Weakness in strength

A perceptive post from Sydney Anglican minister Gordon Cheng on early warning signs of “a spiritual power brownout”.

How can you tell when you’re “in need of a good cleansing zap of spiritual power”? Well, it’s not the sort of external things by which we may sometimes be tempted to assess ourselves:

[I]t wasn’t because your ‘miracle a day’ had dropped to a ‘miracle a week’. And it wasn’t because your evangelistic conversations had stopped resulting in a flow of conversions, and started to turn to sniggers behind your back. It wasn’t even because your popularity rating amongst your fellow-believers had plunged below 35%, your lowest in a decade.

And it wasn’t even because your blog hits had gone down, or your daily devotions had stagnated. No, it was something more subtle and spiritual:

[W]e knew there was a spiritual power brownout when you started to compare preachers. “That sermon was too long.” “This sermon was the best I’ve ever heard.” “This one was the funniest.” “That one was the most inspiring.”

And when you invited us to come to the convention to hear the “most brilliant speaker ever” (your minister), and be amazed by the political dignitaries who made an appearance, that was when we knew you’d really lost it.

As Cheng points out, this spirit of preacher-comparison and sermon-assessment (pretty endemic among conservative evangelicals, it has to be said) has a long pedigree in the church.

What makes this so perceptive is realising that it is situations of apparent strength and blessing that can often conceal the seeds of spiritual decline. It was the very fact that the Corinthians were so blessed with top-notch Christian leaders to follow – Paul, Peter, Apollos – that encouraged divisions among them.

In the same way, the more great preachers and other Christian teachers we have access to, the more easily we can forget that it is the gospel itself that is the power of God for salvation, and focus on the “gospel-givers” rather than the gospel they are giving.

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16 Responses to Weakness in strength

  1. Rick Ritchie says:

    That is perceptive.
    And it was somewhat of a shock to move from a conservative evangelical church to the Lutheran church, in part because there was so much less of the “personality cult” factor.
    The tough thing is to know what to do about this. Aside from trying not to encourage such situations?
    The 1 Corinthian passage might have some hints. If we are not to overvalue the men, we must recognize God for being the one who gives growth. But we would have to be able to see and appreciate growth in order to credit God for that. Can we appreciate it when he grants humble growth?
    The flip side, though, is that sometimes we value some men over others not because they are brilliant, but because they preach God’s word rather than meandering around in their own opinions. This can be labelled “personality cult” behavior, and it is not.

  2. Rick Ritchie says:

    That is perceptive.
    And it was somewhat of a shock to move from a conservative evangelical church to the Lutheran church, in part because there was so much less of the “personality cult” factor.
    The tough thing is to know what to do about this. Aside from trying not to encourage such situations?
    The 1 Corinthian passage might have some hints. If we are not to overvalue the men, we must recognize God for being the one who gives growth. But we would have to be able to see and appreciate growth in order to credit God for that. Can we appreciate it when he grants humble growth?
    The flip side, though, is that sometimes we value some men over others not because they are brilliant, but because they preach God’s word rather than meandering around in their own opinions. This can be labelled “personality cult” behavior, and it is not.

  3. Rick Ritchie says:

    That is perceptive.
    And it was somewhat of a shock to move from a conservative evangelical church to the Lutheran church, in part because there was so much less of the “personality cult” factor.
    The tough thing is to know what to do about this. Aside from trying not to encourage such situations?
    The 1 Corinthian passage might have some hints. If we are not to overvalue the men, we must recognize God for being the one who gives growth. But we would have to be able to see and appreciate growth in order to credit God for that. Can we appreciate it when he grants humble growth?
    The flip side, though, is that sometimes we value some men over others not because they are brilliant, but because they preach God’s word rather than meandering around in their own opinions. This can be labelled “personality cult” behavior, and it is not.

  4. Rick Ritchie says:

    That is perceptive.
    And it was somewhat of a shock to move from a conservative evangelical church to the Lutheran church, in part because there was so much less of the “personality cult” factor.
    The tough thing is to know what to do about this. Aside from trying not to encourage such situations?
    The 1 Corinthian passage might have some hints. If we are not to overvalue the men, we must recognize God for being the one who gives growth. But we would have to be able to see and appreciate growth in order to credit God for that. Can we appreciate it when he grants humble growth?
    The flip side, though, is that sometimes we value some men over others not because they are brilliant, but because they preach God’s word rather than meandering around in their own opinions. This can be labelled “personality cult” behavior, and it is not.

  5. John H says:

    Rick – I think in the conservative evangelical Anglican milieu from which Gordon Cheng is writing, we’re normally talking about men who are indeed valued for preaching God’s word rather than for their own opinions – but then, the same could be said for Paul, Peter and Apollos.
    I suppose the issue is why and how these men are valued. Someone like John Stott has been valued above all because of his love for Christ and his faithfulness in preaching God’s Word, but there have been times when an element of personality-cult has crept in (quite against Stott’s wishes, I should stress): apparently All Souls Langham Place was full of Stott clones in the 1950s and 1960s, with one person commenting that John Stott greeted people at the door, John Stott opened the service, John Stott read the lessons, John Stott led the prayers and then John Stott served the coffee afterwards…

  6. John H says:

    Rick – I think in the conservative evangelical Anglican milieu from which Gordon Cheng is writing, we’re normally talking about men who are indeed valued for preaching God’s word rather than for their own opinions – but then, the same could be said for Paul, Peter and Apollos.
    I suppose the issue is why and how these men are valued. Someone like John Stott has been valued above all because of his love for Christ and his faithfulness in preaching God’s Word, but there have been times when an element of personality-cult has crept in (quite against Stott’s wishes, I should stress): apparently All Souls Langham Place was full of Stott clones in the 1950s and 1960s, with one person commenting that John Stott greeted people at the door, John Stott opened the service, John Stott read the lessons, John Stott led the prayers and then John Stott served the coffee afterwards…

  7. John H says:

    Rick – I think in the conservative evangelical Anglican milieu from which Gordon Cheng is writing, we’re normally talking about men who are indeed valued for preaching God’s word rather than for their own opinions – but then, the same could be said for Paul, Peter and Apollos.
    I suppose the issue is why and how these men are valued. Someone like John Stott has been valued above all because of his love for Christ and his faithfulness in preaching God’s Word, but there have been times when an element of personality-cult has crept in (quite against Stott’s wishes, I should stress): apparently All Souls Langham Place was full of Stott clones in the 1950s and 1960s, with one person commenting that John Stott greeted people at the door, John Stott opened the service, John Stott read the lessons, John Stott led the prayers and then John Stott served the coffee afterwards…

  8. John H says:

    Rick – I think in the conservative evangelical Anglican milieu from which Gordon Cheng is writing, we’re normally talking about men who are indeed valued for preaching God’s word rather than for their own opinions – but then, the same could be said for Paul, Peter and Apollos.
    I suppose the issue is why and how these men are valued. Someone like John Stott has been valued above all because of his love for Christ and his faithfulness in preaching God’s Word, but there have been times when an element of personality-cult has crept in (quite against Stott’s wishes, I should stress): apparently All Souls Langham Place was full of Stott clones in the 1950s and 1960s, with one person commenting that John Stott greeted people at the door, John Stott opened the service, John Stott read the lessons, John Stott led the prayers and then John Stott served the coffee afterwards…

  9. Rick Ritchie says:

    Can we recruit some of those clones to our church? I would love to have John Stott serve me coffee!
    No. I think you’re right. Why and how they’re valued is important.
    The post you cited labels a real problem condition. But it sounds like sermon “consumption” as much as personality cult. I think they have to be treated differently. It makes me wonder if the Corinthian passage is the best analogue to what the poster was discussing.
    I’m just a little sensitive on this point because once some good friends of mine were frustrated with a local pastor for preaching lackluster sermons. Part of what made them lackluster was the pastor’s lack of passion for study in the Word. When they went off to “greener pastures” the pastor accused them of having “itching ears.” It was a false accusation. He was delivering less Scripture than the other pastor.
    Gordon Cheng is no doubt much better than this. I just wouldn’t want brownout to be framed in such a way that it can describe good situations as well as bad ones.

  10. Rick Ritchie says:

    Can we recruit some of those clones to our church? I would love to have John Stott serve me coffee!
    No. I think you’re right. Why and how they’re valued is important.
    The post you cited labels a real problem condition. But it sounds like sermon “consumption” as much as personality cult. I think they have to be treated differently. It makes me wonder if the Corinthian passage is the best analogue to what the poster was discussing.
    I’m just a little sensitive on this point because once some good friends of mine were frustrated with a local pastor for preaching lackluster sermons. Part of what made them lackluster was the pastor’s lack of passion for study in the Word. When they went off to “greener pastures” the pastor accused them of having “itching ears.” It was a false accusation. He was delivering less Scripture than the other pastor.
    Gordon Cheng is no doubt much better than this. I just wouldn’t want brownout to be framed in such a way that it can describe good situations as well as bad ones.

  11. Rick Ritchie says:

    Can we recruit some of those clones to our church? I would love to have John Stott serve me coffee!
    No. I think you’re right. Why and how they’re valued is important.
    The post you cited labels a real problem condition. But it sounds like sermon “consumption” as much as personality cult. I think they have to be treated differently. It makes me wonder if the Corinthian passage is the best analogue to what the poster was discussing.
    I’m just a little sensitive on this point because once some good friends of mine were frustrated with a local pastor for preaching lackluster sermons. Part of what made them lackluster was the pastor’s lack of passion for study in the Word. When they went off to “greener pastures” the pastor accused them of having “itching ears.” It was a false accusation. He was delivering less Scripture than the other pastor.
    Gordon Cheng is no doubt much better than this. I just wouldn’t want brownout to be framed in such a way that it can describe good situations as well as bad ones.

  12. Rick Ritchie says:

    Can we recruit some of those clones to our church? I would love to have John Stott serve me coffee!
    No. I think you’re right. Why and how they’re valued is important.
    The post you cited labels a real problem condition. But it sounds like sermon “consumption” as much as personality cult. I think they have to be treated differently. It makes me wonder if the Corinthian passage is the best analogue to what the poster was discussing.
    I’m just a little sensitive on this point because once some good friends of mine were frustrated with a local pastor for preaching lackluster sermons. Part of what made them lackluster was the pastor’s lack of passion for study in the Word. When they went off to “greener pastures” the pastor accused them of having “itching ears.” It was a false accusation. He was delivering less Scripture than the other pastor.
    Gordon Cheng is no doubt much better than this. I just wouldn’t want brownout to be framed in such a way that it can describe good situations as well as bad ones.

  13. Craig says:

    I think in the conservative evangelical Anglican milieu from which Gordon Cheng is writing, we’re normally talking about men who are indeed valued for preaching God’s word rather than for their own opinions
    True to a point. But even in SydAng the big churches form around the really excellent orators (like Philip Jensen and Simon Manchester). I’ve known plenty of faithful ministers in SydAng who are very dull and dont see much fruit.
    Gordon acknowledges this as well. He once told me if a preacher lacks the skill of a Jensen or a Stott, he should make sure he keeps his sermons short!

  14. Craig says:

    I think in the conservative evangelical Anglican milieu from which Gordon Cheng is writing, we’re normally talking about men who are indeed valued for preaching God’s word rather than for their own opinions
    True to a point. But even in SydAng the big churches form around the really excellent orators (like Philip Jensen and Simon Manchester). I’ve known plenty of faithful ministers in SydAng who are very dull and dont see much fruit.
    Gordon acknowledges this as well. He once told me if a preacher lacks the skill of a Jensen or a Stott, he should make sure he keeps his sermons short!

  15. Craig says:

    I think in the conservative evangelical Anglican milieu from which Gordon Cheng is writing, we’re normally talking about men who are indeed valued for preaching God’s word rather than for their own opinions
    True to a point. But even in SydAng the big churches form around the really excellent orators (like Philip Jensen and Simon Manchester). I’ve known plenty of faithful ministers in SydAng who are very dull and dont see much fruit.
    Gordon acknowledges this as well. He once told me if a preacher lacks the skill of a Jensen or a Stott, he should make sure he keeps his sermons short!

  16. Craig says:

    I think in the conservative evangelical Anglican milieu from which Gordon Cheng is writing, we’re normally talking about men who are indeed valued for preaching God’s word rather than for their own opinions
    True to a point. But even in SydAng the big churches form around the really excellent orators (like Philip Jensen and Simon Manchester). I’ve known plenty of faithful ministers in SydAng who are very dull and dont see much fruit.
    Gordon acknowledges this as well. He once told me if a preacher lacks the skill of a Jensen or a Stott, he should make sure he keeps his sermons short!

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