The manuscript of David’s message can be found here: https://theweeflea.com/2016/05/24/discerning-the-times-retiring-address-at-2016-general-assembly/
Yesterday, we looked at David Robertson’s address as the outgoing Moderator of the Free Church. Today, we’re going to finish considering this address, which focused particularly on some practical outworkings of his previous thoughts. In particular, he spoke on Biblical evangelism.
Dangers of ‘Corporate’ Church
Firstly, he highlighted concerns he had for the current state of the Free Church, particularly if its congregations adopted what he describes as a “corporate model of the church”:
“In Free Church we have too many people who consider that if they have a manse, a building and a minister then that is sufficient. Kirk Sessions are there to maintain the status quo. I am concerned that some of us are in danger of adopting a corporate model of the church – I am sure that there are churches where the leadership perceive themselves as being in a management role whose primary purpose is to maintain the assets of the congregation – particularly physical assets. Even when evangelism is considered in these situations it is considered more as a means to maintaining the church (get more people in) rather than it is seen as a means of glorifying God and bringing people into his kingdom.”
This approach, he stresses, could mean that our own ministry comes to be of central importance and we end up in competition with Christians in other churches who are also engaged in the work of the gospel. The competition centres on money and securing it first before pursuing a vision of Scotland hearing the gospel. As David puts it,
“We need to regain a biblical ecclesiology and theology, in which the churches and individuals are valued for what they are in Christ, not where they are located in the country or how much money they have in the bank! We also need to be aware of the danger of adopting an ecclesiology and evangelism that says ‘follow the money’. It should be the other way round. Let the money follow the vision.”
Mission before Theology?
The Moderator moved on to the issue of theological content in mission. He noted “a disturbing view that theology does not really matter in mission.” Theology could be seen as only relevant after getting people “into the church,” or even as “an extra-curricular activity.” Not so, said David: “‘Bring them to Jesus first.’ But which Jesus? … We need to understand how our neighbours are thinking and be able to apply theology to them.”
Offering an alternative to giving up on theology, getting back to the basics of the Christian faith: “the basic simplicity of the radical New Testament concept [is] that evangelism is simply living and telling the gospel.” Training people in evangelism “has to be done in context and must never be non-theological and act as a substitute for real Christian experience and real Christian life.”
Offering an illustration which would please fans of ‘the Foxes’ he says: “Imagine that you were a Leicester City fan and you were there the day they won the English Premier League. Would you need to go on a course telling you how to tell others? And even if people did not have a clue as to what you were talking about the very excitement and reality of it will communicate to them!”
What can we do?
‘All that is fair enough,’ you say, ‘but how do we get on with it?’ Here are some of the Moderator’s suggestions:
Relationships – “How can we have relationships with people who are outside our circle? How can we have long-term relationships with people who move on so much? … By getting involved in our local communities – not just taking an occasional excursion into enemy territory to salve our consciences. But we should rather live such good lives amongst the pagans that they would glorify God.” Offering some practical advice, he states that “we are too busy running our church programs (including the outreach ones) and so we have no time for understanding or relationships with non-Christians. Time here is a crucial factor. We need to think of our stewardship of time. You cannot build bridges without time.” Stressing the importance of our life’s witness, he quotes Linda Zagzebski as saying “The experience of knowing holy people is still the most important evidence to me of Christianity.” Speaking directly to leaders of the church, he said, “We do need to think about how we can build bridges and how we can help our people connect with the communities we are in. It is not just going to happen.”
Prayer – “No learning can make up for the failure to pray,” says E. M. Bounds. “No earnestness, no diligence, no study, no gifts will supply its lack. Talking to men for God is a great thing, but talking to God for men is greater still.”
The Local Church – “It is important to realize that there are the lost within the church, the lost who will visit the church and the lost who will never visit the church. With the first, we must continue to proclaim the gospel, love them and regularly pray for them. I would also suggest that regular pastoral visitation is crucial. With the second, we do the same but we also try and give them occasions to visit the church – supper evenings, music nights etc. And with the third, we go to them. With them all there must be the powerful apologetic of the love that Christians have for one another.”
Building-based Evangelism – Come to church – we mean it literally. We are used to our building. We are comfortable with it. But are they? Where would the unchurched feel comfortable? Should we want them to feel comfortable? Having said that we need to again recognize the centrality of the church as the people of God in apologetics. In fact the biggest single limiting factor in apologetics and outreach in the West is simply the dreadful state of the churches. Which is why reformation, ecclesiology and spiritual renewal are essential for effective evangelism.
Preaching – “Preaching is about God speaking. It is about God communicating and this is the way he has chosen…we have no right to take away from the plain and simple preaching of the word of God. It is my contention that it is not non-Christians who have difficulty with the whole concept of communication through the preached word, but rather some Christians"
Worship – “To many of our people, such doctrines as the trinity, the incarnation and the atonement are closed books. The need is not for the exposition of simple themes, laced with anecdotes and seasoned with histrionics, but for the lucid exposition of the riches of revelation. Each Lord's Day, congregations should be led to the point where they cry, ‘Oh! the depth!’ And if they are not — if we have robbed the Gospel of the great elements of mystery and wonder and depth and paradox — then we have failed in our mission and cheated our people. Our worship is to be simple, scriptural and spiritual.”
Mercy Ministries – “As a denomination we need to return to our radical roots in this respect as well. We should be concerned about the poor, particularly, the importance of education. I hope that the Free Church will waken up to the importance of education as a vital part of the churches ministry and a key area for us to be engaged in.”
National Church – “It is here that we as Presbyterians should have an advantage. Surely we can see that we are not just concerned about our own individual congregations? There should be a collective sense of responsibility for one another. We are in danger of forgetting our collective responsibility to the nation. Where is our prophetic voice? This is all the more important given the collapse in the Church of Scotland, its capitulation to the spirit of the age and its failure to uphold and speak for biblical standards in our national life … It’s time we re-engaged as a national church with the wider culture.”
International – “We are part of the body of Christ throughout the world. Our mission as such is international. The equation of Christianity with a narrow-minded nationalism or cultural parochialism is something that we must avoid. We need to be much more discerning, proactive, theological, biblical, church based in our overseas mission. Again I pay tribute to the work of the Missions Board in seeking to re-orientate our missions work not only in Scotland but also throughout the world.”
David Robertson concluded his address, saying: “We do live in confusing and challenging times. But this is also a season of great opportunity for us. May God grant that he will not leave any of us as individuals, or any of our congregations, or us as denomination ‘just as we are’, but may he transform and change us into the likeness of his Son.”
We’re really grateful to David for the way he stressed the need to regain a biblical ecclesiology (beliefs about the church) and theology. Perhaps, these are two areas we have been, and are, in danger of neglecting.
Isn’t the church is at the heart of God’s eternal plan? It is the means by which he displays his glory, not just to the world, but to the comic realm (Ephesians 3:10)! We need to work hard at understanding, then, what the Bible teaches us about the church, and the way in which we should behave and act as one body. We need to take David’s warning seriously, not to lose sight of what we believe about the church. We need to take seriously the way we behave, and be committed not to pragmatism but to principle.
What about theology? In a soundbite age, often obsessed with the trivial and temporal, we need to be obsessed with the depth and riches of knowing God and the weight of the eternal truths of his word. David quoted Donald Macleod on this, and we loved what he said:
“To many of our people, such doctrines as the trinity, the incarnation and the atonement are closed books. The need is not for the exposition of simple themes, laced with anecdotes and seasoned with histrionics, but for the lucid exposition of the riches of revelation. Each Lord's Day, congregations should be led to the point where they cry, ‘Oh! the depth!’ And if they are not — if we have robbed the Gospel of the great elements of mystery and wonder and depth and paradox — then we have failed in our mission and cheated our people. Our worship is to be simple, scriptural and spiritual.”
David also did a superb job in reminding us of the keys to a healthy church: Biblical evangelism, preaching, worship, prayer and mercy ministries. What is more, his vision of the church was not just national, but international. We thought this was such an important point! Isn’t it crucial, especially when there is the subtle danger that, because things are so abysmal in Scotland, we don’t succumb to a parochial mindset? Thankfully, this was one of the major themes of the Assembly week – we are one worldwide church on mission!
In short, David’s message was cogent, compelling and comprehensive. We hope it generates much discussion in the days ahead.
What did you think of it?
After the first evening of the General Assembly, all the commissioners were invited to the City Chambers for what is known as the Moderator’s Reception. This was a pleasant affair – the light buffet was tasty, the building was architecturally striking, the huge paintings were spectacular, and the three speeches given by friends of Dr Nicholls were splendid and a credit to this year's Moderator.
Tomorrow we will look at the Board of Trustee’s Report. It’ll be interesting, honest!
Until then, enjoy the sun.
Andy & Sean
Soli Deo Gloria