Sermon application missteps, individualism, universalism and duty

Recently I heard a sermon that did some great work expounding the historical and theological context and meaning of an Old Testament passage, and then looking forward to how these themes are expressed in the context of the New Testament fulfilment. There was lots to like in both the content and the delivery.

But the application jarred at points. And as I tried to think through what was going wrong, I realised how clumsy sermon application, especially when applying things from the Old Testament to the New Testament, often is the result of an individualistic grid.

Often sermon applications want to say basically something along the lines of:

“This is what it must mean for every individual in the room right now.”

That’s right in the sense that ethics in God’s world are ultimately objective and universal. Every individual in the room must not murder, at all times. Every individual must repent and trust in God’s one and only son.

And it’s also right in the sense that the gospel message speaks to each of us as individuals. While recognising the communal nature of humanity, the Bible at the same time upholds human individuality, dignity and responsibility. Not only ‘the soul who sins is the one who dies’ but also each one of us who, ‘not by natural descent or human decision’, receives Jesus Christ becomes children born of God. We cannot preach the gospel in some generic, communal, ritualistic manner.

And yet.

Many sermon applications are not matters of absolutely constant moral duty or obligation — believe in Jesus, don’t murder. Many are about values, priorities — ‘seek first the kingdom of God’, ‘do good first of all the household of believers’. Many sermon applications have multiple expressions — ‘marriage is to be honoured by all’, ‘all of this is to be done for the strengthening of the church’. And many have a range of possible degrees of application — ‘be generous’, ‘pray’, ‘do good’.

But sermon applications get into trouble when the preacher identifies a particular application and lays it on the conscience of all their hearers in equal measure. With no attention to the range of individuals and contexts.

This clumsiness is often made worse when moving from the Old Testament to the New Testament. Passages which are primarily addressed to the leader of God’s people, or God’s people as a whole group get applied with a timeless, universal and personal application to each individual. Israelites were to come up to Jerusalem for the great festivals; but not absolutely every single individual Israelite was morally bound to do so every year. The community of returned exiles as a whole were to stop tending to their own property and comfort in order to build the house of the Lord; but not every single Israelite was pledged to a particular amount of construction work each day. And this duty looked different in the unique time period of the rebuilding of the physical temple than it looked in the days of Malachi, in the more routine and ongoing duties of temple worship.

Each individual Christian in a congregation is not somehow frozen in the timeless quirks of a particular moment in salvation history and shouldered with the burdens and responsibilities of the whole people of God. To apply the Scriptures as if they were is to burden their consciences where the Lord does not.

Often equally powerful, inspiring and convicting sermon applications can be preached that qualify a bit more carefully in ways such as:

  • what might this mean for you in particular? What does this mean for us as a whole group?
  • What should we all be committed to, value and pray for, even if how you express that commitment might vary?
  • How will this look for you in the coming week? How ought it look over a lifetime?
  • Some of you a peculiarly responsible for this: what are you bound to do?
  • And so on.

Really helpful checklist for employment reference check conversations

Thanks SO much to Manager Tools for giving a great framework for reference checking potential employees.

They recommend doing it only once you’re on the brink of offering the person the job. Both to save your time calling lots of references, and also the referee is more likely to talk if they don’t feel like they are prejudicing the person’s chances. It also helps you make up your own mind about someone first.

Then their suggested questions go something like:

“Hi, we are about to offer x a job with our ministry and are now conducting reference checks. They put you down as a referee. Are you happy to answer a few brief questions?”

  1. Can you confirm their dates of employment? (wait for them to give an answer, don’t read out what you have on the CV)
  2. Can you confirm their job title ? (wait for them to give an answer, don’t read out what you have on the CV)
  3. Can you comment on the accuracy of this job description they provided me with?

  4. They told me about project x — can you confirm their involvement? What was the outcome of this project?

  5. What was their best contribution while working with you?

  6. What areas for improvement did they have?

  7. [I’ve added for Christian references] Do you have any areas of theological concern or lack of clarity?

  8. [I’ve added for Christian references] Do you have any questions of moral concern?

  9. We are considering them for x role. How would you assess their suitability?

  10. Would you have any concerns about employing them again, if you had the opportunity?

Mirrors 16th November 2018

  1. Nice to have The Good Life in the Last Days included on the booklist for the recent Single Minded Conference by Wandering Bookseller.
  2. Part 2 of Clare Smith’s articles for The Gospel Coalition Australia rightly tells us that Christians don’t need to adopt an external feminist framework to honour and protect women. Feminism(s) should push us back to discover truths in Scripture itself.But I don’t think Clare Smith gives enough weight to the fact that socially/historically it took the various feminist movements to strongly confront a lot of issues — often is wasn’t Christianity on the front foot. Don’t we need to explain why that is?
  3. Support vision and needs, not just people and stories
  4. My recent rollerblading podcast episode (draws on some James Davison Hunter towards the end) to analyse the demise of rollerblading.
  5. New book on small group leading from Matthias Media. Written by one of the staff at Hunter Bible Church, Newscastle.
  6. Listening to and really impressed by Halloween Unmasked. Not ‘just’ a horror movie. But then very few are
  7. In this episode, they discuss a doco about the ivory trade. One host says: I feel like I come from such a privileged position & I feel scared of judging. Another interjects: I can and I will. And the third says: Otherwise it’s a waste of good privilege.

Mirrors 9th November 2018

  1. I said ‘Do you ever wish you were a chicken?’ to illustrate a point on Romans 5:12–21 sermon for a Uni Fellowship of Christians sermon this morning… and now I think that’s the only thing people will remember from the whole sermon. Illustration fail 101.
  2. A provocative post from Dave McDonald . I have mixed emotions about his mixed emotions. He is right in the warning against flippancy. But I think black humour has a place in denouncing sin too.
  3. Another one from Dave McDonald: Great little bit of recent church history: the planting of Crossroads Christian Church in Canberra. Touches on independently governed churches and the relationship between church and parachurch.
  4. Claire Smith talks about ‘feminism'(s). Helpful pulling apart various threads, even if you don’t agree with her conclusions about using the label or joining the movement.
  5. My recent sermon on Romans 9-11
  6. “Women: you don’t need me, a male preacher, to GIVE you dignity. It’s already yours”. Andrew Heard on womanhood.
  7. WOW! Could this be THE video we should all share on the “What is Christianity?” page of our websites? Beautiful and solid theology.

Mirrors 5th November 2018

Sorry for such sporadic blogging this year… I have a blog post in the wings all about what things get squeezed to the periphery when you take on new work, or lose staff, and how this is kind of a natural and healthy kind of way to be more focused and efficient. And sadly: the Christian Reflections blog goes extinct in the face of this kind of productivity natural selection.

Anyway, here’s a roundup from the last few months’ tweets:

  1. Generous longform ABC article about a church planter assessed and coached through Geneva Push.
  2. My recent Uni Fellowship of Christians apologetic sermon-lecture responding to the comment ‘I don’t mind Jesus, but I hate the apostle Paul’
  3. It’s right to oppose Gay Conversion Therapy… depending in what you mean by GCT
  4. Some pretty sharp and useful critique of the Statement On Social Justice
  5. Rory Shiner at FIEC Conference on evangelistic optimism.
  6. A good warning here! “Your organisation might be plateaued if…”
  7. Another great article from Manager Tools! I can totally relate to this. It’s why often talking something through with someone else helps me solve my own problem while they listen in!

Ministry staff social events and Christmas functions

What does your church/ministry staff do in terms of social events? How many events involve partners of staff? How many involve kids? Especially as a church staff team gets bigger, and even more so once there are part-time staff involved, this can get very difficult to organise and accommodation and afford!

Personally this isn’t my ‘love language’. I’m more of a ‘when the work gets done, people feel looked after’ person than a ‘when people feel looked after, the work gets done’. But I realise that others are not like me and this is an important thing for them. I also realise that even for those, like me, who don’t gravitate towards this by way of preference, it can still have very positive effects for our relationships and experience of the team.

I asked a bunch of friends from a range of multi-staff churches and parachurches around the country what they do. I was especially interested in:

  • What do you do as an entire staff team… and what do you do as sub-teams (whether ministry team areas or senior staff vs apprentices)?
  • What do you do with staff only? What do you do with staff and their partners? What do you do with staff and partners and kids?
  • Do you do it in a home/church building/park? Or at a restaurant?
  • Who pays? Is it a potluck thing? Or split the bill? Or is it in the ministry budget for the year?
  • Is there any formal component?

If you are only used to one particular approach to these things, and that seems like the ‘normal’ and ‘right’ way to do things you might be surprised how much variety there was among the answers! And how many of the answers were in flux ‘We’re not sure what we’ll do next year’ and ‘I’m not sure if it’s working’ etc.

It’s an interesting thing to stop and think about. Something worth pondering as we evaluate this from time to time is the purpose and value of the time is. What the very clear and concrete value is… and what is the less tangible ‘This is an expression of an underlying principle or core value that we want to embody and express”.

Also worth pondering is how much time, money and energy is worth putting into this? Is there a point where extra time and money produces little tangible benefit in terms of relationships, trust, morale, good will or effectiveness?

Lastly, especially with ‘everybody all in together’ it’s tricky to know what to think about this. Especially when the teams and their families begin to exceed 20 people. At what point does this become symbolic and sentimental?  How often and in what context is this worth engineering?

Some striking things:

  • Everyone, no matter what their personal preference, recognises the value of some staff social stuff, especially at the end of the year.
  • There was a lot of diversity: not everyone does overnight planning retreats, some go out to restaurants but others do BBQs, not all have staff-and-partners things and not all have whole-families-things, several did some staff at a smaller level than the entire staff team.
  • One church budgets for all the transport, accommodation and food for 1) Staff and their partners to go on an annual retreat 2) Staff, partners and kids to have a family fun day (or weekend) and 3) Staff to have an offsite conference.
  • Several teams plan for multiple types of dinners and social events throughout the year.
  • Especially for those who LOVE this kind of stuff, it’s worth taking the time to consider those who don’t. For some on our staff teams these things “hidden costs” of the work: it asks more of their (and their family’s) time, more sort-of-optional-but-not-really additional financial expense, more babysitter goodwill, and more child wrangling.

One standout comment about why one staff leader likes having something that the kids are present at:

  1. I want kids to feel like mum or dad working for church is a win.
  2. I wanna meet and know the kids of my staff team.
  3. I want the spouse and kids to hear the “presidential thank yous” so they know their dad/mum/husband/site is valued at church.  Often they take home the struggles but don’t pass on the encouragements.

Super keen to hear your thoughts, experiences, insights, preferences etc etc

Are we responsible for the outcomes of our Christian ministry? Part 4: The blindspot of theologically justified ministry practice

Part 1: Agency, Power and Responsibility

Part 2: Degrees of responsibility

Part 3: Power, responsibility and Christian ministry

Appendix: the cultural blindspot of theologically justified ministry practices and preferences

  • A particular sticking point for cultural adjustment and ministry effectiveness is rigorously thought-through ministry practices.
  • Traditionalists, whether ‘high’ or ‘low’ church often have very rigorous theological or ethical reasons for their various practices and traditions, that make them unwilling to adjust or change for the sake of adjusting to a new cultural context or for some practical purpose.
  • Examples might include:
    • No musical accompaniment, only organ, simple acoustic music, full band (and how loud the full band is!)
    • Wearing suit and tie to church meeting, wearing smart casual, wearing shorts and thongs.
    • Sombre ‘reverant’ demeanour, casual but ‘discerning’ demeanour, effervescent and raising hands while singing.
    • Preacher in pulpit in clothes that convey seriousness of the role, slightly polished preacher in casual clothes on a stage, self-effacing preacher on the flat level with the congregation interacting with the congregation.
  • This is clear to us when we are analysing ‘old traditions’, but the same thing can happen with new patterns of ministry practice that we have arrived at through theological reflection… but which are not themselves necessarily biblical.
  • In this process is that we can ‘baptise’ our culture or personal preference.
  • These things can every serve as important ‘boundary markers’ that define those with whom we agree,
  • We can also ‘curse’ those from different cultures for whom certain practices don’t have the same connotations as our theological practice traditions say they have.
  • We need to hold our extrapolations and inferences from Scripture more loosely than Scripture itself.


About Xian Reflections

Xian Reflections is written by Mikey Lynch.

Mikey graduated from the University of Tasmania with a Bachelor of Arts in 2002. In 2000 he became one of the founding leaders of Crossroads Presbyterian Church where he was the lead pastor for 7 years from 2003.

Mikey now works as the Campus Director of the University Fellowship of Christians, University of Tasmania, Hobart. Mikey is the chairman of The Vision 100 Network (Tasmania) and a founding director of Geneva Push (national) – both church planting networks. He is also a chaplain at Jane Franklin Hall and the chairman of New Front Door: the Church IT Guild.