Category Archives: Church life

Book Review: Becoming a Welcoming Church

Becoming a Welcoming Church, Thom S. Rainer.  Nashville: B & H Publishing Group, 2018.  Hardcover, 101 pages.

Come with me for a moment to visit two Reformed churches.  Both of them are faithful churches in the sense that they have gospel-preaching, faithful administration of the sacraments, and church discipline.  But we’re going to have vastly different experiences at each one.

I’m the guest-preacher at the first church.  After the service is over, I stand for a few moments at the back of the building.  All the members gather into their holy huddles.  No one speaks to me.  After a few moments of standing there awkwardly, I get in my vehicle and just drive away.  If that’s how they treat a guest-preacher, I wonder how they would treat a complete stranger?

With my wife and children, I’m a visitor at the second church.  I’m on vacation.  No one at this church knows me from Adam.  As we arrive, someone warmly greets us and shows us in to the sanctuary.  During the service, one of our children acts up (pastors’ kids!) and afterwards we’re in no mood to stick around.  We make a bee-line for the door.  As we’re out in the parking lot sheepishly heading for our van, someone comes running out after us.  A friendly voice beckons, “Hey, please stay with us for coffee so we can get to know you!  We’d love to have you come back in.”  We apologize and explain the situation with our kids.  But it leaves an impression…a good impression that we’ve never forgotten.

If you were a complete stranger in Jerusalem, to which church would you want to return?

That’s what this book is all about.  It’s about becoming that church which puts its best foot forward before, during and after that moment when guests walk through the door.  Thom Rainer is an experienced consultant and researcher in this field.  He’s written numerous books in the same vein, explaining how churches can do better at engaging guests.

I know what some readers may be thinking.  You may be thinking that this is all about becoming “seeker-friendly” or overhauling everything in our worship services just to accommodate non-members.  Definitely not!  Rainer discusses little about what goes on in worship itself.  In fact, the only thing he really mentions is a practice that most Reformed churches don’t do anyway:  the stand up and greet your neighbour moment.  Instead, this book is first of all about addressing our attitudes and then, second, about everything that goes before and around the worship service:  the website, church signage, greeters, etc.

What I appreciated most about this slim volume is its emphasis on how being a welcoming church is related to the gospel.  The hospitality mandated by Scripture is our thankful and loving response to the gospel.  But also when we are welcoming, it serves the cause of the gospel.

Since so much of it pertains to decisions made by those in leadership, this would be a great little book for consistories to discuss.  As Rainer points out, many churches believe themselves to be more welcoming than they really are.  This book will help churches to get to the truth — it includes two resources in the back which also serve that end:  a Church Facility Audit and a Secret Guest Survey.  Once you get to the truth, you’ll also find some help here in how to improve.  It’s jut a small book, but it punches far above its weight.  Check it out.


Why Should We Study Scripture Together?

It’s too easy to take for granted the blessings God has heaped on us.  Let’s stop for a moment and think about several of them.  We still have the blessing to freely worship.  Not only on Sunday, but during the week too we’re free to gather together for fellowship and study.  We have the blessing of God’s Word in our own language.  Unlike so many believers in the history of the New Testament church, we have the Bible in a language we can understand – and these Bibles are cheap and readily available.  Finally, we have the blessing of literacy.  The fact that you’re reading this puts you at a far greater advantage than many believers in the history of the church.  What incredible riches our God has lavished on us!

Do We Have a Heart For Searching Out God’s Word?

Yet it does seem that many church members take these things for granted.  In every church I’ve served, there is always the mass problem of Bible study.  Every consistory discussed it.  It’s the problem of encouraging individual believers to study the Bible for themselves.  It’s also the problem of encouraging believers to study the Bible together.  I’d venture to guess that, on average, probably 25% of the communicant members in the churches I’ve served regularly studied Scripture together.  Actually, 25% is on the generous side.

What can consistories do about it?  Here’s the problem:  office bearers can badger members into Bible study groups for a time.  But if their heart is not in it, typically they won’t persevere.  The heart is the issue – and how do you change someone’s heart?  You can’t.  The Holy Spirit does that.  He does it, however, through us.  He says in 1 Thess. 5:14, “And we urge you brothers, admonish the idle, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with them all.”  We’re to do these things with the Word of God in our hand.

In this article, I want to lay out the Bible’s answer for why believers should study Scripture together.  There are two audiences I want to address.  The first is the office bearer who wants to encourage Bible study in his congregation.  The second is the believer who may be lagging in conviction about the value of this practice.

Psalm 119 as a Prayer for the Way We Want to Be

So, why study the Bible together?  When our thoughts turn to Scripture and our attitude towards it, Psalm 119 is a frequent destination.  This Psalm extols the Scriptures in exuberant terms.  It also speaks of the believers’ emotions/affections about the Bible.  For example, nine times the Psalmist speaks of his delight in God’s Word.  Seven times he testifies of his love for the Scriptures.  He witnesses to the joy that comes from the divine writings.  It’s important to read all these things with our eyes on Jesus.  He is the fulfilment of all these holy emotions – he exhibited them with an unparalleled depth and consistency.  Moreover, Christ did that in the place of us who often sag in our feelings about God’s Word.  His love and joy in the Word are credited to us by God.  When we see Psalm 119 that way, it puts it in a new light for us.  It speaks of our Saviour’s obedient life for us, but also his sanctifying power in us.  We look at Psalm 119 as a prayer for the way we want to be.  In our new nature, empowered by the Holy Spirit, we want to be like Christ.  We want to reflect our union with him – we want to love the Scriptures like he does!

When we do, we won’t have to be coaxed into Bible study.  It’s something we will love to do because, being united to Christ, we love God and we love his Word.  Personal Bible study will come from the heart, and so will group Bible study.  Then the rest of what I’m going to write will sound perfectly persuasive.

Getting to Know Our God

The chief attraction of Bible study together is a better view of the glory of God.  The Scriptures are all about revealing to us the glory of the Triune God, particularly in the gospel. I’m talking about his beauty, his splendour, his magnificence, his awesomeness.  Scripture reveals God to us in all his transcendent excellence.

When you study by yourself, you will see it.  But when you study with others, you will see more and see further than you will by yourself.  One person can only see so much.  One person can have blind spots.  But when several Christians gather together around God’s Word, they’ll find more to be amazed at about our God.  He will receive more praise and honour.  That’s what we want, isn’t it?

Encouraging One Another

However, there is not only a vertical aspect here.  It turns out that what brings more glory to God is also for our benefit.  When we gather together with fellow believers around God’s Word, there’s encouragement to be found.  We support one another.  We pray together.  We enjoy fellowship.  When it’s going as it should, Bible study can feel like Psalm 133:1, “Behold, how good and pleasant it is when brothers dwell in unity!”

We could also think of what Scripture says in Ephesians 4.  There God speaks about how Christ has given the gift of office bearers to the church.  He says their work is to “to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ.”  They do that work with the Scriptures.  Bible study together will likewise build up the body of Christ and with exactly the same blessings described in Ephesians 4:13.  Bible study together will lead to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of Christ.  It will enable us to grow together in maturity.  It will help pull us into the “measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ.”

Two Objections

Some church members have keenly developed reasons for not going to Bible study.  They could go (they have the health and the time), but they refuse to.  Let me briefly address two reasons I’ve heard over the years.

One objection is that it’s all the same:  “The same people talk and they always say the same thing.  It makes for a boring hour or two.  So it’s just not worth the time or effort.”  I’m familiar with this one because I used it as a young man.  I remember saying this at a friend’s house and his mom reamed me out.  She said, “If you don’t like the way it is, then it’s up to you to make it different.  You lead by example.  You’ll only get out of it what you put into it.”  She was exactly right.

Another reason comes from a darker place:  “Everyone at these Bible studies is so dull.  They don’t have a good basic understanding of the Bible.  It’s just frustrating listening to them ramble on in their ignorance.  Their lack of knowledge about the Bible is exasperating.” The essential problem here is pride.  One’s pride leads to impatience with other believers.  Bible study presents an opportunity to share our insights with one another.  One may have to pray for growth in holiness to do that humbly and judiciously, but rather than flee from that challenge, we should embrace it.  Moreover, we need to be open to the possibility that there is something to learn from other believers – perhaps we don’t have the exceptional level of knowledge we thought we had (cf. Phil. 2:3).

Conclusion

The Bible has famously been compared to a love letter from God.  Of course, love letters are mostly a thing of the past, but the idea is still current.  If you were to receive a love letter, you would treasure it and read it carefully several times.  The Bible is God’s love letter to his people.  Why would any recipient not want to read and study that letter as often as possible, both on your own and with other believers?  If you’re part of a Bible study, stay consistent with it.  If you’re not part of a Bible study, go and find one in your local church.  With your meaningful contribution, God will be praised and you’ll be blessed.

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This article was originally published in Reformed Perspective magazine.


Faithful and Fruitful: Essays for Elders and Deacons

I’m just dropping a quick note here about this new book for office bearers published by Reformed Fellowship.  If you’re an elder or deacon, veteran or rookie, I think you’ll find something helpful in this volume.  It’s got twenty chapters with the following titles:

  1. Training Church Officers
  2. Practicing the Mission of the Church: Apostolicity in Action
  3. Positive Leadership: Leading Like Jesus (Not Rehoboam)
  4. Continuing in Prayer
  5. Elders and Deacons as Hospitality Leaders
  6. Ministering to the Sick and Dying
  7. The Office Bearer and Household Management
  8. Classical Christian Catechesis
  9. Managing the Offerings of God’s People
  10. Getting Acquainted with the Congregation’s Needs
  11. Avoiding Burnout
  12. Tending the Shepherd (1): Honorable Provision
  13. Tending the Shepherd (2): Sabbaths and Sabbaticals
  14. How to Evaluate Your Pastor
  15. How to Be a Clerk
  16. Navigating the Broader Assemblies: Serving at Classis and Synod
  17. How to Serve on a Pastoral Search Committee
  18. What Every Elder Needs to Know about Congregational Singing
  19. Encouraging Lay Witnessing
  20. Promoting the Work of Missions

As you can see, most of the chapters are practically oriented.  The book includes study questions for each chapter.  Most of the authors are United Reformed ministers, though there are also CanRC and OPC contributors.  Some of the content is specifically oriented to a United Reformed context.  However, much of that can be easily adapted to other contexts, or otherwise safely disregarded.

For the last 10+ years, over two churches, I’ve gone through John Sittema’s With a Shepherd’s Heart.  That’s still a great book for office bearer training, but recently I recommended that we give Faithful and Fruitful a try.  We look forward to reading and discussing it together at our 2020 consistory meetings.


A Day in the Dry Hills of Sabu

The pin shows the location of Sabu between Sumba and Timor. Australia is in the lower right-hand corner.

Our church in Launceston is privileged to support the spread of the gospel in Sabu.  I was asked to go there and represent our church at the ordination of two men to the ministry of the gospel.  Sabu is a small Indonesian island, wedged between the larger islands of Sumba and Timor.  Being in the south of the Indonesian archipelago, it’s physically not that far from the northern reaches of Australia.  Yet, culturally, it may as well be on the other side of the world.

It’s a typical, warm, dry morning as we make our way through the hilly arid landscape up to the church at Taka.  Rocks outnumber trees and the dry, brown dust says this is a tough place to earn a living off the land.  Compared to my current home in Tasmania, the bird and animal life is scarce.

We arrive at the church and already a few dozen people have gathered.  Eventually, they’ll total 150-200 people, filling the building and spilling out the back under a tent that’s been erected for the joyous occasion.  Many attendees are wearing the traditional Sabunese ikat, a woven garment with graphic designs unique to each clan.  They greet each other – and me – by rubbing noses.  As they smile, many mouths and teeth are visibly stained red.  This comes from the habit of chewing betel nuts – which gives a mild stimulant effect.

Amos and Yohanes, newly ordained Reformed ministers in Sabu.

The ordination service itself is familiar to a Reformed believer from anywhere.  It follows the standard Reformed liturgy.  Almost all the singing is from the Psalms, sung to Genevan tunes.  The Form for Ordination seems to be the form used everywhere else.  The men, Amos and Yohanes, are asked a series of questions.  They answer, “I do.”  Then follows the laying on of hands and I’m asked to participate in this, along with all the other pastors present.  Amos and Yohanes kneel on two pillows at the front of the church.  The pastors present (about 8 of us) gather around and we don’t actually place our hands on the brothers, but over them.  Then presiding pastor Pila says (in Indonesian, of course):

God, our heavenly Father, who has called you to this holy office, enlighten you with his Spirit and so govern you in your ministry that you may fulfil it obediently and that it may bear fruit to the honour of his name and the expansion of the kingdom of his Son Jesus Christ. Amen.

After the service ends, a number of people speak a few words.  I’m also given the opportunity to extend greetings on behalf of our church and its mission committee.  I present a gift to each of the newly minted pastors:  Richard Pratt’s He Gave Them Stories (in Indonesian).

We proceed to a house a short way down the dusty road for a celebratory feast.  The ladies have prepared an enormous amount of food to share for lunch.  Besides the obligatory rice, there’s also chicken, some goat, and liver, though I’m not sure from which animal.  For me, the highlight was a savoury pork heart stew with a vinegary sauce.

Joining me as I enjoy this feast are Pastor Windi and Elder Max.  They’re from another Reformed church on the island (Gurijara) and they both speak English fairly well.  Once we’re done eating, they invite me to travel with them to see some more of the island and its Reformed churches.  I hop on the back of Max’s motorbike and away we go.  With me weighing it down, the poor motorbike struggles to get much beyond 40 Km/h.

Elder Max and yours truly.

Max is a high school teacher and his English is good.  He’s quite talkative, even as we’re driving.  Because of his work, he seems to be well-known to many people in Sabu.  Almost every person he passes gets a little beep of the horn and sometimes a greeting or comment.  Before long, we’re at the church building in Gurijara.  This is the largest Reformed church on the island – I’m told it’s about 180 members.  They show me around the simple building and explain how they hope to eventually build a replacement next door.

Before we continue from Gurijara, I have to pause.  By this time the tropical sun is high and intense.  There’s hardly a cloud in sight.  Sunburn threatens and I’ve forgot to bring sunblock from home.  I went to every toko in the town of Seba but no one stocked sunblock.  The closest I could get was some hand and face lotion that included some sunscreen.  I apply that and even if I don’t get much sun protection, at least I smell flowery.

New Reformed church building under construction in Sabu Timor.

Our next stop is Sabu Timor.  We tour the new Reformed church under construction there – it’s going to be a large building once it’s completed.  The foundations are poured and supporting pillars are in place.  The next step is to build the walls, but progress is slow and no one is sure when it’ll be done.  There’s a store next to the construction site, owned by a church member.  We enjoy some water and Max gets some extra air pumped into his tires.  Yeah, it’s not exactly a feathery local riding with him.  But at least I smell nice.

Max and Windi offer to show me the old building in Sabu Timor.  We drive down the road a short ways and then we cut off onto a narrow track.  We drive past the veranda of a home, around the back, and then we’re there.  There are some church members waiting for us. They warmly greet us and we all rub noses.  We sit in some blue plastic chairs and take in the view out of the church and over the nearby ocean.  A refreshing breeze is blowing off the water and it’s a comfortable spot to relax.  Before long, the ladies are bringing in iced tea and a small meal of rice, cabbage, and omelette.

Max points out the most elderly member of the church.  She’s 83 years old and the matriarch of the village.  Everyone in the church is related to her, many of them are her children and grandchildren.  She’s blind in one eye, a little slow in her movement, but otherwise still seems quite alert.  Dressed in her traditional ikat, she quietly strikes a dignified poise.

One of the elders brings his guitar and serenades us with some strumming.  Max asks if I like singing and I say, “Sure, but not everyone likes my singing.”  He suggests we sing, “Silent Night” and we do, and it goes okay — in other words, no one runs away.  Then Windi says we should sing “How Great Thou Art.”  The guitarist first strums out the chorus and then we launch into the first verse.  We get to the chorus and just as we hit the high note at the end of the first line (“Then sings my soul…”), a village dog wanders in and starts howling along.  We all start laughing – all except the village matriarch.  She leaps out of her chair and goes at the poor musical dog.  She chases him out of the church and then, for good measure, takes a small plastic water bottle and hucks it at him.  You can hear the poor dog whimpering off into the shadows.  You don’t mess with the village matriarch when she’s enjoying her music!

From Sabu Timor, we head back to the main town of Seba.  I get dropped off at the homestay and Max heads back to his home in the nearby hills.  Seeing some of Sabu was interesting, enjoying some of the food was tantalizing, but the best thing of all was the reward of meeting God’s people.  It was awesome to share in their joy at the ordination of Amos and Yohanes.  And also getting a glimpse into their lives in this unique place was something that far transcends what you’d experience as an ordinary tourist.


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).