Category Archives: Church life

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).


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.