Monthly Archives: January 2010

Totally like funny and true, you know?

Title says it all. (Click through to see the video if it does not show up on your RSS feed)

Feed the people with truth, not music

There’s a famous line from the start of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night: If music be the food of love, play on.

Nothing could be further from the truth when it comes to Christian worship singing. Music is not the food of a proper love for God. Music can never be the food of a biblical compassion for the lost. Truth is the food of a proper love for God and a biblical compassion for the lost.

Don’t get me wrong. I love music. I love singing. I consider it an aberration that I’ve never taken the time to learn a musical instrument. Having mixed worship services for the last 4-5 years of my life, I know first hand how excellent music can stir a person’ emotions. I even spend time analysing what an ideal mix sounds like, asking myself questions like: how does the bass line stir my emotions, what sort of drum tones are ideal for the type of music being played, what pitches and tones are pleasant to the ear, how can we layer instruments on top of each other so that the end result is more than the sum of its parts. In fact, I spend enough time thinking about these issues that I ask myself similar questions when watching a movie, i.e. what elements of the soundtrack are driving this visual experience.

Yet, like all of creation, music is employed in a fallen way. It is used to manipulate people. Music ought to be doxological, but it can just as easily serve pragmatic purposes. We all know that a steady bass beat and the right electric riff can get the heart pounding. We all know that playing in a minor key evokes sad or melancholic feelings in a person. Where we go wrong in Christian worship music is that we can easily give primacy to music to shape people’s emotional responses.

But there is something we can learn from good movies. The soundtrack never takes center stage in a movie. We don’t usually come out of a movie saying that was a good soundtrack. Rather, we come out with our hearts resonating with the story of the movie. The music simply confirms this feeling. The lesson is this: the story takes precedence over the soundtrack, but a good soundtrack enhances the story.

This is a truth we ought to come to terms with in Christian worship music. First, the story takes precedence over the soundtrack. If you want the hearts of your congregation to experience something real, then let their heart beat to the greatest story ever told: the story of redemption through Christ. Don’t ever let their hearts beat to a kick drum. We’re not going to spend eternity singing about kick drums. This is why the Bible places so little focus on music: it cares less about the way we praise and more about the God we praise. The simple truth is that God cares that we praise him for who he is, rather than mouth empty praises to empty things and false gods. Therefore, those who lead their congregations in singing should make it their primary goal to feed the people with truth, not music. If you want them to go off and spend the week praising God, then give them a sight of God they will never forget, not a sound that is drowned out by the next loud sound.

Second, a good soundtrack enhances the story. There are songs out there filled with solid biblical truth that are also written to really good music. Dig hard for these diamonds. Don’t be easily satisfied with the next big worship CD. Find both the right story and the story that is rightly told.

Romans 8:28: An encouragement to get involved in church ministry

And we know that for those who love God, God works all things together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.

In my opinion, Romans 8:28 is the surest rock of truth for anyone experiencing suffering. But it is not exclusively for those going through tragedy and evil. The truth of these words apply just as much to all who regret choices and mistakes made in the past, doubt that what they are presently doing is right, and have trouble charting a future course of direction. These words make certain that which is uncertain. The certainty lies in the simple phrase “we know”.

We know that the future is uncertain. We are not omniscient beings, nor do we worship a personal fortune-teller God. However, in the face of this uncertainty, we know a certain truth. We know that God works all things together for good. But there’s a qualifier. This is only true for those who love God and are called according to his purpose.

Yet this qualifier should not leave us disheartened. If you are like me, you ought to quickly realise that we would be hard pressed to describe ourselves as people who truly love God, and just as often we doubt that we have been called according to his purpose (v.29 clearly points out that this purpose is to be conformed to the likeness of Jesus Christ). But this is a condition that God himself fulfills.

Do we love God? By ourselves, no. But his love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us. For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly…God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. And so we are given the heart and the capacity to love him.

How do we know we are called according to his purpose? If you see Christ as supremely valuable over all things, and your heart utters an Amen to your destiny of becoming like him, then you can be sure that you are called according to his purpose. Yes, it is true that our treasuring of Christ does not immediately and consistently translate itself into words, deeds and thoughts that honour him every moment of our lives. But that is really an issue of our hearts being mired in sin. In the short run, a mind that acknowledges this truth is sufficient proof. However, a heart that consistently fails to express this truth over a long time would demand that you examine yourself closely to see whether you are in the faith.

So rest deeply in this certainty. We know that God is working all things together for the good of those who love him and have been called according to his purpose. The foundation of this truth lies not in our own effort, but also in the work of God. The God who is working all things together for our good has already worked things together for our salvation (I use this word loosely).

How does this truth translate into ministry?

Stop regretting mistakes you’ve made in the past. Stop letting your past choices cripple you. There is much to learn from the past. But the past should not shackle you. All our mistakes and unwise decisions are still being weaved together by God for our good.

Stop worrying whether what you are presently doing is right. Just make sure you are being as biblically faithful as you can be. If you come to the realisation a few months later that there are things you are doing that is out of sync with biblical wisdom, then just shrug your shoulders and shift gears. After all, we are only called to be faithful. We are not perfect and so we ought to expect the expression of our faithfulness to grow in accordance with our growth in the grace and knowledge of Christ. All that we are doing is being weaved together by God for our good.

Finally, stop worrying about the future. Remain faithful to what revelation you have received from God’s Word. Plan in all biblical wisdom. And then rest in the knowledge that God is working all things together for our good.

There is nothing that escapes the sovereign control of God. Ultimately, his purposes will prevail, whatever we do. So persevere in ministry work as a faithful servant and child, and trust in the sovereign workings of God. Enjoy the freedom that this truth gives you to work with all wisdom and excellence, in eager expectation that his purposes will be accomplished.

Why this new category of posts?

I’ve decided to start a new category under my Theology section called “Thoughts on Church Ministry”. If I could add a subtext, it would be “Reflections of a Lay Minister”. Just to clarify that last word, a lay minister refers to any Christian minister who has not been ordained. That is, every Christian who is actively engaged in the work of Christ but is not a pastor or missionary. This basically includes everyone the Bible describes as Christians but whom people do not generally address with the title ‘Pastor’, ‘Bishop’, ‘Reverend’ or any other clerical title of your choosing.

Having looked back over my previous categories, I realised that the majority of my posts under my various series had a more general vibe running through it – that is, they were in some way linked to my reflections on the church and church ministry in general. I seldom think about theology outside the context of the church. I’m not sure if it’s a good thing that my thoughts move too quickly from myself to the church. I reckon this habit derives partly from the fact that I dread introspection as I hate to see what lies beneath my surface (definitely bad), and partly from the fact that I’ve been unusually active as a leading voice in ministry at my church from a young age (perhaps unwisely young).

Regardless, a week doesn’t go by when I’m not thinking about this topic. I feel that I need to commit these reflections and thoughts to writing here for two reasons. First, I hope to start productive conversations with my few (I think I’m up to 2!) faithful readers on ministry work. Second, I hope to flesh out these thoughts more fully, so that my thinking stops covering similar ground but can advance in fresh ways and from different angles.

This is mainly for my personal reference, but the topics I reckon I’ll cover include (but are not limited to): singing, preaching, teaching, serving, the nature of church ministry, ministry structure, ministry nitty-gritty, church membership, pressing concerns and red flags, bright spots and encouraging observations.

Let’s get started.

A Christian response to aggression

I was in the center of KL driving back home when I saw these words on a huge electronic newsboard: PM condemns bomb attacks on churches.

I couldn’t believe what I was reading. Shortly after, I got a text message from my cousin asking whether I had heard about the firebombs. I clearly hadn’t. So I started texting him for more details. I don’t need to recount what happened here. It’s already all over international news. I believe it’s the first time in a long time that such a thing has happened in this country.

How should Christians respond in the face of such aggression?

1. Trust in the sovereignty of God

And we know that for those who love God, God works all things together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose. Romans 8:28

All things. Not just good things. But the evils of this world as well. All things are being worked together for our good and his glory. Is this tragic? Yes, but only in the short term. In the eternal scope of things, it will only serve to add to the glory of God, as he weaves it into the tapestry of his inscrutable yet good, wise and glorious ways.

2. Rejoice and be thankful

Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice insofar as you share Christ’s sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed. 1 Peter 4:12-13

If we are indeed suffering for the sake of the gospel of Christ, then let us rejoice.

3. See what is central: Are we fighting the good fight, or a pointless skirmish?

The circumstances of the bombings are interesting, to say the least. Some people have seized upon the Allah ruling to cause dissension and inflict violence. This is a sad state of affairs that many of us, the people and the government, are right to condemn. All who love peace and stability do not wish for these sort of things to happen. But the question that is uppermost in my thoughts at the moment is the significance of this ruling to the cause of the Christian gospel. Are we indeed suffering for the sake of the gospel of Christ?

I reckon this is a controversial matter. I admit I am ill-informed on the matter, but I personally think the ruling has little direct significance for the spread of the Christian gospel. It seems to me that it is more a marker of the boundaries of religious freedom within the country. I will not stand down on the first matter, but I understand that leeway must be expected on the second matter. Freedom is a blessing that the modern world enjoys. Human history reveals that the majority of governments have directly resisted the spread of the gospel or co-opted and distorted it to fit their political agendas. Persecution is the norm we ought to expect, and freedom is the blessing we presently enjoy.

I also fail to see the significance of the word Allah over Tuhan, and wonder whether certain churches have caused unnecessary hoo-hah over this matter. This is a right I’m willing to cede, in the spirit of Paul:

I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some. I do it all for the sake of the gospel, that I may share with them in its blessings. 1 Cor 9:22-23

Is the gospel at stake in the use of the word Allah? Personally, I think not. The gospel stands and falls on the name of Jesus Christ. And as far as I can tell, God has blessed us with a government that does not contend the use of that name. After all, Muslims know one Jesus Christ, and Christians believe in another. And while each of us believes that only one of us is right, we are not going to shed blood over the matter. This is an area where we believe each has the right to their own truth, and that all have an obligation to be civil and respectful of the other’s beliefs. More than that, as Christians, we believe that salvation is the work of God, not the work of man. On the contrary, by placing so much emphasis on the right to use the word Allah, I think we do great disservice to the cause of the gospel, as we turn people’s attention to semantics (or so I believe it to be the case) rather than the person of Jesus Christ.

4. Hold out the gospel constantly and faithfully

Regardless of where you come down on the matter, our calling remains clear.

And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” Matthew 28:19-20

Only let your manner of life be worthy of the gospel of Christ, so that whether I come and see you or am absent, I may hear of you that you are standing firm in one spirit, with one mind striving side by side for the faith of the gospel, and not frightened in anything by your opponents. Philippians 1:27-28

Our battles are not against people and governments and bombs. It does not primarily take place in courtrooms and public squares. Our battle is against sin and the deceptions of the devil, and it takes place in the heart of every individual. This sort of fight can only be fought with the sword of the Spirit, the word of truth, the glorious gospel of grace through Jesus Christ. It is true that the spiritual fight does not leave the physical realm unscathed. We will most definitely suffer physically. On the contrary, our aggression is a spiritual aggression, not a physical aggression, for we know that the death and violence and darkness that plagues this world of ours finds its roots in the universal sinfulness of mankind and the power that gives the devil over us. What counts most at the present time is the redemption of souls, not the redemption of the earth. I am not saying that Christians have no obligations to the world as it is, but redemption has to start with our souls. A fallen people cannot redeem a fallen world, for they possess no redemptive qualities. And our most pressing eternal need is not a redeemed world but a redeemed relationship with God.

So hold out the truth of the gospel constantly and faithfully. Suffer if you must. Endure all persecution if you must. But know that the gospel of God will triumph for he has bound up the glory of his name with the success of the gospel. This is the good fight we must fight – the fight to faithfully and constantly preach and live the gospel to all peoples despite all that might afflict us. And this is the good fight God will win – the fight to redeem the people he has called.

5. Pray for peace

First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people, for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way. This is good, and it is pleasing in the sight of God our Savior, who desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. 1 Tim 2:1-4

Thus far I have said that we ought to trust in the sovereignty of God, rejoice in our sufferings, examine to see whether we are suffering for what is right, and to hold out the gospel constantly and faithfully. Paul’s counsel to Timothy incorporates all these things. Prayer assumes the sovereignty of God. He tells him to be thankful for all peoples, including those in the government. It is clear that the desire of God is for us to live in such a way that all people may be saved by coming to a knowledge of the truth. But Paul also urges Timothy to pray for peace.

I would say that Christianity has often flourished in the face of adversity. Suffering is the price Christians have paid for the advance of the gospel. And suffering is often the catalyst for people to humble themselves and believe in Christ. So it seems strange to pray for kings and those in high positions that we might lead peaceful and quiet lives, godly and dignified in every way. But if we think deeper about this, there is enough suffering and death in this world without having to add political instability to the mix. If anything, this saps the energies of people and makes it more challenging for the church to lay any foundations. The riches of our Christian heritage equally originate in periods of relative peace and stability, such as Calvin in Geneva, Owen in England and Edwards in America.

Therefore pray for peace in this nation. Pray for a stable government, who punishes what is evil and rewards that which is good. Pray for the integrity of our leaders, that they will continue to do what is pleasing in the sight of God. Pray this in light of the gospel, knowing that redemption and forgiveness is open to everyone, no matter how many times they’ve screwed up in the past. Pray above all that Christians might live peaceful and quite lives, godly and dignified in every way, so that all men may come to a knowledge of the truth and be saved, to the glory of God the Father and our Saviour Jesus Christ.

Next time, bring a tree

I just finished watching the last main session of Passion 2010. I thought it was really good. The gospel of grace was handled amazingly well, and it is my prayer that a generation of students will be awakened from these few days to the glories of Christ.

Something Louie said in the final session caught my attention. He mentioned that there was no talk of rededication during Passion 2010 for good reason, highlighting the problem with the culture of rededication that is commonplace in many churches today – mainly, that it contradicts the gospel of grace. I was laughing quite hard at this because the way he talked about it clearly showed me the futility and foolishness of the ways we are prone to follow. The neverending cycle of backsliding and rededication is proof that we can never live the Christian life by our own willpower.

Or in Louie’s words, we all like to stand around a bonfire, throwing our sticks into the fire, saying, “This is it. I’m rededicating my life to you.” Only to fail again, and gather around the next bonfire with another stick, saying, “This is the stick. That last stick wasn’t really the stick.”

And the next time, “This is THE stick. I’m sticking it in the ground as a sign of my commitment. Oh, and then I’ll burn it in the fire.”

And the next time, “This is definitely the stick. I’m sticking it in the ground, nailing it to this cross over here, and burning it in the fire.”

And the next time, “This is IT. I’m sticking it in the ground, carving my sins onto it, nailing it to the cross and burning it in the fire.”

Next time, bring a tree and burn that in the fire.

Do you see the problem with the gospel of willpower? The attitude that says I am going to do it better this time round? Left to ourselves, we are unable to do that which is pleasing to God.

Instead of a gospel of willpower, we must awaken to the gospel of grace. The gospel that teaches us to say “I can’t, but you can.”  This is the gospel of Philippians 2:13 – work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure. Stop trying to do better, and start believing this wonderful truth. The God who saves us doesn’t leave us at conversion, but continues to sanctify us by his Spirit and truth. His work is primary. He is at work in you to will and to work out your salvation. Therefore, work out your salvation. God gives us what he commands us to do, so quit trying to find the resources and the willpower and just start believing and living each day in this truth. If you fail, repent for God is faithful to forgive us, then keep on living in this truth. If you go through a day with much encouragement, thank God, and then keep on living in that same truth the next day.

Will it take a whole forest before you awaken to the riches of the gospel of grace?

Re-considering New Year resolutions

The first day of the new year is often marked by people making resolutions to do certain things in the new  year (or stop doing certain things).

The more observant among you might notice that I’ve marked out this post as theology, rather than personal. So this isn’t going to be a post on my resolutions for the new year. I have mine written down already. Rather, it’s a post on 4 general resolutions Christians tend to make, and how we can think through each of them within a biblical framework.

1. To serve God more

Usually top of the ‘Christian’ resolutions. I appreciate the good intentions that underlie such a resolution. But I would ask you to consider what it means to serve God, in light of Paul’s statement in Acts 17:24-25: The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in temples made by man, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything. There is nothing we can give to God that he does not already have. If we wish to relate better to God in the new year, don’t make service the key point. First and foremost, learn to enjoy better your position as children of God. Delight in the Father, the Son and the Spirit. Spend time with them. Don’t spend all your time serving them. Be like Mary, not Martha, who understood that spending time listening and resting in Jesus was the most important thing of all. Let Christ meet all your needs.

And while this might appear selfish on the surface, it is far from selfish in reality. By resting and delighting in God, we glorify Him as an all-sufficient loving Father who delights to meet all our needs. By enjoying our status as children of God, we will glorify Him by being the children we really are. And as we spend time with the Father, Son and Spirit, this communion spurs us on to encourage and love one another. Christ meets our needs, so that we are freed to meet the needs of everyone else, both people in the church, and outside the church.

2. To finish my Bible reading plan this year

This is a most commendable resolution. In fact, I would encourage people to get stuck into the Bible, as it is the primary means of grace and the only infallible standard by which we can come to know God and grow in our relationship with him. However, if you are like me, that is a slacker and shirker, here are some modifications I would recommend.

First, I’m not quite sure where the one year time limit comes from. I guess there’s a nice ring to finishing the Bible in a year. And it is in fact entirely do-able. So for those able to do so, by all means go ahead and do so. But if you’re the sort to slack, or the sort to speed read each day without really absorbing the Bible in its entirety, I suggest getting your favourite reading plan, strip out the dates, and move through them at your own pace. Then call up a fellow Christian and ask them to keep you accountable, to make sure you don’t go a whole week without reading your Bible, and that you in fact attain a minimal comprehension of what you are reading.

Second, I would suggest purchasing a book that will help you to study the Bible (alternatively, find a mature Christian you can learn this from). Far too many Christians skim over the surface raking for leaves when they should be rolling up their sleeves and digging deep for treasure. Dig Deeper by Nigel Beynon and Andrew Sachs comes highly recommended on my part.

Third, for all the long commuters among you, if you can’t read the Bible this year, then would you consider listening to it? Getting an audio Bible, or subscribing to the ESV podcast, will in fact help you listen to the entire Bible this year. After all, we already spend too much time listening to music or the radio. Why not spend your time listening to the Bible?

Fourth, start building in memorising the Bible into your routine. In addition to resolving to finish the Bible in whatever time period, resolve too to spend time each week memorising some portion of the Bible. Not just your favourite verses, but chunks of text, as to keep each truth in context. This sort of memorisation slows down your reading and allows you to meditate deeper on the truths in the passage you are memorising.

3. To stop [insert action]

Be very careful with this one! At the start of the year it would be wise to remind ourselves of the wonderful gospel of Christ and how it relates to living upright and godly lives. We do not preach a gospel of morality: be good and God will bless you. Rather we preach a gospel unto depravity: there is no way you can be good (Rom 3:23), but God loved us while we were still sinners that Christ died for us (Rom 5:8) – to pay the penalty of our sin, overthrow the power of sin in our lives, and establish his benevolent dominion over us.

Remember then first of all that our efforts at being good doesn’t make us right before God. Nor can it make us MORE right before God. We are as justified as we ever will be in Christ. Resting in this wonderful truth, live your lives as faithfully as you can as children of God. There is no sin he has not already forgiven, and no pressure to attain a moral and godly standard by our own willpower.

4. To be more [insert positive characteristic]

We all like to be more loving, or more considerate, or more disciplined. I have very little to say that has not already been said above. Drink deep first from the fountain of God. If anyone wishes to be more loving, he must drink deep of the one who loved us most and gave us his Son. If anyone wishes to be more considerate, he must drink deep at the fountain of the one who did not consider equality with God something to be grasped but humbled himself unto death for us. If anyone wishes to be more disciplined, he must drink deep at the fountain of the one who bent every fibre of his being – mind, heart, body and soul – to the mission given to him by the Father.