Evangelical Magazine https://www.evangelicalmagazine.com A bimonthly print magazine, published by the Evangelical Movement of Wales Tue, 31 Mar 2020 19:42:34 +0000 en-GB hourly 1 https://wordpress.org/?v=5.4 Until we meet again https://www.evangelicalmagazine.com/article/until-we-meet/ Tue, 31 Mar 2020 20:00:00 +0000 https://www.evangelicalmagazine.com/?post_type=em_article&p=2998 A message from a headmaster to his pupils

We are living through incredible times. So much so, that our schools have closed to nearly all of their pupils without any of us knowing when we will meet again. Here are twelve pieces of advice from me, a headmaster, to you, my pupils, for you to take away and hold onto during the tumultuous months ahead.

  1. Look after yourselves. Wash your hands; be clean; remember the importance of social distancing and follow government advice. When you wash your hands, apparently singing ‘Happy Birthday’ or ‘God Save the Queen’ helps. If you want to get them really clean, sing ‘Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau’.
  2. Work hard. Even though you are not in school physically, you may be able to access your lessons online. You may be anxious and worried. Don’t be: just work hard. Everyone is in the same boat. For those in Year 11 and 13, if I had just heard that my exams had been cancelled, at first I would have thought ‘Cha-ching!’; then, I would have been disappointed and deflated; then I would become quite anxious and worried and uncertain; but now I need to think ‘Here we go’. Because if you work hard at all you have been set, you’ll be providing the evidence for predicted grades which I imagine your exams will now be assessed on. Don’t waste time, work hard.
  3. Make sure you have a routine. Get out of bed early, get washed, get changed, and try and follow your normal school day as best as you can. Have some exercise. Don’t just be lazy and go stale, have a routine.
  4. Keep in touch. Keep in touch with your teachers via email. Don’t go where we can’t find you or go to ground. We want you to know that we are just at the other end of an email, or maybe in some cases at the other end of a phone.
  5. Show compassion. Compassion is an important Christian value and I cannot think of a better time to show compassion. Help people – maybe your Grandparents. You won’t be able to see them for a long time so send them messages, do practical things to help them. There will be old people where you live, maybe you can do some shopping for them. Just think of practical ways that you can be kind and show compassion.
  6. Build, strengthen, and repair relationships with your family, because you are going to spend an awful lot of time with them. Maybe you have got brothers and sisters you don’t get on with, maybe you’ve been hard work for Mum and Dad, but over the next few weeks and months, build relationships, strengthen relationships and put things right. You could come back to school saying, ‘My family life is so much better, we get on so much better, we spent so much time together.’ Be good boys; Mum and Dad are probably going to have tough times ahead, they are going to be worried and anxious, so be good for them. Do the right thing.
  7. Be resilient. I am sure, like me, you’ve felt an energy and a buzz in recent days. But as the weeks and the months go on there will be times when it will get harder and harder, and you must be resilient. You have got to dig in, and keep going.
  8. Hold your nerve. There will be lots of people saying lots of things – lots of worrying things – and people will be anxious about what might happen. Rudyard Kipling said this, ‘If you can keep your head, while all around are losing theirs, you’ll be a man my son’. Hold your nerve.
  9. Be brave. I am sure, like me, there might be times over the next few days and weeks where you will be a bit scared, but be brave, show courage.
  10. Ask for help. The bravest word a child can sometimes say is ‘Help’. If you are on your own, or if you are struggling, and finding it hard, send an email to your teacher and say ‘Sir, I need some help.’ They can make sure that the right people can give you that help. Don’t be frightened to ask for help.
  11. Think. Think about all the things you have heard your teachers say, and all that I have said and consider them all. You will have lots of thinking time ahead.
  12. Be thankful. These are tough times, but we have still got so many things to be thankful for. While many pupils have not been able to come to school, your teachers have come in and looked after you. Even those who are ill and at home have sent work in for you.

Let me end by giving you some advice which is not my advice at all, it is actually found in the Bible, in Psalm 121.

I lift my eyes to the hills, from where does my help come? My help comes from the Lord, who made Heaven and Earth. He will not let your foot be moved; He who keeps you, will not slumber. Behold, He who keeps Israel, will neither slumber nor sleep. The Lord is your keeper, the Lord is your shade on your right hand. The sun shall not strike you by day, nor the moon by night. The Lord will keep you from all evil, He will keep your life. The Lord will keep your going out, and your coming in, from this time forth and forevermore.

Look after yourselves. Work hard. Have a routine. Keep in touch. Show compassion. Build, strengthen, and repair relationships with your family. Be resilient. Hold your nerve. Be brave. Ask for help. Think. Be thankful, and look to God.

Take care, and I look forward to seeing you on the other side

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How to secure your church’s online Zoom meeting https://www.evangelicalmagazine.com/article/how-to-secure-your-churchs-online-zoom-meeting/ Mon, 30 Mar 2020 17:10:33 +0000 https://www.evangelicalmagazine.com/?post_type=em_article&p=2978 As more and more churches are broadcasting their services on Zoom, we’ve received reports of at least one church getting their meeting ‘hacked’, with people sharing objectionable videos mid-service. This ‘hacking’ is the modern equivalent of teenagers rung into a church during the service and setting off the fire alarm (which happened to us a few years ago). ‘Hijacking’ is probably a better word than ‘hacking’. You can just lock your doors, of course (i.e. require passwords from everyone), but don’t we want people to be able to join us, and worship with us?

Zoom is designed primarily for invitation-only meetings in workplaces. As a result, the default security settings allow for lots of participation from everyone – which isn’t necessarily appropriate for churches wanting to widely publicise their meetings. Thankfully, Zoom provides plenty of security settings that will allow you to secure your account, without shutting out visitors altogether. Here’s what you should do:

(1) Disable screen sharing (essential)

This is probably the most important change you can make. By default, anyone who is part of a Zoom meeting can share what’s on their screen with everyone else. That allows vandals to share very objectionable content. To disable this feature (so that only the host can share their screen):

  1. The account holder should go to https://zoom.us/profile/setting
  2. Scroll down about halfway, until you see “Screen sharing”. Make sure “Who can share?” is set to “Host Only”. You’ll only need to do this once.
  3. If you need to turn this back on for a particular meeting, the host can do so from the zoom desktop app, by clicking the small arrow next to “Share Screen”, and then clicking on “Advanced Sharing Options”

(2) Disable annotations and whiteboards (essential)

Annotations and whiteboards allow people to draw on the screen. You should turn those off too:

  1. The account holder should go to https://zoom.us/profile/setting
  2. Just below the “Screen sharing” setting, are settings for Annotation and Whiteboard. Make sure both are turned off. You’ll only need to do this once.

(3) Encourage visitors towards a YouTube stream (highly recommended)

This feature requires a paid account.

The challenge in all this is to be as welcoming and open as possible while preventing vandals and hijackers. I think the best way of accomplishing this is to channel your known contacts and your unknown visitors to different destinations: your known contacts to Zoom (where they can see, be seen and communicate with others), and your wider visitors to your YouTube channel (where they can see, but not be seen). Thankfully, if you have a paid account, Zoom makes it easy to broadcast your Zoom meeting to YouTube.

If you choose this option, you can put the address of your YouTube channel across all your social media, confident that no-one will be able to hijack your stream. Meanwhile, use email or instant messaging to let your regular congregation know about the Zoom address. The added advantage of a YouTube simulcast is that YouTube is virtually ubiquitous. Some of your members who don’t have access to Zoom will have access to YouTube, perhaps through a smart TV. Streaming there will therefore widen your reach without putting your service at risk.

At the beginning or end of the service you can verbally invite people watching on YouTube to get in touch if they’d like to join the Zoom meeting to enable them to chat with other members or join breakout groups. To protect the privacy of your congregation, start the YouTube stream after any initial chit-chat, and stop it before you break into small groups or encourage conversation. That should give you the best balance between privacy and openness.

(4) Disable virtual background (recommended)

Virtual backgrounds allow users to select a picture for the background to the image. It’s a possible way for people to share objectionable images. It’s safest to switch it off:

  1. The account holder should go to https://zoom.us/profile/setting
  2. About two-thirds of the way down is a setting for virtual background. Make sure it’s switched off. You’ll only need to do this once.

(5) Disable chat (recommended)

Chat allows people to send text-based messages to each other or the whole meeting. It could be abused by a vandal, so if you don’t need that facility, switch it off.

  1. The account holder should go to https://zoom.us/profile/setting
  2. Not far from the top is a setting for chat and virtual chat. Turn both off. No-one (including the host) will be able to chat via text. You’ll only need to do this once.
  3. Alternatively, you can allow yourself (as host) to chat, but disallow chat for other users. If you prefer this option:
    1. Make sure “Chat” (see above) is turned ON.
    2. When you begin a meeting, click on “Chat” in the host controls.
    3. In the resulting chat window, click on the button with three dots, and then specify that participants cannot chat:

(6) Allow co-hosting (optional)

This feature requires a paid account.

You might want to allow some trusted members to bypass the restrictions you have set, particularly if they’re part of the audio/visual team helping with the service. The easiest way of doing this is to assign them to be co-hosts with you. This would give them full control of the meeting, just as the host has. To do this:

  1. The account holder should go to https://zoom.us/profile/setting
  2. About one-third of the way down is a setting for co-host. Make sure this is turned on.
  3. Before or during a meeting, assign your trusted members as the co-host.

(7) Require a password to enter the meeting (not recommended for most)

Zoom allows you to require a password to enter the meeting. The problem with this approach is that you have to give out the password fairly widely, and it can therefore be barely more secure than just giving out the Meeting ID or link. It just becomes an extra piece of information that people have to remember.

If you follow (1) to (5) above, you shouldn’t need a password, but if you find you still have hijackers even after doing all that, it’s something you may then want to consider.

(8) Restrict entry to the Zoom meeting (definitely not recommended)

It’s possible to restrict entry to Zoom meetings, but I don’t recommend it, as it will likely also lock out some people you would like to be there. But if you must, here are the three options (and why you almost certainly shouldn’t use them):

  1. Set up a waiting room so that only people you know can enter the main meeting. The problem here is that it’s not easy to identify everyone in the waiting room, as many less-technical users don’t give their devices or Zoom accounts a name that identifies them so you end up with a generic identifier. Should you admit “Samsung Galaxy Tablet”, or not?
  2. Lock the meeting shortly after starting. Locking your meeting prevents others from joining you. If you wouldn’t lock your church doors when the service starts, then don’t lock your Zoom meeting.
  3. Only authenticated users can join. This means only someone with a registered Zoom account can join your meeting. But most of your congregation probably don’t have a Zoom account, but a determined vandal would have. It doesn’t really help this situation.

Conclusion

With a few tweaks, Zoom can be made secure without compromising the openness of your meetings. You don’t want to be the next church whose service is hijacked by vandals. So if you’re using Zoom for semi-public meetings, check your Zoom settings now.

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A culture of limitless self-regard https://www.evangelicalmagazine.com/article/a-culture-of-limitless-self-regard/ Thu, 26 Mar 2020 18:00:40 +0000 https://www.evangelicalmagazine.com/?post_type=em_article&p=2840 Responding to our secular culture

In 2018, Dr David Mackereth was dismissed from his role as a health and disabilities assessor at the Department for Work and Pensions. The reason? He believes that a man is a man, even if he ‘identifies’ as a woman. The judges who dealt with his case ruled that: ‘belief in Genesis 1:27, lack of belief in transgenderism and conscientious objection to transgenderism in our judgment are incompatible with human dignity…’

Note the irony.

The only inviolable reason to respect the rights and liberties of all human beings (regardless of sex, class, race, ability or age), is the conviction that every human is created ‘in the image of God’ (Genesis 1:27-28). But these judges, on behalf of the state, claimed that belief in Genesis 1:27 is ‘incompatible with human dignity’.

Many assume that a neutral secular state is tolerant of all faiths and beliefs. But here it was decided that expression of belief in Genesis 1:27 is not permissible in the public square. How did we get here?

The rise of secularisation theory

By the 1950s and 1960s, many sociologists had adopted ‘secularisation theory’. Following in the tradition of some (so-called) Enlightenment philosophers of the eighteenth century, they assumed that as societies modernised, religious belief would drop away. Such thinkers claimed Christianity had hindered scientific progress, and people would only flourish once they were freed from external authorities such as biblical absolutes. They put their confidence in human reason and virtue, mocked the idea of original sin, and assumed that within a few decades, belief in God would be viewed as one of the embarrassments of history.

In reality, the rise of science had rested on religious foundations. The pioneers of the scientific method believed we live in a universe created and ordered by God and that we are called on as image bearers to study and manage that universe on his behalf.

The murderous outworking of the French Revolution exposed the lie of innate human goodness. Self-confident philosophers had fiercely denied human depravity; now it was on full display. The widespread religious revivals of the later eighteenth and nineteenth centuries confounded the ‘death of God’ that the Enlightenment thinkers had predicted.

But even as those revivals transformed whole communities, new challenges to Christianity arose. Liberal theology and the claims of Darwinian evolution undermined confidence in the reliability of Scripture. The Romantic Movement served to erode confidence in absolute morals. By the mid-twentieth century, radical feminists claimed that the married family was the seedbed of ‘patriarchal’ oppression and that sexual freedom was essential to human flourishing. By the beginning of the twenty-first century, ‘queer theory’ had challenged the gender binary itself, which is why those judges ruled that belief in Genesis 1:27 was incompatible with human dignity.

Once a culture denies the reality of the Creator God, rejection of his laws follows swiftly. In Britain, the 1960s witnessed a frenzy of legislation that effectively de-Christianised and liberalised British law and society. In 1966, the American news magazine Time was issued with a plain black front cover and just three words of bold red text: Is God Dead?

Yet at the same time, champions of secularisation theory were admitting defeat. They had assumed that as societies modernised, religion would disappear, but in most parts of the world, people were as religious as ever! Evangelical Pentecostalism and Islam were growing rapidly. Some academics began to speak of ‘post-secularisation’ or even ‘de-secularisation’.

There were two major exceptions to the global upsurge in religion. First, among global academic and media ‘elites’, religious ‘fundamentalism’ was widely viewed with undisguised hostility. Second, religious observance had collapsed across Western Europe. Yet apart from those anomalies, religion was not going away. We don’t live in a secularised world, in the sense of a world empty of religion.

But in Western societies, we do live in a secular world, in that a wedge has been driven between the public and private, where values are matters of personal choice and opinion and must stay private. This is used to undermine Christian ethical arguments. For example, we may argue the case to protect unborn human life, but the ‘fact/value’ divide is used to weaken the objective force of our position.

And we do live in a pluralist world. In Western societies, it is assumed that everyone can choose their own belief and lifestyle, and there is no single overarching sacred canopy under which all members of the community unite and where God makes the rules. Instead, there is an overarching secular orthodoxy, where each of us makes our own rules (and, increasingly, each demands that others affirm our choices).

The new orthodoxy: the culture of limitless self-regard

Once we deny there is a God whose character and decree defines what is right, then we deny there are moral laws that are true for everyone. The remaining moral absolute is to be faithful to yourself, to find your own ‘authentic’ identity. This expressive individualism has seeped into many sections of the church. If the Bible contradicts what I sincerely and deeply feel, all too often feelings win.

Theological liberals in the past placed human reason above Scripture. Their descendants now place human experience above Scripture. Affirmations of absolute moral truth are viewed as harsh and intolerant. Calls to repentance and a holy life are seen as abusive. Evangelism is softened. Preaching hell and judgement is almost unknown. The Gospel becomes a message of finding fulfilment, achieving freedom from anxiety, or discovering the authentic meaning of life. The significance of God is that he can bring meaning and hope to me. Self, not God takes centre stage.

In this culture of limitless self-regard, failure to celebrate someone’s lifestyle, or refusal to endorse their claims about identity are viewed as equally hateful.

How should we respond?

As Christian citizens, we should not be intimidated into pulling out of the public square. We are called on to love our neighbours. That means working for God’s glory faithfully in whatever sphere to which we’ve been called. We live in a democracy, and should take an active interest in policies that affect our fellow citizens. The Christian Institute provides clear, up-to-date resources to inform and equip Christians as we do that.

The inevitable result of unlimited sexual freedom has been greatly increased family breakdown and growing numbers of people whose lives are troubled and confused. We need to respond with Christlike compassion. Genuine compassion is based on truth, and we need to be willing to risk unpopularity by proclaiming the need to repent and believe the gospel. God’s truth has been plainly revealed in the conscience of everyone made in his image (Romans 1:19-32; 2:15). He will judge us according to that standard. The gospel only makes sense in the context of sin and judgement.

We shouldn’t be surprised that proclaiming these eternal realities causes offence. God’s truth has been hated in every age. But we don’t have to fear, and we can be confident. Throughout history, powerful empires have opposed the Living God. Each has crumbled, while God’s Kingdom is expanding to fill the whole earth and will itself endure forever (Daniel 2: 35, 44).

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What we learned from our first online service https://www.evangelicalmagazine.com/article/what-we-learned-from-our-first-online-only-service/ Mon, 23 Mar 2020 22:00:48 +0000 https://www.evangelicalmagazine.com/?post_type=em_article&p=2967 Like thousands of churches all over the world, last Sunday we took our services online only. Here’s what we learned:

Community is vital

Church is more than listening to a sermon. Rather than live-stream using YouTube, we used Zoom. That allowed the whole congregation to see one another and chat together. For many people, especially those who had been self-isolating, this was one of the highlights of the meeting. As a smaller church, this worked well for us (we had about 40 people from around 20 families join us), but larger churches could host a series of smaller ‘services’ of 60-100 people each.

At the end of the service, we used Zoom’s Breakout Rooms to split us into even smaller groups so we could chat more easily. Online meetups work best when only one person is speaking at a time, and that’s hard with even 20 families connected. We found small groups with around 6-8 families worked best.

Practical tips:

  • Zoom is free for up to 40-minutes per meeting. If you want longer meetings, it costs just £14/month – a very worthwhile investment.
  • In Zoom, Breakout Rooms need to be enabled in your account. There’s no charge for this.

The sermon is vital

I found that preparing a sermon for an online service was no different to normal – but preparing a sermon for a congregation anxious about the future and struggling to adapt to the new normal was very different. I settled on 2 Chronicles 20:9, (“If disaster comes upon us, the sword, judgment, or pestilence, or famine, we will stand before this house and before you—for your name is in this house—and cry out to you in our affliction, and you will hear and save”), and spoke on the importance of coming together, crying out to God, and being confident in Him. Other pastors preached very similar truths. When we looked into God’s word, we found truth and hope. They’re both precious commodities, especially at the moment, and last Sunday, God’s people loved to hear them.

Practical tip:

  • When preaching, try and give eye contact to those watching. That means looking at your camera, not your screen. Put your notes as close to the camera as you can.
  • Zoom will switch to showing each person who is speaking. If you want to override this or make sure it stays on only one person, use Zoom’s Spotlight feature.

Singing is vital

We tried to keep the service as close to normal as possible, so included several worship songs to remind us of God’s love and care for us. Online it’s not possible for everyone to hear everyone else singing (if you attempt this, it gets out of sync and sounds awful, trust me). We, therefore, ‘muted’ everyone for the service which made sure we weren’t interrupted by pets or babies, and also meant that people could sing along without becoming self-conscious.

To compensate for this ‘muting’, as we displayed the song words on the stream, we used recordings of real congregations singing, so that when people joined in at home, they felt as though they were part of a bigger congregation. Again, it was a part of the service that many people said afterwards they particularly enjoyed.

Practical tips:

Prayer is vital

Part of our Christian responsibility at the moment is to cry out to God for mercy and help, and our church services are the perfect place to do that. Zoom also works brilliantly for prayer meetings, house or cell groups, or even prayer between friends and families.

Children are vital

We’re fortunate to have children in our Sunday services, so it’s essential they’re part of our online plans too. Our children enjoyed the children’s talk, and we’re planning an online Sunday School/Children’s meeting this week, too.

Practical tip:

Non-connected people are vital

Not all our church can get online, so not everyone could benefit. It’s vital, therefore, that as a church, we make every effort to stay connected to our elderly members through the technology they can access. Phone calls from the pastor and church members are the most significant help and much appreciated, but we’ll soon be offering other ways of helping our elderly folk connect into a service. We’ll soon both allow members to join our Zoom meetings by phone, and we’re also creating DVDs of the Zoom service and posting them to members.

Practical tip:

Testing is vital

Although Zoom is easy to use, making it work in just the right way for your church requires a bit of practice. We ran a test with a couple of volunteers a few days before our first service, and learned loads. Without that test, the service could have descended into farce.

Support is vital

As a small church with many older members who were venturing into the unknown just by connecting online, I decided to plan and execute the first service myself. That meant that as well as preaching, praying and leading the service, I was also switching screens, adjusting volume levels, and ensuring the right song lyrics were being displayed. Here’s what I learned: (1) I’m not a good multitasker. (2) The congregation are very forgiving. (3) Next time, I need to ask for help.

Practical tip:

  • Ideally, the audio/visual jobs should be separated from the preaching/leading responsibilities. That’s quite easy with Zoom – but you’ll need someone fairly comfortable with technology and able to concentrate throughout the whole service.

Demand is greater than you think

An hour before our first service, I put a link on a small WhatsApp group I’m part of, inviting some of my non-church friends to join. To my surprise, two of them did, and another has promised to ‘come’ next Sunday. There’s a spiritual thirst at the moment, and our online services can help to meet that need.

Practical tip:

  • Some churches have reported that streaming on YouTube can bring in lots of visitors (although doing so means you miss out on the interactive nature of Zoom). The best option, if your participants are comfortable with it, might be to set up Zoom to broadcast to YouTube (or to Facebook) simultaneously. You’ll need a paid Zoom account to do this.

In conclusion

One pastor messaged me jokingly on Sunday afternoon, “We should do this permanently. I’ve never had so many thank you messages after a sermon.” (At least, I think he was joking!) But that reminds us that (a) God is in this. (b) People love the sense of connection and peace that our church services bring.

We trust it won’t be too many weeks until we’re back in our church buildings and seeing one another in the flesh. When we do, we’ll be even more thankful of what we’ve been enjoying all of our Christian lives – meeting together in person. But in the meantime, virtual gatherings that bring people together and proclaim God’s truth in word and song are not only vital, but they’re knowing God’s blessing. Let’s pray that God would use them.

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Reaching children in a secular age https://www.evangelicalmagazine.com/article/reaching-children-in-a-secular-age/ Thu, 19 Mar 2020 18:00:58 +0000 https://www.evangelicalmagazine.com/?post_type=em_article&p=2836 Jesus said, ‘Let the little children come to me and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these’ (Matthew 19:14).

Our churches are ageing and each year that passes by we are becoming less relevant to the youth in our communities – so how do we reach them?

Noddfa Church had no youth in attendance just a few years ago, but by God’s grace, we now welcome over twenty 12-16-year-olds from totally unchurched backgrounds every Sunday to worship.

How did we do it?

First, we took the time to understand this new secular age in which our children are growing up.

Post-Christian UK

Children today are living in a unique time where Christianity is considered all but dead. Without the ‘absolute’ of God, nothing in their culture is certain, not even their gender. Without a Christian moral framework, their family unit is often fluid and unstable and their friendship groups are often virtual or broken. They are growing up with the world’s knowledge at their fingertips, but have little stability to build anything on. Today’s children are incredibly compassionate and aspire to help others and the planet but are often isolated from their wider communities and have limited multi-generational influences. This cultural environment has starved them of the opportunity to learn important social skills (such as patience and empathy) that you would naturally develop when engaging in mixed groups (like the church). Older generations are often wary or untrusting of them. They have been bought by a material culture, and define themselves simply by what they own or consume. They are crying out for meaning and purpose.

They have been taught that Christianity is an archaic and bigoted institution and thus directly opposed to their liberated secular values. Children today do not feel that they can grow up to be ‘good citizens’ and be ‘Christians’ at the same time because of these false assumptions. At best Christianity is old fashioned, at worst intolerant and unwelcoming.

The challenge of reaching children in today’s secular age is to break down these assumptions and we have found that the only way to do this is through relationship.

Building relationships

Initially, we worked directly with our local schools. We offered them resources and the flexibility to fit in with their curriculum, we ran assemblies and exhibitions and used these windows to undermine the children’s assumptions of what church really is. We then engaged with parents at the school gates, building trust with the wider family and we embraced social media to showcase our facilities and services.

 

We started a youth club designed to be a counter-culture to the school experience. Our children do not sit in rows to hear a talk, instead, we give them control of their time with us. They can play games, help themselves to drinks and snacks or just sit and use the WiFi. We then engage with them in their natural groups, asking them to tell us about their week and seeding the gospel into the conversation when appropriate. As our relationships grow they have come to us loaded with questions about the Bible.

We started to take them on trips to the beach, museums and to winter wonderland, building memories and relationships between us (the church) and them.

We brought instruments into the youth club to teach Christian songs to those who wish to learn and gave them the opportunity to perform in church.

We have listened to our children, valued their ideas and have shown them love and respect that the world cannot compete with, and through this witness, Jesus has made himself known.

The youth club now organise events to raise money for our homeless outreach and have started a tree-planting charity through the church to raise awareness about caring for God’s creation. They even have their own Noddfa hoodies and feel part of the family. They now come to church every Sunday and often invite their friends and even their parents on occasion. Several have been saved through this process. God is good.

Our nation’s children desperately need to hear that they are not merely products of chance in a meaningless universe, they need to know that they are not defined by their sexual desires or by the products that they own. They need to know that their self-worth is not measured by how many Instagram followers they have or what clothes they wear. Our nation’s children desperately need the stability, consistency and accountability that church uniquely provides and most importantly they need to hear that they are eternally valued by a God who loves them to death!

When these truths are taught and practised by the church, God’s love, revealed to us perfectly in Jesus Christ, will become as irresistible to this lost generation as it was to us.

 

 

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The light shines brightest in the darkness https://www.evangelicalmagazine.com/article/the-light-shines-brightest-in-the-darkness/ Thu, 12 Mar 2020 18:00:24 +0000 https://www.evangelicalmagazine.com/?post_type=em_article&p=2831 There is no doubt that contemporary Britain is an increasingly secular and post-Christian country. Despite our strong Christian heritage – including the Reformation, Great Awakenings and Revivals that shaped our national culture and identity for several centuries – many churches are in steep decline and only a small percentage of the population identify as Christians in any meaningful way. Christians have been pushed to the margins of public life, politics and policymaking, with liberal progressive values dominant and the assumption that a neutral public square requires the exclusion of all faith-claims.

What is secularism?

Secularism is a complex phenomenon with multiple dimensions. First it describes empirically the growing irrelevance of religious faith to the majority of our population. Second it describes the deliberate exclusion of religion from public decision making, which is to be based only on allegedly neutral reason. Finally, it describes the wider philosophical and cultural context which renders belief in God, and especially the Christian faith, implausible. Each of these aspects of secularism provides a different challenge for evangelical Christians: the first threatening our sense of identity, the second our perception of success and the third our evangelistic effectiveness. Secularism tempts us to lose confidence in God and the gospel.

A growing church

It is easy to be discouraged by this reality, or to deny it. However, there are good reasons for encouragement and hope. While many churches are in steep decline, evangelical Christianity is slowly growing. It is largely churches that have abandoned the biblical gospel that are dying.

It is true that some evangelical churches are declining because they have failed to engage with their community and contextualise the gospel appropriately, but this is a consequence of their failure to appreciate what true faithfulness means. We are not called to preserve a past culture in the church but to proclaim the never-changing gospel to an ever-changing culture. Some other churches struggle because they are in small communities in which it is no longer viable to maintain a church, but we need to recognise how our demographic context affects our ministry.

We can take encouragement that the gospel is bearing great fruit around the world, in ways that would astound our forebears who prayed and sent missionaries. In our own country there are considerable numbers of refugees, asylum seekers, immigrants and international students who are coming to know Christ – including large numbers of Iranians.

I have served as FIEC (Fellowship of Independent Evangelical Churches) National Director for the past 10 years, and over that time it has been hugely encouraging to see many new churches planted, and others growing. More churches have needed to acquire bigger premises, or to start second services or begin a new congregation on another site. There has been a growing realisation of the importance of revitalising smaller churches, and of prioritising gospel ministry in areas of urban deprivation. The growth we have experienced is being replicated among other groups that have kept faithful to the gospel and refused to capitulate to the fads of the culture.

I do not mourn the decline of much institutional Christianity and the superficial folk religion that accompanied it, because it did not faithfully witness to Christ. It was an obstacle to the gospel and left many people with a false and negative perception of the Christian faith.

A purified church

As our culture has become spiritually darker the pressures have refined the church, so that much that remains is more clearly evangelical. We are smaller but purer in our doctrine and witness. Church members are more committed as social church-going diminishes. The darkness is greater, but this enables the light to shine more brightly.

There is a much sharper distinction between the lives of Christians than the rest of the population. Evangelical believers stand out for their hope and love in the midst of a society marked by despair and confusion. Young people are more open to the gospel because they are almost entirely ignorant about it, and do not carry the weight of prejudice against it inculcated in older generations by their bad experience of formal institutional religion. Non-Christians are attracted by the sense of genuine community, family and acceptance found in many evangelical churches, which is radically different to the lonely isolation of our individualistic society.

A heavenly-minded church

The secular situation we face should not cause us to lose heart, but to come back to the Bible. We are much more like the earliest Christians, experiencing ‘exile-at-home’. We were wrong to think that we could find our home in a Christianised culture on earth. Our true home is in heaven and we are called to fix our eyes on Jesus and live for him. The power of our witness stems not from our political influence in society, but in our very distinctiveness and heavenly-mindedness. We need to find our identity in Christ, and rather than mourning what has been lost grasp the many new opportunities to proclaim him and share his love with the lost.

We need to remember that the situation we face has been normal for most Christians for most of history. We need to listen to the message of New Testament letters such as 1 Peter, which urge us to rejoice in the living hope of the resurrection, live good lives among the pagans, suffer for the sake of Christ and tell others the reason for the hope that we have. Elliott Clark’s recent book Evangelism as Exiles: Life On Mission As Strangers In Our Own Land is an excellent guide to meeting the challenges of these times.

An emboldened church

Perhaps the greatest challenge is the way in which secularism undermines the plausibility of Christian faith for many people, as it is despised by the intellectual and media elites and made to seem unnecessary, irrelevant and intolerant. We need to become better equipped at articulating and defending our faith, as well as bold to make the most of every opportunity. Dan Strange’s new book Plugged In helps us to do apologetics in everyday life, showing people that the gospel fulfils their deepest needs and aspirations. We need to recover the compelling apologetic power of the loving Christian community, which is so clearly identified by Rosaria Butterfield in her books, including The Gospel Comes With A House Key. As a former feminist and lesbian, she can testify to the crucial role this played in her own conversion.

A praying church

Above all we need to keep praying. The challenges of secularism are not first and foremost intellectual, cultural or political, but spiritual. However, Jesus is far greater than the challenges we face. He is ruling at the right hand of God. We need to pray that he will keep us faithful to his gospel, give us boldness in proclaiming it, courage in suffering for it and that he might have mercy and save many lost people into his coming kingdom. We need faith that secularism will not have the last word, and will not triumph, because his victory is already assured.

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How cancer healed my Dad https://www.evangelicalmagazine.com/article/how-cancer-healed-my-dad/ Mon, 09 Mar 2020 18:00:39 +0000 https://www.evangelicalmagazine.com/?post_type=em_article&p=2829 From the outside, my father was living a rich and full life. He was married with four children, two grandchildren and three more on the way. He owned a big house, had a steady job and a great pension plan for when he retired. He loved classic cars and had a sizeable collection of old bangers that didn’t start, much to my mother’s annoyance. He went to a good church, heard biblical preaching every week, and enjoyed lots of Christian fellowship.

But in his own words, he had become spiritually complacent and far too invested in this life. He’d developed a ludicrous sense of entitlement to the life he lived, and although he enjoyed many aspects of a Christian lifestyle, his heart was far from God and he wasn’t living a life of true surrender. Jesus had become just a heavenly insurance policy for him, not the centre of his life. He bickered with his wife, collected car parts and watched too much TV.

And then in January 2016 aged 61, he was diagnosed with stage four bowel cancer. He had surgery within two weeks and had his entire large bowel removed. The plan was to try two different chemotherapy drugs to shrink the tumours on his liver before attempting to operate on that too.

We were all totally devastated.

But Dad was not.

The best year of his life

When he first heard the diagnosis, he instantly felt God put the words from Hebrews 13:14 into his mouth, and he heard himself say to the consultant: ‘Here we have no lasting city, but we seek the city that is to come.’ He described feeling a peace that transcended all understanding, literally guarding his heart and mind. From then on, he woke up. Christ became everything again. The gospel was all that mattered. He began to seek a different city.

And so began a gruelling year of chemo, scans and bad news. He made the best of it, taking chemo selfies, and drinking free cups of tea at the Maggie’s centre. But he endured months of aggressive treatment that made him feel horrendous, only to be told after each scan that the cancer had spread further. He developed infections that hospitalised him at times, and when he was at home, he spent most of his days on the sofa.

But curiously, he described it all as the best year of his life.

An eternal perspective

He certainly suffered, but he said he wouldn’t have missed it for the world because of what it all did for his soul. It drew him near to God, into total dependence upon him, and many times during his illness, he heard the Lord speak clearly to him.

It gave him an eternal perspective as he was confronted with his own mortality, and he began to think much more about the world to come. He experienced time and time again that God is with us in the Valley of the Shadow of Death, and his grace is sufficient for us. It made him see that the only life worth living was one lived out wholeheartedly for the gospel, because only what you do for the kingdom lasts forever. So he resolved to take every opportunity to contribute to someone’s journey in coming to know Jesus.

He shared the peace he had with every doctor, nurse and healthcare professional he met. During one hospital stay, he was able to share the gospel with a patient in the bed next to him, who asked to stay in touch. He read the Bible and prayed with another. When he had the energy, he spoke at various church events and shared his experiences and insights. Let’s be clear; he was still my same old Dad. He still bought useless car parts and watched reruns of Star Trek. But more than ever before, Jesus mattered most.

My Dad was an optimist, and always hoped and prayed for healing. But when he was asked about it, he said that actually going to heaven would mean healing, that being in the presence of Christ, as a just man made perfect, would bring the greatest restoration. He wanted to live, but he knew that earthly healing is only ever temporary anyway. Jesus’ friend Lazarus was gloriously raised, but he still eventually died.

My dear Dad wasn’t healed. But I believe I witnessed a far more profound healing in his life than a good response to chemo.

His soul was healed of spiritual complacency, his eyes were opened afresh to the beauty of Christ, and his heart beat with new vigour for the gospel. The more ill he became, the more gracious, wise and Christ-like he seemed. He embodied 2 Corinthians 4:16, though outwardly he was wasting away, inwardly he was being renewed day by day. God did much greater healing than fixing his liver. My parents’ marriage was transformed, all the niggles and frustrations in our family relationships evaporated, and many of his friendships were deepened and strengthened.

Pain

But the joys and encouragements don’t take away the pain. Because of the cross, we know death has lost its power, but it still hurts. One day in the final weeks, I saw him shuffling slowly on a zimmer-frame from the bathroom back to the sofa, looking like he’d run a marathon, and I remember thinking, ‘How did we get here?’ Just a few days later, my brother and I carried him up the stairs to spend one last night in his own bed before the hospital bed came. He sobbed all the way up the stairs. It hurt the most to see my Mum holding his hand on the very last day, asking him to stay with us just a little bit longer. Death is terrible. And no matter how much warning you have, nothing can prepare you for the profound finality of it and the utter separation. We still grieve deeply.

But God has used my Dad’s illness and death to change and shape me. I would never have chosen this for us, but I wouldn’t undo it either. I’ve seen too many provisions and too many answers to my prayers along the way to question God’s goodness. My trust in the Lord’s sovereignty has only deepened, and my Dad’s words echo in my ears each time I struggle – ‘God’s got a perfect plan. You’ve just got to grind out the plan.’

Treasure in heaven

The pain of bereavement has also helped me to understand the gospel in a new way. Jesus said, ‘I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live.’ My Dad lives! And losing him has made me think about heaven a hundred times more. He has lifted my eyes to the city that is to come. More than ever, I want to live for the things that last for eternity. I want treasure in heaven.

I am so sad that I can’t see my Dad anymore. We miss him so much, he was the life and soul of our family, and he leaves such a gaping hole. But I am so proud of who he became, of his humility, his pragmatic faith and his courage. I wish I could tell him how his funeral went, and laugh with him about what we wrote in the eulogy and how this random guy he never really liked turned up. But I know that one day I will see him again, standing tall and strong at the throne of God, cancer-free, and we’ll spend eternity together. And as he said so often, in the context of eternity, this time without him now will feel like just the blink of an eye.

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A reluctant atheist https://www.evangelicalmagazine.com/article/a-reluctant-atheist/ Thu, 05 Mar 2020 18:00:16 +0000 https://www.evangelicalmagazine.com/?post_type=em_article&p=2817 He approached me with his hand held out, ready to shake mine. ‘My name’s Nathan,’ he said, ‘and I’m a reluctant atheist.’

It was a surprising way for someone to introduce themselves. I’d just delivered a lunchtime talk hosted by the Christian Union at Nathan’s university. As I came down from the stage, most people scurried off to their afternoon lectures. But several wanted to chat further. Nathan was at the front of the queue.

I’d just explained that most people in our culture believe that reality consists solely of matter – things that we can see and measure and touch. But I also pointed out that our everyday experience of life – the choices we make, the things we treasure, the dreams we follow – are at odds with this basic conviction. I then suggested that these deep intuitions about what’s truly valuable whisper to us that our conclusions about the fabric of reality are wrong. There’s more to the universe than just physical matter.

Nathan was keen to speak further, so I asked him his story.

He told me that he had no religious background – in fact, he’d not thought much about spiritual things at all. But he explained that he was increasingly uneasy with the story of reality with which he’d grown up. When it came to explaining how life really feels, Nathan thought that atheism hadn’t served him well.

I asked why, if this was so, Nathan still referred to himself as an atheist.

He breathed out a long sigh. Yes, he was tired with atheism. But he was reluctant to impose meaning onto a reality that wasn’t there. He didn’t want to commit to an alternative big story merely to meet his own psychological need. And he said, in a world of competing meanings and stories, why choose the Christian account over any other?

Nathan was disenchanted with atheism but felt that he had nowhere else to turn. Like many students formed in a secular society, he really was a reluctant atheist.

Understanding the secular student’s outlook

Secularism’s creed – ‘above us, only sky’ – has dominated for decades. Shaped by this soundtrack, most students say that they don’t believe in God. Some really are convinced atheists, but I’m increasingly meeting students saying that their atheism isn’t as existentially or intellectually satisfying as they’d been led to believe. It’s telling that each time I’ve publicly recounted my conversation with Nathan, others have come to tell me that they too are reluctant atheists. Nathan’s experience and outlook exemplify that of more secular students than we might imagine.

Like Nathan, many have given little thought to spiritual or religious things. Many of today’s students haven’t consciously rejected religious belief as previous generations have; they simply never think about spiritual things. In fact, most students at today’s British universities are third-generation church non-attendees – it wasn’t their parents but their grandparents who were the first in their families to stop attending church. They aren’t necessarily hostile to religious belief, but a non-religious outlook is their default.

At the same time, Nathan’s expression of doubt around the atheism of his youth is not unusual either. The philosopher Charles Taylor freely admits that religious belief is difficult today: phenomena that humanity once thought necessitated God we know now could be explained in other ways. But, Taylor says, atheism is hard to maintain too.

As students like Nathan watch the latest Netflix documentary about the cosmos, as they walk with friends in the countryside, or even as they study in the library, they feel that their deepest convictions and desires can’t be written off as merely ‘interesting neurological phenomena.’ Student life does, of course, bring enough distractions that many just numb themselves to this ache. But others can’t shake it off. That is what I think Nathan was trying to convey: that the ultimate flatness of atheism’s big story at the intellectual and existential level just kept reigniting his intuition that there must be something more. And the large attendances we’re seeing at Christian Union evangelistic events suggests he’s not alone in these feelings.

But if there is more – then to what version of ‘more’ should students turn? My conversation with Nathan highlights a third aspect those of us seeking to reach students in a secular society face: that while Christianity has an unprecedented historical influence on our culture, it has lost, as American campus minister Derek Rishmawy puts it, its ‘home court advantage’. To many secular students, Christianity is at best just one of a wide array of implausible alternative worldview stories, others of which seem to harmonise more easily with their pre-existing ethical outlook. As reluctantly as they may be atheists, following Jesus doesn’t seem all that attractive an option.

Engaging secular students

With these factors in mind, how might we engage secular students today?

First, Christians need to enter real relationships with these students. Nathan was only at that lunchtime event because he was impressed by his Christian friends. Time and again as I travel around the UK, I meet non-believing students whose longing for something beyond the material world has been awoken in part through seeing Christian friends living for a different hope that impacts all of life.

Second, we need to engage these students with the gospel starting where they are at.

Students in Christian Unions have long been inspired by the Apostle Paul’s example of engaging the Stoics and the Epicureans at the Areopagus (Acts 17:16-34). Addressing people who did not have the building blocks of a biblical worldview, Paul endorses the reality of their deep existential cries while showing that their current understanding cannot provide the happy-ever-after they are chasing. Paul carefully destabilises the stories these philosophers were telling, while also demonstrating how Jesus alone can fulfil their legitimate existential longings for transcendence.

Today, most students respond well when a speaker gently questions what the dominant, unquestioned narrative says about the things they really care about – such as science, meaning, relationships, identity and hope. As they begin to perceive that Jesus makes better sense than any other account of the parts of their lives most precious to them, their perception of Christianity changes. This initial response isn’t usually yet repentance and faith, but it might be enough to start giving Jesus a proper hearing, perhaps through a set of seeker studies in one of the Gospels – which may lead to genuine conversion.

All this takes time – as it did for the apostle in Athens. But there are many reluctant atheists like Nathan who are waiting to hear some good news, and to see that trust in Jesus is well placed.

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Teaching the Bible to people who struggle to read https://www.evangelicalmagazine.com/article/teaching-the-bible-to-people-who-struggle-to-read/ Thu, 27 Feb 2020 18:00:57 +0000 https://www.evangelicalmagazine.com/?post_type=em_article&p=2775 Reading and studying the Bible together

As a pastor who ministers on a council estate, one of the most common questions I am asked is, ‘How do you teach the Bible to those who cannot read?’ and people are often surprised by the fact that it is estimated that only 1% of the UK adult population is illiterate. So this means that the majority of people who we meet, evangelise and disciple will have a basic ability to read.

However, if and when we do come to teach the Bible to somebody who struggles to read, we do it exactly the same as when we are teaching the most avid of readers.

We give, pray, read and explain

We give everybody a Bible so that we all have the same version. When somebody is learning or struggling to read, hearing different versions read out loud will cause confusion. I go for the NIV 2011 because it flows really well and reads the same as we speak.

We pray because the Bible is only understood when the Holy Spirit opens our eyes to God’s Word (1 Corinthians 2:14).

We read and encourage others to read with us, because the Bible is to be studied personally and in community (Nehemiah 8:8). Our Bible studies are multi-generational, and we read the Bible out loud and invite those who are confident enough to read a verse each. Most weeks people will make a mistake, so when those less confident see that you don’t have to read perfectly and that the kids are brave enough to join in, it gives them the confidence to eventually join in too.

We explain, illustrate and apply the Word of God exegetically in our Bible studies and sermons so that people understand what God is saying and how they need to respond.

They read from the Book of the Law of God, making it clear and giving the meaning so that the people understood what was being read (Nehemiah 8:8)

I have discipled people of all reading abilities, including children, people with disabilities, school dropouts and doctors and what every Christian has in common is a love for Jesus and a love to learn more about him through reading his word.

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The valley of vision https://www.evangelicalmagazine.com/article/the-valley-of-vision/ Thu, 20 Feb 2020 18:00:53 +0000 https://www.evangelicalmagazine.com/?post_type=em_article&p=2771 ‘Nah!’ is a word I’ve been hearing more in our house recently. I think it’s teenage-speak for ‘that’s ludicrous, pointless, irrelevant, wrong.’ And I have to make a confession. A good few years ago now, a friend gave me a bag full of old books. As I explored the collection, some caught my eye. There was an old set of the Treasury of David by Spurgeon. ‘That will look amazing on my bookshelf,’ I thought. One book, The Valley of Vision, made me think, ‘Nah.’ Pointless. Irrelevant. Old. Yes, I know, don’t judge a book by its cover and all that. I did.

Everyone knows that the Puritans were a rather stern bunch who took everything so seriously. Who would ban mince pies after all? And the cover of this book simply confirmed all of my worst suspicions. And yet, as I eventually opened The Valley of Vision, the more I read, the more I realised that while the Puritans were serious men and women, they were deeply serious about joy.

If you’ve never opened up this book, it is a collection of rich, deep, honest and humble prayers. Honestly, I don’t think any other book has taught me to pray ‘your Kingdom come,’ quite like this one. And as I read it for the first time, one particular prayer caught my eye. It was all about joy.

What is Christian joy?

The first line started to unpick everything I knew about joy.

All thy ways of mercy tend to and end in my delight.’

Surrounded by theologies that teach a warped version of Christianity, one in which God intends us to be happy because of good health, financial success, nice cars and so on, we are tempted to shy away from saying ‘the chief end of mercy is our delight.’ It somehow sounds superficial and self-centred. Does God really want me to be happy?

The Puritans think so. In fact, their prayers are continually filled with joy. Not of a shallow and fleeting kind, but one rooted deeply in the soil of God’s grace. A soul-filling, God-glorifying happiness. As I read these words for the first time, I found my own joy to be lacking.

‘Thou art preparing joy for me and me for joy.’

Could it really be that God had shown mercy to me, loved me when I was his enemy, and was now sanctifying me all that I might know him to be my supreme joy?

I fear that we are reluctant to speak of joy like the Puritans did, because for many of us it is an alien concept. ‘We are far too easily pleased’, as C.S. Lewis wrote. We are content to satisfy the deep longings of our hearts with the shallow joys of possessions, comfort, holidays and entertainment. We find our appetites for joy quickly satiated by spiritual fast food when a banquet of grace is laid before us in Christ.

A joyful God

As I continued to read this prayer I felt an appetite for joy that I hadn’t known before.

‘Give me more joy than I can hold, desire, think of.’

Like many people today I’d found joy to be a fleeting concept, an idea, a hope. Unfulfilled. Why? Because unlike the Puritans, I had separated joy from God, I had divorced happiness from the gospel. I had never grasped that God’s great, redemptive desire for my life was that my soul delighted in him. For me, joy was an end in itself, and it was unthinkable that God sought my joy for his glory’s sake.

Yet these Puritans knew more truth than I did; their prayers were not vain or an empty hope. They were built on the faithful promises of God. The Apostle Peter knew that as Christians hold on to Christ in faith, even through the bleakest of circumstances, they can ‘rejoice with a joy that is inexpressible and filled with glory.’ And that joy-filled reality fills these great prayers.

This prayer warns 21st century Christians. Do not overestimate this world’s joys and securities, and do not underestimate God. The God of the gospel is supremely joyful: what else could he be? If we are serious about knowing him, we’ll be serious about pursuing joy in him for joyful is what he is.

So, open this book and read these prayers. But I warn you, prepare to be deeply dissatisfied with the shallow joys of this world, deeply unnerved by the shallowness of our pursuit of God, and deeply moved by the mercy of God towards lost sinners! As you read these truth-filled, heart-rending cries of the Puritans, you’ll hear the call that C.S. Lewis wrote of: ‘Come further up and further in.’ And one day, of course, as this prayer exalts, we shall find that “there is no joy like the joy of heaven”, and on the glorious day our joy will finally be complete as we gaze on the face of joy itself.

Joy

O Christ,
All thy ways of mercy tend to and end in my delight.
Thou didst weep, sorrow, suffer that I might rejoice.
For my joy thou hast sent the Comforter,
multiplied thy promises,
shown me my future happiness,
given me a living fountain.
Thou art preparing joy for me and me for joy;
I pray for joy, wait for joy, long for joy;
give me more than I can hold, desire, or think of.
Measure out to me my times and degrees of joy,
at my work, business, duties.
If I weep at night, give me joy in the morning.
Let me rest in the thought of thy love,
pardon for sin,
my title to heaven,
my future unspotted state.
I am an unworthy recipient of thy grace.
I often disesteem thy blood and slight thy love,
but can in repentance draw water
from the wells of thy joyous forgiveness.
Let my heart leap towards the eternal sabbath,
where the work of redemption, sanctification, preservation, glorification
is finished and perfected for ever,
where thou wilt rejoice over me with joy.
There is no joy like the joy of heaven,
for in that state are no sad divisions, unchristian quarrels,
contentions, evil designs,
weariness, hunger, cold,
sadness, sin, suffering,
persecutions, toils of duty.
O healthful place where none are sick!
O happy land where all are kings!
O holy assembly where all are priests!
How free a state where none are servants except to thee!
Bring me speedily to the land of joy.

 

The Valley of Vision’ is a devotional book edited by Arthur Bennet and published by Banner of Truth. It contains a collection of Puritan prayers and devotions.

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