I have a friend whose job title in the footer of his emails says ‘futurist’; basically he gets paid lots of money to tell technology companies what he thinks the next new thing might be. No, I’m not going there! Don’t panic, I’m not claiming to be a prophet. But let me tell you about a few recent encouragements that I have observed, pose a few questions, and let you think over things for yourself. (Would love to hear your thoughts in the comments below).
It’s been a busy time. Our most recent conference was in Nottingham, and saw many new people coming to be trained, and leaving encouraged to continue faithfully serving in their local churches. A new group of Cornhill students in London have opted to join our additional hour of training in ‘music ministry’ at the end of the Monday programme. Also leading music and teaching a seminar at the recent South West Gospel Partnership Men’s Convention was such a privilege and joy.
Numbers of people can be encouraging, but also they can be deceptive and unhelpful. And actually what has been most encouraging is to see the hunger that people have had to express their joy in Christ. Particularly I have been encouraged to hear senior leaders, trustees of gospel partnerships; imploring people to authentically express their joy in Christ, whatever the circumstances of their lives. Yes, in song as we gather, but also throughout the week, in our family and work lives. The caveat is often included; “we are still British and conservative” and the right warning against ‘emotionalism’ is thrown in for good measure. But, acknowledgement from senior leaders that biblical faith must not be bereft of ‘inexpressible and glorious joy’ has been refreshing to hear, long overdue and a huge encouragement. Yes, of course we continue to grapple with the bible, and we must seek to faithfully proclaim the Word, but if our faith is locked to cerebral assent and doesn’t move us, we are what Jonathan Edwards called in his page-tuner ‘Religious Affections’ – ‘a contradiction’. Edwards continues: ‘What sense is it to say, “I am attracted to the preciousness of Christ, because I understand he died on the cross – what a contradiction if we have no good feelings for Him in that attraction” What if nothing stirs in our heart, what if there is no joy? – it makes no sense.’
When I was on holiday in the summer up in north Scotland I was preaching in a tiny Presbyterian church. Over the years, through the faithful bible teaching of the leaders there, God has wonderfully grown the church. This summer before I got up to preach, one of the elders prayed. A dear old lady had gone to be with her Lord after much suffering suffered, but now her tears were no more. His prayers were filled with with such joy, such certainty and hope for the new creation. They were beautiful and full of the gospel, and in the midst of sadness and loss there was a gritty, overwhelming joy in Christ. In a tiny village in north Scotland God’s people gathered that morning to hear God speak through his Word and by His Spirit. They gathered to share fond memories of a lady they loved and cared for over decades. They gathered to worship God together, to sing his praises, to pray in humble dependence and to cling to the hope of an eternity that is better by far. They were a joyful, authentic, Christ exulting family, worshipping their heavenly Father. It was wholly unimpressive as a gathering of people, but gob-smackingly beautiful as a gathering of God’s people.
Now maybe I’m wrong (I’m no futurist!), but has all the politicking, pragmatism, competitive factionalism and angry critiquing of brothers within the conservative evangelical church sucked some of the joy and intimacy from our lives and from our family gatherings? I have heard, over the years, (and I’m sure you have too) conservative evangelical leaders priding themselves for apparently never having any spiritual emotions. Various movements have purposely wanted the music to be bad, for fear of emotional manipulation (yes – a camp actually instructed musicians I know to ‘play badly’!). We rightly shun manipulative emotionalism, but has the pendulum swung too far? And what does that mean for the future of our church?
Mull things over yourself; are you filled with an inexpressible and glory-filled joy (1 Peter 1:8), or are you a cerebral contradiction?! Do you gather with God’s people in His church, with joyful anticipation, or is Sunday just a pragmatic download of bible knowledge? Has the sweetness gone?
Dear Shepherd of your chosen few, your former mercies here renew; here to our waiting hearts proclaim the sweetness of your saving name. (William Cowper)