Children in the Worship Service: Parental Chore and Blessed Calling

ordinary-MHorton-2014Once more I am going to pull a quotation from the ninth chapter  of Michael Horton’s Or-di-nar-y: Sustainable Faith in a Radical, Restless World (Zondervan, 2014). That chapter, from which I have quoted twice already, is titled, you may remember, “God’s ecosystem.”

In that chapter Horton is stressing the organic idea of the church – the saints’ spiritual life together in Christ – which is ever being sustained and growing in God’s garden, through the “ordinary” means of grace, especially the preaching of the gospel and the sacraments.

Toward the end of this chapter, the author focuses on the important calling the church has to make sure her children are growing up in Christ too. Critical of what the modern church through her “youth ministries” has done, Horton calls for a return to the “ordinary” in this area too – instructing the youth through catechism and bringing them into the regular worship of the church.

Tonight I give you some of his thoughts on this, and I truly hope it is an encouragement to our younger couples with little children whom they may dread to take into the worship service or despair of taking to church. Listen carefully to these words:

Having four of my own, I understand the difficulty of having children in church. Our church has a cry room, where parents can still participate in the service to some extent, but it is a chore. Yet isn’t it a chore of parenthood? Eventually the parents decide when they will move out of the cry room. It is remarkable how early children learn habits of sitting and listening. Even if they doodle and daydream for a couple of years, these habits of participation in the communion of saints are like a trellis. These habits do not guarantee that everyone will eventually respond in faith, but they do make for better hearing of that gospel through which faith takes root and grows in our hearts.

Besides the concern for parents, many Christians wonder if it is good for children to have them in the regular service. After all, they cannot understand what is going on. But imagine saying that you’re not going to have toddlers at the table for meals with the family because they do not understand the rituals or manners. Or keeping infants isolated in a nursery with nothing but mobiles and squeaky toys because they cannot understand the dialogue of the rest of the family around them. We know, instinctively, that it’s important for our children to acquire language and the ordinary rituals of their family environment in order to become mature. Or imagine keeping our teens from their grandparents’ funerals because they don’t understand it. We take them precisely so they will, knowing that our patience (and theirs) will be rewarded in later years and that the event will itself be an opportunity for maturity. Jesus grew in wisdom and knowledge. He learned the Psalter and the rhythms of the synagogue liturgy. When, as a young adult, he took up the Isaiah scroll to read about himself, he knew exactly where to roll it.

At the grammar stage, children are simply absorbing the language of Zion: the terms and ‘the pattern of the sound words’ (2 Tim 1:13) that we share with the wider body of Christ through the ages. I think that we are sometimes too worried about ‘imposing’ our faith on our children. After all, it’s a personal relationship with Jesus, and we do not want to interfere with their free will. [I hope you sense the author’s rightful use of sarcasm here.] We don’t think this way about the other things that they are learning by rote at this stage. We do not upbraid teachers for ‘imposing’ the alphabet or multiplication table. Our moral sentiments are not offended when parents correct poor grammar.

So, do not hesitate to take your young children to church tomorrow. And if necessary, to take them out when they are noisy or misbehave. Just remember to take them back in. They are learning to live in the presence of God and worship Him just as you did when you were taken by your parents. They are soaking up the words of the church and of Jesus their Savior. They are growing roots and growing up as tender shoots in God’s garden. What better place could they possibly be? Never minimize what God is at working doing in them through His “ordinary” means of grace.

Besides, those cries of distress (or for mercy!) as you take them out are music to the hearts of their fellow, older saints. We support you, parents, in this “chore” that is also a marvelous duty.

How does God’s garden grow? “By ordinary, daily, habitual practices.” – M. Horton

Even the ordinary disciplines of family devotions seem to be vanishing. For centuries, believers were raised with prayer, singing, instruction, and Bible reading with the family each morning and evening. The Reformers and their spiritual heirs not only wrote catechisms for this purpose, but books with each day’s readings, prayers, and songs. They knew that, as central as it was, the public ministry was weekly, and it needed to be supplemented and supported by daily habits.

As church and family disciplines were subordinated to private disciplines, the burden of growing in the faith was placed almost exclusively on the individual. If do-it-yourself discipleship was the order of the day not that long ago, what is striking today is the extent to which even personal disciplines seem to be receding. It seems to me that there is increasingly less interest in personal prayer and meditation on God’s Word than in any time since the Middle Ages. It suggests that when public disciplines (especially the weekly service) lose their hold on us, family and private disciplines are sure to follow.

We need to rethink our priorities here, and recovering an appreciation for the ordinary is at least one step in that direction. We grow by ordinary, daily, habitual practices. The weekly service of the Word and sacrament, along with its public confession of sin and faith, the prayers, and praise, are the fountain that flows into our homes and private rooms throughout the week. It is all of these disciplines – public, family, and private – that we need to recover. They seem so ordinary. In fact, they are! But that is precisely how God’s garden grows each day.

ordinary-MHorton-2014Taken from chapter 9,  “God’s ecosystem,” (p.181) of Michael Horton’s Or-di-nar-y: Sustainable Faith in a Radical, Restless World (Zondervan, 2014), which I continue to read with great profit and deep appreciation.

In this chapter, Horton teaches and applies the beautiful organic idea of the church (especially as God’s living, growing garden) found throughout the Word of God. In the section from which I quote above, Horton is treating “Personal Disciplines.” But, as you will see, he ties together the vital public means of grace (in our public services) with the vital private means of grace (what we practice in our homes).

And we should be able to see how they feed off one another. Stop worshiping at home and in private, and soon your desire for the house of God on the Lord’s Day will dry up. If we don’t have time for God and His Word at home, we won’t take time for them on Sunday either. But conversely, if we stop attending the public worship of God with His people on the Lord’s Day, we will soon stop our times of family and private worship too. If we don’t value time with God on His special day, we won’t value time with Him each day either.

I trust we are committed to God’s ordinary public means of grace in His church each week. But how committed are we to those ordinary private and personal disciplines each day? Are you and am I seeking to grow by God’s “ordinary, daily, habitual practices” of reading His Word, singing His praises, and praying?

Perhaps, we too need to “rethink our priorities here.” Good food for thought once again. It’s only Monday. Not too late to reset those priorities. You do remember how vibrant you felt yesterday in God’s house, right? Let that feed our souls at home the rest of this week.

No Heros, Just Ordinary People

ordinary-MHorton-2014…Ordinary lives have an ordinary impact that is beautiful in its own right. The choice has to be made, hardly earth-shattering at the moment, between ignoring a child’s complaint or taking her to the doctor. By choosing the latter, the busy mother saved her daughter’s life.

Less catastrophic but no less dangerous is the choice to do something big when something small is exactly what’s called for in the moment. The habit of reading stories to children at bedtime is often tedious. Family and private devotions can be tedious as well. So too can daily homework be a chore for students, along with grading for teachers. Making rounds is often tedious for doctors and nurses. yet daily faithfulness to these callings – more accurately, to God and the neighbors he has called us to serve – is precisely what enriches life.

We don’t need another hero. We need a Savior, who possessed ‘no form or majesty that we should look at him,’ and yet bore our sins (Isa 53:2-3). In fact, we need to be saved from our own hero worship, whether of ourselves or others. Jesus Christ never disappoints us because he is not simply someone to look up to because of his achievements, but is someone to trust because everything that he achieved was for us. And we need a communion of saints he has chosen and redeemed with us and for us. We need ordinary believers of every generation, race, and socioeconomic background to whom we’re united by baptism to one Lord and one faith by one Spirit. We simply need ordinary pastors to deliver the word of life and its sacraments faithfully, elders to guide us to maturity, and deacons to help keep the temporal gifts circulating in the body.

The actual churches we know are often the most difficult places in the world, especially if we are creative, ambitious, and drawn toward novelty. The patient discipline of belonging to a community (preferably, the same local community) over a long period of time is difficult for those of us born after 1964. Church growth analysts often tell us that ‘brand loyalty’ is a thing of the past and that churches will just have to catch up with that fact…. We have Corinth written all over us.

…Contentment comes from knowing that the body of Christ is far greater than any of its members by itself. Even Christ considers himself incomplete until his whole body shares in his risen glory.

With that realization, what seemed like boring routine with boring people may actually take on a different aspect. Like a vast field, we are growing together into a harvest whose glory will only appear fully at the end of the age.

Taken from chapter 8 of Michael Horton’s Or-di-nar-y: Sustainable Faith in a Radical, Restless World (Zondervan, 2014), which I continue to read with great benefit. The chapter is strikingly titled “We Don’t Need Another Hero.” The paragraphs I have quoted are found on pp.165-67. Next time we will go into chapter 9, “God’s ecosystem.”

“How was church today?” Ordinary is “quite extraordinary indeed.” – M. Horton

ordinary-MHorton-2014I continue to read Michael Horton’s Or-di-nary: Sustainable Faith in a Radical, Restless World (Zondervan, 2014), taking in chapter 4 today – “The Next  Big Thing.” In this chapter Horton takes on the contemporary church’s craving for the new and novel, while ignoring and shunning God’s ordinary means of grace for His church and people.

Toward the end of the chapter the author has a section headed by those words “How was church today?” Here’s what he has to say in response to that common question raised in our day:

…In most times and places of the church, this would have been an unlikely question. In fact, the hearer might have been confused. Why? Because it’s like asking how the meals at home have been this week or asking a farmer how the crops did this week. ‘How was the sermon” ‘Was it a good service?’ Same blank stare from the ancestors. In those days, churches didn’t have to be rockin’ it, nobody expected the preacher to hit it out of the park, and the service was, well, a service.

Now, that doesn’t mean that what happens at church through these ordinary means in ordinary services of ordinary churches on ordinary weeks is itself ordinary. What happens is quite extraordinary indeed. First and foremost, God shows up. He judges and justifies, draws sinners and gathers his sheep to his Son by his Word and Spirit. He unites them to Christ, bathes them and feeds them, teaches and tends them along their pilgrim way. He expands his empire even as he deepens it. It is through this divinely ordained event that ‘the powers of the age to come’ penetrate into the darkest crevices of this passing evil age (Heb 6:3-6).

Which leads Horton to add these thoughts:

So one way people might have responded in times past, at least in churches of the Reformation, would have been something like these expressions: ‘Well, it was one more nail in the coffin of the old Adam’ or ‘God absolved me’ or maybe something as simple as, ‘It’s been good to understand the Gospel of John a little better over these past few months.’ [p.83]

How will we answer that question after we have been to our “ordinary” houses of worship and prayer tomorrow? May we realize again how “quite extraordinary” God’s good way of feeding us and caring for us in His church is.

First 2017 “Standard Bearer” Special Reformation Issue

The October 15, 2017 issue of the Standard Bearer is now in print and being mailed, and it is our annual special Reformation issue, marking the 500th anniversary of the great Protestant Reformation (1517-2017).

SB-Oct-Ref1-2017

The articles in this special Reformation issue reflect “the heritage of the Reformation,” that is, the special truths of the gospel that were restored to the church of Jesus Christ through the various brave and bold Reformers God raised up in the sixteenth century.

From the front cover of the issue you can see some of the topics treated. And from the table of contents posted below, you can see the rest of the important subjects covered in this issue.

You may have noted that I wrote “first” special issue in my heading. That is because we have also planned and will publish a second special issue on the Reformation this year. The November 1, 2017 issue will be “The Heritage of the Reformation” part 2. That too will have a variety of articles on the important truths and practices restored to the church according to the Word of God. Look for that issue in a few weeks!

SB-Ref1-2017-contents

For today, we take a quotation from Prof. D. Engelsma’s article on the controversy over the bondage of the will, a subject of vital concern to the Reformers. Lord willing, we hope to feature another article from this issue as well.

The truth of the bondage of the will, including its being fundamental to the gospel of grace, has its urgent application to churches and professing Christians in AD 2017, the 500th anniversary of the Reformation of 1517. The doctrine is not a petrified mummy safely sealed up in an ancient ecclesiastical museum. It is not a truth to which hypocritical ministers and church members can pay lip service when this is convenient for them (as in the 500th anniversary year of the Reformation, although even then the bondage is usually not one of the topics of their celebrations), while effectively denying it in their synodical decisions, in their preaching, in their writings, by their church membership, and by their ostracism and slander of churches and theologians whose only offence is an uncompromising confession of the bondage of the will.

First, applied to the heart of the elect believer, this truth assures him of his salvation in that his willing of God and the good by a true faith carries with itself the assurance that he is saved. His will is free, and it is free because it has been freed by the grace of God in Jesus Christ. Therefore, he will glorify God on account of his salvation.

Second, confession of the bondage of the will is a fundamental mark of a true church. Confession of the bondage of the will is an essential element of the proclamation of the gospel of grace, and the true church proclaims, confesses, and defends the gospel of grace—the gospel of salvation by grace alone, without the will and works of the saved sinner.

Third, confession and defense of the alleged free will of the natural, unsaved, man, which purportedly cooperates with grace and upon which grace depends, are the mark of an apostate, false church. In our ecumenical age, God’s people need to know this, and to act accordingly.

Why the Reformation Still Matters: Because of the Sacraments

why-reformation-matters-reeves-2016One of the books I continue to read this year of remembering the Reformation (500th anniversary!) is Why the Reformation Still Matters, co-authored by Michael Reeves and Tim Chester (Crossway, 2016).

Each chapter touches on a significant doctrine rediscovered by the Reformers, showing why the return to that particular truth was important for that time and why it is still important for the church today. I have been informed and inspired by what the authors have written. While repeating the great truths God restored to His church during the 16th century, Reeves and Chester present them in a fresh and lively manner, calling us to be true Protestants and Evangelicals in this hour of history.

The next chapter I read this evening is Chapter 8, “The Sacraments,” to which they add the subtitle “Why Do We Take Bread and Wine.  The authors do not hide the fact that this was the most contentious of the Reformers’ doctrine, as Luther, Zwingli, and Calvin differed significantly, even vehemently. But they also point out the great progress these men made – each with a particular contribution – in returning the church to the biblical doctrine.

At the end of the chapter, the authors make some good applications based on the heart of the Reformation doctrine on the sacraments:

We live in a culture where everything is about response and feeling. And our contemporary evangelical culture is deeply imbued with this subjectivism. We need to understand that the gospel is entirely outside us. The gospel is not my response. The gospel describes the objective reality to which I am to respond.

This is why the link made in the Reformation between Word and sacrament is important for us today. Calvin said, ‘Let it be regarded as a settled principle that the sacraments have the same office [that is, function] as the Word of God: to offer and set forth Christ to us, and in him the treasures of heavenly grace.’

And from there they go on to say,

So it is helpful to think of the sacraments as embodied promises. Their validity lies in the One who makes the promises.

…When Luther was struggling, he would go into the courtyard and shout (in Latin), ‘I am a baptized man.’ There is an objective reality when the sacraments are celebrated in the church. Their meaning is not in my response or feeling. The meaning is the gospel embodied in the sign. But the sign is designed to evoke my response and feeling. So we receive it as a promise from God – as a pledge of his intentions. So baptism and the Lord’s Supper are not primarily signs of our subjective experience or faith or response. They are signs that point us to the gospel [pp.157-59].

“Or-di-nar-y”: Lonely But Precious Word – M. Horton

ordinary-MHorton-2014A book I wanted to read when it first came out a few years ago is Michael Horton’s Ordinary: Sustainable Faith in a Radical, Restless World (Zondervan, 2014). Last week in a thrift store I found a clean used copy and this past week I started to read it.

Chapter 1 (“The New Radical”) is where I will start with you too, because that’s where Horton decries the trendiness of modern evangelicalism with its “Radical. Epic. Revolutionary.” (the opening words of chap.1) – that is, her excitement with all things new and “extra”-ordinary .

There are so many good points and lines in this opening chapter, but I give you these for now.

‘Ordinary’ has to be one of the loneliest words in our vocabulary today. Who wants a bumper sticker that announces to the neighborhood, ‘My child is an ordinary student at Bubbling Brook Elementary?’ Who wants to be that ordinary person who lives in an ordinary town, is a member of an ordinary church, and has ordinary friends and works an ordinary job? Our life has to count! We have to leave our mark, have a legacy, and make a difference. And all of this should be something that can be managed, measured, and maintained. We have to live up to our Facebook profile. It’s one of the newer versions of salvation by works. [p.11]

A few pages later Horton expands on these thoughts:

American Christianity is a story of perpetual upheavals in churches and individual lives. Starting with the extraordinary conversion experience, our lives are motivated by a constant expectation for The Next Big Thing. We’re growing bored with the ordinary means of God’s grace, attending church week in and week out. Doctrines and disciplines that have shaped faithful Christian witness in the past are often marginalized or substituted with newer fashions or methods. The new and improved may dazzle us for the moment, but soon they have become ‘so last year.’ [p.16]

As we end another week, let’s be grateful for the ordinary Christian life God has given us. As we go through another ordinary Sunday, attending our ordinary churches, where we worship in very ordinary ways, hearing ordinary sermons on the ordinary Word of God, let us thank God for such common, regular events and experiences.

Because when you think of all this “ordinariness” in terms of God’s grace and mercy to us sinners, it’s all actually quite extraordinary.

Biblical Preaching: The Antidote to Anemic Worship – A. Mohler

One of the special articles in the July Tabletalk is the one quoted and linked below, in which Dr. Al Mohler comments on the rise of music as central in modern evangelical worship and the subsequent demise of the preaching of the gospel.

Toward the end of the article, after his criticism of contemporary worship music, Mohler begins to get at what should be “front and center” in evangelical worship:

A concern for true biblical worship was at the very heart of the Reformation. But even Martin Luther, who wrote hymns and required his preachers to be trained in song, would not recognize this modern preoccupation with music above all else as legitimate or healthy. Why? Because the Reformers were convinced that the heart of true biblical worship is the preaching of the Word of God.

Following which Mohler adds these significant paragraphs:

Expository preaching is central, irreducible, and nonnegotiable to the Bible’s mission of authentic worship that pleases God.

The centrality of preaching is the theme of both testaments of Scripture. In Nehemiah 8, we find the people demanding that Ezra the scribe bring the book of the law to the assembly. Interestingly, the text explains that Ezra and those assisting him read from the book, from the law of God, translating to give the sense so that they understood the reading” (Neh. 8:8). This remarkable text presents a portrait of expository preaching. Once the text was read, it was carefully explained to the congregation. Ezra did not stage an event or orchestrate a spectacle—he simply and carefully proclaimed the Word of God.

This text is a sobering indictment of much of contemporary Christianity. According to the text, a demand for biblical preaching erupted within the hearts of the people. They gathered as a congregation and summoned the preacher. This reflects an intense hunger and thirst for the preaching of the Word of God. Where is this desire evident among today’s evangelicals?

And that leads him to conclude with these words:

The anemia of evangelical worship—all the music and energy aside—is directly attributable to the absence of genuine expository preaching. Such preaching would confront the congregation with nothing less than the living and active Word of God. That confrontation will shape the congregation as the Holy Spirit accompanies the Word, opens eyes, and applies that Word to human hearts.

Let’s give thanks that at the center of our own Reformed worship remains the pure preaching of the gospel, not music or various forms of entertainment. But let’s also examine our own hearts to make sure that this is what we truly desire – in faithfulness to the Bible and the God of the Bible. Otherwise our own worship, though biblically right in form, is just as anemic as that practiced by others.

Source: The Antidote to Anemic Worship by Albert Mohler

Luther on Desiring the Lord’s Supper

Luther'sSmallCatechism

1943 Concordia Ed.

In his “Preface” to his Small Catechism Martin Luther admonished those new to the Protestant faith about neglecting to come to the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper. His words are precise and powerful, and needed by us as much as by the members of the church in his time.

As you read the following quote, keep in mind Luther is exhorting the pastors and preachers about preparing the people to come to Lord’s Supper by faithfully teaching them (especially the children) the basics of the gospel as contained in his catechism (and others like it that would follow during the Reformation, such as the Heidelberg Catechism).

Finally, now that the pope’s tyranny is over, people no longer want to go to the Sacrament but despise it. Here again urging is necessary, however, with the understanding that we are not to force anyone into the faith or to the Sacrament, nor set any law, time, or place for it. Our preaching should instead be such that of their own accord and without our command, people feel constrained themselves and press us pastors to serve the Sacrament. The way to go about this is to tell them that if anyone does not seek or desire the Lord’s Supper at the very least four times a year, it is to be feared that he despises the Sacrament and is not Christian, just as no one is a Christian who does not believe or hear the Gospel. For Christ did not say, “Omit this” or “despise this,” but “This do, as often as you drink it,” etc. He most certainly wants it done and does not want it left undone and despised. “This do,” He says.

For a person not to prize highly the Sacrament is tantamount to saying that he has no sin, no flesh, no devil, no world, no death, no danger, no hell. That is to say, he believes in none of these although he is overwhelmed by them and is the devil’s possession twice over. On the other hand, he needs no grace, life, paradise, kingdom of heaven, Christ, God, or any good thing. Surely, if he recognized how much evil is in him and how much he needs all the good things he lacks, he would not neglect the Sacrament, which gives help against such evil and bestows so much goodness. He will not need to be forced by law to the Sacrament but will himself come running in a hurry to the Lord’s Table, constrained within himself and pressing you to give him the Sacrament.

Therefore do not set up any law concerning it, as the pope does. Only emphasize clearly the benefit, need, usefulness, and blessing connected with the Sacrament, and also the harm and danger of neglecting it. The people will then come of themselves without your using compulsion. But if they still do not come, then let them go their way and tell them that all who are insensitive or unaware of their great need and God’s gracious help belong to the devil.

To read more of Luther’s Preface, visit this link, where you will also find his Small Catechism. For another post on this catechism of Luther, visit this page.

Listen Up! How to Listen to Sermons (Intro)

One of the short books (really a booklet) I am reading this year is that by Christopher Ash, titled Listen Up! A Practical Guide to  Listening to Sermons (Good Book Co., 2009).

listen-up-ashYes, this is indeed a book on how to listen to sermons, because in the words of the author “there are books and courses to help people preach sermons… [lots of them, I might add!] but I’ve not read anything written in the last 200 years on how to listen to sermons” (p.2).

We expect good preaching of our pastors. That is as it should be. They are so trained during all the years of their Seminary education. Preaching is the heart and core of their work, as required by the Lord Himself. The King demands the best of His heralds – clear, accurate, powerful proclamation of His message. We know the standards are high – in the minds of elders and congregations too.

But we are often soft on ourselves as hearers of the Word. What we demand strictly of our preachers, we relax for ourselves. But that is not right. If what we believe preaching to be is true, then our standard for hearing ought to be just as high as it for making good sermons.The King demands the best of those who receive His message too.

If I may put it that way, listening to sermons is simply the other half of preaching. Without good listening – that is, without diligent, faith-ful, obedient hearing of the Word of God through the preacher – the best preaching does not profit us. In fact, it does the opposite: it hardens us and renders us inexcusable before the Lord, more ripe for judgment (condemnation). Yes,that’s hard, but it’s true. The Word of God says so.

So, some help in learning how to listen to sermons (better) is in order, no matter how long we have heard them and how experienced we may be in discerning good ones from not so good ones (Yes, I am being charitable. I was once on the other end.). Ash’s little book is a place to start, so we will work our way through it this year.

His first section is headed by the words “seven ingredients for healthy sermon listening.” Here they are listed in order:

  1. Expect God to speak
  2. Admit God knows better than you
  3. Check the preacher says what the passage says
  4. Hear the sermon in church
  5. Be there week by week
  6. Do what the Bible says
  7. Do what the Bible says today – and rejoice!

Ash then has a short section on how to listen to bad sermons (Bet you can’t wait to get to that part!). He ends with a page giving seven (7) “suggestions for encouraging good preaching.”

Now you have the “big picture.” In this short introduction, let’s ask ourselves two questions:

  1. Did you pray for your pastor’s sermon preparation this week and will you pray for him tomorrow as he enters the pulpit?
  2. Will you pray for yourself (and for your wife, if you are married, and for your children, if you have them) and for your (and their) listening tomorrow?

We may start tonight. Let us do so.