FINALLY my seminary exams for this semester are over! Since November 20 I have been free of the need to think about the Psalter, Sacraments, and learning Hebrew! It’s a relief to now have some holiday time. Since having a couple of weeks’ rest though I have been slowly reading through a book on ministry, named Centre Church by American pastor Tim Keller. In it, Keller explores a number of factors that contribute to gospel renewal, where the living out of the gospel is able to impact others. This, I found, very interesting because in my own past I had been to many churches where evangelism was idolised to such an extreme that the spiritual lives of those already in the church was not nurtured all that well. They were churches that were good at getting people to intellectually ascend to Biblical truth but minimised the importance of discipleship and almost all the time minimised the importance of truth being experienced rather than merely agreed to. Sometimes pastors would nod their heads in agreement that loving God with the heart was important but would offer precious little in guiding their parishioners to actually apprehend it deeply in their hearts and experience it; my own guess is that such pastors were not doing that themselves because no-one had shown them.
Now as someone who has left that world and is currently on a journey of emotional and spiritual healing, I now find myself unable to sit under and tolerate sermons that are all appealing to mere, dry intellect. Tragically, most of the sermons I hear these days are like that. Few show the pastor having a humble heart, demonstrating emotional intelligence, or showing how the truth is outworked from their own experiences in ways that are gripping and heart-felt. It’s not been easy to listen to such sermons and when I hear them I usually tune out (a theme that Keller picks up on in his book). Yet in his chapter on gospel renewal (pp. 63-84), he notes that, “[One] way for a church to foster gospel renewal dynamics is to inject an experiential element into its small group ministry … Many small group meetings resemble classes in which the Bible is studied [i.e. crude intellectualism] or fellowship meetings in which people talk about their burdens … and pray for one another. [However] we can learn leaders of the revivals of the past, such as George Whitefield and John Wesley, who encouraged people to form groups of four to eight to share weekly the degree to which God was real in their hearts, their besetting sins, ways God was dealing with them through the Word, and how their prayer lives were faring“ (p. 75, emphasis added). This really spoke my language and almost since Day 1 as a Christian in April 1998 I have hungered for this kind of connection with fellow Christians. It speaks much louder and deeper than dry intellect which almost always is a means for people to avoid facing their hearts and cocoons them from facing their true selves.
Keller, in the same chapter (pp. 75-76), listed out a format for running a group like this, so named an Experience Meeting, which was developed by the late Welsh saint William Williams. It goes like this:
1) To be admitted to the meetings, a prospective member had to answer affirmatively to the following questions:
– Are you seeking God with all your heart?
– Are you willing to take rebukes, chastening, and instruction from others?
– Will you refrain from divulging to others the matters discussed in the group?
– Are you willing to use your spiritual gifts to edify others in the group?
– Are you willing to foresake idols and inordinate loves?
2) Once admitted, the following questions were asked:
– Do you have spiritual assurance of your standing in Christ? If so, how clear and vivid is it?
– How does the Holy Spirit bear witness that you are His child? Are you conscious of a growing spiritual light within, revealing more of the purity of the Torah, the holiness of God, the evil of sin, and the preciousness of the imputed righteousness of Christ?
– Is your love for other Christians growing? Do you find yourself having a less sanctimonious, judgemental spirit towards weak Christians, those who fall, and the self-deceived? Have you been cold to anyone?
– Is your conscience growing more tender to convict you of the very first motions of sin in the mind … an inordinate desire for power, approval, and material comfort and an over-concern for your own reputation? Are you becoming more aware of and convicted about sins of the tongue…?
– Do you see signs [in your life] of growth in the fruit of the Spirit? Can you give examples where you exhibit such fruits (e.g. self-control) now where you didn’t one year ago?
– Are you coming to discern false, idolatrous motives for the good services that you do? Are you now seeing what your motives really were? Is there anywhere where your life is resisting the Lord’s will?
– Are you seeing new ways to better use the talents and gifts (etc) that God has given you?
– Are you having seasons of the sweet delight that the Spirit brings? Are you finding certain promises of God extremely precious? Are you getting answers to prayers? Are you getting times of refreshing in prayer and in reading/listening to God’s Word?
These questions really cut to the heart, but in doing so they drive the truth and goodness of the Christian life much, much deeper to where it’s meant to be truly working. For me they’re a terrific template for my own walk with God and as I look to 2014 where I will disciple others at my church I hope to implement this very thing.