. So hard work on exegesis is definitely a key to being unexpected.

2. Unexpected application. Even if a passage is extremely well known. Eg the prodigal son or the paralysed man, you can still be unexpected by putting your application in fresh language or addressing our culture in a new way.

3. Unexpected Illustration. Illustrations won’t make up for constantly bland and shallow exegesis and application. But from time to time, an unexpected illustration will make a well known passage or point of application grab people’s attention.

Glad to hear if anyone has any other strategies for making sermon’s unexpected.



Posted in Uncategorized | 12 Comments

Back again

Ok, I know it’s been a while since I posted, so long in fact that the only reason you are reading this is because you forgot to delete this feed from your blog reader. Anyway, been doing a bit of reading and thought I might return for a few posts.

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The view from the Gateway bridge


Went for a ride to the top of the gateway bridge this morning. Great new bike path on the bridge, but horrible to get to – you have to ride down Kingsford Smith drive (one of the main truck routes in Brisbane if you’re not from around here).

Posted in Exercise | 3 Comments

The most expensive member of the family


She has multiple skin problems. But who could resist those eyes!

Posted in my life | 2 Comments