Tuesday, October 30, 2012

How NOT to Choose a Church

SCRIPTURE: 1 Peter 1:22
Written by: Dr Conrade Yap
Date: 30 October 2012

"Now that you have purified yourselves by obeying the truth so that you have sincere love for your brothers, love one another deeply, from the heart." (1 Peter 1:22)

Hopping around for a church to fit in? Church shopping? Well, this article is for you. This week, I like to highlight seven ways how NOT to choose a Church.

Hundreds, if not thousands of people church hop. I know of many who do so at various phases of their lives. Some move because of an unmet need in their own lives. Others move because of their children. Still, others move because they needed a break.

Fair enough. Church is not for the faint-hearted. There are legitimate reasons why people church hop. There are also strange and selfish reasons too. This is partly due to the consumer culture we have, as well as the freedom of choice. In such a culture, our own priorities increasingly trump community needs. When the "I" becomes bigger than the "you," or the "we," the decision to jump-ship on the basis of self-need is a no-brainer. Before I go on, let me offer a piece of advice. This is for those of us who are looking for a "perfect church" to go to. If you eventually find one, do NOT join it. Stay away. Keep it separate from your influence. For if you do, you will make it imperfect. If in doubt, check out Romans 3:23.

Such an advice will not go down well with those who are conceited and who have an overly high view of themselves. They may even accuse me of judgmentalism. Sigh. That's how life is. We have more problems of imperfect people trying to look perfect, thinking that the whole world owes them a living. I have been in Christian ministry for more than 27 years.  I have seen people shop for the perfect church, often seeing another church as "better suited" to their liking than their existing one.

Let me put together seven thoughts on how NOT to choose a Church.

Seven Tips on How NOT to Choose a Church

#1 - A Church that adopts the latest and the greatest new stuff

In our world of latest and the greatest technological gizmos, a higher version number of anything generally means a faster, better, and more improved version. From iPads to iPhones, from software version 1 to the next upgrade, whatever new and fresh almost always looks better. Most of the time, people who are attracted to the latest-and-the-greatest churches will tend to let the facade drives their decision making. Just because the Church uses the latest Powerpoint projector, or biggest sound system, does not necessarily mean it is better. Beware the danger of fascination with the idol of technology or the neo-ism (new things - ism).  Not all new things are good. Neither are all old things bad. If we can learn to see new things with old, tried and tested wisdom, and old things with a fresh perspective, it augers well for all generations, both young and old. If your reason for joining a church is on the basis of new stuff, the latest and the greatest, do not join them.  For if that is your criteria, all it takes is a brand new church next year to make you jump ship again.

Beware: If we choose a Church on the basis of the latest-and-the-greatest, remember that we will eventually become obsolete, as the church becomes a victim of its own focus.

#2 - The Church never talks about tradition or history

This flows from the first point. Some churches are so full and excited about new things that they totally ignore the historical past or the traditions that have stood the test of time. It is one thing to embrace the new, it is yet another to do so at the expense of the past. A church that forgets about its past is erasing its own sense of identity. I have seen young people who get easily tired about their old traditional churches, and leave for supposedly "greener" pastures. After a while, they too grow tired of their adopted church. Worse, they have lost the opportunity to learn the wisdom and the tradition that have faithfully given the Church its very identity.

The author George Santayana writes, "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." We need to let history be our guide for the future. Without a firm foundation of the past, how can one even how how to think or plan for the future? If the church you are considering, NEVER talks about their story, their history, or the traditions of the faith, do not join it. They are fast losing their sense of identity. If you join them, you too may lose your own sense of identity.

Beware: A Church that never talks about its tradition or history is erasing its own sense of identity.

#3 - The Church never questions my views or values

In an individualistic society that is high on personal rights, it is common for society at large to accept that everyone has a right to their own views and opinions. This places the Church in a strange situation. On the one hand, individuals do have a right to their own opinion. What if they are wrong? What if the Church fails to speak out, just because they have to toe the line of "respecting" people's individual rights? Sometimes, people become so sensitive about comments on them that they are ready to go on the defensive everytime they find themselves questioned about anything. So everyone has a right to their own opinion, and no one dares to speak out. If you go to a Church that behaves exactly that way, that never ever question your behaviour, even when the behaviour is sinful and wrong, the Church is not living as the true Church.

Beware: The Church that never questions you even when you are wrong, is not standing up for the truth. 

#4 - The Church is entertaining (High Entertainment Value)

We live in an e-world. From TV to movies, from Internet apps to all kinds of social activities, entertainment is a way of life. Sometimes, we bring that expectation to church on Sundays. People come with expectations of a great worship time, a place honed for maximum experiential value, and of course, great sermons! I liken these things to spiritual steroids. They beef us up for a little while. After the effect wears off, like energy drinks, we become worn out after the kick factor is gone. If one chooses a Church on the basis of entertainment value, I will question what is the priority of the person attending church. Is worship for self or for God?

Beware: A Church that is focused on mere entertainment has misappropriated their resources and misdirected the focus that belongs to God.

#5 - The Church meets my needs (High in Meeting Needs)

Once, I heard a church member say this. "I'm leaving this church because this church does not meet my needs, or my family's needs."

I shudder when I hear that. What? Is Church about meeting your needs? Are you not bringing in a consumerist mindset into the church of God? What happens if the new church you are going to, no longer "meets" your need? Does it mean you will hop on to the next church? Where then is your sense of calling? You may say you have a right to have your needs met. What about your responsibilities as a church member?

Hey. In my years in Church, I cannot remember a time where the church fully meets my needs. That is not the purpose of church in the first place. If you want entertainment, turn on the TV. If you want babysitting, go get a babysitter. If you want good songs, hop onto to the Internet radio. Church is not for entertaining you. Church is us worshiping God. Together.

Beware: A Church that meets all needs is never sustainable. After all, Church is not about meeting needs. It is about letting God meet needs, and as God leads, through people like you and me. Church is not a hospital. It is a place for worship.

#6 - The Church that is open to all kinds of values

If one chooses a church simply because it puts openness above doctrinal truths, one may start to question whether it is a church or simply a spiritual club. In an age where many people espouses a form of spiritual-but-not-religious, it is tempting for churches to jump on the bandwagon of syncretism, where anything and everything goes. One reason why many people prefer spirituality instead of religion is because they do not want to be hemmed in any one view or religious position. They prefer an undefined idea of spirituality instead of a rigid persuasion of religion, so that they can be free to believe and to practise whatever they WANT to believe, without feeling judged by anyone, even God. The center of decision making is not truth. It is their own perception of truth.  If one does not stand for anything, one essentially stands for nothing. If the Church you are about to attend is open to all kind of values, think again. Churches like these are interested in numbers and a false sense of openness.

Beware: A Church that is totally open to everything stands for nothing.

#7 - The Church never challenges me, and requires very little from me.

It is easy to say nice things to one another, and feel like we are accepted. Did Jesus say nice things to all people he meets? Yes, he is compassionate. Yes, he is gentle. Yes, he speaks and shares lovingly with the poor, the weak, and the handicapped. Yet, he challenges the Pharisees, the Zealots, and the Sadduccees not to be hypocrites. He gives his disciples the challenge to love one another, to lay down their lives for each other, to deny themselves, take up the cross and to follow Jesus. He even tells Peter to brace himself for the worse.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer warns us of cheap grace.  Let me close by sharing an excerpt of his writings.
"Cheap grace is the deadly enemy of our Church. We are fighting to-day for costly grace. Cheap grace means grace sold on the market like cheapjacks' wares. The sacraments, the forgiveness of sin, and the consolations of religion are thrown away at cut prices. Grace is represented as the Church's inexhaustible treasury, from which she showers blessings with generous hands, without asking questions or fixing limits. Grace without price; grace without cost! The essence of grace, we suppose, is that the account has been paid in advance; and, because it has been paid, everything can be had for nothing. Since the cost was infinite, the possibilities of using and spending it are infinite. What would grace be if it were not cheap?" (Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Cost of Discipleship, SCM Press, 1959, p43)

Beware: A Church that offers cheap grace, does not challenge people to move beyond their comfort zone, is not living out its calling to be the true Church of Jesus Christ.

If any of these seven reasons forms a big criteria in your choosing of a church, think again. For the sake of your family, think double. For the sake of yourself, think thrice. For the sake of the gospel, think.


Copyright by SabbathWalk. This devotional is sent to you free of charge. If you feel blessed or ministered to by SabbathWalk weekly devotionals, feel free to forward to friends, or to invite them to subscribe online at http://blog.sabbathwalk.org . You can also send me an email at cyap@sabbathwalk.org for comments or enquiries.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Pillar #4 - Praying and Caring for One Another

SCRIPTURE: Psalm 133
Written by: Dr Conrade Yap
Date: 25 October 2012

[This is the concluding part of a 4-part series called "Pillars of the Church." In Part IV, I will concentrate on the pillar of praying and caring for one another. The Greek word for this is koinonia, or commonly translated as fellowship.]
"How good and pleasant it is when brothers live together in unity! It is like precious oil poured on the head, running down on the beard, running down on Aaron’s beard, down upon the collar of his robes. It is as if the dew of Hermon were falling on Mount Zion. For there the Lord bestows his blessing, even life forevermore." (Ps 133:1-3)

There is no bigger testimony when brothers and sisters care for one another deeply. It is even more powerful when they do not just talk about it but live it. I know of someone who drives downtown about twice a day, five times a week to help a single mum bring a child to play school. No payment was solicited. No formal request was put in. It is pure love and joy in helping a needy person. Another group of people decided to get out of their comfort zone, dressed down to blend in, and headed to the poorest district in town, to help with some basic chores for the needy. In Vancouver each year, organizations like Union Gospel Mission will hold huge Thanksgiving dinners to feed more than a thousand people, totally free of charge. With the hundreds of volunteers and staff, people focus on simply serving the poorest and the neediest in the neighbourhood.

I have seen a fair number of caring and sharing in churches too. I remember how individual small group members will come together to help a member in need, without being asked, without exacting payment in any kind. The generosity and the caring puts into action the basic commandment of God, to love our neighbours because we love God. During hard times, members of a loving community will put aside disagreements and bickerings, to serve one another. Jesus has said to his disciples in John 13:14, "Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another's feet."

A) Koinonia

The Greek word for community is koinonia. It is a word that reflects close participation, intimacy, togetherness, with open caring and generous sharing. In Acts 2:42, the word koinonia is translated as "fellowship." I remember my days in the Varsity Christian Fellowship, where caring and sharing are the marks of the community. Once a brother in Christ had a fall and broke his leg. As a result, it impacted his own daily activities. The fellowship of brothers and sisters when they come to know it, went all out to help. From food to school work, from physical healing to emotional comfort, people united to help. The efforts spawned a weekday noontime prayer meeting. The youthful energy among the people in the fellowship is contagious. One caring leads to much sharing of burdens. One sharing leads to spontaneous caring for one another. People grow closer together. Those outside the community become curious. They wonder why these Christians treat one another so well. We have visitors who came, who saw, stayed, and made decisions for God. When koinonia is practiced, the Holy Spirit convicts. When the Holy Spirit convicts, love abounds. When love abounds, Jesus is glorified.

B) Common Identity

For any community to thrive, the common identity is crucial. Central to such an identity is the common vision and mission. The traditional creeds of the Church represent a major statement that gives the community a common identity. Creeds have many advantages. It helps believers to spell out essentials of faith. It anchors the Church on the centrality of the Christian belief. It forms a common bond to give the identity. The word 'creed' comes from the Latin word, 'credo' which means "I believe." Churches many denominations still adhere to the Apostles' Creed. It is that one creed that unites the many different Christian groups all over the world. By the common creed, Anglicans, Baptists, Congregationalists, Methodists, Presbyterians, Pentecostals, Independents, and many other branches of Christianity are able to come together to call one another brothers and sisters in Christ. The traditional creeds also remind all present and future believers, the common historical past we all share. After all, before the schisms, there is only one Church.

C) Common Unity

With identity, unity comes naturally. The problem with our lack of unity is due to our loss of identity. That is why it is crucial for leaders to continue to remind the people about history. Leaders must remember the story of the faith. They must tell the same old story to the next generation, and to teach the next generation to do the same. The story of one's identity must not be forgotten, lest it be forsaken. There is no unity without a common identity. There is no community without unity. A strong remembrance of the story helps to strengthen one's sense of identity. I remember the President of Regent College tells the same story of the institution at every first chapel of each semester. Even when there is only a handful of new students, the entire college community gets to hear how the college began with a tragedy. In 1970, only 6 students were enrolled. The weekend before the start of the first semester, 2 died in a horrific car accident. The famous institution began with an infamous tragedy. Such is a broken past, continually remembered. It reminds all staff, students, and alumni of Regent College that the Christian life begins at a tragedy, when Christ died at the Cross.

Thankfully, God has been gracious to turn this tragedy, and to make Regent College one of the most beloved theological schools in North America. As a graduate of this wonderful place, I will not hesitate to recommend this place, and the wonderful community for you to be a part of, at some point of your life.

D) Brokenness and Humility

This fourth pillar of the Church is shrouded with images of servanthood, brokeness, and humble living. Community living can only be done if we learn to look out for each other. It is never about us. It is all about God and others, who in turn will look out for us. Just this week, there is a transcript of Dr Richard Teo, a medical doctor who passed away on October 19th, 2012. He was 40. Having made his millions, at his prime, he discovers he had Stage 4 lung cancer. That changes his entire perspective of what life is all about. In his message to a group of students at the Dental Christian Fellowship, this is what he said.

"True joy I discovered comes from interaction. Over the last few months I was so down. Interaction with my loved ones, my friends, my brothers in Christ, my sisters in Christ, and only then was I able to be motivated, able to be uplifted. To share your sorrow, to share your happiness – that’s true joy." (Dr Richard Teo)
You can read more of his transcript here. In independence, we aim to be self-sufficient. When inter-dependent, we aim to help meet one another's needs. Koinonia is more than that. It is more than learning to upend one another to be the best spiritual person. It is much more than simply scratching one another's back where it itches. Koinonia is a common identity in Christ, lived out in community of Christ, and given generously by serving one another for Christ. Whether it is a brother who breaks a leg before the start of a weekly afternoon prayer meeting. Whether it is lung cancer that brings perspective back to Richard Teo. I pray for you and I, that we do not have to depend on an unpleasant event for us to turn back to God. We can help one another turn away from the world, to turn each other toward God, and to walk to God. In the Name of Jesus.

THOUGHT: "Christ-centered community allows us to reflect the relational nature of God as well as his mercy and grace. It is a community that confronts sin and forgives one another, marked by compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. It is a community that seeks to live in peace with one another and reconcile broken relationships." (Brad House, Community, Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2011, 37)


Copyright by SabbathWalk. This devotional is sent to you free of charge. If you feel blessed or ministered to by SabbathWalk weekly devotionals, feel free to forward to friends, or to invite them to subscribe online at http://blog.sabbathwalk.org . You can also send me an email at cyap@sabbathwalk.org for comments or enquiries.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Pillar #3 - Presenting the Gospel in Words and Works

SCRIPTURE: Isaiah 6:8 & Matthew 5:16
Written by: Dr Conrade Yap
Date: 18 October 2012

"In the same way, let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven." (Matthew 5:16)
[Continuing the series on "Pillars of the Church," the third pillar of the Church is diakonia, a Greek word used to describe service and witness of the gospel.]

A) Works Over Words?

One of the most popular sayings that has been wrongly attributed to St Francis of Assisi is this: "Preach the gospel always, and if necessary use words." The source is actually unknown. It makes me wonder what will happen if Jesus stays mum all the time when he was walking on this earth. He could have kept quiet and just focus on healing and meeting people's needs. He could have let his works do all the working, and his fruits do all the talking. He could have simply lived out a life full of good works that there is no necessity to say anything, preach any word, or pronounce any judgment. After all, as long as good works are been done, why is there a need to say anything, right?

Wrong! Dead wrong.

If Jesus has stayed silent, the words remain leashed inside. There is no speaking, there is no hearing. If there is no teaching, there is no learning. If there are no words, how can anyone then accuse God of not giving any verbal warnings or reminders to people of calloused hearts?

Jesus uses lots of words even as He does multiple good works throughout his ministry. Open up the gospels and you see that they are full of Jesus' words. According to Duane Litfin, President of Wheaton College, it is simply impossible to do good works without opening the mouth. The gospel needs to be spoken, and the words become flesh through good works and the Power of Christ speaking. Litfin continues:

"It’s simply not possible to preach the gospel without words. The gospel is inherently a verbal thing, and preaching the gospel is inherently a verbal behavior. Thus the implication of this saying — that we are daily 'preaching the gospel' with our deeds is seriously misguided." (Duane Litfin, Word vs Deed, Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2012, p12-13)
Mere works without words are unhelpful, and undermines the gospel in a big way.

B) Words over Works?

On the other hand, the other extreme is equally bad. One reason why people often say actions speak louder than words is because far too many people talk much but do little. The famous acronym, NATO, has sometimes been used for the phrase, "No Action Talk Only." Even churches are not immune from lots of talking and meeting, but relatively fewer actions or implementations. Sometimes, groups intensely debate the various viewpoints and analyze all angles to the point that analysis becomes paralysis. This is one extreme that we need to avoid. Even James has reminded us.

"Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says. Anyone who listens to the word but does not do what it says is like a man who looks at his face in a mirror and, after looking at himself, goes away and immediately forgets what he looks like." (James 1:22-24)

In other words, just having words and not putting them into action is an act of self-deception. Britt Merrick argues that one reason for the lack of mission in the Church is due to us losing sight of the Person of Jesus Christ. We have essentially forgotten about our mission. In fact, there are Christians who have actually talked too much bad things to create negative perceptions in public. Merrick observes,

"Today more than 85 percent of non-Christians characterize the American church as antihomosexual, judgmental, and hypocritical. We may look okay to one another, but to those outside church walls, we look very little like the Jesus they’ve heard about. Somewhere between accepting the gospel for ourselves and delivering the good news to others, we’ve gotten off course. Somehow we’ve turned grace into condemnation, relationship into rules, and truth into judgment. Our Christianity has lost sight of the person of Christ." (Britt Merrick, Godspeed, Colorado Springs, CO: David C. Cook, 2012, p11)
We need good works to help build bridges to the people God loves. We need to let our actions create opportunities to serve others and to share the gospel of Christ in love. We need to move away from judgmental words toward gracious works; from hypocritical behaviour to authentic living; from antihomosexual perceptions to acceptance of people for people's sake, regardless of their sexual orientation. We can all welcome but not necessarily affirm people's individual lifestyles. After all, if people has a right to their own way of life, we have a right to agree or disagree. Accepting people does not mean we agree. It simply means we love them as Christ has loved them.

C) Diakonia = Words + Works

The Greek word for service is diakonia. It can be translated as ministry, service, or supporting people. It is used in Luke 10:40 when Martha was busy serving her guests.

" But Martha was distracted with all her preparations ; and she came up to Him and said, 'Lord, do You not care that my sister has left me to do all the serving alone ? Then tell her to help me." (Luke 10:40)

(Credit: almostm.com)
In service, we need both works and words. The works open the doorways to a conversation. The word fills the conversation with life giving words. Both works and words inform people in different ways. The ministry of God requires both good works and good words. We speak the word. We authenticate the words with works. Both are needed.

D) On Evangelism

What about evangelism? Diakonia is more than mere evangelism in the conventional sense of giving a tract or running down the four spiritual laws. It is about presenting Christ in both our good works and good words. In other words, it is living out the gospel in works and in words. Jerry Root and Stan Guthrie calls evangelism as a form of "sacrament." What they mean is that they learn to fill the daily opportunities we have with the sacred presence of God. We invite the people we meet into a sacred time with people, demonstrating and presenting the gospel in all its fullness, both works and words.

"Evangelism is a sacrament. Those who practice it find that God is always showing up. Of course, He is already there, but those engaged in this sacrament begin to see Him regularly because their eyes are open to Hi presence. They practice His presence in their prayers for family, friends, and coworkers - even when those prayers are repeated year after year, seemingly unanswered. Hearts full of concern that others know the love and forgiveness of God keep us mindful of His nearness as we pray. Those concerned that others in their world discover the grace of Christ tend to be alert to the daily evidence of God's activity around them." (Jerry Root and Stan Guthrie, The Sacrament of Evangelism, Chicago, IL: Moody Publishers, 2011, p16)

Diakonia is the third pillar of the Church demonstrated in our service to one another as well as to the world at large. We serve by presenting Christ through good works and good words. Sometimes, works need to be done first. Other times, words will dominate. Whatever it is, we need to be mindful of the moving of the Holy Spirit to prompt us to do wise combinations of both as we interact daily with people we love, and with neighbours and friends. If we are truly concerned about God's will be done in this world, we will all need to practise the sacrament of presenting Christ to the world. In our works and in our words. Good works open the doors for a good conversation. A good conversation opens hearts to the gospel.

THOUGHT: "You don’t have to make up a mission yourself. What you can do is join in the mission of Jesus that’s happening all around you. Missio Christi is about being who you are where you are, but beginning to live with faithful, missional intentionality." (Britt Merrick, Godspeed, Colorado Springs, CO, David C. Cook, 2012, p13)


Copyright by SabbathWalk. This devotional is sent to you free of charge. If you feel blessed or ministered to by SabbathWalk weekly devotionals, feel free to forward to friends, or to invite them to subscribe online at http://blog.sabbathwalk.org . You can also send me an email at cyap@sabbathwalk.org for comments or enquiries.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Pillar #2 - Preaching Christ Through the Word

TITLE: PILLAR #2 - Preaching Christ Through the Word
SCRIPTURE: 2 Timothy 4:2
Written by: Dr Conrade Yap
Date: 11 October 2012

[This is Part Two of a series of four called "Pillars of the Church." For this week, I like to reflect on the place of preaching of the Word in the Church.]

 "Preach the Word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage--with great patience and careful instruction." (2 Timothy 4:2)
A Modern Megachurch: High-tech audio and visual,
powerful singing & speaking. Centrality of people experience
A) Focus of a Church Service via Symbols

What we see in front of a Church, often reveals the emphasis of the overall Church service. When we come into any Church, the symbols we see tells us what the leadership deems most important. If a Church has primarily a huge musical setup visibly in front, a full band, complete with speakers all with sen-surround effects, and lighting atmosphere, one suspects that singing, music and the user experience is the central focus of that Church. If the Church has a posh cinema-like environment, the core emphasis is the conduciveness of a worship environment to aid people experience. Some may even accuse these as entertainment places.

Communion: Centrality of Liturgy
Instead of modern high-tech arrangements, some churches prefer the expression of sacred liturgy and traditional images of the Cross, the Communion table, and the visible image of Jesus. In such a setup, one may see liturgy as the primary focus to aid the remembrance via tradition. Many Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches will have such levels of emphasis. Some Anglican churches will share some commonality like painted windows, visible crosses, and a familiar dome like architecture. In these places, the pulpit is often moved to the side, in order to avoid blocking any views of the cross or the communion elements. Two primary symbols represent liturgical tradition in the Protestant movement. The first is the Eucharist, or the Communion sacrament. Some churches break bread every week. Others do so once a month. Occasionally, there will be the sacrament of Baptism. The second primary symbol is the sacrament of the Word. It is to this sacrament that I like to focus on this week.

If the Church has a pulpit at the center in front of the sanctuary, one will not be wrong to see that the Word and the Preaching of the Word is the focus. This aids the preaching of the Word as central to the entire Church service. In some churches, there is a huge Bible on the pulpit to symbolize the centrality of the Word of God. The key task of the preacher is to proclaim Christ in preaching. The hearers are to respond to the prompting of the Holy Spirit as the Word falls on fertile hearts.

The Pulpit: Centrality of the Word

B) The Didache and Great Preachers

The first preacher of course is Jesus, followed by the Apostle Paul, with the twelve disciples. The Early Church uses the word didache (teaching and learning) as a key mark of the Church. This word is commonly used to denote the teachings of the twelve disciples after the Resurrection of Christ. While not considered canonical enough to be included in the New Testament, it is instructional enough to be one of the major pieces of literature used by the early Christian leaders to teach the people. 

The work of preaching remains one of the core pillars of the Church. Imagine a church service where the Word is not central but peripheral to the entire service. Will that be Church? That will not be a Church that is built on solid Rock of Christ. One of the best things to happen to Christianity is the Reformation movement during the 15th Century. Many of us will credit people like Martin Luther, John Calvin, or Ulrich Zwingli for bringing the reading of the Bible from the hands of the Church to the hands of the common people. Our modern evangelical movement is a beneficiary of this. In the 17th and 18th Century, we have powerful preachers like John Wesley, George Whitefield, Jonathan Edwards to bring about the first great awakening. In the 19th and 20th Century, we have even more great preachers such as Lyman Beecher, Charles Finney, Charles Spurgeon, and the dynamic Scottish, James S. Stewart. Key to the revival of the masses is powerful preaching. If we study Church history, we will quickly sense that the powerful preaching of the Word is key to reformation.

In modern America, we continue to see this trend of powerful preaching that leads to monumental growth in terms of Church attendance and spiritual revival. New York City has Tim Keller through the ministry of Redeemer Presbyterian Church. Southern California has Rick Warren through the Saddleback Church, Atlanta has Andy Stanley through North Point Community Church, and of course Massachusetts has Dr Haddon Robinson, who is my mentor for my doctoral thesis. One of the biggest reasons for anyone considering a theological education at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary is preaching. It is because of the conviction that the Word has to be proclaimed far and wide, clearly and accurately, that thousands of ministers have gone through training and teaching on preaching. Especially through Gordon-Conwell.

C) The Preacher's 1st Task: Listening to the Word

One of Dr Robinson's conviction is this: "Until the biblical text has preached to me, I’m not ready to preach the biblical text to the congregation." This is the single most important thing that must happen to any preacher, before he can preach. I spend hours on the text weeks before I preach. I do not just read it. I think of it. I ponder over it. I dig into the text to understand the original meaning. This is the work of exegesis, where the original language is studied, the cultural context is drawn out, and the meaning of the passage is relived. This calls for patient waiting. The easiest way to understand spiritual listening is to allow the Word to shape our hearts. We hear the Word. We obey the Word.
  • If I am preaching on love, consider how I have loved.
  • If I am preaching on patience, consider how I have been patient.
  • If I am preaching on idolatry, consider my idols. 
  • If I am preaching about an Old Testament text, consider how it looks like from New Testament perspectives, beginning with me.
Robert Mulholland Jr says that Christian spiritual formation is "the process of being conformed to the image of Christ for the sake of others." I have always believed that the hardest part of preaching is not the preparation of the sermon contents or the delivery styles. The toughest is the preparation of the heart. This is why listening is the critical first step.

D) The Preacher's 2nd Task: Learning from the Word

Typically on a preaching week, I will first read the passage. I try to remember the key points of the passage, asking what the big idea is in the text. I use a dual-directional probe.
  • Who is it for (ancient) and how is it applicable (contemporary)?
  • What is it about (ancient) and what does it mean now (contemporary)?
  • Why is the passage written (ancient) and why is it relevant now (contemporary)?
  • Where and how (ancient) and where and when (contemporary)? ...
I supplement my preparation with a recollection on the books I have been reading, asking the Holy Spirit to show me something, after considering the views of so many different brothers and sisters who have shared their gifts of knowledge through books and literature. If there is any panic day, Saturday will usually be the one. I consider the verses and the things happening in the Church that week. I pray for people. I then put together my research and ask the Spirit to show me the key idea or ideas in the text. Sometimes, I will have prepared at least three different versions, and decide which version on the Sunday morning itself. Only when the preacher has become a learner himself, can he move on the process of preaching.

E) The Preacher's 3rd Task: Letting the Spirit Help Us Proclaim the Word

Finally, when we preach, content is important. Delivery is equally important. However, they can never substitute for the unction of the Spirit. Without the Spirit, it is plain speaking. With the Spirit, it is anointed preaching. Preaching is tough not because of the need to overcome stage-frights, but because of the necessity to win over flesh fights. It is one thing to preach the gospel for God's sake. It is yet another to preach for the sake of making oneself look good, at the expense of God. The Scottish dynamic preacher, James S. Stewart argues for the preacher to be "possessed" by the Gospel and captured by the Spirit to preach the Word of Truth. He writes:

"There is, therefore, no place to-day for a Church that is not aflame with the Spirit who is the Lord and Giver of life, nor any value in a theology which is not passionate missionary. If there throbs through the Church the vitality of a living union with Christ - and apart from this the Church has no claim to exist, no right to preach, it is merely cumbering the ground - if the Church can indeed say 'It is not I who live, it is Christ who lives in me,' then the dark demonic forces of the age have met their match, and the thrust of life is stronger than the thrust of death." (James S. Stewart, A Faith to Proclaim, Vancouver, BC: Regent College Publishing, 2002, p11-12)
Proclaiming the Word through preaching is a core pillar of any church. This is one more reason why we ought to pray for our pastors and our preachers. We need to give them time to prepare, to study, and to get ready for the message each week. We need to pray for them, that they be protected against the temptations of the flesh toward pride, or the deception of the evil one toward other forms of idolatry. We need to give them as much support as possible, by being readers and obedient hearers of the Word. Perhaps, we can also share of our learning with preachers, so we too can be a part of this very important ministry of the Church. For the rest of us, suffice to say, pray for your preachers each week, and every week. Feedback to them regularly. You are only helping to strengthen the ministry of the Word in Pillar #2. One more thing. When the Word is preached well, while growing numbers are important, do not forget something much more critical, that our lives are changed by God's Word.

THOUGHT: "Great preachers are good communicators, but good communicators are not necessarily good preachers. And the difference is authority. My definition of preaching is it is a word from God for the people at a moment in history." (Crawford Loritts, Campus Crusade)
May the Lord grant us more preachers who preach in the Power of the Spirit and proclaim the glory of Christ. For the kingdom.


Copyright by SabbathWalk. This devotional is sent to you free of charge. If you feel blessed or ministered to by SabbathWalk weekly devotionals, feel free to forward to friends, or to invite them to subscribe online at http://blog.sabbathwalk.org . You can also send me an email at cyap@sabbathwalk.org for comments or enquiries.

Friday, October 5, 2012

Pillar #1 - Praising God in Worship

SCRIPTURE: Isaiah 6:1-3
Written by: Dr Conrade Yap
Date: 5 October 2012

[Starting this week for the next four weeks in the month of October, I will be writing on a series called "Pillars of the Church." For this week, I like to ask about the purpose of coming to Church. The first pillar is PRAISING GOD in worship.]

"In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord seated on a throne, high and exalted, and the train of his robe filled the temple. Above him were seraphs, each covered with six wings: with two wings they covered their faces, with two they covered their feet, and with two they were flying. And they were calling to one another: 'Holy, holy, holy is the LORD Almighty; the whole earth is full of his glory.' " (Isaiah 6:1-3)

Pillars (Photo Credit: marsdd.com)
Every Church needs pillars. The taller the building, the stronger the need for quality and solid pillars that can hold up the entire structure. The vertical support essentially keeps the structure together, assuming it is built on solid ground. Also called columns, these pillars are to be installed before the roof can be laid, before the pipes or electrical cables can be installed. In buildings, the stability of the pillars determines the stability of the entire structure. The phrase, "Pillars of the Church" is often used to describe core beliefs and practices of the Church. Without them, Church fails to be Church. Without them, the Church crumbles. Sometimes, it is also used to personify people who play very important roles. People like the leadership, key positions, and ministry resources without which the Church cannot function properly. What are the pillars of the Church? I like to propose four crucial pillars. This week, I deal with the first pillar: Praising God in Worship.

A) The Visions of Isaiah

The major prophet records what he sees in riveting fashion. Living through the reigns of four kings of Judah: Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah, Isaiah preaches a consistent message of warnings against disobeying God, and the need for Judah to repent. In the first five chapters, Isaiah faithfully speaks out against spiritual rebellion, warnings against abandoning the covenant, and the impending judgment of Israel and Judah. After the death of King Uzziah, Isaiah gets a glimpse of the glory of God, the holy Divine LORD.  He sees the LORD, seated on the throne, high up there, fully exalted and gloriously magnificent. He has come into the Presence of the Holy. For all his visions, his proclamations, announcements, and passion, nothing comes close to seeing God's glory revealed. After this experience, Isaiah is a changed man. From this experience, Isaiah speaks out boldly, "Here I am, Send me."

Moses covers his face when he sees the LORD in the burning bush. The Apostle Paul gets blinded by the Spirit on the way to Damascus. The seraphs flying around God cover their faces in fear and trembling. Just seeing the actions of the seraphs is enough to move Isaiah to worship. Isaiah is one privileged prophet to come near to the throne of the awesome God. Seeing the glory of God, prepares him for the commission for God.

B) The Big Question

What is the purpose of Church? Is it to meet friends? Is it to come together, go through the motion of singing, listen to a sermon, then fulfill our membership obligation by giving, by attending, and then mingling with fellow believers after service? For all the Sunday School programs, for all the efforts put in to make the sound system and the technology equipment work, for all the preaching, the praying, and the singing, what is the purpose of it all? It is wrapped up in one word: Worship.

Rainbow above the Grand Canyon. (Photo Credit: Nancy Holland)

I remember making a trip to the Grand Canyon several years ago. The view of the natural wonder is simply magnificent. There are mountains on mountains, valleys after valleys, and the scenes are breathtaking. Each ray of sunlight reveals even more. I can stand there and be awed by the beauty and the creative wonder of how the entire Canyon is put together. No photographs can do justice to the original beauty. No quality camera can reproduce the awe. No a professional photographer can even bring us close to the experience of actually being there. I notice many people just contented to watch in silence. Some click away freely to capture as much of the scenes as possible. Others let their video rolls on and on. For me, I gaze. I admire. I ponder: "If creation is so beautiful, how much more is the Maker of such creation?"

When God's glory is revealed, the most appropriate action is just one: Worship.  The seraphs that fly respond with this chorus:

"Holy, holy, holy is the LORD Almighty; the whole earth is full of his glory.'"

The reason why we have many lethargic people on Sunday mornings is simply because they have not learned to cultivate the watching for God. We need to be prepared to witness the glory of God be revealed.  Church is not about programs or about getting people together for the sake of the people. Neither is it about going through the motions of membership. Being faithfulness is good. Being diligent in attendance is great. However, these alone are never to be the main purpose of coming to Church. We come to Church because we want to see God's glory revealed. We want to witness Jesus's Word come alive. We want that spiritual encounter with the Holy of holies, the King of kings, the Lord of lords. If Church is not about revealing God's glory, it is not becoming of a true Church of God.

C) The First Pillar

Some churches practice the 4Ws: Worship, Word, Welcome, Warmth as a way to synchronize their Church focus. The first two leads members vertically (Worship and Word). The next two provide the horizontal focus (Welcoming new people and Warmth among all). It is a good way to ensure that members keep all four visible in the spiritual dashboard.  For the first pillar, I like to refocus the vertical relationship a little differently as follows. The first pillar sets the tone for the rest. It is not just a stirring up of our hearts to sing songs that makes worship special. It is the sight of God's glory and magnificence that releases our hearts to worship God. Worship is not a one out of four emphasis. It is a first in every ministry in Church.

I lead small groups often. One of the things I do is to lead people in worship before we start. We pray. We sing praises. We acknowledge the presence of the Holy Spirit. We worship in Spirit and in Truth. It is one thing to sing a song that is projected from the Powerpoint machine. It is yet another to allow our spirits to connect with the truths of God revealed before us. Worship is not simply about singing songs of praise. It is a response to the glory of God revealed before us. It is not about waiting for the music band to tune the right keys for us to sing. It is about becoming open to the Holy Spirit to tune our hearts to be right with God. More importantly, if we are not worshipping, we are failing to demonstrate what Church is about. James MacDonald puts it this way:
"Church must be about helping people discover and experience that, fifty-two weeks a year, every year for the rest of their lives. No personal quiet time, no Christian book, no community or small group or service can substitute for the absence of God coming down to meet with His church corporately. And it’s about time that we stopped accepting substitutes." (James MacDonald, Vertical Church, Colorado Springs, CO: David C. Cook, 2012, p20)

In other words, without the vertical relationship, all other relationships are meaningless. When we fellowship with one another, we can small-talk our way through several cups of coffee. We can serve each other sandwiches or cakes during refreshment time. We can even talk about God. These activities are just byproducts. The main course is the glory and worship of God. Far too many churches are substituting the appetizer, the side dishes and making them the entree. No wonder many Christians are not satisfied.

D) What If I Do Not Feel Like Worshiping?

One question I am often asked is what do we do when we do not feel like worshiping. My reply will be this: "Your very question is already stepping on the brake pedal." Worship is not about us. It is all about God, and to realize that God cares all about us. It is like we give God our all, and God in his grace, chooses to return us many fold in assurance, in promise, in peace, and in many attributes of God. When we do not feel like worshiping, then what are we actually feeling? Are we allowing feelings to dictate our actions? Worship is waiting. It is anticipating God's glory come down to earth, shining light on the Person of Jesus Christ. Do we want to see Christ? The song below is an apt preparatory song for our hearts.

"Open our eyes Lord
We want to see Jesus,
To reach out and touch Him
And say that we love Him.

Open our ears Lord
And help us to listen,
Open our eyes Lord
We want to see Jesus."

Worship is that longing for God. It is that desiring after God just like the deer panting for the fresh stream waters. It is that hungering after God with all of ourselves. It is that wanting to see God, to touch Him, to hear Him, to feel Him. It is the desiring. It is the longing. It is a recognition that it is God's prerogative, on when to speak and when NOT to speak.

E) True Worship

When we see the glory of God revealed, there is no better response than to worship. All church ministries, all programs, all activities, are to be planned with worship of God, that will empower us to give of our utmost for His Highest. If Church is not helping members to worship, it is not fulfilling its calling. If the Church is not leading people to worship, it is leading people away from worship. When I preach, I begin and end with prayer, to give thanks, and to ask the Holy Spirit to show us the way to worship. I tell my congregation that worship is not just the first part of the Sunday service. It is the ENTIRE service. From the ushering, from the singing, from the welcoming, from the pulpit, from the benediction and all else, it is to lead people closer toward God. Whether people actually feel that they have met God or not is secondary. The work to help people get there is primary. It cannot be done in our own strength. It needs the Holy Spirit to lead and guide us. True worship begins when our hearts are open, our ears are listening, our eyes are gazing, our lips are singing, our hands are praying, and our whole body is expecting anytime, anywhere, and anyhow, that God's glory is coming.

Any work for God must begin with worship and end with worship. In between, real worship is the continued offering of ourselves for God, through His mission in this world.

THOUGHT: "Worship is like dancing in fellowship with the Triune God. We plead with the Spirit to show us the Son. The Son pleads for us that we be restored to the Father. The Father listens to all the pleading and calmly says to us: 'I love you, my child.' Worship is that yearning to hear these five words." (Conrade Yap)


Copyright by SabbathWalk. This devotional is sent to you free of charge. If you feel blessed or ministered to by SabbathWalk weekly devotionals, feel free to forward to friends, or to invite them to subscribe online at http://blog.sabbathwalk.org . You can also send me an email at cyap@sabbathwalk.org for comments or enquiries.