Preaching depth to a shallow generation, part 1

Deep part 1

It began in late April 1998.  It ended 8 years, 7 months and 28 days later, on Christmas Eve 2006.

It is John Piper’s sermon series on Romans, presented to his church during Sunday services.  225 messages.

Romans is probably my favorite book in the Bible, and I have been listening off and on to this remarkable series, especially his treatment of chapters 5-9.  I have repeatedly been amazed at Piper’s willingness to tackle tough theological issues and go deep into the text, sometimes spending three or four weeks on a particular passage.

But there’s something even more amazing.

His church let him do it.

A generation accustomed to the shallow end

“For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths.” –2 Timothy 4:3-4

It’s been well documented that “content” has been in decline all across the spectrum of our culture. As E.D. Hirsch, Jr. has pointed out in his book The Knowledge Deficit, “Disparagement of factual knowledge as found in books has been a strong current in American thought since the time of Emerson.” (p.9)

Unfortunately, this “disparagement of factual knowledge” is not exclusive to the mainstream; it has also infected the church. The modern church by and large has become a purveyor of practical principles and applications with a few Bible verses tacked on (from whichever translation or paraphrase says it just the right way) to give them credence. Some pastors have come to embrace the cultural disdain for content by discarding even the attempt to teach doctrine from the pulpit.

Thus, my amazement that Piper’s church stuck around for over 8½ years of deep, theological teaching from Romans. Many an elder board would have asked him to “tone it down,” or worse, asked him to leave and then counseled the next pastor to “keep it simple” or “be more practical.”  To be fair, Piper himself addresses this from time to time by intentionally bringing his current text to bear on the practical implications for the Christian life, or by frequently tying it to how it fits with the great “Therefore” of Romans 12. But he never shies from the hard truths of his text, even when there’s not an immediate “application.”

As a result, what we have in this archive of sermons is a true gift to the Church at large. Whether you agree or disagree with Piper’s theology is beside the point.  What he created there was not only a blessing for his congregation, but also a platform of influence to Christians everywhere.

May more pastors have the desire and the courage to go deep and take their flock with them.  And may many more congregations demand it.

[In subsequent parts of this series, I’ll examine the common approaches churches take on this matter, and how God uses his Word in our lives. Stay tuned.]

Four rhythms to keep your mind sharp

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by Mark Knox

As I’ve grown older, I worry a bit about keeping my mind and thinking processes sharp.  Of course, there are always the small lapses in memory that seem to creep up, when I forget where I’m at in a conversation or why I left one room to go into another.  That’s not what I’m talking about, though.

I have always enjoyed thinking deeply about things, whether theology, cultural phenomena, history or politics.  Heck, I even minored in Philosophy! (I only minored in it because it wasn’t offered as a major.)  I can ask the deep questions like: Why do you want fries with that? So when I encounter a group of young theology students, I want to continue to be able to converse with them at a high level. I want to analyze and be able to discuss cultural trends on more than just a surface level.

As a result, I’ve become very intentional about keeping an active mind.  Here are some ways I’ve found to be helpful.

  1. Read deeply.

It’s far too easy to browse the Internet and “read” the material you find there. Who among us hasn’t gotten sucked into that black hole?  It’s also really easy to read the literary equivalent of a blockbuster movie that is simply escapist reading. Not that there’s anything wrong with an occasional escape, mind you.

But if you really want to sharpen your intellect, read something that stretches your thinking, that causes you to ask questions, that teaches you something.  Read a variety of books…books that are practical for work and life, books that are technical, biographies, old classic books, new modern books, books you disagree with. Underline and mark up your books if they’re yours.  Set some goals and keep track of your reading. Read a book with someone and discuss it over coffee. Nothing will keep your mind as fresh as a healthy diet of books and great articles.

  1. Have substantial conversations.

We are social people.  But most of us are all too satisfied to restrict our conversations to a how’s-the-kids, how’s-your-fantasy-football-team level.  But if you want to challenge your thinking, then start seeking some deeper conversations. If you’re in a church, get in a small group.  And don’t just settle for a group that wallows in cliché-ridden banality.  Find a group that’s not afraid to go deep and leave things unsettled for now.  If you really want a conversation that keeps your mind going, make some friends of people who don’t agree with you.

I am thankful that God has given me a wife with whom I can go deep.  She’s not afraid to challenge my assumptions and inconsistencies.  She’s my best friend, and most of the time, we’re on a how-was-your-day mode.  But oh, there are times when we can have some pretty intellectual conversations.  Seek these out – from the spouse, from your kids, from your friends.

  1. Memorize long passages (Bible passages, speeches, poetry).

I was fortunate to attend the Desiring God National Conference in September of 2014, which was centered around the great chapter of Romans 8.  At the beginning of his second address, John Piper quoted from memory the entire chapter.  [You can watch him do it here – just watch the first 7 minutes to get the quote.] I had already attended a breakout session giving some instruction on how to memorize long passages of Scripture, and when I watched Piper recite this immense chapter with great feeling and inflection, just as if he were arguing the points as Paul had done, I was stirred in my soul and I determined to memorize the chapter myself.

It took me a little longer than 3 months to complete this.  But when I was done, not only was there a feeling of accomplishment, but a real sense of “OK, what’s next?”  So I started to memorize the book of Ephesians.

I highly recommend this discipline.  If you’d like to give it a shot, here’s the link to Jon Bloom’s session that helped get me started.

  1. Turn off the media and let your mind think.

Why are we so afraid of silence? With the rise of social networking, at-your-fingertips media and the portability of our technology, most of us spend woefully little time with our own thoughts.  We have trouble falling asleep as we begin to process all the stimuli of the day that we haven’t allowed our minds to access until we turn out the lights.  And even then, we resort to light music or white noise in the room to silence our thoughts.

We all need quiet time.  The research is clear on the benefits of silence. So do yourself a favor and turn off the radio, the TV, the Spotify and let your mind breathe.

We all need our minds to be sharp.  The mind is like a muscle, and the more you use it, the stronger it will be.