Stephen Kneale

Keep Preaching & Expect Different Results

The Bible doesn’t tell us to preach when the Word is in season and to try something different while it isn’t. We are to preach in season and out of season. In fact, we only know what season it is by preaching! We don’t put a finger in the air and check the weather, we preach the Word and the results tell us what season it might be. But whether it appears to be an in season or an out season, we preach the Word. And, yes, we keep doing it, even expecting different results as we keep doing the same thing over and over again.

They say madness is doing the same thing over and over again whilst expecting a different result. Just doing the same old same old and hoping that something different might happen. And yet, as we read the Bible, that does seem to be what we are taught to do.
We are to preach the Word in season and out of season. What doesn’t change is the preaching of the Word. We are to continue preaching in the belief that this is God’s ordained means of reaching the lost, growing his people and building his church.
But it is also true that there are times the Word is in season and times when it is out of season. Sometimes, we will preach faithfully and consistently with little to no results at all. The Word seems totally out of season. It doesn’t seem to make an impact on anyone or in anything we’re doing. Popular wisdom suggests this is the time to stop, pack it in and try something else. Only a madman keeps doing the same thing over and over again and expects anything different.
But as we keep preaching the Word, we find that there are times it is in season. The same Word we preach in the same way suddenly starts to yield apparent results. People begin to respond to it. Some come to faith, others grow. The same preaching of the Word, in pretty much the same way, suddenly starts to produce fruit.
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There Are No Real Unprecedented Times

We ought to be asking, how should Christians live in this time at this cultural moment? And the answer is simple: faithfully, just like other believers who have lived in similar times and similar cultural moments. There is nothing more demanded of us from the Lord than that we seek to live faithful lives to him in whatever time and culture he has placed us. 

I read an article recently that asked the question, how are we to live in what feel like unprecedented times? I like the way that question was framed because of the care that was taken with it. Times may feel unprecedented, but in reality, the Bible is clear enough ‘there is nothing new under the sun’ (Ecclesiastes 1:9).
I am just not so convinced that we do live in unprecedented times. I can concede on one level, as the article suggests, that every period in history is an utterly unique time. In a sense, that is true. This exact set of circumstances, surrounding this exact set of people, has never happened before. But, in an altogether different sense, there really is nothing unique about our times at all.
I am always surprised by the number of Christians who seem to think that this or that politicians, or political position, means that Christian people now face some unprecedented challenge. And, as someone who holds a degree in politics, I know what it can be like to so focus on that area of life and study that it can seem, in the moment, very little else matters quite so much. But perhaps it is also the fact that I hold history, religious studies and theology degrees too that I have come to see how easily we over-focus on the political present and lose perspective.
The truth is, very rarely is any moment properly unprecedented. Believers have faced challenges to their Christianity, and found times of both ease and severe discomfort, ever since they were called Christians. Those who think the COVID-19 pandemic is an unprecedented time in history seem to forget more recent history of the SARS and MERS in East Asia, the Spanish Flu epidemic and smallpox all coming about within the last few hundred years. The plague ran rampant in Europe before all of them. Pandemics and Epidemics are, in one sense, nothing new.
And the church having to navigate civic life and non-believing governments is an issue as old as the church itself.
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He Really was Little, Weak, and Helpless

His divine nature still had all the divine attributes of God that he had before the incarnation. But in his humanity, the expression of those attributes was limited. In his humanity, Jesus took on all that means to be a human. That includes being little, weak and helpless. 

Christmas continues to provide a rich source of blog material at the minute. A couple of days ago, I gave my yearly reminder that what you do at Christmas is not a measure of your spiritual temperature. Off the back of that, yesterday, I wrote about how we can go a bit gnostic at Christmas and how that often affects all sorts of aspects of our lives as believers. Today, I thought I would stick with the ancient heresy theme.
If ever there was a time that heresy slips under the radar in our churches, I think Christmas is it. We either stick it in our carols, or we pick up on lines in carols and then import heresy ourselves by ‘correcting’ what is already perfectly credible, or we just end up preaching it straight up. After all, the trinity and the incarnation are tricky business, are they not? One mere slip of the tongue and we’re in trouble. When the difference between orthodoxy and rank heresy boils down to one letter in a foreign language (ὁμοούσιος, homoousios or ὁμοιούσιος, homoiousios) I can understand how people end up in shtook.
I am reminded of the year that we sang the carol, Once in Royal David’s City. The following lines caught the attention of the person leading the meeting:
For He is our childhood’s pattern,Day by day like us He grew,He was little, weak, and helpless,Tears and smiles like us He knew,And He feeleth for our sadness,And He shareth in our gladness.
Those lines met with the incredulous comment: ‘I take real issue with this. Jesus was NEVER little, weak and helpless. He was the eternal Son of God!’
Except, of course, whilst he was the eternal Son of God incarnate, the eternal Son of God had indeed submitted to all that it meant to be a little human baby, including being little, weak and helpless. Unless we believe that Jesus – much like our Muslim friends – was chatting in full sentences from birth, what else are we supposed to think?
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Why We Celebrate Christmas Regardless

I believe it is really important that we are seen to be celebrating Christmas in our community. Not because Jesus demands that we do it. Not because I think we are more godly if we do it. But because we are free to do it and the message we send if we don’t do it will be particularly terrible. What does it say to our community if, on the day they expect us to be celebrating the birth of Christ, our church is shut, the lights are off and nobody seems to be bothered? For that reason, even if nobody came, we will celebrate Christmas anyway.

If you have followed this blog for a while, you will know our church building is in the middle of an overwhelmingly South Asian Muslim area of Oldham. You will also know that we don’t find Christmas the slam dunk, open goal cultural evangelistic opportunity that a lot of others do. You may also know that, despite that fact, we will still do stuff for Christmas. The obvious question is, why?
The truth is, we don’t expect lots of people to turn up to our Christmas events. Those that do come are more likely to be indigenous Brits looking for their fix of carols, religion and tradition for the year. We sometimes pick up a few of those. The majority who come will really be those who have received an invite from someone in the congregation. They are really coming because they would rather get their bit of Christmas religious tradition with their friend who asked than somewhere else that might be that bit more traditional and Christmassy. The fact is, if you’re mainly bothered about traditional Christmas jazz, you’re probably not going to pick our 70s-built dissenting church for a carol sing-a-long over the parish church, with its lovely building, choir and whatnot. Even the traditions aren’t quite enough to pull people in to us of themselves.
More to the point, whilst we will certainly invite them, we don’t expect to see all that many of our Muslim friends and neighbours. It’s possible we might get one or two who are particularly interested in seeing what Christians do at Christmas, but for the most part, they will no more be flooding through our church doors than we tend to file into the mosque in great numbers at Ramadan. It’s just not a thing for them.
And the truth is, as a hardcore strict Baptist – whilst I love Christmas – it has almost zero religious significance for me.
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Bad Ways to Argue for Church Practice

It is entirely right to use logic to work out what seems right and true. However, we should not make our logical reasoning ultimate. For one thing, it depends on our prior commitments as to what appears logical. Unless we are able to assess all our priors, whilst we will reason logically, commitment to logic alone won’t lead us to a helpful conclusion. What do we do, for example, when the Church says things that are contrary to our logical understanding? It may be that what the church is arguing is totally illogical; it may be that our logic is faulty. We might be right in not merely accepting every word that comes from the pulpit just because it is uttered in church, nevertheless, it isn’t necessarily wiser to slavishly follow what is logical to us. The Lord, by his own reckoning, does not always work as we believe he ought.

If you are in church leadership, it won’t be long before someone disagrees with something you do or some doctrine that you teach. And that’s okay, we aren’t expecting total agreement on every issue within the church membership. It is okay to disagree.
But when we disagree, there need to be clear grounds for doing so. All too often, we default to certain arguments that really aren’t credible. Here are some of the common ones.
I was brought up to think…
There is, of course, nothing wrong with drawing upon what you were brought up with. No doubt, if you have been to a bible believing church, there will be some good things that they established. But some of those things, that may well be legitimate, are not demanded by the bible. Other times, it may simply be a blind spot in our church that what we were doing wasn’t biblical.
When we hit upon other churches doing things differently, defaulting to ‘I was brought up to believe…’ doesn’t get us very far. Two people, brought up in two different places, might be brought up to believe two different things. Who is to say which tradition is right and which is wrong? This is not a solid ground for reaching a biblical conclusion.
Our tradition says…
This is usually a more nuanced version of the previous point. We might not be rooting things in our particular, individual church’s practice, but in the established practices of our denomination. That might be a legitimate thing to raise if you are in an Anglican Church, who claims to hold to Anglican doctrine, polity and practice, but you think might be departing from that tradition. It isn’t unreasonable to say that, assuming the purpose is to be in line with the tradition and not some biblical matter on which the tradition is being challenged. Even then, no tradition can be above the scriptures. The aim of any tradition should be to act in line with scripture, so even a reference to tradition may not end matters.
But let’s say you have moved beyond denominations. You clearly are not wedded to your denominational way of doing things. You are now dealing with two different traditions. Again, which tradition is right? We can’t settle that with reference to our particular tradition. Instead, we have to go back to the scriptures to reach a conclusion.
Everybody interprets the Bible differently
Well, that’s not entirely true. Some of us do interpret the Bible in the same way as a significant chunk of other believers. So, we might be able to establish a fairly consistent pattern of thinking. It isn’t quite true to say we all interpret differently; many of us agree on significant amounts.
But where there is a disagreement that arises from interpretation, what are we to do?
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Don’t Sin to Fix Sin

As a general rule, we don’t want to sin in order to fix sin. Where we are in such a mess that every immediate choice looks like something we ought not to do, we want to put right as much as is wrong (such as we are able) and to press toward what will lead to least sin in the end. We ultimately want to minimise sin, whatever that means in the circumstances.

Sin gets us into a right mess, doesn’t it? The messy situations we get ourselves into because of our sin abound. And trying to unpick messy situations that result from sin, when somebody is trying to repent and do what is right is also often difficult. What exactly do you unpick? What do you counsel? What do you try to put right?
A long time ago, when faced with a particular messy situation, one of my elders landed on a fairly solid principle. You don’t want to multiply sin. It can never be good to sin in a bid to fix sin. Whatever problem we may be faced with, however messy and difficult to untangle, the solution to it is not further sin.
As a general rule of thumb, it is solid. If the proposed solution to the problem before you is something the Bible tells us not to do, then it is no solution at all. We don’t want to increase sin and we don’t want to multiply sin. More sin to address sin is not the answer.
The difficulty comes when people get themselves into messes where something needs to be done, but any solution to make things right might, on some level, be consider sinful. Consider this example of somebody who professes faith, but then repented of the following sin, has had extra-marital relations with somebody who then fell pregnant.
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When Discouragement Strikes

Sometimes, when we ruminate on things in our own mind, we make them much bigger than they are in reality. Often, what is needed is to stop dwelling on things. Instead, we need to get out of our heads and focus on something else altogether. Go and visit someone, read something, watch TV, go out, whatever. But stop dwelling on things for a bit, focus on something altogether different, and see if there isn’t some fresh perspective to have in the morning.

Discouragement is a strange beast, isn’t it? It can strike when there is really nothing to be discouraged about at all. Things might be going really well but, one thing, and discouragement sets in. Sometimes it is that one things catches us off guard. We might cope quite well with a series of difficulties, but a discouragement coming out of the blue when things are going pretty well can really hit us. As I say, it’s a strange old beast.
So what do you do when you get discouraged? Certainly, there are things we shouldn’t do. It’s all too easy to turn to things that won’t really help.
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If You Get to Grips with Only One Apologetic Question, Let it be This One

 Can I trust the Bible? Is the Bible true? If the answer to those questions is ‘yes’, then we merely need to appeal to what it says for something to be true. And, if we’re honest, the reason most of us believe the things we do about God and the gospel is because the Bible says they are so. Our belief is founded on the fact that what the Bible tells us is true, with all its implications regarding what it says about God, the human condition and the person of Jesus.

I have spoken a lot about evangelism. In my view, we often over-complicate it. For the most part, if you know the gospel and you’ve got lips and a tongue, you’re pretty much good to go. Share your story, point people to the saviour you know, tell people why you love Jesus and why you find the gospel compelling. Most of that is just your opinion about what you have come to believe. And most of us don’t need much training in spouting our opinions off about almost anything.
But there is one apologetic question I think it pays to have in your arsenal. The reason being, almost every other apologetic question comes back to it in the end. It doesn’t really matter whether somebody is asking you about the Trinity, justification by faith alone, how God can allow evil and suffering, or almost any other thorny question you might get asked; all of them ultimately end up at this one in the end. Whatever you are asked, it boils down to this: why believe the Bible?
What do we know about God? Ultimately, what he has revealed about himself in scripture and nature. What do we know about the human condition? Fundamentally, what the Bible tells us. What do we know about the end of all things? What God has given us to know in the Bible. On and on we could go. But underlying every question about the Christian faith is this, what does the Bible say and why believe it?
The ultimate apologetic question is, why believe the bible? If you can trust the Bible, and there are good reasons to believe what it says is true, just about every other apologetic question becomes moot.
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How Do We Decide When to Say “Yes” and When to Say “No”?

You may be faced with something that is valid to do, and nobody is saying you can’t do it, but it will take you away from other things you are expected to do. It isn’t appropriate to say yes to something, that is fine of itself, that will lead you away from things that you are supposed to prioritise.

As a pastor, I frequently get asked to do lots of things. Many of them seem worthy things to be doing, though a fair amount probably aren’t. Nobody has enough time to do everything and at some point the questions must be asked, ‘what do I do?’ and ‘to what do I say no?’ I think there are some reasonable questions we can ask to help us discern the answer.
Does Jesus expect me to do this?
The first question we should be asking is this: does Jesus demand this of me? If Jesus calls us to do whatever it is, we have no business deciding not to do it. If Jesus tells me categorically not to do whatever the thing is, then I shouldn’t be thinking about doing it. We can rule some things specifically in or out like this.
But, of course, most apparently worthy things to do don’t fall into this sort of territory. The Bible may not specifically tell us not to do it. That is, Jesus doesn’t expect me to do it necessarily. But nor does he tell me not to do it, making it something I am free to do if it seems sensible. But this question is still helpful because if Jesus doesn’t expect me to do this thing, then I am at liberty to say that I won’t do it. After all, you don’t have to say ‘yes’ just because someone asks.
Does my church expect me to do this?
Jonathan Leeman recently said, ‘Just as the Bible establishes the government of your nation as your highest authority on earth when it comes to your citizenship in that nation, so the Bible establishes the local church as your highest authority on earth when it comes to your discipleship to Christ and your citizenship in Christ’s present and promised nation.’ Just as that is true for church members, it is true for pastors too; church elders are answerable to their churches. If your church expects you to be doing something – especially if you agreed to be doing it when you were appointed – then chances are you should be doing it. If your church are deeply uncomfortable with you doing something, chances are you should think seriously about not doing it.
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If Your Question Begins “How Much…” It is Probably the Wrong Question

Instead of reaching for ‘how much…’ questions, we are better asking, ‘what does Jesus deserve from me?’ We should take the focus off what we will do for Jesus, as though we are paying him back, and instead ask ourselves what Jesus deserves from us. Again, any answer that falls short of our whole selves is simply wrong.

If your wife tells you she loves you, if you value your features, I’d suggest you don’t respond to her declaration with, ‘how much do I need to love you in return?’ As far as love for your wife goes, most questions beginning with ‘how much do I need to…’ will not end well. And, let’s be honest, rightly so.
There are certain relationships where ‘how much’ is a perfectly valid question, of course. The relationship I have with every shopkeeper I try to engage in business pretty much starts and ends with that question. ‘How much does it cost?’ is about the only valid question in that scenario. But then, neither me nor any local shopkeepers are claiming to love one another. It is a mere business transaction and literally nothing more.
Which of these scenarios, do you think, more closely represents your relationship with Christ? Which, do you think, more closely mirrors your relationship to the local church? I am sure few of us would seriously argue for the latter. Jesus calls the church the apple of his eye and his bride. There is no doubt that Jesus is saying, ‘I love you’. If we wouldn’t ask our wife, ‘and exactly how much affection, and how much evidence of me loving you, will suffice, y’know, to have done my duty?’ I’m not sure what makes any of us think that is an appropriate thing to say to the Lord.
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