What helps our faith grow besides Bible reading and worship?

Q. Paul says in Romans that “faith comes by hearing the Word of God.” But some people don’t read their Bibles, and they don’t attend worship to hear the Bible preached, and then they lack faith. Are there other places in Scripture that tell of more things God uses to increase our faith?

What’s sometimes called “Bible intake”—reading the Word, hearing it preached, reflecting on it with others, etc.—is one of the “spiritual disciplines” by which we invest in our relationship with God and so build our faith. But there are many other spiritual disciplines that also serve this purpose, and they too are described in the Scriptures.

One of these is encountering God in the beauty of His creation. Many interpreters describe Psalm 19 as speaking of “the two books of God,” nature and Scripture. That psalm says that creation has a “voice” that we can hear, and that from it we can learn more about God. Romans says similarly that “since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made.” Not everyone heeds this “voice,” but it’s there for those who have ears to hear, and sometimes it surprises people.

Photo by Priscilla Smith
Photo by Priscilla Smith

Silence and solitude are also spiritual disciplines by which people can seek God. Psalm 131 is an example of this: “ I have calmed and quieted myself.” God says in Isaiah, “In repentance and rest is your salvation, in quietness and trust is your strength.” Too often, as God also says in Isaiah, people will “have none of it.” But sometimes people experience involuntary silence and solitude, for example, when recuperating from an accident or illness, and they find that God meets them there even though they weren’t particularly looking for Him.

Devotional reading in books other than the Bible is something else that builds our faith (for example, biographies of people whose lives are an example to us, or the reflections of godly saints throughout the ages). I once argued, in the course of a sermon series I gave on spiritual disciplines, that Gideon’s faith had been strengthened by the equivalent in his day of devotional “reading”: he’d heard stories passed down through the generations about God’s works, so that he was able to reply to the angel, “If the Lord is with us, where are all his wonders that our ancestors told us about?” Knowing what God has done in the lives of others in the past helps build our own sense of expectation of what God can do in our own lives and our own time.

Another spiritual discipline is journaling, recording the events of our lives and then looking back on them over time to recognize God’s hand in those events, which we might not have been able to see while living in the midst of them. The book of Nehemiah is arguably that man’s own journal, in which he records events and reflects on them, interspersing prayers in light of his reflections (“Remember me for this also, my God, and show mercy to me according to your great love”).

One more way I’ll mention of increasing our faith is to pray faith-sized prayers. That is, when we have a concern about a situation, or an ambition to do something for God in this world, we pray for as much of it as we currently have the faith to believe for. If God has truly prompted this concern or godly ambition, that prayer will be answered in such a way as to encourage us to believe and pray for greater and greater things. I think this is what Jesus meant when his disciples asked him, “Lord, increase our faith!” and he replied, “If you had faith like a grain of mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you.” In other words, rather than trying to get more faith, use the faith you already have and discover what great things it can accomplish.

I hope these suggestions are helpful. Really any spiritual discipline—any of the time-honored ways in which believers invest in their relationships with God—will help a person’s faith to grow. That’s because faith is ultimately trust and confidence in God, and the better we know God, the more we understand that we can safely trust in Him.

What not to expect from the sermons in your church

Q. I’ve been looking for a church in my area for some time now and I’m starting to get discouraged. The pastors of the churches I’ve visited haven’t gone very deep in their preaching.  I haven’t yet heard anyone preach exegetically through a passage, for example, and they often get sidetracked talking about superficial matters. Some of them actually seem to get their sermons off the Internet and then just adapt them with personal anecdotes. I’ve talked with some of them about my concerns and they’ve told me they’re “trying to keep it basic” for the sake of new believers. But it seems to me that this is just keeping everybody in perpetual immaturity.

My main point of frustration is that pastors either don’t seem to take their roles very seriously and seem to be just providing entertainment, or they teach really basic stuff super dogmatically but don’t really challenge their congregations. My understanding of what a pastor should be is someone who is there to equip and guide the congregation in terms of what the Bible really teaches, how to apply it to one’s life, and then how to understand our culture in order to engage it. As it is, half the time I stay home and listen to podcasts by people whose vision and style I appreciate such as Tim Keller. I know Christianity is about community and about giving back and being part of the change, but I don’t know where to begin.

In my first post in response to this question, I described what I thought was reasonable and fair for a person to expect from the sermons in their local church: that they be original (not pulled off the Internet and dressed up with a bit of local color), biblical (based on a passage carefully worked through), coherent, and challenging.  Now let me share some thoughts about what a person shouldn’t necessarily expect from the sermons in their church, in the hopes that this will help you be more open to some particular churches near you than you might be otherwise.

Let me begin with a story.  When I was no more than a few months into my first solo pastorate after seminary and graduate school, a longtime member asked to meet with me.  She took a few minutes to describe how she listened to Charles Stanley on television on Sunday mornings before coming to our service, and then she got right to the point:  “I wish you would preach more like Charles Stanley.”  (I thought to myself, “I wish I could preach more like Charles Stanley!”)

But an interesting thing happened after that.  Several months later, I was speaking with this same woman again, and she admitted, “For some reason, I now enjoy listening to your sermons just as much as to Charles Stanley’s, and I get just as much out of them.”  I knew that the reason wasn’t that in those few months I had somehow caught up in preaching ability with this naturally gifted speaker who has years of experience before a national television audience.  There was a different reason, which I’d like to explain by way of an analogy.

The classic definition of a sacrament is that it’s “the outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace.”  But there’s another definition that I find just as meaningful:  “A sacrament is the community bearing witness to God’s work in an individual life.”

When you commit yourself to following Christ, for example, you don’t baptize yourself.  You share your testimony of faith with the leaders and members of your local church, and when they are convinced that your commitment is genuine, they will baptize you.  If you feel called to the ministry, you don’t ordain yourself.  You make the case that you are called before the leaders of your church and of the other churches it is in fellowship with, and likely after a period of testing and training, they will ordain you.  Similarly you don’t perform your own wedding, or eat the Lord’s Supper all by yourself.  In all these sacramental instances the community of Jesus’ followers is bearing witness to God’s work in individual lives.

A sermon can be thought of as a “counter-clockwise sacrament,” that is, an instance when things flow in the other direction:  A sermon is an individual bearing witness to God’s work in the life of a community.  When preparing a sermon, or a series of sermons, the pastor considers carefully what God has been doing in the life of the community (discerned by walking as a shepherd among the people and sharing their journeys of faith), and then chooses a biblical passage or book that will speak to that activity, encouraging the people in the progress that has already been made and challenging them to press on further.

I think the woman who was such a big fan of Charles Stanley came to appreciate my sermons just as much as his not because they were delivered with equal polish and eloquence, but because she sensed that they were speaking to and about the life of faith we were all living together in our church.  She saw her own journey depicted and addressed in my sermons, and she felt right at home in them.

I think this is what you can and should reasonably expect from the sermons in your local church.  But you will need to become part of its ongoing shared life before you will hear your own story being told in the sermons.  Perhaps there’s a church you’ve visited whose people and programs you really like, but you’re just not so sure about the sermons.  Well, an awful lot of local church sermons will suffer by comparison with the Tim Keller podcasts you’ve been listening to at home.  Let’s face it, there aren’t too many Tim Kellers or Charles Stanleys out there, and it’s not fair or reasonable to expect any given local church pastor to preach and teach at that same level.  The purpose of preaching is not to give the parishioners a Bible school education from the pulpit—there are other times and places to get that kind of instruction.

So I’d encourage you to give such a church a fair try, particularly if the sermons seem to have the potential to meet the basic expectations I outlined at the beginning of this post.  You may find before long that a “counter-clockwise sacrament” is bearing witness, every time you hear a sermon in this church, to the life you’ve come to share with those people, and you’ll feel right at home.

Help! I can’t find a church in my area where the sermons have any depth!

Q. I’ve been looking for a church in my area for some time now and I’m starting to get discouraged. The pastors of the churches I’ve visited don’t go very deep in their preaching.  I haven’t yet heard anyone preach exegetically through a passage, for example, and they often get sidetracked talking about superficial matters. Some of them actually seem to get their sermons off the Internet and then just adapt them with personal anecdotes. I’ve talked with some of them about my concerns and they’ve told me they’re “trying to keep it basic” for the sake of new believers. But it seems to me that this is just keeping everybody in perpetual immaturity.

My main point of frustration is that pastors either don’t seem to take their roles very seriously and seem to be just providing entertainment, or they teach really basic stuff super dogmatically but don’t really challenge their congregations. My understanding of what a pastor should be is someone who is there to equip and guide the congregation in terms of what the Bible really teaches, how to apply it to one’s life, and then how to understand our culture in order to engage it. As it is, half the time I stay home and listen to podcasts by people whose vision and style I appreciate such as Tim Keller. I know Christianity is about community and about giving back and being part of the change, but I don’t know where to begin.

I think I can address your concerns from the “other side of the table,” so to speak, because I was a pastor myself for over twenty years.  In this post I’d like to affirm some of the things I think you can legitimately expect from the preaching at any church you attend.  In my next post I’ll describe some things that may not quite be realistic expectations, which I hope will help you recognize where you may indeed find a good church home in your new community.

•  First, I think you can and should realistically expect that the sermon will be the fruit of the pastor’s own personal engagement (in many cases wrestling!) with a biblical text that God has led them to preach on.  In other words, the sermon should be an original effort, based on diligent study, prayer, and reflection—not something pulled off the Internet and dressed up with a bit of local color.  Pastors need to heed Paul’s admonition to Timothy:  “Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who does not need to be ashamed and who correctly handles the word of truth.”

•  Next, I think you can also realistically expect that the sermon will have some real depth to it, both in its approach—working exegetically through a passage, explaining its natural parts sequentially in light of their original language, culture, context, and audience, and noting present-day implications—and in its content:  it will fulfill the admonition in Hebrews, “Let us move beyond the elementary teachings about Christ and be taken forward to maturity.”

•  I think it’s also fair for you to expect that the sermon will stick to the point and communicate a clear and consistent message.  Yes, individual observations can and should be elucidated with pertinent illustrations.  But pastors are not fulfilling their callings if their sermons are typically rambling and incoherent, frequently straying from the main point (assuming there is one) into irrelevant and superficial topics.

•  Finally, as you say, I think you can reasonably expect that the primary effect of the sermon on you will be to challenge you—to greater godliness, to more devoted service, to more effective engagement with the culture, or something along those lines.  It will give you a “growing edge” to live out in the days ahead.  The essential purpose of the sermon should not be to entertain or to indoctrinate.

I’ll follow up on these thoughts in my next post with some reflections on what we might not realize we should actually not expect from the sermons in our home church.

Why do preachers and worship leaders talk so much about sports these days?

 

“Property of Jesus” baseball cap by CafePress

Q.  I’ve heard you relate how you once went to church and when the first words out of the worship leader’s mouth were something like “How ‘bout them Yankees?” you felt like shouting back, “How ‘bout that Jesus?”  I have the same frustration.  My pastor often gets sidetracked into talking about sports during his sermons.  Why do preachers and worship leaders talk so much about sports these days?

I can think of at least two good reasons to talk about sports during a worship gathering of Jesus’ followers.

For one thing, sports provides many illustrations of the perseverance and dedication that are required to live as followers of Jesus.  The Bible itself models using sports as a metaphor in this way.  In writing to the Corinthians, for example, Paul said, “Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize. Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last, but we do it to get a crown that will last forever.”  Paul wrote similarly to Timothy, “Anyone who competes as an athlete does not receive the victor’s crown except by competing according to the rules.”  And Psalm 19 even celebrates God’s creation by comparing the sun to “an athlete eager to run a race.”

A second legitimate use of sports, as I see it, is to “contextualize” the gospel by situating the message of worship and preaching within the milieu in which the hearers live.  When I came to pastor a church in the city where Michigan State University is located, at first I didn’t know any better than to wear my favorite yellow fleece jacket with blue jeans to informal gatherings, thus inadvertently donning the maize-and-blue colors of its arch-rival, the University of Michigan. Some people had such a hard time with this that I had to swap the yellow fleece for a green-and-white MSU sweatshirt, signaling that I was identifying with the community and its popular culture. This set people at ease, creating receptivity and an openness to my ministry.  I believe that carefully chosen verbal references to sports in worship and preaching can signal the same kind of intentional identification.

But this can easily be taken too far. We have to be careful not to use the spiritual authority behind worship and preaching to suggest, even implicitly, that God is on the side of one team and its fans and against other teams and their fans.  I like the answer a priest from Notre Dame gave when asked what God would do when Notre Dame played another Catholic school like Boston College, with the priests at both schools praying that their team would win.  “In that case,” he said, “I think the Lord would just sit back and enjoy a great football game.”  We need to convey this same sense of divine neutrality (and divine interest in a great game, as both teams strive to do their best) when we talk about sports.

I think the greatest danger is to imply that being a fan of a certain team is somehow a legitimate defining aspect of a person’s identity.  The spiritual authority behind worship and preaching can convey this message as well, if the local sports team is absorbed as part of the faith community’s identity.  Sometimes I’ll watch a game show on which the players are asked to say three or four defining things about themselves.  Very often they’ll say what kind of work they do, mention their spouses and children, and then say, “I’m also a big fan of such-and-such a team.”  I believe that unless a person is actively involved in promoting a team’s efforts in some practical manner, it’s a dangerous illusion for them to allow their fandom to become a defining aspect of their identity, when they really have nothing to do with how the team (or their favorite NASCAR driver, etc.) performs.  It’s perhaps even more dangerous for a community of Jesus’ followers to let this happen, because then they’re allowing an idol to share the place of honor that belongs to Jesus alone.

This is what I felt happened in the worship service you heard me describe attending.  It was actually Palm Sunday, when we would expect the worship leader to call out something like “Blessed is the One who comes in the name of the Lord!” and have the people respond, “Hosanna in the highest!” to Jesus.  Instead, the worship leader extolled the recent success of a favorite sports team.  I really was tempted to shout back, “How ‘bout that Jesus?”  But that would have been disruptive and disrespectful of the spiritual authority of the worship leader, so I didn’t shout anything back.  But I thank you for your question, which has given me the opportunity to share these reflections.  Sports is one of the greatest idols of contemporary American culture and we need to be very discerning about its presence and influence.

Should worship songs be sadder?

Cover image from Gungor’s forthcoming album “I Am Mountain”

On the Community Bible Experience Facebook page I recently saw this re-tweet from Michael Gungor:

“Approximately 70 percent of the Psalms are laments. Approximately 0 percent of the top 150 CCLI songs (songs sung most in churches) are laments.”

His statement was that simple. But the original tweet proved so controversial, drawing so many protests and criticisms, that Gungor had to follow up with a post on the Church Leaders blog, explaining at greater length why he felt “worship music should be sadder.”

I was already thinking about expanding here on a comment I made on his post, and then our time of worship this past Sunday featured Gungor’s plaintive song “Dry Bones,” beautifully accompanied by three young interpretive dancers from the church.  This was all the encouragement I needed to share the following further thoughts here!

As I said in my comment, in response to those who apparently didn’t want to hear anything like a biblical “lament” in worship because, as one person asked, “Why would we have to lament? We have Jesus!”:

“Some of the misunderstanding about ‘laments’ may arise from a false impression that they are just a means of bewailing unfortunate circumstances. What are often called ‘laments’ are also known as ‘psalms of supplication,’ in which the psalmists offer a cry for help and a description of their troubles, but then strive to work through to a statement of trust (‘God, despite all that’s happening, I still trust you’) and to make petition for deliverance and vow praise to God for that anticipated deliverance. So-called ‘laments’ thus combine a realistic acknowledgment of difficult circumstances and troubled emotions with hard-won expressions of trust and praise.”

In other words, as I explain in my study guide to Biblical lyric poetry, these “laments” or “psalms of supplication” present a number of different elements; they’re not just complaints.  Not every psalm has all the possible elements, and the ones that are used can be presented in a variety of orders, but a basic pattern can be recognized.

Psalm 54 illustrates this pattern briefly and well:

Cry for Help:
Save me, O God, by your name;
vindicate me by your might.
Hear my prayer, O God;
listen to the words of my mouth.

Complaint:  
Arrogant foes are attacking me;
ruthless people are trying to kill me—
people without regard for God.

Statement of Trust:
Surely God is my help;
the Lord is the one who sustains me.

Petition:
Let evil recoil on those who slander me;
in your faithfulness destroy them.

Vow of Praise:
I will sacrifice a freewill offering to you;
I will praise your name, LORD, for it is good.
You have delivered me from all my troubles,
and my eyes have looked in triumph on my foes.

As this psalm illustrates, within a typical “psalm of supplication,” the cry for help and description of troubles certainly make up a “lament” in the popular sense of that word.  And while in many cases the psalmist is able to work through to a statement of trust and vow of praise, as happens here, in other cases (such as Psalm 88, which I call “one of the darkest psalms in the Bible”), we never see the psalmist get there.

And so Gungor’s point is very well taken that too many worship songs skip a realistic acknowledgment of present troubles and jump right to the hoped-for (or imagined) happy ending. And so, I say at the end of my comment on his post, “It would be great to hear some fully-orbed ‘praise songs of supplication'” (if calling them “laments” is too susceptible to misunderstanding) “that work honestly forward from the most difficult circumstances and emotional struggles to statements of trust and promises of praise.”

In fact, if we really want our worship music to mirror the broad range of reflection on experiences offered to us in the Bible, perhaps we should even have some songs that don’t actually show the songwriter reaching the place of expressed trust and promised praise.

Could our worship handle that?