Category Archives: Church life

Ten Ways to Help Your Children Love and Stay with the Church

If you’re in a faithful gospel-preaching church and you have children, wouldn’t you want your children to love that church and stay with it?  I’ve come up with a list of ways to help Christian parents help their children do that.

 I should say at the outset that I share these first of all because, if your church is faithful, the gospel is at stake.  It’s vitally important for our children to stay in a church where the gospel of Christ is proclaimed in Word and sacrament.  Children get discipled for Christ in such a church.  We can never take this for granted.  Second, I’m writing this to remind myself of how important it is to disciple my own children.  I should also say that there’s never any guarantee your children will remain with the church, or that they’ll be responsive to the gospel promises.  You can do everything right, but the Holy Spirit must regenerate the heart, also the hearts of our children.  It’s all grace.  But, from a human perspective, if you do one, some or all of these ten things, you certainly improve the odds your children will stay and love their gospel-focussed church. 

Be positive about the church and your relationship to it. Make sure your children hear and see your positive attitude.  Remember to pray regularly for the church and for the pastors, elders, and deacons.

Regularly attend worship services.  Communicate to your children that you need the ministry of the Word and sacraments and they need it too.  There’s always room for growth.  God’s call to worship applies to your family just as it does to everyone else.

Be committed to your local church. Have your children involved as much as possible in the activities of your local church.

Make church attendance mandatory for everyone in your home. If they don’t feel like going to church, they should be going anyway (unless they’re sick, of course). There are some things we might not feel like doing (like going to the dentist), but they’re good for us and our parents forced us to because they loved us.  Love your children the same way.

Similarly, make catechism attendance mandatory.  If they don’t feel like going, again you have to insist.  Support the efforts of your pastor to catechize your children.  Check to make sure they’re memorizing the catechism, check to see if they’re doing their homework, and make sure they’re prepared for class.

Sing at home what you sing in the church’s public worship. Communicate to your children that you actually appreciate the Psalms and hymns of the church.  You want them to embrace these songs and value them.  Teach your children the meaning of what they sing.

As much as possible, live close enough to the church so that you can be meaningfully involved in the life of the church.  If you live further out, look for and take opportunities to move closer.

Teach your children about the importance of giving your first fruits to the Lord. Speak to your children about financial contributions to the church.  Be sure to set them an example by faithfully giving yourself.  Be a cheerful giver!

Send them to the Christian school the other children from the congregation attend. This will help them to develop connections and friendships with peers in the church community.

Give helpful guidance with regards to their friends and potential marriage partners. Encourage them to have believing friends and to find marriage partners who love the Lord, but also love his church.

In short, do everything you can to communicate that the church isn’t some human organization or a club where you can come and go as you please.  Make it clear that the church is your spiritual mother (Gal. 4:26), the body of Christ (Eph. 1:22-23), the bride for which Christ died and which he loves (Eph. 5:25), and the pillar and ground of the truth (1 Tim. 3:15).


Open Your Bible

Imagine a morning worship service.  The pastor reads the text for his sermon.  Then everyone closes their Bible.  Dangerous – I can think of no other word to describe this situation.  Let me explain why.

The Bible teaches us that the preaching of God’s Word is God’s Word.  Nowhere is this made more explicit than 1 Thessalonians 2:13, “And we also thank God constantly for this, that when you received the word of God, which you heard from us, you accepted it not as the word of men but as what it really is, the word of God, which is at work in you believers.”  When the Thessalonians heard the preaching of men like Paul, they heard the voice of God speaking to them.

This is implicit in Ephesians 4:17, “And he came and preached peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near.”  The Holy Spirit says that Jesus came and preached to the Ephesians.  But we know that the Lord never traveled to Asia Minor to preach.  So, how can it be said that Jesus preached in Ephesus?  He preached through Paul and others.  When they preached, it was as if Christ was preaching through them.  The preaching of God’s Word is God’s Word.

However, there is a crucially important biblical qualification.  The preaching of God’s Word is God’s Word when it’s done faithfully according to God’s Word.  If the words of the pastor are contradicting God’s Word, they can’t possibly be God’s Word.  The preaching has to be in line with intention and meaning of Scripture.  We see this from the example of the Berean Jews in Acts 17.  Acts 17:11 says, “Now these Jews were more noble than those in Thessalonica; they received the word with all eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily to see if these things were so.”  The Holy Spirit commends these Jews for hearing the preaching of the apostles and comparing it with the written Word.  Because the two lined up, “many of them therefore believed.”

There are three reasons why it’s dangerous for believers to close their Bibles when listening to preaching.

First, it’s dangerous for you.  What if the pastor is just feeding you his own opinion instead of preaching the text to you?  How will you tell if you don’t have your Bible open?  When you have your Bible open, you can better discern whether the pastor is preaching the Scriptures or his own ideas.  You can better discern whether the preaching you’re hearing is God’s Word.

It’s also dangerous for your pastor.  Every human being needs accountability, including pastors.  When pastors face a congregation where everyone has their Bible closed, the likelihood they’ll get away with preaching their own opinions is far greater.  In 1 Corinthians 9:16, Paul wrote, “Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel!”  In Galatians 1:8, he wrote, “But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed.”  Accursed means “damned.”  In other words, damned be the pastor who preaches another gospel.  As a preacher, those words make me tremble and bring me to beg for the accountability of my listeners.  I want them to hold me accountable to preach only God’s Word.  They can do that far better when they listen to me with an open Bible.

Finally, it’s dangerous for the gospel.  All Christians want the gospel to move forward.  We all want the gospel to touch hearts and transform lives.  But if God’s Word is not being preached faithfully, how is that going to happen?  Preaching is a means of grace.  It is a way through which the Holy Spirit graciously brings people to Christ.  Yet it only does that as the preaching is faithful.  If we love the gospel, if we long to see people saved through it and lives transformed through it, then we all have a vested interest in ensuring that the preaching we hear is the preaching of the Word of God.  That’s done best when you have your Bible open in front of you.

It’s not just the responsibility of elders to ensure that the preaching is faithful.  All believers have a calling to hear preaching, but also to think about whether it is faithful, biblical preaching.  When we close our Bibles and blindly trust our pastor to do what’s right, we’re actually not too far off from the medieval church.  In the medieval church, many people just uncritically trusted what the priests were saying.  Look where that led.  The Reformation put preaching front and centre.  But the Reformation also put the Bible in people’s hands.  Regular Christians could again follow the example of the Bereans.  Not only would it be sad, it would also be dangerous if we would dial back the Reformation’s gains by listening to preaching today with a closed Bible.


What’s Wrong With Hillsong?

Hillsong is one of Australia’s most well-known exports.  They’re known not only for their praise and worship music brand, but also for attracting celebrities like Justin Bieber.  Prime Minister Scott Morrison recently spoke at a Hillsong Conference.  He’s a member of a church that belongs to the Australian Christian Churches, to which Hillsong also belongs.

Hillsong is not just a church – it’s a global phenomenon.  Around the world, over 130,000 people attend Hillsong each week.  That could be a great thing if Hillsong was faithful to the Scriptures.  If they were faithfully preaching the gospel and following the Word of God, Hillsong could have a powerful impact.  But are they?

Last week, the ABC featured a piece on modern Pentecostalism in Australia.  This is how it opens:

It is Sunday morning at Hillsong’s megachurch in the Sydney suburb of Alexandria, and Pastor Natalie Pingel pauses mid-sermon to conduct an impromptu Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson look-a-like contest.

She selects a group of buff parishioners and members of the band to line up on stage. Each takes turns flashing the crowd the actor’s signature raised eyebrow, to approval and gushing laughter.

Pastor Pingel then leads the congregation in prayer, the band plays anthemic rock music and the big screens either side of the stage light up with suggestions for what people can pray for.

The suggestions include financial stability, luck with job applications and visa approvals.

In these few words, there’s plenty indication that things are seriously wrong with Hillsong.  Even though they’re Pentecostal and, as such, claim to give more attention to the Holy Spirit, in reality they’re missing some key things the Spirit says.

Let’s start with the pastor.  The Holy Spirit says in 1 Timothy 2:12, “I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man; rather, she is to remain quiet.”  Yet Hillsong flouts the Holy Spirit’s teaching and has a woman delivering a sermon.

What about the “look-a-like” contest?  Search the Spirit’s book to see if any such thing was ever done by the apostles.  In the Bible, did the apostles pursue “approval and gushing laughter”?  Surely not.  Instead, the apostles preached the Word of God and left these sorts of comedic antics for the theatre.  They followed the leading of the Holy Spirit who said, simply, “Preach the Word” (2 Tim. 4:2) – they didn’t add or take away from that.  They simply preached the Scriptures.

Next, notice the stage and “anthemic rock music.”  What associations do we commonly make with such things?  Entertainment.  Together with the comedy act, this doesn’t portray serious Christian worship in the presence of the Holy God, but an entertainment event.  What is this but “the itching ears” described by the Holy Spirit in 2 Timothy 4:3?

But most concerning of all in the ABC article is the portrayal of Hillsong as a purveyor of prosperity gospel teaching.  This is well-known.  Hillsong teaches that God wants believers to experience prosperity in this life.  This can manifest itself in different ways:  financial, health, relationships.  Becoming a Christian opens up access to all these blessings.  Christ died and rose again victorious to give Christians these blessings.  From time to time, they may still talk about the cross and give something of the true biblical gospel.  However, the emphasis falls on prosperity and success as the good news.

Even though the Spirit says it (Isa. 45:7, Lam. 3:38, Ps. 60:1-4, Ps. 66:10-12, Ps. 119:71), the idea that God would send adversity into the lives of believers because he loves them and wants to shape them is foreign to prosperity gospel churches. The Holy Spirit made most of the Psalms laments, but the prosperity gospel doesn’t know what to do with them.  In the New Testament, the Spirit-filled Jesus told his disciples that they would have to take up their cross and follow him (Matt. 10:38).  In Acts 14:22, Paul and Barnabas told the early Christians, “…through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God.”  But the idea of bearing the cross before wearing the crown doesn’t register in the prosperity gospel message.  Instead, it’s all about glory here and now.

Moreover, what’s missing is the biblical gospel message which the Spirit gave through Paul:  “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost” (1 Timothy 1:15).  And what did he come to save us from?  According to Romans 5:9, we are saved by Christ “from the wrath of God.”  That note is rarely, if ever, heard in prosperity gospel churches.

Let me conclude with a question someone is sure to raise:  could someone be genuinely saved at or through Hillsong?  Perhaps.  God can do amazing things despite people.  He does amazing things despite me.  So he could save people through Hillsong too and I sincerely hope he does.  But that’s beside the point.  If a Christian is looking for a more consistently biblical, gospel-preaching church, I’m afraid Hillsong just doesn’t fit the bill.  If a Christian is looking for a church aiming to follow what the Holy Spirit teaches about worship and the offices of the church, one can do far better than Hillsong.


Listening As If For the Last Time

In his book Expository Exultation, John Piper describes how he prays right before preaching.  As an elder is reading the text for the sermon, Piper pleads with God for strength and effectiveness in the pulpit.  He understands the significance of what he’s about to do and so he begs God for help.  I can relate to that.

I’ve been preaching now for over 20 years.  In earlier times, I’d usually pray beforehand, but back then it was mostly because of nervousness and fear.  My first time on a pulpit in a Canadian Reformed Church was in my home congregation in Edmonton.  At that time (1999), it was the largest Canadian Reformed Church – over 600 members.  I was petrified.  What if I said something wrong?  What if I messed up the order of worship?  I had everything I had to say written down, just in case.  And I prayed and prayed.

As time went on, I became more comfortable with preaching and leading worship.  Only then did the momentous significance of what I was doing on the pulpit begin to really grip me.  It was a process.  Somewhere along the way I read the words of Richard Baxter, “I preached as never sure to preach again, and as a dying man to dying men.”  Along the way, I experienced more than once that a person heard me preach on one Sunday and then, by the next, they were no longer there.  God had called them out of this life.

The event that most impacted me was how God called home a United Reformed colleague, Rev. Eric Fennema.  I didn’t know him personally.  But I heard about him from a close friend who did.  One Sunday he was preaching as a guest minister in the URC in Lynden, Washington.  He preached a powerful, amazing sermon on the Parable of the Ten Virgins (Matt. 25:1-13).  You can still listen to it here.  He exhorted the congregation to always be ready to meet the Lord.  If you were to make one sermon your last, you would want it to be that one.  It was his last.  Late the following week he was playing golf and had a heart attack.  He never preached again.

Thus I gradually learned the urgency of preaching.  Preaching is life and death.  I now approach each sermon with two thoughts in mind.  First, what if this is the last sermon I ever preach?  Second, what if this is the last sermon someone in the pews will ever hear?  Those thoughts drive me to make sure I preach the gospel each time.  They also drive me to prayer far more than my early nervousness ever did.

Late last year and early this year, I enjoyed a sabbatical of several months.  I love preaching, but having that burden of urgency off my shoulders was refreshing.  I was blessed to have my old pastor, Rev. Richard Aasman, on the pulpit for a good portion of my sabbatical.  I could just sit and listen – and ponder.  I then learned there’s a flip-side to the urgency of preaching.

Listening to the preaching of God’s Word is also a matter of momentous significance.  If you knew that this was the last sermon you would ever hear preached, how would you listen differently?  But you don’t know.  It could be your last sermon – and that’s how you ought to approach it.  You should approach it prayerfully.  Ask God to help you treat it as the life-and-death proclamation of his Word to you.  Ask for the Holy Spirit to help you listen as if your life depends on it.

Eric Fennema’s passage from Matthew 25 certainly warns us, “Watch therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour” (v.13).  You don’t know when the Bridegroom will appear with the clouds of heaven, but you also don’t know when he will call you to himself.  Therefore, you need to be watchful.  Part of being watchful is giving heed to his every word to you.  Urgently hang on his words as he speaks to you through preaching.  As our Lord says in another place, “Pay attention to what you hear…” (Mark 4:24).

To drive home the urgency of listening to God’s Word preached, we could rephrase Baxter’s dictum:

I listened as if never sure to listen again, and as a dying man listening to a dying man.”

It’s a lesson better learned sooner rather than later!


Pastoral Q & A: What If I Can’t Be Welcoming to Visitors?

It’s often stressed how important it is for our churches to be outward looking and, as part of that, to be friendly to visitors.  When you see a visitor at the worship services, be kind and welcoming.  But what if it’s taken everything in your power just to get to church?  What if you’re having an awful day and not feeling particularly friendly?

Let’s first recognize a few factors.  There’s a great difference between being or feeling unable to be welcoming and not wanting to be welcoming.  If someone doesn’t see the importance of being friendly and welcoming, that’s a more significant problem.  Hebrews 13:2 says, “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares.”  If that’s true of our own homes, then it certainly it ought to be all the more true when we gather as God’s house for worship.  God’s house, his church, should also be a place of hospitality – a warm and welcoming environment.  If we’re going to reflect our Saviour Jesus, then we would want to be friendly and kind to visitors.  If someone doesn’t want to follow Christ in that regard, then that’s a spiritual problem that calls for repentance.

But that’s different than being or feeling unable to be welcoming.  There can be different reasons for that.  Sometimes it’s just a temporary thing.  You had a fight with your spouse that morning and, when you left for church, things were still unresolved.  Or maybe it was your children.  You arrive at church and you’re feeling less than friendly.  It happens.

There can also be more chronic challenges.  Sometimes there are mental health issues like anxiety or depression.  When these are ongoing, it can be a huge hurdle just to get out of bed and find the energy to go to church.  Arriving at church, you may not feel like talking to anyone, let alone to a complete stranger.

Last of all, people have different personalities.  Some are naturally more introverted and shy.  I count myself in that category.  I don’t like socializing in big crowds and find it difficult to strike up conversations with strangers.  I was once a missionary, but I’m the most unlikely person to be one.  When your character is more reserved, it can be hard to push yourself out there.

So, how do we deal with these real challenges?  We have to bring this down to what it really is.  It’s God’s will that we should be friendly and welcoming to visitors.  But, for whatever reason, it seems difficult or even impossible for us to follow God’s will.  We can’t do it.  The temptation here is to rely on our own wisdom and just walk away feeling absolved.  That temptation has to be resisted.  Instead, we need to ask:  what’s the biblical answer to this problem?  It’s to remember that God is sovereign over everything, including our hearts, our wills, and our energy.  When we say God is sovereign, we mean that he rules over it all.  He is the one who can change it.  Since that’s true, we’re called to pray to the sovereign God and ask him to change it.

Let’s put it into practice.

For the one who’s had family conflict on Sunday morning, pause and pray:  “Father, even though I’ve had a rough morning, help me not to take it out on anyone else.  If you bring a visitor across my path, please help me to be friendly and kind.”

For those dealing with the chronic health challenges, including mental health, pray regularly:  “Father, I’m struggling, but help me to look outside myself.  Despite my struggles, please help me to reflect the loving heart of Christ to those you bring across my path.”

If you’re shy and introverted, pray: “Father, even though I want to run away, help me to be bold.  Please help me to get out of my comfort zone and if there are visitors, help me to love them and say the right words to welcome them.”

If you pray along these lines, things will change.  The sovereign God works to change things through our prayers brought to him through the intercession of Christ.  God will begin helping you to overcome your circumstances and follow his will.  I’m not saying that change will happen all at once.  But persistently praying in this way will, in due time, have an effect.