A Christian who has spent any length of time in the Church knows that she can appear less than beautiful when subjected to human scrutiny. Bickering, division, scandal – all of these things and more wound her and leave scars and many within seem to care little about the damage done. But when we pause and consider the view from God’s perspective we’re humbled. He looks upon the less-than-faithful, worldly, gospel-possessing but imperfect Church and He loves her unconditionally because, to Him, she is the most beautiful thing He has fashioned. To read Dustin Benge’s love letter about the beauty of the Bride of Christ is to be moved to repentance for one’s lack of similar vision.
The Loveliest Place is a beautiful book and one that I will be rereading regularly. Theologically deep, the depth is contained in a heartfelt paean to love the Church in the same way God does. Benge systematically presents the unique treasures that have been entrusted to the body and the eternal value that God assigns to them. Dare we consider of less value, or worse, abuse these privileges through apathy or ignorance. I was deeply captivated by page after page or prose that encouraged my vision to lift to a higher perspective, to look past the scars and stains and see the Church as her Creator does. The theology can wait for a second reading if the first pass draws us back to the beauty of the Bride.
The Loveliest Place should be on the shelf of every pastor, elder and dedicated church member. I find it much more powerful than any crop of ministry ‘how-to’ books because it gives the important ‘why’ to everything we do in the Church. Understanding the reason why the Church is so valued by God gives the motivation for everything we do (or don’t do) as people blessed to be part of the Bride. In the introduction, the earth is turned and the reader is confronted with our own attitudes as Benge challenges, “Chosen by God the Father, purchased by Christ the Son, and empowered by the Holy Spirit, the church should be cherished and recognized as ‘dear’ by all who call her home.” Reflecting on what we encourage, discourage, allow or ignore gives us our commitment to this truth. Perhaps our prayers need to return to the ‘why’ of the church, to the reason that we want to treasure her and her members.
Christians often perceive God dealing with sin in a binary fashion. He forgives sin, or he holds people accountable for sin and judgment. It’s difficult to argue with that equation because it is factually correct, but it doesn’t encourage much in the way of meditation. This new volume by Sam storms seeks to broaden our perception of what God does with our sin. He does so by enumerating 12 different facets of forgiveness that give us weeks and months of scripture and devotion to draw our souls deeper into the love and goodness of God’s grace.
As an example of the depth that the reader is encouraged to explore, Storms steps to either side of the key point: God forgives you of your sin. On one side of that truth lies the fact that the forgiveness that we enjoy came about because God laid our sin upon his son, Jesus. This draws our devotion from simple gratitude at being forgiven, to considering the cost of that grace. Bringing those two truths together deepens our gratitude and makes it less likely that we will take it for granted. On the other side of forgiveness is the truth that God has cleansed us of our sin. This draws us to an entirely other meditation and degree of gratitude. Not only have we been judicially redeemed, the Christian is washed clean and set apart. As with the previous thought, we are again drawn away from cheap grace.
After giving a dozen positive truths about what God has done with our sin, Dr. Storms adds an important chapter about three things that God does not, and will never do with our sin. I found this chapter to be very important in light of discussions I’ve had with people through the years. Lacking a firm hold on the concept of forgiveness, well-meaning Christians have looked at God’s grace in the same way that we might be tempted to look at human grace, as though it could be rescinded at anytime. Storms makes clear through scripture that this is definitely not the case.
This book is excellent reading for the individual Christian, but I can see this being the basis for a small group or a discipleship relationship study. Each of the topics he touches on can create an opening for a brother or sister to open up and share their concerns with the answer close at hand. Put this book on your reading list today.
The foundation of following Jesus is prayer. This deep personal communion, this spirit-to-spirit connection with God is at the same time a privilege unique to Christians and a part of any serious life of faith. The Bible encourages prayer by invitation (if my people who are called by my name humble themselves, and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways…[2 Chronicles 7:14]) and imperative (Ask and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened. [Matthew 7:7]). The centrality of prayer in Christ’s church is a settled matter and few Christians would stand up and say otherwise. We agree at each of these points in theory and by doctrine, but does your church show this commitment in action?
Prayer is said to be one of the most difficult ministries, and this challenge might be your experience. Meaningful prayer requires a compliant heart, repentant and believing that God will answer petitions. Prayer does not require eloquence of speech, but it does demand a heart guided by the Holy Spirit and fed by scripture. Distractions must be put aside; prayer cannot be engaged at the same time the television is on. Prayer is demanding, but the Christian who discovers the spiritual treasure that awaits them through this relationship can’t help but long for more.
If you want to ignite a revolution of prayer within your church, the first thing to remember is that it starts with you. You need to be fully committed to a life of prayer, with both a practice and an experience of regular, deep prayer with God. In fact, without this prayer life, it’s unlikely that you will have the desire to ignite a change in the prayer ministry of your spiritual family. The desire will come when your holy dissatisfaction peaks and you are moved by the Holy Spirit to do something about it. And when that happens, when you’re motivated by the Spirit, move immediately! Here are five ways to bring people into the movement with you.
One thing that keeps well-intentioned people from praying is the fear that they will somehow get it wrong. The fear is that they will use the wrong words or someone will not understand their prayer. You can address this by modeling simple prayer. Use the structure and words of the Lord’s prayer to show that eloquence doesn’t have to do with complex syntax and a lofty vocabulary. Show that passionate prayer comes from the heart. Show that prayer begins and ends with a clear recognition of our relationship with God – Our Father in heaven. The more we can emphasize this simplicity, the more people are invited to prayer.
Lead On and In Prayer
If the Holy Spirit has motivated you to take the lead in moving your spiritual body into a deeper prayer life, then every step that you take should be preceded by and sustained in public petition. Be up front that this motivation you are sharing with your brothers and sisters is not an idea of your own, but that it comes from your commitment to prayer and the prompting of God the Spirit. Show the perseverance power that you enjoy comes from continuing in prayer, publicly seeking the power of Christ for ministry, and showing your trust that He will deliver.
Publicly Share Answers to Prayer
This should be a regular part of the life of the Lord’s church, as it is one of the great encouragements to God’s people. Answers to prayer show those growing in their confidence that He is at work in countless ways, that He does answer our petitions. When we are public about giving God glory for the answers that we see to our prayer, it works in the hearts of those at the edges of the congregation who want to know this same power. Doing this also serves evangelistically, showing, without preaching, the inestimable power of our God and His love for His people.
Praying simply and directly invites others to join in as it knocks down the barriers to public, congregational prayer, but if we want others to grow with us in their maturity and the depth of their prayer life, we should also make it a point to pray deeply. This will mean different things in different situations, but a good place to start is to pray the scriptures back to God. Go beyond the well-known verses to the deeper well of the Bible, showing the importance of the full counsel of God. Trust the spirit and be open is sharing your concerns, your heartbreaks, your pleading for grace in the lives of the unsaved. Your transparency encourages others to pray in the same way.
We’ve heard the saying that habits and actions are “more caught than taught.” The first four points of this list have to do with leaders taking action, for example, praying in the presence of others. But, as much as we would like to teach by example only, we must not forgo supplementing our example with sound biblical teaching. The Bible is filled with lessons about prayer and its importance, and an entire library of books can be built on that topic alone, so use these resources to preach and teach on the importance of prayer and its benefits while you lead others to add their voices to the prayer chorus.
Building a prayer culture within the church is not an easy task. It takes teaching and practice and being intentional about giving God’s people opportunities to put their prayer into action. They will be encouraged by hearing about answers to prayer and further encouraged to hear of your own struggles in building your prayer muscles. One of the most important things we teach and show is perseverance. A revolution starts with a spark but rarely catches fire overnight. Start, take the first step, even if you find yourself alone. To borrow from Edward Hale, “I am only one, but I am one. I cannot do everything, but I can do something. And I will not let what I cannot do interfere with what I can do.” Be committed to seeing it through, because the rewards are eternal.
One of the great surprises for gardeners is the volunteer, those that blossom in unexpected places. Sometimes delightful, like the beautiful poppies that arise in my tomato beds, and sometimes not; the virtual maple forest that germinated in my backyard one spring required a lot of undesirable labor. The hundreds of little saplings were not all that surprising given the countless seeds that had dropped in the grass beneath the tree the fall before, but the flowers that sprout in the vegetable frames far distant from the flower beds are a welcome wonder. As every gardener knows, the appearance of these plants is not attributed to my work or intention; birds or wind or the coats of the dogs had serendipitously been the sowing agent that brought these joys to my soul.
There’s a similar joy found in the ministry of believers blossoming in unexpected places. What makes these unexpected joys stand out is that they are not where we expected them, and they’re measures of spiritual movement that a stagnant church easily misses. Many churches measure their health and ‘success’ using a yardstick marked out in segments labeled attendance, budget and programs. When the pews and offering plate are full, and the program schedule grows more and more crowded, we celebrate ministry. When the opposite is true and fewer seats are occupied and the budget constrained, these measures of success move the pointer into the red. A sense of failure rises, soon followed by discouragement. This can lead to an unfortunate blindness to the power of God at work, especially where we least expect it.
Wild abandon is the natural state of the forest and the volunteer doesn’t stand out among its equally random neighbors. The volunteer in our garden is surprising because of its location. The seed that falls to the ground and germinates, even if carried a distance on the wing, is doing what it is designed to do, creating after its own kind [Gen 1:12]. If we as Christ followers are faithful in discipling others, we too will reproduce after our own kind and the fruit they bear (Rom 7:6) will be the natural result. This is the genius of God in making soul shaping a normal part of life and not a program. We teach by living out our beliefs (Dt 6:6-8; Mt 28:19) and shaping hearts as we walk along and when we lie down and when we rise.
We’ve become accustomed to looking for ministry results as an outcome of a program. If we have the right music and preaching style, worshippers will come. We pour into the children and teenagers so that they make it successfully to adulthood. Our discipleship, more often than not, has a start and end date where success is measured by a completed workbook. We need to look deeper though; we need to spy out the volunteers that have been carried by the wind to unexpected places. By the design of the Lord, this is where the measure of a spirit-guided heart is going to be found.
What of the ministry that a transformed heart started that now serves the community? What about the bible study conducted by folks who take their discipled souls south for the winter? Your ministry plan didn’t have a bullet point for either one of those activities. What of the fellowship that surrounds an elderly member who is by themself and refuses to let them be alone? This is the work of the heart surrendered to the Lord. Success is not measured by programs, the Lord measures it by heart and if your discipleship is transforming hearts, you never know where the spirit is going to take them next. Your church is never commanded to be the biggest or have the most programs. It is called to be faithful in shaping the hearts of Jesus’ people and then trusting Him to put them to work in the places we least expect.
A church may be filled to overflowing week after week, with visitors regularly adding to the attendance and pushing the numbers ever higher. The generous giving of all those people may account for a budget that builds a grand edifice and fills it with the latest technology to stream the pastor’s message around the globe. During the week, there may be programs scheduled every day, enough to fill the family’s wide and varied interests. From the outside, the church gives the appearance of success, and yet, it might be a valley of dry bones on the inside.
Despite the external measures of health that many churches use–attendance, budget and program reach–it may be the case that internally the church is in deep need of spiritual renewal. The same metrics used by a baseball team to judge success are not the same measures that determine the spiritual vitality of a church. We measure her health on a different scale and by a different authority. The Church’s health is measured in the spiritual life of the people of God. Here are three signs that point to a need for renewal within a church.
3. Discipleship Does Not Transform
The outcome of disciple-making is the third measure of spiritual health. Discipleship should transform. To disciple is to affect the obedience of a Christian and shape their spiritual lives as their Christlikeness grows. Influenced by the world, much of discipleship has become knowledge acquisition in programmatic chunks. People, for example, participate in a program on improving marriage, fill out the study guide, have a potluck at completion and put the book on their shelves. Very few marriages are transformed, but, hey, the participants can recite from memory 5 bible verses about relationships. If the discipleship within a church does not transform the lives of Christians, it is not serving the needs of a body on mission.
2. Worship is Not Inspired
Any worship where there are performers and an audience is most likely not inspired. If no one is convicted of their rebellion while singing choruses of God’s incredible grace, spiritual vitality is diminished. This measure of inspiration requires keen insight because it’s possible to confuse emotion with spiritual practice and they might look a lot alike. Singing 5 prom-songs to Jesus can lead the ‘worshipper’ to a feeling of euphoria without once drawing attention to the lingering sin of a “wretch like me.” Singing praises to God or praying over the congregation or even standing to read the word of God should give a spiritual lift as we see and hear and feel the grace of God. At the same time that we are in awe of His mercy, we should be convicted of our own spiritual condition in His presence. Worship that does not remind us of the undeserved grace that redeems the Christian from destruction is empty.
1. The Church Doesn’t Pray Together
As Leonard Ravenhill said, no man and no church will be greater than their prayer life. Praying together, voicing our praise and petition and penance aloud in the hearing of other Christians is a unique and transformative experience. It’s also an experience most likely to be avoided by church members, and the lack of congregational prayer is usually (but not always) indicative of little individual prayer. If the Lord Jesus relied on prayer to carry Him through life, who are we Christians to say that we don’t need this discipline in our lives? The lack of a vibrant prayer life is the greatest sign that spiritual renewal is needed.
The encouraging news is that none of these traits are fatal. God encourages even the slightest move toward Him, rewarding the Christian with a new sense of spiritual depth. If this spiritual growth is recognized, it has the effect of becoming self-motivating, drawing the whole church into the life-giving practices. As the church is drawn toward a transformative discipleship that includes a vibrant life of prayer and deep, God-glorifying worship, the dry bones of the church click and clack as they come to life. The vine grows and bears fruit. The church is invigorated and returns to the gospel mission. The world is changed. Isn’t this worth it?
In a blurb commending the book, Ray Ortlund says this about J.I. Packer, “When we face a debated theological topic, we need a guide who has no ax to grind, who is fair, honest, reasonable, and—above all—carefully biblical. We Christians do debate the ministries of the Holy Spirit. But we have a reliable guide in J.I. Packer.” I read that in opening the second of my 10 out of 5 books from 2021, and found small dispute with Ortlund on this point: Packer does take sides in debate. In the volumes that have enriched me, Mr. Packer always takes the side of the biblical text. Unlike so many other authors, he does not read his theology back into the text, instead allowing his position to be discovered inductively. This trait (exhibited by so many of our senior scholars and theologians) makes reading a pleasure and his positions trustworthy.
If we live by the Spirit, let us also keep in step with the Spirit. Galatians 5:25
So Packer enters the theological scrum concerning a biblical understanding of the person and ministry of the Holy Spirit. His aim in this book is to restore the centrality of the Holy Spirit in the Church, a ministry that is often tossed and torn between the intellectualism of theologians and doctrine and unrestrained charismatic practices. Packer envisioned the book as a corrective to these extremes, a biblical call to Christians to restore the place of the Spirit and His gifts in their faith and lives. Unlike other authors that plant both feet in their camp and refuse to consider positions other than their own, Packer takes a much more irenic tone, insisting that the Bible speak louder than he does.
A point that Packer makes that is important for the reader to engage is that the Holy Spirit is not a discrete ministry on His own. The Spirit is inseparable from the Godhead and will always act in concert with the Father and the Son. He mediates Christ (John 16:14) to us. All the Spirit’s power and gifts are Jesus working through the Spirit in us. It is in the self-effacing nature of the Spirit’s ministry that we gain the perspective to evaluate spiritual claims attributed to the movement of the Spirit. He will always be directing attention back to the Son, and anything that does not achieve that end is to be considered much more carefully.
The mediation of Christ to His people involves the Spirit in spurring on holiness in their lives. We often refer to this growth using the term sanctification, and it is yet another idea that gets drawn to the edges of the Church. In some quarters it is a practice through which we grow intellectually through Bible study and discipleship. At the other side of the yard, the term sanctification points to a growing perfectionism in behavior. Packer draws the idea back to the center, saying that holiness in the Bible is evidenced by growth in the fruit of the Holy Spirit. It is the Spirit conforming us to Christlikeness and our pursuit of holiness is governed by our beliefs about the Spirit.
Packer takes this axiom to his examination of modern charismatic theology and practices, giving support where appropriate and critique where warranted. This evaluation includes a valuable chapter on different schools of thought and practice pursuing holiness. This part of the book is valuable from two different directions. First, when we locate our generalized tribe within the chapter it helps the Christian to see where their beliefs on this subject derive from. The reader that approaches the text fairly finds a second benefit in learning where other tribes have come from as well, preventing some of less loving criticisms that find their way into our speech. It seems to be Packer’s hope that brothers and sisters in Christ will find their own attitudes becoming as irenic as the one he displays in his words.
Keep in Step with the Spirit is a valuable contribution to the church and written at a slightly above popular level. It is worth every effort in working your way through the text, bible close by so you can read the many references in full context. More than reading the text and placing the book on your library shelves, let it affect your meditation on the Holy Spirit and His work in your life. He was never meant to be divisive within the Church. His ministry is to draw us all closer to Christ as we grow together in the Lord’s image. If this book contributes in some small way to unity within the body, Packer’s efforts will be the blessing it was intended to be.
The short of it is that revival involves a qualitative change, and not a mere quantitative change. It is not a bit more renewed energy, but more like life from the dead. The thing we would notice first is not that there would be more churches, although there would be more churches, but rather we would notice the fact that the flavor of everything would be different. The aroma would be different. The air would be different. Life from the dead is always different.
Moscow’s (Idaho not the Motherland) own Doug Wilson. Read the whole thing at the link below.
Cancel your prayer ministry. Do away with scheduled prayer meetings and seasons of special prayer focus. End the prayer chain and your email list.
Blasphemy? Unchristian advice? Neither! Each of these activities is an important part of the life of the Church, the ‘House of Prayer’ our Lord and the Bible command us to be. It’s the granularity that damages the whole. A prayer ministry, for example, is a segmentation of that spiritual practice within the holistic life of the Christian. The result is that prayer becomes just one among many activities that the believer can choose from in their life of discipleship. In our hurried, over-scheduled lives, prayer becomes a choice on the schedule.
One that often loses out to other choices.
When the Apostle Paul commended continual prayer to the believers in Thessalonica, he placed this emphasis within the spectrum of a complete life. While 1 Thessalonians 5:17 (pray without ceasing) often finds its way onto throw pillows and coffee cups, the Apostle was much more intentional in emphasizing that prayer is an irreducible part of life. The complete passage reads, “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.” [1 Thessalonians 5:16-18] Do we schedule “rejoicing” meetings? Do you need to receive an email reminder to be thankful? Most likely ‘no’ on both, so why prayer? The answer is hard to type and harder to hear: because many churches and Christians have not made prayer central to their identity.
Prayer should be as natural a part of our lives as is breathing. The culture identified with Christ’s Church should be a culture of prayer. The Lord modeled continual, natural prayer with the Father during his time in the world. While he set off times of quiet communion, Jesus did not schedule prayer time with his disciples separate from the ongoing ministry they pursued. It was a natural part of the life of discipleship. If we study the relationship between Jesus and his guys, we come to recognize how our separation of spiritual activities has affected the church. Prayer should not be a separate ministry; it must be the air that we breathe as we become more Christlike. Prayer should define our culture.
It is better to let the work go by default than to let the praying go by neglect. Whatever affects the intensity of our praying affects the value of our work…Nothing is well done without prayer for the simple reason that it leaves God out of the account.
This is easier said than done. A culture of prayer for an individual or a church requires extraordinary commitment, from yourself personally or from the leadership within the body of believers. It will feel unnatural at first and this will cause hesitation, grumbling and questions of motivation, but you must persevere to find the blessing. We must model spontaneous prayer at every opportunity. A good place to start is the Sunday gathering, where everyone can use their gifts and seek an audience with the Lord on behalf of the body. Prayer as a regular part of Christian fellowship can strengthen those relationships. Pray for your brother aloud as he confides his struggle to you. Pray immediately–not say you will pray–for the family in crisis. As prayer becomes second nature over time, it will also become more comfortable and natural. We won’t see prayer as a separate part of the whole where participation is subject to the whims of choice. Prayer will not be a ministry, we will rightfully see it as ‘the’ ministry. The culture will change. Your church will change. You will change… and be blessed for it.
Matthew Henry wrote, “When God intends great mercy for His people, the first thing He does is to set them praying.” History affirms this maxim, as the great revivals that God has sparked around the world have always been launched by prayer. There may have been grand movements of Christians joined in crying out to God that brought the revival, but it hasn’t always been so. In countless instances, the hearts of just a handful of people united to plead with God for new life in their community, their country or their church were the passion to which God responded. It is not the size of the group praying that matters as much as the depth of that group’s heart. They need this depth for the perseverance in petition that renewal often requires. God does not put a shot-clock on these prayers, and He may respond to them at once, or it’s more likely that revival comes after a season of souls persevering in long hours of communal prayer.
God uses our commitment to prayer to prepare us for receiving the life-giving power of the Spirit, and this preparation is two-fold. He first sets out to prepare our hearts to burn for revival. The Christian must be able to see the dry bones of the church or the distracted hearts of their community and then believe that spiritual life can come to them if God moves. This hope is the second area in which the heart is prepared because these prayers for new life can require extraordinary perseverance. Revival may appear like a single cloud on the horizon, no bigger that a fist, and prayer warriors must be patient in the time it takes to blossom into a drenching storm pouring down torrents of living water. Without preparation, our hearts would often fail to have the vision needed or the strength to carry on when answer is not immediately forthcoming.
“From the day of Pentecost, there has been not one great spiritual awakening, in any land, which has not begun in a union of prayer, if only [among] two or three. No such outward, upward movement has continued after such prayer meetings have declined.”
The prepared heart prays in complete honesty [JAS 5:16]. Christians recognize that the spiritual vitality of their church is not what it should be and the prayers that issue forth confess as much to God. Sin, cold fellowship, poor leadership – whatever the list of known deficits holds is boldly and openly laid before the Lord for his correction. Genuine repentance in revival prayer forges a heart soft and malleable for God to turn and shape, addressing these things so that new life does not germinate in rocky soil where it cannot flourish. When we pray for our community and for salvation to come, we are open with God about those areas in which we have not reached out or cared for. He may take the first step of turning our attention to knowing our neighbors and serving this community before He sends the Spirit with revival for the hearts of the lost. Honesty starts in the humbled heart, and a humbled heart is prepared by God and committed to Him above all other things.