Gary Millar

Re-thinking church planting and evangelism: A bunch of questions and maybes for post-modern, post-Christian Australia

What follows is a collection of (speculative) thoughts, ideas, and questions from a novice church planter about church planting and evangelism

My college principal (and friend), Gary Millar, caused a bit of a stir on social media with this post asking whether the new, trendy, church-planting-is-the new-black, movement is taking the focus off evangelism in the church. I like Gary a lot, and learned much from him, and I think it’s funny that a guy who was a church planter prior to joining the academy is copping flack online for being anti-church plant. He’s not. He’s certainly pro-evangelism. And pro-church plant.

His post, and the subsequent discussion have been stimulating, and got me thinking some thoughts that I needed to put into words so that I don’t lose them. I feel like it’s a conversation I should be part of, even though I’m not the most experienced church planter in the world, and didn’t even want to be a church planter. I think one of the big challenges the church faces though is figuring out how to do church and evangelism for people of around my age, and younger, and I feel like maybe I can offer some insight here, especially because Gary mentions “QTC graduates who are planting in Brisbane” and that’s me, and there aren’t many of us. I feel like he was singling me out a bit with the bolded line in this paragraph too…

“Biblical church planting flows from evangelism, as the message of the gospel is clearly proclaimed in every possible context. Some of this proclamation may be cutting edge, but some of it may look extremely mundane—teaching Scripture in inner city schools, building intentional relationships with baristas and road-sweepers, inviting the faceless residents of the other units into our block for dinner, eating at the same time every week in the RSL, going to the annual show just to be there… And doing it all to make the most of every opportunity to speak the gospel to a world which desperately needs to hear it.”

Before I begin…

And a slight disclaimer: This is the stuff I’ve been mulling over since Gary’s post, and while reading (and entering) some of the discussions about his post. Some of this reads like its a vague critique of strawmen ministers out there, and you might want empirical evidence that such ministers or thinking exists… I’d like to offer you Exhibit A, the only exhibit I’ll be offering throughout (apart from my ability to accurately represent the aforementioned conversations).


I’ve assumed at some points that how I feel and think is representative of how others might feel and think. I know there’s great stuff happening out there in many churches, and in many locations, and I thank God for that… but this is also based on conversations I’ve had with others and things I’ve observed as a participant in various churches that have either planted churches with varying degrees of success, or suffered as a result of people leaving to join new churches.

On the necessity of more evangelism

I think most people in Gospel ministry, if asked “is enough evangelism happening” would, and should, say no. Right up until the time that 100% of living people are following the living God (the new creation we long for), the answer to this question is no. That’s why the parable of the lost sheep is so profound in how it values the lost. We live in an age where there are maybe three ‘found’ sheep, and 97 lost…

Now the tax collectors and sinners were all gathering around to hear Jesus. But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law muttered, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.”

Then Jesus told them this parable: “Suppose one of you has a hundred sheep and loses one of them. Doesn’t he leave the ninety-nine in the open country and go after the lost sheep until he finds it? And when he finds it, he joyfully puts it on his shoulders and goes home. Then he calls his friends and neighbors together and says, ‘Rejoice with me; I have found my lost sheep.’ I tell you that in the same way there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent.” — Luke 15:1-7

So evangelism is necessary. And obviously it’s about pointing people to the good news. The ‘evangel.’ Which is the good news about Jesus.

But I wonder if we really need to figure out is what it is we mean by evangelism (both in content and form), before figuring out what the relationship is between the church, members of the church, and what a proper emphasis on evangelism in the church looks like.

Maybe the problem Gary identifies is more about how we think of church being somehow distinct from how we think of evangelism. Maybe the move to church planting is actually a shifting understanding of the relationship between church and mission

It could just be me, but I’m pretty sure that evangelism has slipped down our agenda. Church planting has, it seems, taken up the headspace that was once occupied by evangelism. And much as I love church planting (it’s what we did in Ireland), it does provide more places for people to hide who don’t want to talk about Jesus to their friends.

Churches in our circles, especially in Australia, tend to think about church as the gathering of believers for the sake of believers. Sundays are inward looking, they’ll often feature the Gospel pretty heavily, because we realise that the Bible is ultimately a story centred on Jesus and to teach bits of the Bible without the Gospel is to not teach the Bible properly… but this way of thinking, that the body gathers for the sake of itself, doesn’t really give much clarity on how mission, or evangelism, fits with the life and rhythms of the church. So preachers throw “tell your friends about Jesus” in as the application to most sermons, churches put on evangelistic events, and might, if they’re really organised, occasionally teach people how to have conversations about Jesus with their friends (and I can’t help but think we make this more complicated than it needs to be, I don’t need coaching to tell my friends about the new coffee place I found, or my love for the Manly Warringah Sea Eagles, even in a terrible year, perhaps people just need to be convinced that the need is urgent and that this isn’t something they have to do by themselves). Here are some things I think we forget that we need to remember.

1. Jesus came to seek and save the lost. (Luke 19:10).

If the Zacchaeus story is the culmination of a bunch of stories that show who Jesus thinks the lost are — sinners who know they need a saviour —then this climaxes at the Cross, and in the resurrection. The reason to think this is how this verse should be understood, as a summary of Jesus’ lifelong journey to Jerusalem, is that Luke tells the Zaccheaus story in a way that ties together a bunch of different lost ‘types’ we’ve met on this journey.

2. Jesus sent the Spirit to the Church so that we could be united with him, and then sent the church into the world the way God sent him. (John 17, John 20).

As you sent me into the world, I have sent them into the worldMy prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me. I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one— I in them and you in me—so that they may be brought to complete unity. Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.” — John 17:18, 20-23

On the evening of that first day of the week, when the disciples were together, with the doors locked for fear of the Jewish leaders, Jesus came and stood among them and said,“Peace be with you!” After he said this, he showed them his hands and side. The disciples were overjoyed when they saw the Lord.

Again Jesus said, “Peace be with you! As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.” And with that he breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive anyone’s sins, their sins are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven.” — John 20:19-23

What’s interesting, I think, is if the prologue of John’s Gospel (the first 18 verses) sets up the themes of the Gospel, the way God sent Jesus is as the life-giving word who becomes flesh and dwells in the world (John 1:1-5, 14).

3. The Church is the body of Christ (and God gives gifts to the body to help it be the body). Part of being the body is corporately imitating Jesus in seeking the salvation of many.

Paul says this in 1 Corinthians 12. If the letter makes sense as a whole, I don’t think it’s a massive jump to link the stuff he says in 12, with the stuff he says in chapters 9-11, and 13-14, to figure out how people might do together what he sees as imitating Christ (1 Cor 11:1).

So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God. Do not cause anyone to stumble, whether Jews, Greeks or the church of God— even as I try to please everyone in every way. For I am not seeking my own good but the good of many, so that they may be saved. Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ.” —1 Corinthians 10:31-11:1

Perhaps we have a problem if the way we understand church (ecclesiology) is not deeply connected to the way we think church should be oriented to the world (missiology). I think the short shrift evangelism gets in our reformed evangelical churches in Australia is a product of us thinking that church is a community for believers, not that the church is the community of the people of God for the world. Church isn’t just a Sunday gathering (or a gathering), but the way we gather, and what we invest in, will reflect what we think church is.

Evangelism is necessarily proclamation, but it’s not necessarily something an individual does as an individual. It necessarily involves words, but words are amplified or cancelled out by the actions and emotions of the proclaimer(s). Evangelism is more than saying “Jesus is Lord” — it’s living this truth together in a way that is intentionally compelling and persuasive to the people we dwell with.

Maybe, then, we proclaim the Gospel as we live it out in our community, as community, and speak clearly about why we live the way we do, because of points 1, 2, and 3 above.

If you think the church exists to proclaim the Gospel, and church communities exist to do that in particular places and cultures — then the dichotomy breaks down. Church planting is evangelism. That’s why we preach about Jesus every Sunday at the church plant I’m part of, and in our established mothership. If churches are missionary communities gathering to reach and serve a hostile culture, not simply the place where everyone from a culture is expected to rock up for an event on a Sunday to tick some sort of box, where evangelism is another checkbox on the “good Christian” to do list, then the dichotomy at the heart of Gary’s post gets resolved a bit.

It’s only in churches that don’t think of church or evangelism in this way that this conversation is a problem.

Evangelism has to be something that stretches beyond the Gospel being clearly proclaimed on a Sunday, it has to be part of the lives and relationships of Christians in community in their wider community.

Maybe there’s also a more complete approach to the content of evangelism (the Gospel) than exclusively emphasising the atonement, which also changes the forms of evangelism we look for, develop, and promote?

I don’t hear of many churches who are doing evangelism training these days.

Maybe what’s happening is we’re realising that evangelism training isn’t actually about learning to draw stick figures in six boxes, but is more about authentically living and sharing the Gospel story in the places we live and the relationships we develop?

Maybe part of this is because we think the Gospel is something best shared by a community of people — the body of Christ —  rather than individuals by themselves, apart from that community. Evangelism will always involve individual people boldly proclaiming and living the good news of the resurrected Lord Jesus, but we don’t have to feel like it’s something we do on our own (nor is it something just for specialists).

Maybe we’re realising that the Gospel isn’t best summarised as “Jesus died to save you (individual) from your (individual) sins (of which there is a long list)” but “Jesus is Lord of God’s kingdom and he calls you to turn to him as Lord (forgiveness of sins is then a benefit of this)”… maybe the way to present this isn’t a series of propositions or leading questions about an individual’s sin and the judgment they face, which Jesus takes (though this is part of it), but, instead, is a compelling presentation of the Biblical narrative which centres on Jesus and flows to us.

We have a really powerful story, and the opportunity to invite people to be a part of it. I really enjoyed this post today from First Things about how to reach cynical Gen X. Here’s a long quote from it. Feel free to jump to the next heading…

So you’re in quite a pickle: you can’t tell us that the Church has “the Truth,” and we know that the Church won’t miraculously cure us of our misery. What do you have left to persuade us? One thing: the story. We are story people. We know narratives, not ideas. Our surrogate parents were the TV and the VCR, and we can spew out entertainment trivia at the drop of a hat. We treat our ennui with stories, more and more stories, because they’re the only things that make sense; when the external stories fail, we make a story of our own lives. You wonder why we’re so self-destructive, but we’re looking for the one story with staying power, the destruction and redemption of our own lives. That’s to your advantage: you have the best redemption story on the market.

Perhaps the only thing you can do, then, is to point us towards Golgotha, a story that we can make sense of. Show us the women who wept and loved the Lord but couldn’t change his fate. Remind us that Peter, the rock of the Church, denied the Messiah three times. Tell us that Pilate washed his hands of the truth, something we are often tempted to do. Mostly, though, turn us towards God hanging on the cross. That is what the world does to the holy. Where the cities of God and Man intersect, there is a crucifixion. The best-laid plans are swept aside; the blueprints for the perfect society are divided among the spoilers. We recognize this world: ripped from the start by our parents’ divorces, spoiled by our own bad choices, threatened by war and poverty, pain and meaninglessness. Ours is a world where inconvenient lives are aborted and inconvenient loves are abandoned. We know all too well that we, too, would betray the only one who could save us.

Also, while I was writing this post, Stephen McAlpine chucked his latest post up, which is also relevant and provocative.

Maybe this needs to come with a shifting sense of what evangelism looks and sounds like in a post-modern/post-Christian context

Maybe stories resonate better with a post-Christian world and the way people think about life in it. Maybe while Penal Substitutionary Atonement is an essential part of the Gospel, this is a little individualistic in its approach to the Gospel (in its content), which might make us think a little bit too individualistically about evangelism (in its form). Perhaps a slightly different nuance on the Gospel that captures both the corporate and the individual implications while utterly emphasising the person and work of Jesus, especially his divinity, his humanity, and his life, death and resurrection (content) could reshape the way we talk about and practice evangelism in our churches — be they plants or established communities.

I don’t want to unnecessarily caricature the evangelism in Sydney from 13 years ago as Two Ways To Live, but Gary did this a bit for me…

“13 years ago, I made my first trip to Sydney. I came at the invitation of John Chapman and David Mansfield to spend a month working with the Dept. of Evangelism in the Sydney Diocese. It was a real eye-opener for me. Everywhere I went, it seemed like people were doing evangelism. Guest events in church. Dialogue dinners, evangelistic barbecues, men’s events, women’s events. You name it, it was happening. Everyone was learning Two Ways to Live, and new courses were coming out regularly.”

I think Two Ways to Live has been a fantastic servant for many years, and it represents a modernist/individual approach to evangelism and the Gospel. I think it has had its day, and if we’re going to train people to evangelise we need to think pretty carefully about what that looks like. We need people who walk around imitating Jesus, like Paul did, not people walking around spouting tracts or training material.

Two Ways to Live simply assumes too much that doesn’t mesh with modern Australia. It starts by assuming that the person you’re talking to believes in a creator God. Maybe this is based on the assumption that the kind of suppressing the knowledge of God that Romans speaks about is deliberate and intentional on the part of the person doing it, not something that happens corporately or culturally, maybe people relying on this material think the people who reject that concept have already ruled themselves out of hearing the Gospel through this choice (I hope not)…

TWTL works on getting people to assent to a bunch of propositions that lead to a particular conclusion. I think this method has had its day. I understand that others disagree — especially those who hate post-modernism and think people should be assenting to truth based on very clearly articulated, logical argument.

I think post-modern evangelism needs to rest more on helping people see who God actually is (that he’s not some being-in-creation, subject to the laws of nature, but the being within whom nature exists), helping them see how his plans and purposes for the universe, which centre on Jesus, include them, and helping demonstrate the plausibility of belief in Jesus, and the beauty and appeal of living life as a member of his kingdom. This isn’t the sort of thing you learn in a course, or can necessarily articulate in an adversarial large scale debate, or a conversation at a pub. Event evangelism, like the stuff Gary talks about, has a place, but it’s part of a suite of tools that a person might use in the context of a relationship with a non-believer they hope to see won to Christ.

And personally I think both the way we posture ourselves, and our content/emphasis, needs to shift gears a bit too — for an example of what I’m talking about see the difference I loved between how William Lane Craig debated with Lawrence Krauss (where I thought Krauss won) and how Rory Shiner approached his conversation with Krauss (where Rory Shiner was “gently crucified”— which I think is a substantial win).

How can we shift the way we train people to evangelise to actually speak the language of the people around us. Like Jesus did, and like Paul did as he imitated him?

I don’t want transfer growth (but I probably need it in order for evangelism to lead to discipleship)

We all know that transfer growth is something we should be seen to be against (even if we quietly say ‘But you know what? They’ll be much better off in our church anyway!’). But our real attitude to transfer growth is seen in the priority and energy and focused prayer we give to evangelism. If we aren’t pouring ourselves into the work of evangelism, then by default, we are just doing church in the hope that people show up… None of us wants to steal people from other churches (although a little bit of recruiting key people from other ministries is almost always necessary in the start-up phase).

I think this is interesting. I don’t just want to be seen to be against transfer growth. I’ve been part of small and large churches that have lost people to the next cool thing. I’ve thought about those churches as parasitic. I have. So I don’t want to be that church. I’m not interested in our church being the latest and greatest church that people move to until a newer, greater church starts up (as it inevitably will, because, you know, City on A Hill is coming next year). Here’s where I think Gary and I would absolutely agree about our patch of Australia. Brisbane is massive, and it’s projected to get even bigger. The city is going to grow to 3 million people by 2020. The reason it feels like we don’t need more trendy, evangelical, church plants in inner city Brisbane, the reason we wring our hands, is because honestly most of us are still trying to figure out how to do ministry in modern Australia. We can’t rely on turning on some lights and putting on a good kids program anymore. The reason it’s scary to hear about a schmick new church plant led by cool people with great ideas is because we’re (and by we I mean me) often insecure about what we bring to the table, and to our city… focusing on the size of the mission field and trying to reach lost people, rather than the limited pool of human resources around, is the best way to get a bit of perspective about this insecurity. Church plants can’t afford not to be on about evangelism (but neither can the established church).

But here’s the rub. Say my small church really goes gangbusters on evangelism, and say God blesses that effort, and say we triple in size from new converts. Who takes the responsibility for pastoring these new hundreds? Who shepherds them, who answers their questions? Where do we get the manpower from? Where do we find mature Christians if not the churches around us. Maybe if there were genuine innovative partnerships happening between churches the answers to these questions would obviously be “the church next door” — the one thing I reckon Gary absolutely nails in his post is the idolisation of numbers in church planting.

“It’s hard for those of us who aren’t church planting to appreciate just how big an issue ‘numbers’ is for those who are. Let’s face it – when you meet someone who is in a recently launched church plant, what’s the first question you want to ask?”

But it’s not just established churches that care about numbers. I ask every minister I meet how church is going, and what I mean is “how are numbers.” Almost every minister I know answers based on numbers  — and that means we’re very unlikely to be excited about not just releasing, but proactively sending, people to serve in another nearby church, be it for a season, or permanently.

At South Bank, we’re in a position where our leadership team is praying for some mature, gospel hearted, Christians to plug in with us to support new Christians. Especially new Christians from the margins of our community. These can only come from elsewhere. But where I think the transfer stuff gets messy is when people proactively seek those sort of people from other churches as they look to establish a core group. I’m happy to pray and to trust God to provide the people where necessary while we train and equip the people he’s already provided for us. So far our “transfer growth” has largely come from people relocating to Brisbane.

How do we figure out how to co-operate across churches to make sure new sheep are being cared for and fed? What does it look like for churches to partner together so that we don’t think of “sheep stealing” but “shepherd sharing”?

Maybe the reason evangelism and church planting seems like a dichotomy is because the way church planting happens is (sometimes) broken

If we played a word association game with the words around the church planting discussion, what image would pop up in your head? What do you blurt out before your brain pops into gear? Let’s try.

Church plant?

Probably a new set up with better branding, a nicer website, and a cooler pastor than you, meeting in some funky “third place” in a suburb more trendy than yours. Am I wrong?

Not all church plants are like this. Lots of them are tedious. But the ones that get all the attention because their pastors add friends and followers online if there’s even the hint of a second or third degree of separation between you and them are like this… some of the time.

Play the game with “church planter” and, well, the picture isn’t much different. Before (and during) college I had a particular set of words reserved for church planters, not many of them were nice.

Most would-be church planters take themselves too seriously, and don’t take the (established) church seriously enough. They also don’t tend to be realistic about just how hard it is to be the church in post-Christian Australia. We can’t all plant megachurches, nor should we want to. But most would be planters seem to think they need the branding/corporate identity of a mega church. I don’t mean my friends. Obviously. And I think the assessment processes of the bigger evangelical planting networks weed this out. But the perception is shaped by those people who self-identify as church planters before they’ve even designed a logo or married a hot wife (see my now ancient post on how to church plant, but if you want a funky name you can also pick a sanctified one word verb, previously reserved for conferences, or, as seems to be the case with hipster plants, a solid sort of noun that connects you to something even more solid, if you’re really stuck you could use the Hipster Business Name Generator).

Too often church plants happen in a way that dismisses the work of the established church — be it traditional churches or denominations — and this sort of differentiation comes at the cost of both the new and the old, the new because it can cut off support from the establishment, or just irk the people flogging their guts in those churches, and the old because there’ll always be a percentage of people in those churches feeling just disgruntled enough to get up and leave (which is where bad transfer growth happens). I say this reflecting a little (contritely) on how my own plant was promoted both in house, and online. There were people who had their noses put out of joint by the suggestion we needed new and different approaches to church. Typically from churches that are going pretty well and have reached a sort of critical mass.

Here are some things I hope everyone in this conversation agrees with, that change the nature of church and evangelism.

1. Australia is increasingly non-Christian. Post-Christian. Post-Christian people feel like they know what church is, but often have no idea what the Gospel is.

2. Many churches have not changed their methodologies significantly (especially outside the cities, but not only those outside cities) in response to this fairly rapid shift. Some want to, but don’t really know how. Sometimes this is because the change experienced in 1 happens slower outside the cities.

3. By the time the church catches up to change, the change will probably have changed again. Leaving us behind. And the pace of change feels like it is increasing.

4. The result of 1-3 is we need more churches being churches differently, but still proclaiming the Gospel, if we want to reach Australia.

What would it look like if we weren’t anxious about church planting in our neighbourhood but genuinely celebrated it? It happens sometimes, but even the people publicly celebrating are perhaps privately anxious (I know I am, especially about what newer, cooler churches will do to our capacity for transfer growth).

What would it look like for church plants to be supported by existing churches with people and resources even if those churches aren’t in a sort of mothership relationship? I think there are some great examples of this new paradigm in the Brisbane Presbyterian scene?

No Church (plant) is an island. Whatever church plants do it shouldn’t be done in isolation from established churches and networks

When planting happens best, churches plant churches. If churches are investing in planting churches, and partnering with the myriad planting networks and using planting resources from these networks, to put churches in more parts of Australia, then this is evangelism. It’s possible the church hasn’t stopped doing evangelism. It’s changed tactics.

I think the “churches plant churches” mantra is great. Especially in my experience. But I’d love us to get to the stage where “the Church plants churches” — where we all celebrate when new churches start (obviously, and its a shame I feel like I need to qualify, I mean churches that show they’re part of the body of Christ by presenting the good news about Jesus, you don’t need to celebrate every time someone puts up a sign that says “church”).

What if we were able to celebrate like this even if that church started in our suburb or town (so long as they start outside of the eastern suburbs of Sydney)? What if we looked at the number of people we’re completely ill-equipped to reach in our area and figure out what it might look like to share resources (including people), rather than competing? Where we view other churches at partners in the Gospel with such familial affection that we might even encourage our own people to patch over and serve there if it’s a better geographic fit, or the unique mission/vibe of that church is a better fit for a person, or just if the need is there and the person is willing to serve.

We need a big umbrella to do that, and I think denominations need to play a part in this because they’re the best set up, organisationally to do it. Too many church plants are independent, and this is an indictment on the denominations that have been suspicious of church planting, or worried about ‘protecting’ established churches. What do we need to protect geographic areas from? More Gospel converts?

But I don’t think denominations are the solution by themselves. I like the idea that church planting isn’t something that we leave to young, restless punks who have a bone to pick with the ‘establishment’ (no matter how well assessed they might be), or something we leave to a few innovative churches to do by themselves, or something that denominations set a budget for that happens in an ad hoc way… this is why I love it when groups like the Geneva Push and Acts 29 try to have a big enough umbrella to allow different groups and individuals to contribute to starting new churches. The more the group ‘sending’ the church planter looks like the universal church — the broader the ‘gospel coalition’ —and the less it looks like a random action of some splinter cell, the better.

If churches are being planted by churches that believe that the church being the church is a significant part of evangelism, then the church planting conversation doesn’t happen at the expense of the evangelism conversation. It is the evangelism conversation.

How do we reinvent the way we do church, and start new churches, so that new and old churches benefit from the reinvention? Maybe the answer to this question is tied up in the way Paul talks about (and fundraises for) mission to new places, and for the established church in Jerusalem in his letters (Romans 15, 2 Corinthians 8-9). I don’t know how sustainable it is to suggest the more established churches are owed respect and recognition in the way Paul wants new Gentile churches to recognise the Jerusalem church (Romans 15:27-28), but there could be something there…

We’ve got to try new stuff somewhere, and perhaps it’s easier to innovate in a new church.

I’ve grown up being part of some great churches, soaked in the Gospel. But I didn’t head off to college and into ministry because I wanted to see those churches duplicated. Well. Not completely. I wanted to see those churches produce fruit via the lives of the people shaped by those communities and the Gospel DNA. People like me.

I don’t want churches I lead to be clones of the churches that shaped me, nor do I want the church I’m part of to simply be a projection of the things I like. I hope we all feel the same. That we don’t want churches we’re part of to address the Australia of the past, but the part of Australia we’re in in the present, in a way that makes Jesus and his cross-centered story of redemption come alive as we embody him and live it. I hope we want to be a part of church communities that pass on the DNA that allows our ‘children’ (be they future churches, or our literal offspring), to shape the way church participates in the Australia of the future.

While the Gospel message doesn’t change, I believe there is continuity in terms of the beliefs the church has received because the Gospel has been faithfully transmitted from generation to generation, if we did church like my grandparents did church when they were kids, or like my dad did church when he was a kid, for my kids, my kids would not want to stick with church. But most churches get comfortable with their culture, and somehow baptise their practices as the “traditional” way of doing church. Being part of a church plant lets you at least tilt at a few windmills, or tip a few sacred cows over without too much damage. And gives other churches something to look at as a way forward.

Here’s an analogy. Parents know their kids need to eat good healthy food if they’re going to survive in the big, wide, world as adults. You can’t survive on KFC alone (trust me. I’ve tried). So a good parent teaches their kids to cook before letting them leave the nest.

Sometimes that child doesn’t figure out their identity, or what food they like, until leaving home. Sometimes you don’t know what you’ve been missing out on until you’re out there experimenting, or eating at new places in new neighbourhoods, with new people. This variety can be a massive danger, and might stop parents letting a child leave home, or stop a child taking the risk of leaving, but sometimes the teenager moves out of home, tries a delicious new sort of food, and brings it back to the family home and everybody benefits. This is only a benefit when there’s nothing unhealthy about this new food and its simply because the family home didn’t think or know about the option that it hasn’t always been on the menu.

That’s the sort of benefit that might happen if church plants are seen a bit like teenagers leaving home and growing towards adulthood as members of the family… rather than like teenagers who feel like they need to run away, or have been kicked out.

Maybe the reason evangelism doesn’t look like it’s working is that the people in the conversation tend to be focused on people just like us

I quoted Gary’s picture of the life lived evangelistically above. And I reckon it’s a great starting point. But I think we need to come to terms with the idea that white, middle class, post-Christian Australia doesn’t really want to listen to us anymore and doesn’t think we should have any particularly privileged place in society or their lives (think the place of religious ceremony in the calendar of the average Aussie). Even if they tick “Christian” on the census, Australians aren’t getting married in church, aren’t really going to church at Christmas and Easter, and aren’t making every day decisions with reference to Jesus Christ.

Evangelism seems really hard if you think evangelism is about converting your best buddies. And certainly you should hope to convert your best buddies. But our best buddies tend to be wise, powerful, wealthy types. If we’re honest about our wealth (and if you’re reading a 5,000 word blog post you probably fit that bill). Why do we think this should be the standard makeup of our churches? Paul didn’t seem surprised that the church in Corinth didn’t look anything like Corinth’s middle class.

Brothers and sisters, think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth. But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. God chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things—and the things that are not—to nullify the things that are, so that no one may boast before him. It is because of him that you are in Christ Jesus, who has become for us wisdom from God—that is, our righteousness, holiness and redemption. — 1 Corinthians 1:26-30

The middle class makeup of our churches is a vestige of the social privilege that came with Christendom, and as we lose that we need to be prepared for a shift in the demographic of our church communities. Not in a way that wipes out the middle and upper classes. Paul expects some people from these echelons to be part of the church (and to play their part), but in a way that upsets the default, and changes the way we think about how and where to do evangelism, and how to measure success.

Evangelism has to involve talking to people just like you. Your friends and family. Your neighbours. People who think like you and like the same stuff as you. But I don’t think we can afford for it to be limited to that… We need to break the shackles of our own personal affinities and start getting out of our comfort zones a little. I think this will be made easier because the people in our comfort zones or “target demographics” might not want to listen to us any more.

All evangelism is hard. For the reasons Paul spells out above. What we’re saying looks and sounds stupid. But the wisdom and power of God rests in us looking stupid to those who want worldly wisdom and power. And who doesn’t want worldly wisdom and power?

Why aren’t more churches working at the margins of society? You know who wants to know Jesus? International students, asylum seekers, and other people we forget in our comfortable little enclaves. I don’t know for certain where the vast majority of church plants happen, or who they try to reach – but I bet it trends urban/suburban, and trends trendy, and trends towards Sydney’s eastern suburbs if you’re a Moore College graduate or an Acts 29 planter in Sydney.

It’s hard to figure out how effective evangelism is when most of our human resources (think people being paid to do Gospel ministry in Australia) are in a relatively small pocket of a relatively big city, in an incredibly geographically diverse and increasingly culturally diverse nation.

Book Review: Saving Eutychus

Disclaimer/Disclosure statement: The authors of this book are people I know well. One is the principal of the college I study at, Queensland Theological College. The second, if the review process could be any more daunting and personal – is my father. The advice in his chapters is advice I’ve grown up hearing, and seeing applied – though I haven’t been a member of a church that Dad has preached at for 8 years. I received early chapters of this book to proof read, and I didn’t do a very good job of that. I read them. But they seemed fine to me. The book also contains the following paragraph…

Phil and Louise are the parents of four adult children— Nathan, Jo, Maddie and Susie—and they are now learning the art of grandparenting (even though they insist they’re much too young). Nathan’s popular blog inspired the title of this book.

Which is nice – because as Gary was keen to point out – I don’t really own the copyright on Eutychus…

You can, in the absence of the book actually being released, check out some sample chapters and stuff on


The Review

The disclosure should make it obvious that I’m going to have a hard time being objective here – I’m also going to have a hard time coming at this book as though half the chapters are at all novel. This isn’t new to me. It’s bread and butter. It’s how I’ve been taught to preach from my first talk, to a youth group, when I was 16. In many senses it’s how I was taught to write. It’s also how I’ve been taught to preach at college. I think it’s a good model. It meshes with what I know about communication from my profession.

One of the first things you notice about this book, appropriately, is the number of, and caliber of, the guys endorsing the book.

I could tell you this will revolutionise your preaching – but really I have no idea what it looks like to not have some of these tips running through my head, so instead, I’ll focus on some of the bits that I really liked, and let you read it and make up your mind for yourselves when it comes out.

There’s a nice humility underpinning the approach of this book – from confessions about being naturally boring, to constant reminders that preaching isn’t about us. In fact, the very message of the book takes most of the emphasis on the preacher out of the mix, except for this fundamental responsibility at the heart of the book…

“Gary and I are not approaching this book as experts on preaching that keeps people awake. But we are convinced that when attention wanders and eyes droop, it’s more often our fault than our listeners’.”…

Saving Eutychus doesn’t just mean keeping him awake. It also means doing our best to keep him fresh and alert so he can hear the truth of the gospel and be saved. If we have done our job, we will stand up on Sunday ready to deliver a sermon on a Bible passage that we have wrestled with and that the Holy Spirit has begun to apply to our own hearts and lives.

Preaching is God’s work, and any authority the preacher wields comes from the text of the Bible. It’s a nice reminder that no matter how charismatic our personalities are, no matter how engaging and witty we can be as we speak – preaching is ultimately reveals God, points people to Jesus, and relies on the Spirit to be hammered home.

Gary’s answer to this dilemma is prayer.

“Gradually, we seem to be losing sight of the fact that God uses weak and sinful people, and that he uses them only by grace. Yes, we may sow, plant and water—but only God gives growth. That’s true in your local church and mine. It’s also true of every podcast and ebook and conference address under the sun. God doesn’t use people because they are gifted. He uses people (even preachers) because he is gracious. Do we actually believe that? If we do believe it, then we will pray— we will pray before we speak, and we will pray for others before they speak. It’s that simple.”

One of the nice things about the book is how honest both authors are about their own struggles in preaching – and their own lives in pastoral ministry that is preaching driven. There are excerpts from real, recent, sermons, to support some of the practical tips, and plenty of rubber hitting road anecdotes to illustrate how each chapter might be applied.

The chapters are relatively evenly split – Gary does the “theology” stuff, Dad does the practical, but the dichotomy isn’t carried out cleanly the whole way through – both are free to enter the other’s turf, so Dad is “theological” when it comes to how you think of the big idea, and Gary is practical when it comes to how you make real changes in the light of some theological insights.

Dad’s bits are shaped by years of trying to communicate better, driven by a gospel motivated (and personality motivated) perfectionism that I’ve inherited in certain areas – his chapters are the result of constantly assessing what you’re doing and questioning why you do it that way, and how you can make it work better, and be less painful, for your listener. Gary’s bits, are, as you’d expect if you know him, thoroughly Trinitarian, almost devotional (in a refreshing way and substantial way), reference Jonathan Edwards a few times, and are laced with really nice insights that’ll challenge the way you think about church – not just preaching, in a section on encouraging your whole church to pray for preaching he drops this Hanselesque breadcrumb:

“The growth of home groups is, I think, a really good thing, but it doesn’t come without a cost. In my experience, the cost is that the ‘prayer’ part of the home group is always weaker than the study part. The net result is that we pray more for my Aunt Nelly’s next-door neighbour’s friend’s daughter than we do for the proclamation of the message of Jesus. (And it’s not that my Aunt Nelly’s next- door neighbour’s friend’s daughter doesn’t need prayer—I’m arguing for both/and rather than either/or.) So, again, it’s just worth checking—is there a dedicated time during the week when people gather specifically to pray for our core business?”

I’ve been part of bible studies at five churches now, and I’m thankful for the way each have taught me to read the Bible and apply it to my life, but this rings a bit true – normally it’s the newest Christians who are the most passionate prayers when it comes to the core business of spreading the gospel.

Gary spends some time on the dangers of manipulation, and while it’s a really valuable reminder – I’m left wondering where “persuading” – openly, rather than underhandedly (manipulation) fits, but no matter how the cake is baked – the conclusion is worth eating…

“The key to preaching, then, is to make the message of the text obvious. Help people to see it and feel it. Help people to understand the text. Paul is talking about what I would call ‘expository preaching’, in which the message of the text is the message of the sermon.”

But this is a great way of making sure the authority of a sermon is resting in the right place – God’s revealed word.

One of my favourite bits of preaching advice from Gary is this, as a rookie preacher it has been really helpful for me thinking through what I think the “big idea” of a bit of the Bible is and how I might frame it appropriately.

“Expository preaching happens when the message of the text = the message of the sermon. Or perhaps better, expository preaching happens when the vibe of the passage = the vibe of the sermon.”

I could go through this book and keep cherry picking out the bits I like, but that might mean you won’t buy the book, and while my inheritance isn’t riding on it, you know, there’s enough self-interest there on my part to want you to buy it, as well as the belief that the book is really helpful – because it’s hard not to be if you think this is the goal of preaching:

This approach ensures that your preaching will be both predictable and unpredictable. It will be predictable in the same way that the Bible is predictable. At the core of our preaching will be the same message—what God has already done for us in the Lord Jesus Christ.

His chapter that covers doing this well from the Old Testament has been helpful for me, in lecture and chapel sermon form, and it’s nice to have it fleshed out more than I might have managed in blog post form in the past. The chapter includes a really helpful discussion of Biblical Theology and “trajectories” that link the Old Testament to Jesus, to the New Testament, to us…

The book’s format is helpful – chapters contain nice chunks of supporting material, be it passages from the Bible, passages from sermons, anecdotes, or helpful theological and pastoral reflections, and they’re rounded out with nice practical tips, lists, and summaries to help you remember and apply. The conversational tone between Gary and Dad within the chapters (they share a pulpit at Mitchelton and have had a chance to see each other in action for the last year) means the switch between voices is natural rather than jarring, they play nicely off each other’s strengths and weaknesses.

It’s interesting for me how many of Dad’s tips are very similar to how good corporate communication happens – it needs to be clear, as geared to your medium, as concise as possible, repeat your key messages, be based on some sort of authority (data in my case, the text when it comes to preaching), and for people to listen it needs to be about people.

“Take a look at the front page of a newspaper sometime. Are interest rates rising? Then you’re almost sure to see a photograph of an affected family. Graphs and statistics can come later. The journalist’s rule is this: if there are no people, there’s no story. So populate your preaching with real people. Use people-based illustrations and people-based application. Where you can, talk about real people and real situations, instead of just talking about abstract ideas. Typically, I’ll scour the newspaper, internet news sources and TV for fresh material. Incredibly, there always seems to be something useful. Of course, if the story involves a member of your congregation then you’ll need to ask permission first.”

This paragraph from Dad comes with a very important caveat in the footnotes:

“In fact, even if it’s about one of your kids make sure you ask permission first! Being a pastor’s kid carries enough baggage without growing up in church where everyone can recite the ‘cute stories’ of your childhood.”

I’ve found this has been incredibly true in the age of the Internet and a “digital shadow” – when my mother-in-law googled me when I started dating Robyn, she found a bit of one of Dad’s sermons that opened “Nathan Campbell has lost his shoes”…

The book covers stuff like pulling a text apart, spoken delivery, receiving critique, putting a talk together – which includes something like a Director’s Cut/commentary version of the sermon manuscript from one of Dad’s recent sermons on Acts. And then, to finish off nicely, there’s a sample critique from Dad, and from Gary on a each other’s real sermons.

I really liked this book, I obviously heartily endorse it, and you should buy at least three. As I was reading it I was pretty thankful – thankful that I’ve been shaped the way I have by a father who wants people to know the ultimate father, shaped to love the gospel of Jesus, and want people to hear it unhindered, and hopefully shaped to be self-aware of my myriad faults and my constant desire to make preaching all about me. This book is a useful reminder for me in that ongoing challenge. And it makes me thankful that in the last few years I’ve been taught at a college by guys of Gary’s caliber (and the caliber of the other members of faculty). I have much to be thankful for, especially the gospel, and the privilege of being a fellow worker in the ministry of the gospel, as a preacher with training wheels on. There’s that old saying about new generations standing on the shoulders and I’ve never felt that more tangibly than when I read a book that spells out so clearly what I’ve been blessed to assume as natural by guys I know. But as impressive as I think those guys are, and as thankful as I am for both of them, it’s the gospel that’s really impressive and powerful to change hearts, not them, not me – but the God who revealed himself in Jesus and his word, who changes us by his Spirit.

Queensland Assembly: A taste of the future

I had my first taste of the Presbyterian Assembly line today. Turns out to get ahead in the denomination in Queensland you should be balding and sport a goatee.

I sat in on a day’s worth of policy debate on a bunch of boring stuff, in order to see the appointment of our new principal (pending his acceptance, other bloggers have jumped the gun on that one…). Gary Millar. Who is cool because he knows U2. Sort of.

The coffee at Assembly was awful. I sense a bit of a business opportunity.

Tomorrow morning I’m doing the “devotion” at Assembly. Five minutes on Romans 14. Devotion is such an odd word.

Gary Millar on Preaching OT Narrative (Liveblog)

Gary Millar is back at QTC, and he’s talking us through preaching OT narrative in our preaching lecture today. He’s cool because he knows U2. Well, he knows the Edge’s parents.

Four Obstacles to preaching OT

1. Familiarity – we all think we know what the Old Testament narratives mean – because we’ve been through Sunday School and learnt about the characters and the “moral” lessons of the stories. We’re not so good with the theology of the OT narratives.

For example – Joshua 2 – what is it about?

The majority would say that it’s about the miraculous way in which God saved Rahab, which is an element of the passage – but it’s almost a footnote when compared with the disobedience and ungodliness of the spies – who when entering the promised land head straight to a prostitute, and when given an opportunity to speak about God ask “are you going to save our lives”… the main thrust of the chapter isn’t Rahab, it’s on the spies.

When we come to this narrative, and we realise people know this story, we need to remember that their main focus is going to be on Rahab – because that’s what they’ve been taught.

People already think they know what the Old Testament means.

2. Perceived irrelevance

People think the Old Testament is obscure and obsolete. The only Bible reading that ever got a round of applause at the end of it was Nehemiah chapter 3. It’s a long and boring list of insignificant names. In the context of Nehemiah it’s a crucial chapter. Some people, the nobles, thought they were above the rebuilding of the wall. It has huge implications for the book. But we read it and say “this has got nothing to do with me”… sometimes that can work well, sometimes people sit back and say “there’s no way he can connect this to us today” – which gives us an opportunity.

3. Genre – we don’t know what to do with stories

We treat all these stories like they’re one of Paul’s epistles. The problem is that often OT Narrative is one story – like the book of Ruth – not a series of messages. But when we’re preaching the narrative we break it up into pieces. Chapter 1 of Ruth becomes a story about sad women. Which has nothing to do with the point of the book, which at the end of the book is about preparing for the coming of a Messiah.

4. Time – limited time to prepare, limited time to talk

So what do you do with a story that is really long? The Samuel narrative – from Israel asking for a king, to Saul becoming king, is really long. How do we cover it all? There are two problems – we’re probably not familiar with all the details of the story – how many commentaries are you going to read? Two or three. If you engage with that many, that’s a good week. That’s ok if you’re engaging with a short pericope in the New Testament. You go to 1 Samuel 8-11, and you’ve got sixty pages to read through, and the text is huge. Simply to read it in English takes forever. Handling it from the pulpit is difficult. You could just read it. And your time would be up.

If we followed Haddon Robinson’s approach to preaching narrative, working out the characters etc, not only would we have no time to do anything but preparing our sermons, ministry wise, we’d also never see our families.


Five Simple Rules for Preaching

1. Read what it says, not what you always thought it said.
Example – Daniel 1 – is really not about vegetables. They have a purpose in this story, but they aren’t the purpose. Daniel 1 is about setting up Daniel in the king’s court.

2. Learn to feel with the story

Gary quotes from this article by Roy Clements.

“In this respect we must listen humbly to the criticism that expository preaching has been too wedded to rationalistic modes of interpretation. The intention of God in Scripture is certainly to impart objective knowledge of himself but it goes far beyond that. In addition to informing the mind, God seeks to address the will and the feelings. He may wish to encourage or to warn, to praise or to challenge; he may wish to make us weep, or laugh or frown. The purpose of the imperative ‘rejoice!’ is not just to impart objective knowledge about joy but to make the reader feel joyful!

Any Bible exposition will have failed if it locates the intellectual content of the text, but neglects to communicate the emotional texture in which that content is embedded. Good exposition invites the listener to feel with the text as well as to think about it.”

Look for hints, pregnant pauses, what’s left out, the unexpected, mood markers…

You’ve got to get people into the text. Standing beside Daniel as he prays in Daniel 9. Get them to feel with Daniel. Don’t take them away from the text to make them feel by analogy. We don’t want to manipulate people. How does Daniel feel at the end of the prayer? Desparate. It’s not a model prayer, it’s Daniel’s emotional response to learning that spiritual exile doesn’t end with the physical exile.

The best way to help people to read the Bible properly is to read the Bible properly, and to preach it.

The hardest narrative books to deal with are the longest.

Understand the way stories work – Neb isn’t described as a pompous king, but the way chapter 3 of the book unfolds it’s clear that he’s pretty full of himself just by how many people he surrounds himself with in court. We don’t need subtitles in movies to spell out “this is a pompous man” (Me: we do, however, have musical cues to frame a narrative – perhaps we should put music to the passages in our heads as we work through the story…).

Remember just because something is described doesn’t mean it’s prescribed – so when Nehemiah pulls out everybody’s hair we’re not to make an ethical judgment about hair pulling, we’re to understand the frustration that is driving his actions.

3. Zoom out as far as you need to

Get the whole story – don’t make a sermon out of Joshua 1:6-9 where the young men are told to be courageous. See it as part of the broader story. We underestimate the death of Moses. Joshua’s need to be strong and courageous isn’t about entering the land, so much as dealing with his own people.

Don’t be afraid to preach really big chunks. Genesis 38-50. It’s a long story spelling out one basic principle. That God used the evil acts of Joseph’s brothers for his purposes.

Question:What would you say about drawing ethical principles from the text?

Answer: I don’t have a problem with that. Because they are there. Sometimes they are made very clear from the story. But they’re always the minor point – but we get into problems when we focus on the minor thing rather than the major flow. This is the last resort for busy preachers, minor points are better than no point…

Big picture is important. Understand the driving force behind the narrative.

Question: Isn’t there a problem of reductionism if we reduce a book to a big idea and ignore all the other bits – aren’t we ignoring divine revelation by summing everything up in a big idea and preaching it

I would say that understanding the big idea is paying attention to, and respecting revelation. Which we’ll cover in point 4.

Understand the point of the details that seem odd – like the Levitical laws – where the point might be – it’s really important to take God seriously.

4. Make sure you keep pace with the story

There’s a lot of stuff going on at the start of 2 Samuel, and then you come to 2 Samuel 7. The story has been rolling on, and then bang. You get a massive event. And then you’re back into the chronological “this happened, then this happened” rolling out of the text. We should move at the pace the story does. See how the threads of 1-6 move, preach them. Then because chapter 7 makes a big deal about one event, make it important.

5. Preach the story, not the detail

The message of the text should be the message of the sermon. Get the message of the text right, don’t bring your own agenda or favourite parts of the text into the spotlight. Daniel’s prayer life isn’t the focus of the book of Daniel, it’s about the sovereignty of God and the transition out of exile.

The story of Deborah in Judges isn’t about women in leadership. We have to make sure the main message of the talk is the main message of the narrative.

Question: How much Bible do you read on the Sunday morning?

Answer: We’ll focus on the key “jump out” section, or extracts, with somebody giving the flow of events before and afterwards.

Some reflections on violence in the Old Testament

I’m writing an essay at the moment on the following: Violence, Joshua, and the Christian. Quite apart from the fact that literary criticism of the Old Testament means we have no real sense of who wrote Joshua or when it was written, the question of what role the violence plays in the narrative is vexing. Did the Israelites actually carry out God mandated genocide of those in Canaan? And if they did, is that really a problem?

I’m going with no, and no.

Is God ordering genocide a problem?

Tackling the second question first – I have no problem with God carrying out judgment on his creation. The earth is his, and everything in it. If we all deserve death, and God is infinite, then who are we to quibble about the timing and manner of the inevitable and deserved end we face. Because death is the punishment for sin we’re all essentially facing genocide at that point.

The Canaanites were by all accounts particularly wicked people whose practices were frowned on by those in the nations around them (let alone God) their practices included incest, bestiality, child sacrifice and a fairly murderous militant culture. Presence in the promised land – for the Israelites – depended on them acting rightly, but their entrance into the land was due to the occupants acting wickedly.

Other people have a major problem with this notion – one scholar goes so far as to suggest that commands to kill the Canaanites came from Satan and the Israelites were too theologically illiterate to be able to tell the difference. Richard Dawkins calls the God of the Old Testament the nastiest character in fiction. Another school of thought thinks the violent rhetoric was just a tool to help Israel establish some (rather late – in the time of King Josiah) national identity. Which brings us to the second question.

Did the Israelites carry out genocide on the Canaanites?

No. They didn’t. They certainly killed some Canaanites as they moved into the promised land – but these would appear to be those Canaanites who stayed to pit their might against the people of God. Rahab’s little dialogue with the Jewish spies suggests the Canaanites knew full well what was coming. They had plenty of time to leave (forty years of wilderness wandering for the Jews). And God’s promises of possession for Israel were almost always coupled with a promise to “drive the people out” with only those who remained destined for destruction. This was not genocide – it was the destruction of a national identity. An identity that was synonymous with evil and loathed by the surrounding nations. We also see plenty of Canaanites appearing throughout the Old Testament after they’re meant to be wiped out. Clearly no genocide actually occured.

So what do we make of the commands for genocide then?

What I’m sure of is that we can dismiss the idea that these commands were somehow Satanic misdirection. Ordering the punishment of death for sin is completely consistent with God’s character in the New Testament. If we’re going to go with the notion of one God in both books – not a bipolar happy God/angry God then we need to read these passages in the light of Romans 3:23 and Romans 6:23 – we all sin, and thus we all deserve death. The Canaanites were no exception.

There is some merit in seeing the book of Joshua as some sort of identity building missive for the nation of Israel – an answer to the question of why they are God’s people living in a land God promised. At that point the theory that the language of violent conquest was a common sociological phenom is useful, but I don’t think it’s the primary purpose, because that essentially removes the need for some form of historical conquest, and doesn’t actually explain Israel’s presence in the land.

Questions about the historicity of a complete and total conquest – and people do ask those questions – are a bit silly, because Joshua demonstrates, in the narrative, that the conquest was neither complete or total. But it also shows Israel occupying the promised land – alongside those they were meant to wipe out.

The question I keep asking when I come back to passages like this is what theological purpose does it serve? I think this is my rubric for assessing every passage in the Bible, it comes before the question of “what historical fact does this teach”… and so, when I read Gary Millar’s commentary on Deuteronomy (Now Choose Life) I resonate more with his treatment of the issue than with the sociological view (Sociological readers of the Bible seem to have an incredibly low view of God’s sovereignty or ability to intervene – interpreting theological writings by looking for natural causes seems dumb to me. They almost always dismisses any miraculous intervention from God in establishing any identity – Israel’s identity, in their view, stems from their own self identity rather than from identity through God’s election). Millar even goes so far as to suggest some rabbinic hyperbole. Which is one of my favourite expresssions… here is his commentary on the instructions in Deuteronomy to wipe out the Canaanites (so that the Israelites may stay true to God. If they fail the author clearly says the Canaanites will lead the Israelites astray).

“This is theological preaching, urging Israel on to wholehearted obedience. In this context we should expect some hyperbole, at least.”

He argues that the Hebrew word הרמ (I can’t figure out how to do a final מ on my keyboard) – or herem – is a pointer to the theological nature of this destruction. Israel is to wipe out the idolatrous practices of the Canaanites, and their identity, rather than the people themselves.

Millar says:

“The intensification of the command to disposses the nations to destruction is not primarily about warfare at all. It is a theological conviction, arising from recognition that the Canaanites will be a snare in the land; their influence must be purged from the land if Israel is to survive.”

Deuteronomy 7 itself points to this sort of interpretation. Verse 1 says God will drive the nations out ahead of Israel, verse 2 that he will deliver them and the Israelites “completely destroy them” (that’s that Hebrew word), and verses 3-5 are instructions for what to do with the survivors (ie don’t marry them or worship their Gods). Why are there instructions for dealing with the survivors if they are to be completely wiped out?

Millar again:

“Throughout this chapter, it is clear that the Mosaic Preaching is concerned to bring the Israelites to the conviction that shattering the structures of Canaanite society is a theological necessity. This is expressed not in terms of driving out or dispossessing the Canaanites, but of destroying them.”

Regarding further instructions about the Canaanites in Deuteronomy 20 Millar acknowledges that the “leave no survivors” command is “startlingly literal” – but again suggests that the instructions are not simply about military victory but the annihilation of a way of life.

In the case of the Canaanites it seems the adage of “hate the sin, love the sinner” can’t really be carried out – because the two can’t be separated.

A summary of Gary Millar’s visit to Queensland Theological College

Gary Millar came, he talked, he conquered. We all now want to be deep thinking Irish men who love preaching the gospel.

He is a man greatly gifted by God as both a thinker and a pastoral worker. He shared some insights into some of the trials he has faced in ministry that would send a mere mortal crazy. He has been around the block a few times and he is still faithfully toiling for the sake of the gospel – and still making sure that he preaches the good news of Christ crucified week in, week out, despite the opposition.

In the interest of providing a nice resource for posterity here is a summary of all the posts that I have read reviewing his time at QTC.

Night One – Song of Songs

QTC Day One – Preaching

QTC Day Two – Deuteronomy

QTC Day Three – Preaching again

Gary Millar on Application

Gary’s tips on application

  • Know the context of the passage and the context of your people.
  • Know the people you’re teaching the Bible to – people keep changing. We have to keep reading the culture.
  • We have to know individuals and know the challenges facing every stage of life.
  • “We need therefore to know every person who belongs to our charge… we should know deeply every person in our flock.”
  • We have to be able to apply the gospel to teenagers, to grandparents… to every member of the flock.
  • Start where people are rather than where you think people ought to be.
  • We need to be prepared to spell things out – and keep spelling things out. We only want to have one thing to say – the gospel. And we need to be prepared to keep saying it. We don’t need to be original.

Our challenge is to preach and teach for people’s good and God’s glory.

Questions to ask when applying:

  1. Is my teaching applied specifically enough?
  2. Do I know my culture and context well enough?
  3. Do I know the individuals in my church well enough?
  4. Do I know the unique challenges facing the individuals in my church well enough?
  5. Do I care enough to find out?
  6. Is my speaking health promoting or damaging right now?

Gary Millar on Preaching (from Titus)

Looking at Titus 2.

You must teach what is in accord with sound doctrine.

False teaching wrecks people’s lives.

“You and I look at things very differently. For you things are black and white. For me there are shades of grey.” – a former minister to Gary.

Like what? Like the divinity of Jesus and every other core truth of Christianity.

Paul’s main concern is not for doctrinal orthodoxy (everyone teaching the same thing) but for the application of doctrine through preaching. The nuts and bolts of Christian living.

He doesn’t say make sure your doctrine is sound – but make sure you speak in accordance with sound doctrine.

It’s not a question of Titus’ doctrine but a question of his preaching. Speak in a way that fits with sound doctrine – his concern is with the damage caused by false teachers rather than what they are teaching.

2v1 introduces the subject of teaching that doesn’t damage but gives health. Calvin says “teaching that can build men up in Godliness.

Paul is saying “we need to learn to teach the Bible wherever we are in a way that promotes spiritual help.”

Calvin says “if we leave it up to men to decide which teaching to adhere to they will never move one foot.”

No other passages that spell out the responsibility of preaching like this one here.

Impactful teaching is almost always preaching – sometimes the preachers have broken every rule in the book and have bad models – but the common thread is the powerful application of the gospel.

Gary Millar on how to preach a series on a book

  1. Read the book. Read it and keep reading it. Reading the text will save you from getting into trouble later on. Have a go at the big idea of the book.
  2. Sit down and break up the book.
  3. Work out your big idea for each passage.
  4. Work out how you get each passage to Jesus (Biblical Theology).
  5. How am I going to preach the gospel from this part of the Bible.
  6. Set up a table with your break up of the book as rows, and your bid idea, Biblical Theology and Gospel (NT passage) laid out. Make sure you’re not doing the same Biblical Theology model two weeks in a row or you’ll bore people.

Some further bits of wisdom

  • Have your Kid’s program in synch with teaching program… but this means you’ve got to sort out your big ideas in time for your Sunday School teachers.
  • It’s nice to be ahead in your thinking. Do the prep thoroughly prior to the week you have to preach.
  • How to test a big idea – read back over the passage and if there are a bunch of verses that aren’t covered, start again.
  • Sometimes there’s a major idea and a minor idea – it’s almost always right to focus on the major idea.
  • If you’re not clear in the preparation stage you’re not clear on Sundays.
  • Usually if people are confused I assume that it’s my fault. Normally it’s because I’m underdone in the planning stage.

Gary Millar on preaching God’s wrath

You can’t preach the Old Testament faithfully while avoiding the subject of God’s judgment. Especially in the current age where the idea that the God of the Old Testament is “evil”.

Bonus Bit – David chopping Goliath’s head off is an echo of, and an allusion to the story of the Philistines capturing the ark and it causing their idol to fall over until its head falls off.

Apparent injustice may in fact be a case of not knowing all the facts.

To make sense of the cross we need to understand that God is:

  • Infinitely angry at sin
  • Infinitely irrevocably committed to justice
  • Staggeringly creative and innovative.

The God of the Cross is breathtakingly holy, passionately commited…

Without the OT – and in particular these stories of judgment – we can not have any idea how holy God is, or the depths to which people sink, or how important it is for the God of the Bible to deal with sin in a way that is fitting. We can not hope to understand the cross without it.

If we ditch the nasty bits we are ditching the holiness and justice of God. These stories are there to teach us that God is not tame – that he does things that shock us.

It is not our job to apologise for God’s behaviour.

God’s actions are explained in Romans 3.

19Now we know that whatever the law says, it says to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be silenced and the whole world held accountable to God. 20Therefore no one will be declared righteous in his sight by observing the law; rather, through the law we become conscious of sin.

21But now a righteousness from God, apart from law, has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify. 22This righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference, 23for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, 24and are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus. 25God presented him as a sacrifice of atonement, through faith in his blood. He did this to demonstrate his justice, because in his forbearance he had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished— 26he did it to demonstrate his justice at the present time, so as to be just and the one who justifies those who have faith in Jesus.

Bizarrely, we culturally think that our treatment of the planet reaps just rewards – seeing causation in our actions – and occasionally predicting our own painful demise – but we will not afford God the same courtesy. Gary referenced the Day of the Triffids and this post from an Irish friend.

In the two episodes (which were rather a drag unfortunately), we got lots of warnings about what happens when you interfere with nature, namely that nature will eventually inflict its wrath on you. Come to think of it, this was a sort of Wrath of God story with nature standing in for God.

In fact in the last few years there have been several ‘Wrath of Nature’ movies; The Day the Earth Stood Still and The Day After Tomorrow to name but two. In both movies, and in this latest version of The Day of the Triffids, we are led to believe that we deserve what’s coming to us.

The funny thing is, no-one would ever make a movie these days about the Wrath of God in which the message also was that we had it coming to us. We’re able to accept that if we sin against nature we deserve our punishment, but not if we sin against nature’s maker.

More on preaching the Old Testament from Gary Millar

Reading back on my post about Gary Millar’s tips for preaching the Old Testament I realised I’d missed a couple of pages of notes. Here are some more nuggets of wisdom from the mouth of the Irishman…

  • If you have the text at your right hand and a pile of commentaries at your left the biggest mistake you can make when preparing a sermon is to reach out first with your left hand.
  • The OT is often preached with scant regard to the text – it’s almost always “be like the Old Testament Character”…
  • Narrative doesn’t commentate on the action “this is a bad idea”… we have to be sensitive to what’s going on. We have to get into the flow of the story in order to pick up these little things.
  • The biggest problem that we have when approaching Old Testament narratives is reading the text. If you don’t read the text you won’t get it right. You have to work on the text, then work out how it fits with Biblical Theology, this needs to be done before you start the talk.
  • Having done the work on the text we need to start figuring out how we present the work as Christians.
  • We don’t just need to pull Jesus from the hat in every text. Christ-centred preaching does not seek to find where Christ is mentioned in every text – but to show how each text manifests God’s grace in order to prepare people in relation to Christ. This is not quite so tenuous as Spurgeon suggests in the following quote (from this sermon here). He’s right to want to relate every part of the text to Christ – but sometimes his connections are tenuous.

“Don’t you know young man that from every town, and every village, and every little hamlet in England, wherever it may be, there is a road to London?” “Yes,” said the young man. “Ah!” said the old divine “and so form every text in Scripture, there is a road to the metropolis of the Scriptures, that is Christ. And my dear brother, your business in when you get to a text, to say, ‘Now what is the road to Christ?’ and then preach a sermon, running along the road towards the great metropolis—Christ. And,” said he, “I have never yet found a text that had not got a road to Christ in it, and if I ever do find one that has not a road to Christ in it, I will make one; I will go over hedge and ditch but I would get at my Master, for the sermon cannot do any good unless there is a savour of Christ in it.”

Gary Millar on the Song of Solomon

Last night Gary Millar spoke on Song of So(ngs)lomon. With a particular focus on how to preach it. He had what I think is a pretty interesting take on the book – an interpretation that would make Song of Songs a nice foil to Ecclesiastes (which explores the futility of a life lived pursuing material happiness).

He suggests the book is written by Solomon about “the one that got away” – a woman who rebuffed his advances because she had found true love with her “beloved”. The thrust of the argument is that the book then gives Solomon’s insights into a life lived pursuing happiness and completion through the pursuit of sexual encounters – and comes to the conclusion that true happiness is found in its proper context, and if you fully subscribe to his theory, real satisfaction and joy comes through experiencing the love of God.

Here are my notes in slightly edited form. Simone has blogged her response to the evening here.

  • What is Song of Songs doing in the Bible? Nobody seems to know – none of the commentators agree.
  • When we read the Bible our starting point has to be “this is the word of God” – and with careful reading we really should be able to figure out what it’s about.
  • There’s a very long tradition of ignoring the sexual element – the Westminster council suggested that any reading along those lines was incorrect… Calvin said “it’s about sex, what’s the big deal?”
  • The people who insisted it wasn’t about sex believed it was all about Jesus.
  • Ascribed to Solomon – uniquely placed to write this sort of treatise on love and marriage. 1,000 women, world’s wisest man… Solomon realised that he’d mucked it up. And that’s why he wrote this book.
  • The key to the book is found in the last few verses… chapter 8 verses 1-11. “Solomon had a vineyard”… These statements unlock the whole book – almost certainly a reference to Solomon’s harem. “Lord of the multitude”… the tenants are probably the staff of the harem… each was to bring for its fruit 1000 shekels of silver… “my vineyard (body in ch 1)”, the thousand shekels are for you and 200 are for those who care for the harem. Solomon would pick someone, send the guys out to make an offer they couldn’t refuse, and it seems there was a feisty woman “my vineyard is my own” – don’t try to buy me. Money, wisdom and henchmen can’t buy you love.
  • Solomon is the wisest man in the world. He is rich. He is powerful. “Who does this woman think she is…” perhaps leads Solomon to reflect on his life and “who does he think he is”. Perhaps realises that somewhere along the line he’s lost the plot.
  • Solomon realises he has missed out on real love. And perhaps even a relationship with God. And so he writes about a young couple who are passionately and permanently in love. As the book goes on it becomes less and less likely that Solomon is one of the lovers. He becomes distant to the story.
  • The book opens up a raft of very difficult pastoral issues – because as soon as we start talking about issues surrounding sex people become edgy. Many people have baggage in this area.
  • The man works really hard to make his beloved feel beautiful. His beloved is his standard of beauty cf Driscoll (one area where he was helpful). It’s clear when reading the poetry (though sometimes the imagery is culturally odd for us) that this man thinks and puts all of his effort into making his words encouraging for his wife.
  • It’s hard to distinguish between actuality and anticipation. The book is full of images that are clearly enticing but can’t actually be tied down. General pictures not specific pictures. It’s a mistake to press this book into service of saying anything about sex. The metaphors are deliberately slippery – nudge, nudge, wink, wink – you can’t work out what the specific language is. Immensely sexual but not explicit.
  • It’s not entirely clear who is speaking at what point. We’re not sure if the people are real or parables. We’re not sure if he’s writing through the lens of rejection and imagining the world of the woman who turned him down… the way in which this relationship is described is with Solomon as a stranger to this kind of love.
  • Chapter 1 v 5-6 – dysfunctional families do not rule out the possibility of real love. Solomon seems to be urging us to hold out for the real thing.
  • Chapter 3 v 6 – “Solomon’s carriage”, King Solomon made it himself, royal guard, wearing the crown etc… This woman is dreaming about her wedding. It’s a royal wedding – she dreams of her dream man rocking up in the royal regalia. No suggestion throughout the rest of the book that this is a royal wedding, she gets beaten by the night watchmen which is unlikely if she’s a princess etc… Possible explanation: The girl has a dream, having seen Solomon’s wedding she imagines her wedding to be something like this. Her dream man has the face of her lover – by the end of chapter 3 it could potentially still be Solomon.
  • Solomon is being passed over for this woman’s real king. “I opened the door…”, “oh daughters of Jerusalem what would you tell my lover…” – this is not how things work for Solomon in terms of securing a wife. Solomon starts to understand that he has love wrong.
  • Solomon isn’t the Bible’s sex therapist – he warns us of the problems of sexual idolatry.
  • Because of Ephesians 5 we’re used to modeling love on the trinity. But Solomon instead suggests we need to look the other way. We should see marital love as an echo of God’s love for us.
  • God is the ultimate – not sex. So at the end of his debauched life Solomon comes to the conclusion that he’s mislead it and that God should be the focus.

Gary Millar’s insights on Deuteronomy

Some helpful stuff from one of the planet’s leading authorities on “the most important book of the Bible” (rough paraphrase)…

The structure of the book is grace in the past, grace in the present and grace in the future. It’s the book that holds everything together – the climax of the Pentateuch and the key that unlocks the rest of the OT (historic narratives and the prophets), and the NT. How do we understand the concepts of blessing and curse? How do we understand grace? Well, it’s here in Deuteronomy.

The logic of 2 Ways to Live comes from Deuteronomy 27.

Jesus answers the Devil, during his temptations, from Deuteronomy.

Getting to grips with this book really matters.

On the idea that the format of the book is based on a cultural “kingly covenant” from around the time it was written

We can’t nail the structure down to any “king treaty” from history. Quite clear that this book breathes the air of covenant – and a covenant relationship. It’s pretty clear that whatever else is happening this is Moses’ final sermon on the subject of God’s covenant with Israel.

On the current “academic” position that Deuteronomy was an exilic invention attributed to Moses as a propaganda exercise

Stupid Academic Theory which holds “Moses could not have foreseen the exile so it must have been written later by someone pretending to be Moses”.

Counter – If Moses has spent his lifetime dealing with Israel messing things up it’s reasonable to assume that he could credibly predict the behaviour of Israel in the future. The foundation of a lot of studies in academia in the last 60 years is on the idea that it’s a late book. A natural reading of Deuteronomy could lead you rightly to the conclusion that Moses, having lead Israel for forty years of frustration, might be in a position to come to these conclusions on the basis of his experience.

On Israel’s failing to claim the promised land and wandering in the wilderness

One of the amazing things about the zigzagging wandering through the desert is the accounts of the neighbouring nations – “your brothers the descendants of Esau”… God says “I have given the Edomites their land”… then, “I have given land to the Ammonites as the descendents of Lot”… the descendents of these other people managed to find their place while Israel failed – including dealing with giant peoples who occupied them, which Israel failed to do.

What is a reference to King Og’s bed doing there in the narrative – he’s a giant who Israel vanquished in their history – but they were too scared to take on the giants in the promised land first time around… this is a critique of Israel’s failure to take God at his word – they managed to deal with giants originally, their neighbours managed to deal with them, and yet, when it mattered Israel failed.

Bonus insight – In Hebrew “to hear” is “to obey” – it means to have taken the information on board and responded appropriately…

On the structure of “the laws and decrees” – Deuteronomy chapters 12 through 26

Several years ago the suggestion emerged that this passage is actually based on the Ten Commandments… which makes sense when you look at the structure. What you find if you look at chapters 12-26 is that you can find some parallels with the structure of the Ten Commandments.

When it gets to commandments 6-10 it gets very messy – but perhaps by the time they get to commandment six Moses has made his point and doesn’t need to maintain the structure.

When God makes a covenant he makes it with every generation of his people. While God made the promises to a previous generation Moses talks like the promise was made to the current people.

What are we looking at these laws for? We’re not the Israel – we’re 21st century Christians. As soon as we get to the laws all sorts of warning bells go off that this must be legalism. How do you get these chapters across?

Israel, as a society was to be a living breathing model about what life under God was about.

What is it about these laws that would make the surrounding neighbours gasp? There will be principles and pictures of what it means to be the covenant beauty of God.

The OT does not, and never did, understand under a works/righteousness system. The required response to God’s grace was the same pre Christ (though manifested slightly differently).

On some odd laws

“Do not cook a young goat in its mother’s milk”

Did anybody ever think this was a good idea? It seems a bit random.

“When men fight with one another and the wife of the one draws near to rescue her husband from the hand of him who is beating him and puts out her hand and seizes him by the private parts then you shall cut off her hand. Your eye shall have no pity.”

Was this some sort of joke Moses inserted to make sure people were paying attention – there appears to be no historic enforcing of this law.

On the division of the law

Calvin’s division of law into ceremonial, civil, and moral doesn’t actually fit with the text.

A better division:

  • Obedience and worship
  • Obedience and the land
  • Obedience and the community

The ultimate inheritance of Israel is not the land – it’s the God of the land.

A lot of the book is to do with human relationships.

Gary Millar on preaching

Apologies – these are rough notes – Kutz is also liveblogging

A couple of questions I ask myself as I teach parts of the Bible.

  • Have I pointed people to what God has done for us in Christ as a solution for all our problems?
  • Have I reminded people that when we come back to God we both discover his forgiveness and are set free to live for him?
  • We haven’t preached the gospel if our message is to “be like” someone, or “be good”, we haven’t preached the gospel. Even if it is “be disciplined” we haven’t preached the gospel. These things aren’t wrong in themselves but they are wrong by themselves.
  • Have we pointed people to grace despite our sin?
  • We must give the reasons to live in a way that brings glory or honour to Jesus. The ultimate reason to live a holy life is Jesus Christ himself.
  • The hard work of teaching the Bible comes because we have to work hard to get this message under peoples’ skins. Speech not only conveys information it has other force and purpose. It may be to challenge or encourage, to make us laugh or feel sad – but this comes down to the intention of the speaker.
  • Good exposition invites the listener to feel with the text as well as to think with it.
  • One of the things we need to do is to be thinking that we need to recover the rhetorical impact of the text – we need to encourage people to feel the same way as the original hearers of the text. For example: Amos 1-2 – “you know what really bothers me about our neighbours… you know what really bothers me about you…” as a rhetorical device.
  • Preaching can involve stealth bombing – sometimes we need to surprise people. Working hard to get the text in to their lives will help people to listen.
  • The first 90 seconds is the most important part of a sermon – you’ve got about 90 seconds to convince people to listen (this may be a concession to people’s sinfulness). We need to justify the audience’s decision to keep listening. We must connect with people. We must exegete the listeners. We must speak to the people in front of us.
  • We can’t make general statements on behalf of our audience – “as followers of Jesus we all want to be living for God” – don’t assume the people are anywhere at all.
  • Work really hard at understanding people who aren’t like you. Single people, women, young people, people who come from different cultures and demographics.

How to preach OT with Gary Millar

Gary Millar is an Irish OT scholar who is Yoder smart. I’ve been wanting to use that pun since listening to Mark Driscoll.

He’s at QTC today speaking on how to preach the Old Testament. He’s got seven basic ways to bring an Old Testament passage to Jesus. These are the points with some notes.

1. Follow the plan – Genesis to 2 Kings is a narrative that leaves us waiting for the ultimate king – wherever you are you can say “this is the first bit of the plan which will ultimately lead to Jesus”

2. Expose the problem – sometimes the Bible just shows up that left to our selves we do some horrendous things. Some narratives just highlight that we are deeply sinful people.
3. Some parts are there to explain categories – what is Leviticus doing in the Bible? Several things. It explains how sacrifice works – how can we understand sacrificial language in the NT if we don’t understand how it worked in the OT. Leviticus explains the category of “ritual cleanliness” – we can’t leave the house without becoming unclean (like Israel who couldn’t avoid becoming unclean).
4. Highlight the attribute – Some stories are there just to show us what God is like. What’s the book of Hosea there to do? In essence it’s there to show us the love of God to an unfaithful people. If you’re preaching on Hosea you highlight the love of God by being faithful to the text – but at some point you have to interact with the NT and what it has to say.
5. Trace the fulfillment. Micah – the “ruler coming out from Bethlehem” – some passages make it easy, in others it’s harder. Different to “following the plan” which involves following the story, tracing the fulfillment is more direct/specific. God promised to do this, he did this.
6. Focus on the action – David and Goliath – the action is 33 words of 58 verses. The rest is David’s commentary on the action – it’s the Lord fighting his enemies. (extra thinking – David and Goliath is like a boxing match with a huge descriptive build up and a very quick knock out).
7. Point out the consequences – Some parts of the Bible make it very clear that if you live without God this will happen, if you live with God this will happen… how wisdom literature fits into the scheme of Biblical theology.

“I think that boring preaching is sinful and we’ll have to answer to God for it.
Boring preaching makes the pew warmer feel guilty and then bored. They walk out feeling worse than they felt when they walked in.”

When approaching the OT Gary takes the following steps.

  1. I sit with a big bit of paper and divide the book up into the chunks that I’m going to preach on…
  2. Read the book as many times as I can
  3. Write down what I think the big idea is for each passage.
  4. Write down if one of the seven options works beside each passage – and I make sure I’m never doing the same one of those seven two weeks in a row.

He added the following insights…

  • When we take bigger chunks of narrative there are more possibilities.
  • The further back you go in history the longer and more complex it becomes to “follow the plan”
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