Reinhold Niebuhr and Faith Applied in the Real World.

I recently ran across Mayflower Baptist Church, formerly Bethel Evangelical Church, where Reinhold Niebuhr was Pastor in the early 1900’s for 15 years before leaving Detroit in 1928 to Teach at Union Seminary in New York for 30 years.

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Reinhold Niebuhr

From New York he had his most fruitful and productive years commenting on politics and society from a distinctly Christ-centered point of view. I’ve been busy racking up late fees in the Michigan library system digging into what he wrote. He spoke a lot about the collective responsibility of the Church and Christians everywhere to care about and participate in bringing the justice of God to bear in practical ways in the real lives of actual people in the world through various means of engagement in the processes that make up the world social systems.

I’ve always been skeptical of Christian involvement in anything that looks like politics. I remain skeptical, largely because of the political excesses of modern Evangelicalism and being co-opted by political parties and modern Liberal Christians being guilty, I would suggest, of similar things, just in a different direction. Somehow, we’ve got to be bearers of the image of God in the world, putting Christ on display in every possible way without being co-opted by political parties and agendas.

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Bethel Evangelical Church

I’m fascinated by Niebuhr’s thoughts and life. It was Haiti’s plight that opened my eyes to the effects of ecology, sociology, economics, labor conditions, racism, corruption, and similar realities upon the spiritual conditions of people. There is of course biblical instruction for growth under difficult circumstances. There is also the reality that God is calling His Church to bring His power to bear in both leading people to freedom spiritually through faith in Christ and to share compassion in the real physical circumstances of people’s lives! (Matthew 25, 28, James I)

I don’t know if any serious minded Pastor-Scholar in our country will have the kind of influence of Niebuhr again. However, together, we can put our hands to the same plow and not look back. I heard Niebuhr in an interview with the late James Baldwin say, “The Protestant Church too often sentimentalizes love, avoiding action. Love is the motivation. Justice is the tool.”

The Gospel preached sets men free eternally in Christ. Free men fight the battles of liberating others from spiritual and physical chains. Christianity is not an escapist religion. It is a here and now revolution motivated by a love of eternal origin and consequence.

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Pastor Chris Surber

 

The Bible is our Lighthouse.

In the modern age we find ourselves adrift psychologically, philosophically, and spiritually. When each man is his own guide, he has a fool as his leader. How can we navigate the complexities of post-modernity apart from a lighthouse calling us safely home to the shores of sanity?

To find safety from the storm of ideas raging about us, we must not live in isolation from our creator, His Church, or His Word revealed to us as a guide to navigate the world on our pilgrimage home to Heaven. Where the Church rejects the Word of God, she stumbles, falls, even ceases to be the Church…

  • In an age of irreverence, calls to holiness are seen only as harsh criticism.
  • In an age of unbelief, calls to truth will always be regarded as judgmental.
  • In an age of compromise, biblical calls will be seen as archaic and foolish.
  • In an age of controversy, the prophet is judged; his message disregarded.
  • In an age of skepticism, prayer is suspect; man is removed from his source.

In an age of disrespect, a man honors his opinion above else and turns the pursuit of knowledge inward, cutting himself off from all right sources of truth, knowledge, and wisdom. Consequently, men, even men who claim to be Christian, become pagan. Irreverence removes the possibility of worship.

Unbelief removes the possibility of growth. Compromise nullifies the fertility of faith. Controversy dims our interest in the possibility of knowable facts. We are left to eat only the skeptic’s rotten fruit of eternal questioning, of a meandering pilgrimage leading nowhere to do nothing.

Bolster reverence in abandonment to worship and prayer. Bolster belief with teachability. Kill compromise by choosing this day whom we will serve. Cut through the fog of controversy with the two edged sword of the Word of God. Open the Bible and pursue its truth. Reconnect to the source of life in prayer and discover real power to reshape our skeptic hearts on the forge of faith.

“The man who does not pray is attempting the live his life in isolation.”[1]

At the root of Christian faith is choice to believe in invisible beauty rather than visible destruction. It is choosing the promise of Christ on the evidence of His resurrection rather than the emptiness of the world on the present visible evidence of its constant destruction. Hope heavenward and find the real spiritual power to reconstruct a life of purpose, meaning, and hope in this world.

To find real elevation for living, we have to set aside the all too common self-adulation of our culture and learn that truth that when we humble ourselves in the sight of God, He will life us up!

[1] The Experiment of Faith, Fiske, 1917

What Is Preaching?

 

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“What Preaching Is,” I Corinthians 2:1-5

The Experiment of Faith

 Introduction

Occasionally we need sermons about sermons; preaching about preaching and what to do with it! What is the purpose of preaching? What constitutes a “good” sermon? Is it one that stirs the heart? Arouses the intellect? Challenges the audience to be more Christ-like? Addresses relevant issues? Uses great rhetoric? Exposits the Bible?

 

What makes a sermon good?! Spurgeon said a fog in the pulpit makes for a mist in the pews. Edwards preached a sermon entitled, “How the listen to a Sermon.” We tend to take the cue from commercial society that the “best” preaching is whatever happens in the fullest buildings. Big crowds only necessarily mean popular. What is popular preaching in any given age may not be what is “best.” Too often, popularity trumps faithfulness. Sometimes faithful is popular, not always, and these days, perhaps not even very often.

 

Paul gave us the key concepts for God-honoring fruitful preaching in our text for today. These 5 principles come from those 5 verses.

 

  • (v.1) Sound preaching is not eloquence or human philosophy.
  • (v.2) Sound preaching has one great theme: Jesus Christ and Him crucified.
  • (v.3) Sound preaching is proclaimed with a great sense of inadequacy. (Genuine humility and sincerity at the monumental task of proclaiming the Word of God)
  • (v.4) Sound preaching is not persuasive words, but a demonstration of the Spirit and power.
  • (v.5) Sound preaching leads to faith.

 

Congregational Puritan Pastor, Richard Sibbes, said, “That age of the church which was most fertile in nice questions, was most barren in religion: for it makes people think religion to be only a matter of wit, in tying and untying of knots; the brains of men given that way are hotter usually than their hearts.”

 

*Faithfulness to Scripture, not oratory, is the measure of good preaching*

Transition

Pastors and Parishioners alike need desperately to think about sermons. We need more sermons about sermons, more preaching about preaching, more “How to listen to a Sermon” sermons. It is time the Church think critically about thinking and act seriously, about how we act in the world.

 

CIS: Good preaching is not subjective. It is in line with biblical mandate.

 

Exposition

(v.1) Sound preaching is not eloquence or human philosophy.[1]

Religion that is right and true is infinitely more than brilliance and philosophy. It defines, fuels, and enriches a godly Christ-centered life! We need preaching that supplies faith and sets it on fire!

 

Religion that is right and it is true and it is biblical, historically Christian, and consistent with the deepest principles and meaning of the with-God life, points us, not to the oppressive and tragic things of this world, not into ourselves for betterment, not to man’s wisdom for enlightenment, but to the Lord God creator and sustainer and giver of life and grace for definition.

 

Sound preaching is the opening up of the testimony of God in His Word. Sound preaching is shining a lamp in dark places and pointing to God’s hope.

Sound preaching is making known eternal truth with no prospect of approval.

Sound preaching is defined by and rests entirely upon the testimony of God.

Sound preaching is the art of making God known according to His Word alone.

 

In other words, “good” preaching is that which flows from God’s Word as it is defined by God’s Word, elucidated by the witness of the Church throughout history and, most notably, as defined in this passage of Scripture.

 

The art of preaching is the art of pointing people in the direction of the God-ward side of life; of making eternal truths accessible according to God’s Word.

That is why…

(v.2) Sound preaching has one great theme: Jesus Christ and Him crucified.

 

The Puritan Preacher John Flavel wrote, “All other knowledge, how much soever it be magnified in the world, is, and ought to be esteemed but dross, [rubbish], in comparison of the excellency of the knowledge of Jesus Christ.”

 

“More than that, I now regard all things as liabilities compared to the far greater value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whom I have suffered the loss of all things –  indeed, I regard them as dung!  –  that I may gain Christ.” (Philippians 3:8 NET) Preaching of any sort other than that which points men to Christ on the Cross is vanity, flattery, and platitudes. We need Christ.

 

(v.3) Sound preaching is proclaimed with a great sense of inadequacy.

 

No one who is not at least occasionally very intimidated at the prospect of speaking for God has no business speaking for God. Anyone who does not recognize the gravity of the task of preaching has no business preaching. It is famously an adage among preachers to tell would be preachers that if they can do anything else – do it! This sentiment is well rooted in Scripture,  such as James 3:1 , “Not many of you should presume to be teachers, my brothers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly.” (NIV84)

 

“Paul’s personal appearance was apparently not impressive, not to the Corinthians. Paul says that he was weak in body, and that he suffered some physical infirmity. This should not matter to a congregation of God’s people, but it did to the Corinthians. Some among the Corinthians were more interested in the charisma, worldly ability, and preaching skills of a pastor than in his depth and knowledge of the Lord. Unfortunately, this seems to have been the emphasis among many people of the Corinthian church.”[2]

 

Look for a life of honest pursuit of Christ from a preacher. None of us are adequate for the call but some are called. [Christina. Chris is so gifted and wise! No. He’s not that wise or that gifted. He’s just genuinely called.]

(v.4) Sound preaching is not persuasive words, but a demonstration of the Spirit and power. Sound preaching flows from the experiment of faith in the preacher’s life. A preacher must be a practitioner. He must be a learned friend on the journey, which implies, that we all must be on the journey together!

 

That is what listening to a sermon or a preaching ministry is all about. This is a pilgrimage of faith; at least it should be! This is not a lecture or a course I am teaching and you are receiving. This is the schoolhouse of lived faith.

 

(v.5) Sound preaching leads to faith. Preaching is not for my gratification or your simple enjoyment. Entertainment is not out aim. Lived faith is our aim!

 

Conclusion

That kind of preaching is aimed at producing in us the kind of faith that bears fruit. That radiates into our lives from the Word, flows through our lives by way of the Holy Spirit in ways consistent with the Word, and inculcates the world around us everywhere we go.  In other words, the fruit of biblical preaching is spiritual fruit. That is the definition of “good” preaching.

 

It is not good rhetoric, wise insights, passion, making us feel good, or any other arbitrary standard. Those things may be present in good preaching but they are not the litmus test for good preaching. Is it faithful to the Word? Does it center on Christ and Him crucified? Is the preacher more concerned with God’s glory than his own pride? Is the preaching accompanied by real evidence of the Holy Spirit power in the life of the preacher? Does the preaching have an impact on people’s lives that leads to spiritual fruit?

 

Striving for this, living like this, aiming at this is, has always been, and will always be how I will define the direction of my preaching ministry. Listening to sermons like this, aiming at hearing them for this ought to be your goal.

 

How ought we to listen to sermons? Listen for the voice of God using the preacher. Look for the examples in the preachers life that point us – though imperfectly – in the direction of the perfection of God. Bear Fruit. Amen.

 

[1] Gaius Glenn Atkins, “The Godward Side of Life,” Pilgrim Press, Chicago, 1917, page 16.

[2] Preacher’s Outline and Sermon Bible – Commentary – 1 & 2 Corinthians.

Sermons about Sermons

Occasionally we need sermons about the purpose of sermons; preaching about preaching and what to do with it! What is the purpose of preaching? If the preacher doesn’t know,surely the people in the pew won’t know. What constitutes a “good” sermon? Is it one that stirs the heart? Arouses the intellect? Challenges the audience to be more Christ-like? Addresses relevant issues? Uses great rhetoric? Exposits the Bible?

What makes a good sermon?! Spurgeon said a fog in the pulpit makes for a mist in the pews. Edwards preached a sermon entitled, “How the listen to a Sermon.” We tend to take the cue from commercial society that the “best” preaching is found in the fullest buildings. Big crowds only necessarily mean popular. What is popular preaching in any given age may not be what is “best.” That is only true when popularity necessarily trumps faithfulness. Sometimes faithful is popular, not always, and these days, perhaps not even very often.

Whitefield

Paul gave us the key concepts for God-honoring preaching in I Corinthians 2:1-5, “And when I came to you, brethren, I did not come with superiority of speech or of wisdom, proclaiming to you the testimony of God. For I determined to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and Him crucified. I was with you in weakness and in fear and in much trembling, and my message and my preaching were not in persuasive words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, so that your faith would not rest on the wisdom of men, but on the power of God.” (1 Corinthians 2:1-5 NASB)

  •  (v.1) Sound preaching is not eloquence or human philosophy.
  • (v.2) Sound preaching has one great theme: Jesus Christ and Him crucified.
  • (v.3) Sound preaching is proclaimed with a great sense of inadequacy. (Genuine humility and sincerity at the monumental task of proclaiming the Word of God)
  • (v.4) Sound preaching is not persuasive words, but a demonstration of the Spirit and power.
  • (v.5) Sound preaching leads to faith.

Congregational Puritan Pastor, Richard Sibbes, said it this way, “That age of the church which was most fertile in nice questions, was most barren in religion: for it makes people think religion to be only a matter of wit, in tying and untying of knots; the brains of men given that way are hotter usually than their hearts.” (The Bruised Reed)

“Good” preaching is from the Bible in a straightforward manner. It is Christ-centered. It is humbling to preacher and parishioner. It is active and alive, rooted in faithful action and example of the Holy Spirit’s power in the life of the preacher in the real world. Sound preaching, when planted in the hearts of hearers, produces the fruit of faith.

Pastors and Parishioners alike need desperately to think about sermons. We need more sermons about sermons, more preaching about preaching, more “How to listen to a Sermon” sermons. It’s time the Church think critically about thinking and act seriously about how we act in the world.

One in the Carton

The following article was originally published at Body Mind Spirit Guide, a freely distributed publication in Detroit. It was published online on July 9, 2019.  (https://bodymindspiritguide.com/2019/07/09/one-egg-in-the-carton/)

By Dr. Chris Surber

The recipe called for just one egg. “No problem!” I thought. I had noticed a full carton of locally farmed eggs in the refrigerator earlier that day. I gathered all of my ingredients on the freshly cleaned countertop. I plugged in the power chord on my vintage thrift store bought a mixer. I carefully collected the contents of my recipe in a sparkling glass dish for mixing my cornbread batter. Then, one at a time, I cracked eleven rotten eggs into a separate little dish. I washed the dish after each egg, certain that the next egg would be fine! I closed my eyes as the last egg splashed into the little bowl. It was the only good egg in the carton!

There are many rotten eggs in the churches today. From sex scandals to money scandals. From aggressive fighting fundamentalist rhetoric to sugary flittering fanciful scoops of meaningless. Religious eggs that would gladly mix in and spoil the batter of our lives are in no short supply. Baptist Minister of a century ago, Joseph Fort Newton, once stated, “Because a few get God and the devil mixed in is no reason why we should move out of the house of God into a bleak orphanage.” Religion is essential to the pursuit of ultimate meaning. Religious places are not all adorned with steeples. Not by a long shot!

Today, as in days gone by, people worship power, money, and material wealth. People worship their intellect, their inventiveness, and a host of human accomplishment. A society that claims to be non-religious does not cease to be spiritual just because it says so. Humanity has a worshipful design and when we remove spiritual dialogue from the conversation, the spirit does not cease to be hungry for worship. It just shifts its spiritual affections in the direction of material things. It substitutes right ingredients for our spiritual batter for rotten eggs.

Do not give up entirely on the Church simply because rotten eggs can be found in her carton. Do not reject religion simply because she sometimes wears a mask not her own. Do not move out of the house of God into a bleak orphanage of spiritual isolation just because some people mix good ingredients with rotten ingredients. There still may be a good egg in the carton that you are simply yet to find.

The fundamental aspect of religion that is good, right, and true is that religion which posits and helps its adherents attend to just one question, “What is the fundamental meaning of life? What, if anything, have we been created for?” Ministers who help others find the answers to those questions are not like elementary school librarians. They cannot point to one section of one book on a shelf. No. We are more like fellow pilgrims on life’s journey saying, “Out there exists a brilliant labyrinth. Give me a moment to strap on my sandals, pick up my walking stick, and I will sojourn with you.”

We will seek the answers together honestly. We will walk together in love. We will listen to the voice of God. Together, we will find the enriching ingredients for the batter of our lives one pure egg at a time.

Dr. Chris Surber is Senior Minister at Mt. Hope Congregational Church in Livonia, MI. He is also the Co-Founder and Executive Director of “Supply and Multiply” in Montrouis, Haiti. Visit him online at www.chrissurber.com

Crafted in Covenant

The Congregational Way
The Congregational Way

Congregational Churches are crafted in Covenant. What is a Congregational Church? What is it that makes a Church Congregational?

In the strictest sense, congregational Church governance is a fairly common thing among Baptists, non denominational churches, and a host of other movements of Christians. But a church that has congregational on the sign is identifying itself not merely by its polity but by a collection of important principles and precepts they go back to the English Reformation. The most central of these is the notion of Covenant in the local church.

In his foundational work published in 1868, “Congregationalism, What it is, When’s it is, and How it Works,” Henry Martin Dexter wrote, “God bound his people to himself and to each other, in the olden Time, by covenants, references to which are scattered along the pages of both old Testament and New… good people affiliated for good purposes are not at church, unless those purposes are distinctly Church purposes; that is, unless they aim directly at the promotion of the worship and service of God on Earth.” (Nichols and Noyes, Boston, 1868)

The collection of followers of Jesus Christ gather together around a covenant, a Central purpose which aims at the glorification of God and the world through acts of Christ compassion and direct evangelism; that constitutes a living breathing Church. It is only through deeply relational covenant communities of faith, that our congregational churches will be as God intended them to be.

We are to be the witnesses of the power of God’s love in Christ in the world. We are to be the hands and feet. But to do that we must do it together bound together in deep Covenant that is lasting, virtuous, biblical, and which binds our hearts together in genuine Christian love and affection.

Washington Gladden, that old Congregational light from a century ago, in his book, “Church and Parish Problems,” published in 1911, regarding this very topic he wrote, “what we most need to establish the truth about religion, and bring men to believe it, is not argument but testimony. “Ye are my witnesses,” saith the Lord.” (The Thwing Company, New York, 1911)

What is the Congregational Church? It is a Covenant Community of followers of Jesus. It is a people who recognized that Christ alone is the head of his church and every local church is a complete expression of the body of Christ. And upon the foundation of that covenant commitment we serve the Lord together and shine the Light of the love of God and the power of the Gospel into the world as one people, one body; the Covenant Community of Christ.

We may change our methods and the ways we communicate Christ but we must never relinquish our covenantal identity. When we gather, we gather as the covenanted people of God in Christ! “For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them.” (Matthew 18:20 KJV)