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EFAC Australia

Essentials

Watch out mega-churches, video sermons have a new frontier!
Essentials speaks with Joel Kettleton
about pioneering something new in a digital era.  Joel Kettleton and his wife Kristina

WHAT IS YOUR MINISTRY SETTING?

I’m the rector of the Anglican Parish of Sorell, Richmond & Tasman in the south-east of Tasmania. I’ve been here for eight years, initially as a curate then a locum and now the Senior Minister for the last five years. My context is a combined parish that has been joined together in some form for 130 years and we have a mixture of small congregations as well as larger ones. We meet in convict built buildings with small isolated congregations as well as a growing new church plant in a satellite suburb of Hobart. From top to bottom I have to cover 120 kilometres. A typical Sunday is that I’ll be at one service in the morning and one service in the afternoon but we have concurrent services happening in other places at the same time.

WHAT CHALLENGES DOES THAT GENERATE?

There is a big challenge of having good preaching that is consistent at each service every week. We have people who are able to help run services but they are not able or willing to preach.

I have the challenge of juggling many things at the same time. None of the congregations are the same but each has a unique identity and rhythm to their worship life. This makes it hard to manage the whole parish and use our limited time well. The question we have to keep asking is how do we grow a healthy church in each place, whether it’s a congregation of 5 or 50. We really want to identify people’s gifts and mobilise them for ministry so that they are confident disciples. We want them to be sharing their faith and making disciples themselves. This is really difficult when there’s 5 and you don’t live in the area and you’re not even there each week.

WHY DID YOU EXPLORE USING VIDEOS FOR SERMONS?

I wanted to be able to multiply the delivery of messages. Having seen large churches like City on a Hill do this across large congregations made me think this made sense to do this in smaller remote congregations as well. In places where I could train people to run church services but I couldn’t train preachers I’d rather have our local content that we were working on together delivered by video than just buying sermons off the shelf. When you buy or use someone else’s videos it’s not personal so when we’re talking about pastoring and preaching to your congregation that’s a big problem. Many videos are made for another cultural context so it can be hard for people to connect, they are like “yes, we’re just watching a video”. But there’s a real pastoral connection when we can make videos and preach to our congregation when we’ve got their feedback, when we’ve incorporated their story into the content. When we use b-roll from their location, it makes them feel like they’re part of the sermon.

WHAT MADE YOU THINK YOU COULD DO IT?

I watched a lot of youtube! Even the simplicity and effectiveness of video calling supports this. If such a simple thing could be done in a way that it is presented well, the technology is there now to be able to do that easily. I made my own youtube channel making music and car related videos and this helped me learn about the equipment and the craft of basic videography and content creation. I then spent a lot of time learning how to produce videos and once I’d done that it was a simple thing to combine video creation with preaching.

WHAT HAVE YOU LEARNED ALONG THE WAY?

I have a high threshold for failure. I didn’t know anything about lighting since I didn’t come from a photography background, so just used gear that I had. I learnt that it has to be short, no more than 10 mins unless it’s excellent and has different sections in it since our attention span on screen is very different to being in person. I learnt a lot about looking into the camera to engage with people, simple things that people who make videos know but takes some effort to turn it into a habit when you’re starting out. 

I wanted to include the words of scripture on the screen so I spent a lot of time listening to feedback about how it didn’t quite work out, it was either too short or too long. It was interesting to find out about how people listen and read in different ways. 

I wasn’t coached through any of this by an experienced content creator and if I had other people around me and been able to do a course this would have changed how quickly it was improved. However, it gave us a big opportunity to pastorally connect with the people I was making this for over the idea and work on it together. If they didn’t like the colour of the background they’d tell me, they said that it hurt their eyes. If they didn’t like the quality of the sound then I needed to change the sound setup and use a lapel mic. In a way, each of these failures was a win because we could collaborate on it and work together. In my context and especially with the tiny remote corners of the parish this was really important because they had never experienced anything digital like this before. They had only experienced a person and a prayer book so this was an enormous change. 

Not only did I have to learn how to produce the content at my end, I had to learn how to display the content at their end. I wasn’t streaming it because our areas don’t have internet connections. Their buildings are not set up with wiring and some only have a single power point. I started with DVDs but didn’t like the way the editing program produced the DVDs, it was just too difficult. So I kept it to mp4 files stored on a USB and sent to the location. It was a challenge getting physical USB before their sermon time on a Sunday and making sure it is all set up and ready to work. I would mail it to them or I’d get someone to pick it up on their way back into the country. Several times I had to drive it out myself which is worth the three hour return trip except when they forget to turn the power box on and it doesn’t end up working! Thankfully they are resilient congregations and they have leaders to take the initiative and make the most of the time.

DOES IT NEED A LOT OF TECH GEAR?

No! Initially I just had my laptop with the webcam, that was it. My mobile phone with a microphone input actually works well enough to record something wherever I am and doesn’t require me to carry loads of gear around. However, using a DSLR or two with a Zoom audio recorder increases the quality a lot. For editing I started on Windows Movie Maker and then shifted to Powerdirector when I needed to synch audio and do other more complicated things.

WHAT IMPACT DO YOU THINK THIS HAS HAD?

It has meant that I can help my congregations as a pastor and teacher and they don’t feel like they’ve been abandoned. They really appreciate the energy and time put into it and it has kept our pastoral bond between semi-regular visiting. 

It has also meant I’ve had to learn how to preach differently. I don’t have a teleprompter or something to read from so that has changed how I deliver the sermon and I’ve had to condense big sermons down into smaller versions. 

This also has seeded a whole bunch of ideas for content creation in rural churches. It has led us in our parish to think creatively about how we can use pre-recorded content in places where they don’t have access to preachers. Beyond this we have joined in a bigger project picked up by the Tasmanian diocese who have partnered with Bush Church Aid. There is now a much larger scale project to produce digital content that can be released across the rural parts of the diocese.

ANY OTHER THOUGHTS FOR THOSE CONSIDERING SOMETHING LIKE THIS?

It can be daunting starting out but like any new skill, if you repeat a thousand times it becomes second nature. We’ve found that our whole staff team have become a lot more confident making videos. We’re more natural and capable, we do better editing, and we’re much more comfortable in front of a camera and watching ourselves on screen. 

There is a danger with all this if we think every person should be doing video content all the time. It really is the context that needs to drive what you’re doing with video. If you want to take this on yourself, you need to have the creative knack or someone talented in your parish because the editing takes the longest. For me it was a way of presenting the gospel as well as I could in multiple places at the same time. If I was the pastor of a single congregation I wouldn’t have had that need, so don’t make video sermons unless you have a very good reason. Video is never as good as being in person, being physically present is always the ideal.

If you’re stuck in a rut and looking for ways to keep evangelical ministry fresh and engaged then look no further than some of these thought provoking options. User discretion recommended and please see your bishop if symptoms persist. Creative results may vary from person to person.

If you’ve got a good idea to share, send it through to This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. 

 

PODCAST

With amazing titles like “Teddy Bears and Penalty Shootouts” and “Tetris and the Seed Potatoes of Leningrad” you’re sure to come across a good sermon illustration or two. This podcast is full of cultural factoids to empower your lateral thinking.

DOGGOS FOR THE GOSPEL

Needing an excuse to meet new people and build relationships? Buy a dog and hang out at an off-lead park. It’s instant friendliness, a whole lot of regular time chatting and has the bonus of being good for your physical and mental health. The tricky part is getting to know the humans and not just the dogs... and the financial cost of a pet

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COFFEE IS KEY

Expectations are high these days for quality coffee but it’s not easy producing a fair amount of reliable brew, especially if you need something transportable like Inner West Church in Kensington, Melbourne. You can get the Brazen, a grinder and a pump pot for under $400 and it means no pods, low waste, and it’s set and forget so it doesn’t require any skill.

ARTS & LETTERS DAILY

Arts & Letters Daily is like drinking from a cultural and philosophical firehose. If you want to see how the rest of the world is being pushed in its thinking then this is the place to go. I’m sure this is where Paul sourced his Titus 1:12 quote from. It’s a website but you can also subscribe to a weekly email update.

The Apostles’ Creed: A Guide to the Ancient Faith
BEN MYERS LEXHAM PRESS, 2018

I have long enjoyed expositions of the Apostles’ Creed, so when I saw Ben Myers’ book on the shortlist for the Australian Christian Book of the Year, I was keen to read it. The book in the Christian Essentials series comes as a nicely designed small format hardback.

In his 130 page treatment of the creed Myers connects the creed to its roots as a confession of faith on the lips of those being baptised. Myers favours quotations from patristic writers, and sees the creed as both a ‘summary of Christian teaching as well as a solemn pledge of allegiance’ (p. 5). Breaking down the creed into 22 gobbets, this book is a series of gentle, 3-5 page meditations on the words from ‘I’ to ‘Amen’. I especially enjoyed the chapters on Jesus’ conception and birth, and his interesting last chapter on the sense in which we say ‘Amen’ to the creed. But whatever new and arresting thoughts a reader might discover in its pages (and there are many), the one thing that I imagine would be sure to raise the eyebrows of many Essentials readers, should they take up this book, is Myers’ universalism.

Universal salvation is a recurring and growing theme of the book. It begins unobtrusively, for example in the chapter on Pilate: ‘The salvation of the world can be dated. Certain people were there when it happened.’ (p. 62) (not just ‘salvation’, or the salvation of the church or of God’s people, but of the world). Later, we read that ‘As Jesus rises, the whole of humanity rises with him’ (p. 82). The Holy Spirit ‘broods over each of Christ’s followers, renewing the human race one at a time and drawing all into a common family’ (p. 101). The church is a ‘representative microcosm of what God intends for the whole human family.’ (p. 105). Belief in the forgiveness of sins means that we believe that ‘if we should ever turn away from grace, if ever our hearts grow cold and we forget our Lord and become unfaithful to his way, he will not forget us. His faithfulness is deeper that our faithlessness. His yes is stronger than our no.’ (p. 116).

Evangelical readers will be unpersuaded that the suggestions of Isaac the Syrian, or Origen, can be our grounds for belief on these matters, and moreover, will be unpersuaded that the Apostles’ Creed teaches universalism. But the questions ‘Who will be saved?’ and ‘Will they be many?’ will press itself upon us always. Myers mixes it into his exposition without comment. Perhaps the best response is to read our Bibles with those questions in mind. Can there be weightier questions?

// BEN UNDERWOOD, WA

Summer smells. Sometimes, depending on where you are, it really stinks. The smell of a Christmas tree has strong connotations for me of late night worship, preparation for holidays, and a new year of opportunity coming up. Even the stench of rotting seaweed and dead fish has positive reminders of spiritual conversations with my grandfather as we spent hot summers on the beach. The best smells are the ones that indicate there is fresh life and a fresh start. I’m not sure what Essentials smells like for you when you open it, maybe a bit of a plastic and ink combination, but I hope the connotations you have is that there is something helpful and encouraging waiting for you inside as you read. This edition has a fresh new look and a trial of some new features so we’d love to hear your feedback on what works and what doesn’t work so well. It would be great to see our membership base grow and have an even larger readership so that gospel ministry stays strong in the Anglican church of Australia. EFAC can go places and support ministry in ways that other groups can’t so if you like Essentials then once you’ve finished reading this please find someone who’s not a subscriber and give it to them. If you’re in a position to make a donation or sponsor EFAC in an ongoing way then please give generously at efac.org.au. Inside we find out about some fascinating innovation happening in Tasmania to overcome some of the difficulties of small and remote locations. We also have some discussion around the impact and opportunity of church planting, we have an all new ideas page, and we get to know some Anglicans we have probably never heard of. And there’s more! We hope you enjoy this issue and may we continue to spread the pleasing aroma of the knowledge of Christ everywhere we go.

Claire sat across the table from her friend, the leader of an evangelical Anglican church near the rapidly-changing inner ring suburb that God had been laying on her heart.Gathering her thoughts, Claire began to speak. She excitedly laid out her vision for a new church that would engage with the highly diverse mix of people moving into the suburb. She shared about how God had begun drawing together a team who were eagerly praying with her about this new endeavour. To top it all off, she spoke about the affirmation she’d received when she communicated her vision to another church planter from a different denomination who had launched his own church in the same suburb several years before. Although his view of women’s leadership differed from Claire’s, he had greeted her overture with enthusiasm: “Terrific! There are heaps of people in this area who need to be reached for Jesus. I can even think of a few people currently involved in our church who would probably get on board with what you would do.”

Claire paused to draw breath and hear from her friend. But rather than shared excitement, it was like a bucket of ice had been dumped on the conversation — and their relationship. What Claire had anticipated as a moment of collegiality and convergence around a new mission initiative turned out to be anything but. Far from an opportunity to be welcomed, her announcement was treated as a threat by her friend. Instead of joining her in dreaming and strategising, Claire’s friend was worried about the families from his church who lived in the suburb Claire wanted to plant in. He didn’t say it out loud, but she could tell what he was thinking: “Sheep stealer!”

Her heart sank. Well, it would have if this conversation — and Claire — was real. It’s not. It’s an amalgam. But the emotional trajectory of the conversation is only too real. The announcement of a intentions to church plant is greeted with fear and defensiveness at least as often as it is by joy and excitement. Church planting is regarded by many among the leadership of established churches as a foe — or at least as unwelcome competition in the already-challenging work of fishing for people in shrinking pond. This sense of competition or antagonism is not helped by the cheerleading of some who promote church planting. Much of the romance and rhetoric around planting overplays its superiority.

In his seminal article, “Why Plant Churches?”, Tim Keller — the founder and key thought leader of City to City, the church planting network I work with — claims that “the only way to significantly increase the overall number of Christians in a city is by significantly increasing the number of new churches.” The argument Keller makes in support of this is not without merit and nuance, and the evidence for it is not wholly lacking. But it risks underestimating the effectiveness of and potential for spiritual renewal through healthy, established churches.

Most church planters are concerned to avoid the label of “sheep stealer,” and church planting agencies like Geneva Push are rightly committed to “evangelising new churches into existence” rather than depending on transfer growth. But the stats tell a messier story. Transfer growth is involved with almost every new church plant in some way— whether in the original core/launch team, or as fringe members of other churches come to check out the new church on the block. And more than one church planter would be able to tell you about missteps they’ve made in recruiting such people — and even thrusting them into leadership — without adequately consulting the leaders of the churches they hail from.

What is more, well-intentioned as they often are, church planters sometimes speak and act in ways that undervalue the ministry of established churches. In fact, some church planting looks like the old-school Protestant tendency to fracture and divide, dressed up in glad rags. Tim Keller calls this “defiant church planting.” His observation about the motivation for this kind of planting rings true in an uncomfortable number of situations I’m familiar with: “Some people in the church get frustrated and split away and form a new church — because there is alienation over doctrine, or vision, or philosophy of ministry.”

Without a doubt, there can be a thin line between (i) someone whose burden for reaching new people combines with a resolution to give that a go by trying something new (resulting in a church plant), and (ii) a dissatisfied assistant pastor who feels that things aren’t being “done right” by the leadership of their current church and who therefore starts something new in reaction to it.

Even the most noble and other-person centred church planters acknowledge the possibility of mixed motives — the human heart is mysterious and has depths that can conceal unrecognised ugliness!

It has been said that God frequently uses church planting to do at least as much work on and in the planter/s as through them (in this sense it’s a lot like cross-cultural mission work). From my own experience walking alongside church planters, almost all of them sooner or later are led to face and, in God’s kindness, repent of their tendency to fashion ministry around their own preferences.

An example: a planter can act on the assumption that their preferred style and shape of church experience is automatically what will resonate most with those they’re trying to reach. Sadly, such “missiology by mirroring” is unlikely to be resoundingly successful (believe me — I’ve tried). Worse, it typically flows from a lack of personal maturity and failure to lead as an equipper and empowerer of others in God’s mission. Significantly, however, the simmering hostility between new and established churches is not reduced by treating church planting as an enemy rather than a partner in the work of reaching people.

On the planting side of the equation, the data about multiplying church movements tells us that good relationships with a sending church (or better yet a whole group of churches who partner in sending out a church plant) make a massive difference to the health and likely longevity of a new church. In a sense, this should hardly be surprising. The New Testament authors link Christian unity and partnership with mission effectiveness on more than one occasion — no doubt taking their cue from Jesus, who makes this connection in his “high priestly prayer” in John 17.

So planters beware! You trash talk the ministry of established churches at your own risk. Not only do you face the danger of alienating potential mission partners — or, more prosaically, preachers who could step into the pulpit when you need to take a vacation (and you’ll need to take a vacation!). You also risk having to eat your words if and when in God’s grace your church plant becomes an established church itself. Even more dangerously, you put your soul at risk. And that’s not me being overdramatic. It was Jesus himself who said (Matthew 5.22):

“I tell you, everyone who is angry with his brother or sister will be subject to judgment. Whoever insults his brother or sister, will be subject to the court. Whoever says, ‘You fool!’ will be subject to hellfire.”

Nursing contempt, dismissiveness, and superiority in your heart is spiritually a very, very bad idea.

Equally, however, those who lead existing churches need to grapple with the fact that church planting is demonstrably good for the established church. There are well-documented benefits of church planting for existing ministries as well as the wider mission in an area. It’s not only church planters making this point (and believing their own hype). It’s also strategists and those who research trends in church life — both here and abroad. For instance, NCLS Research, who conduct the National Church Life Survey in Australia, have consistently found that newer churches (up to ten years old) have a higher than average proportion of “newcomers” — who are defined as people with no active connection to a church in the previous five years (so include both unchurched and dechurched people). According to their 2016 survey data, the nation-wide average across all types of churches is 6% newcomers. A 2015 study into church planting in the Diocese of Sydney, suggests that in newer churches that number jumps up to 13% — although the study notes that these numbers vary depending on the model of church planting adopted.

This may still feel like a relatively modest proportion of a church. Yet what would constitute a healthy proportion of newcomers is an interesting question to consider. Presumably not 100% (a church that was entirely “evangelised into existence” would have some very significant needs in terms of establishing and maturing all these new believers). It may not even be 50%. Those who study group psychology tell us that the dynamics of group cohesion mean that a fairly substantial majority who already “belong” is required in any group for it to be able to integrate new members well. As one church planter admits, “I don’t want transfer growth (but I probably need it in order for evangelism to lead to discipleship).”

Of course, it’s not the case that simply starting a new church is an ironclad guarantee of a solid showing of newcomers, let alone of fruitfulness in evangelism and disciple-making. The findings of a significant study undertaken by LifeWay in the US indicate that engagement in evangelistic activities — even simple and “old fashioned” activities like door-knocking — is strongly correlated with effective engagement with the unchurched. In other words, you’ve got to do something to engage and reach your community (and it may not matter so much what that something is).

Established and newer churches are on a level playing field here — with the odds possibly even slightly in favour of healthy, well-resourced established churches. Activating our congregations and mobilising their members in evangelism is a crucial task. It is a matter of both faithful discipleship and fruitfulness in mission - whether we’re in a new or an established church.

In this vein, there’s a strong case to be made that church plants contribute to the health and vitality of all the churches in an area.

On the one hand, the lessons new churches learn in seeking to reach and disciple people often find their way back to more established churches. Perhaps it’s the community-service strategy they stumble into as they scramble to secure a community grant or qualify to rent their preferred venue — without quite realising it, the new church’s credibility in the local community goes through the roof. Or maybe it’s the excellent kids program they run because they happen to have some gifted people in their launch team — families with young kids love it because they’re desperate for ways to break up their seemingly-endless weekend. Or maybe it’s the carefully-tracked social media campaign and letterbox drop ahead of the launch service — a deliberate attempt to experiment and learn what sort of community contact is most effective that can directly inform the strategies of established churches in the area. In all these ways and more, church plants can function as missional R&D departments.

This mirrors a lot of what leaders in the business world have observed about the transferability of lessons learned in a startup context. A recent Harvard Business Review report, for instance, argues that the agility, learning stance, and growth mindset that startups need for survival can benefit every type of business — especially given the rapid pace of change all companies are facing. In my view, little is different in the church. The incredibly rapid changes in the social position of the church in the wider culture prove potentially more disastrous if we fail to adapt, or adapt poorly.

On the other hand, churches that actively partner with new church plants frequently report significant benefits — even amidst the pain and grief of giving away people and resources. Whether it’s by becoming a “parent,” sending out a new church plant, or by some other kind of partnership — e.g., sending some members to join or temporarily serve in the plant — it hurts to let go of core, motivated leaders (or potential leaders). Things never feel the same in an established church after commissioning and sending off people. But the space it creates can allow new leadership to emerge, new things to be tried, and new connections to be forged. Even if it can never compensate for it perfectly, the new opportunities created by releasing people can be meaningful — and are never lost in God’s economy.

In conclusion, may I humbly suggest that those on both sides of the church planting vs existing ministry divide would find it worthwhile to meditate on the words of Nathan Campbell:

“The reason it’s scary to hear about a schmick new church plant led by cool people with great ideas is because we’re (and by we I mean me) often insecure about what we bring to the table, and to our city... focusing on the size of the mission field and trying to reach lost people, rather than the limited pool of human resources around, is the best way to get a bit of perspective about this insecurity.”

All of us need to cultivate a bigger vision for mission to overcome our sense of competitiveness and insecurity — whether about the prospect of a new church plant in our “patch” or about the existing churches that don’t seem to share our enthusiasm for what we’re talking about starting (and, reality check, no-one shares your enthusiasm for it to the extent that you do). Many of us enthusiastically preach on Jesus’s instruction to ask the Lord of the harvest to raise up workers. But if we’re honest we probably prefer to see them raised up within our ministry, where (as God knows!) the need is real and the resources always feel scarce. Nevertheless, the Father who sends his Son in the power of the Spirit for the sake of the world in the overflow of love, is not threatened by scarcity. Indeed, Jesus endured the ultimate scarcity and deprivation, crying out “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” on our behalf on the cross. The perfectly rich and free Lord of creation became poor and subject to death in order to bear the deprivation and judgement due us for turning from our Creator. And it is only to the degree that this fills our hearts that we’ll be able to lift our eyes from our apparent scarcity — as a planter or an established church leader — and see each other as collaborators rather than competitors.

You can check out a full interview with Chris here: https://youtu.be/HOcKBK1kVJE

The Lord’s Prayer: A Guide to Praying to Our Father
WESLEY HILL LEXHAM PRESS, 2019

The Lord’s Prayer, or Our Father, has to be one of the most well-known pieces of Christian scripture, read as it is in public occasions, openings of parliament, and throughout our media. Its familiarity has brought great benefit to many praying it, and comfort in times of trial. But how often do we reflect on its meaning? This new book from Wesley Hill is part of a series from Lexham Press on the Christian Essentials and seeks to explore the Lord’s Prayer for the seeker and saint alike. Dividing up the prayer into the basic clauses, Wesley reads and reflects on each in conversation with the long Christian tradition, highlighting how the prayer has been used in the past and reflecting on its significance for today. Wesley Hill’s reflections are well written and draw the reader into a conversation from Augustine and Barth to Thielicke and Williams, and a host of the faithful in between. These reflections aren’t just an academic exercise in information retrieval or knowledge building, but rather an engagement in robust Christian identity formation and discipleship. In the end one finds themselves praying the Prayer along with a community of the faithful as they work through the book. True to this direction the book is not merely a description of the Lord’s Prayer, but also how Hill himself prays the Lord’s Prayer. To this end a postscript is included that draws the reader into Wesley’s own devotional practice with the Prayer and the Prodigal Son in order to model a pattern of prayer for believers and sceptics alike. The book is beautifully produced by Lexham and contains several pieces of art that are themselves worthy of reflection. While I wish this book could be longer than 103 pages, the reflections in it will sustain faithful meditation for a long time. Indeed, as Wesley Hill closes: ‘To prayer the Our Father … with Jesus’ Father in view is to find yourself praying it in a way you hope never to stop.’ (101) I highly recommend this book.

// CHRIS PORTER, VIC

This review was originally published on Euangelion. Book provided for review by Lexham Press.

JONAH BIBLE STUDY CO-AUTHORED BY BRIAN ROSNER & MARK JUERS

The Book of Jonah is about Jonah. That might be stating the obvious but it is easy to over-emphasise the other parts of such a fascinating episode of Scripture. In Jonah we have a range of human characters as well as the wind, the whale, the plant, the worm and the sun.

If we focus on the sailors, the main message might be... desperate times call for desperate praying. If we focus on the Ninevites, the main message might be... the importance of prompt and thorough repentance, cattle included. If we focus on the fish, the main message might be... well, not sure ... maybe God’s love for the animals of the world – animals as God’s servants?! Putting the emphasis anywhere else means Jonah would be a supporting character illustrating the folly of disobeying God. With this in mind what is the big message of the Book of Jonah?

In both Jewish and Christian interpretation commentators agree that there is much to like about Jonah. Without a doubt he gets off to a bad start and running away from the call of God is not to be recommended, but he is still held up as a model in three vital respects.

SOLID DOCTRINE

One thing that’s hard not to admire about Jonah is his doctrine. His knowledge of the Bible and theology seems pretty good. Look how he describes himself in 1:9, “I am a Hebrew and I worship the Lord, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the dry land.” So he knows the covenant name of God, he knows God’s abode and he knows that God made everything. Now look at his prayer from the belly of the fish in 2:8-9

“Those who cling to worthless idols turn away from God’s love for them.
But I, with shouts of grateful praise will sacrifice to you.
What I have vowed I will make good.
I will say, ‘Salvation comes from the Lord.’”

So he hates idolatry and he sees salvation by grace as a gift! He knows the most cherished doctrine of the church.

And then look at his prayer to God in 4:2b with its allusion to Ex 34:6-7, “I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity.” He seems to have covered the doctrine of creation, the doctrine of the one true God, the doctrine of salvation by grace, and the doctrine of God’s love pretty well. What we believe matters and we don’t want to be left to people’s personal preferences or feelings when it comes to what we know about God.

SOLID PREACHING

A second thing to admire is his preaching. If you like his doctrine, check out his sermon in 3:4b. It has to be the most economical and effective evangelistic sermon in history – just 5 words in Hebrew, “Forty more days and Nineveh will be overthrown.” Suddenly the whole city repents – from the king at the top to the beasts in the field at the bottom.

He even manages an allusion to another Old Testament reference when he uses the word “overthrown” which is the same as Deuteronomy 29:23 in describing what happened to Sodom, Gomorrah, Admah and Zeboyim.

SOLID REPENTANCE

The third thing to admire is the repentance we see in 3:1-3,

“Then the word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time: ‘Go to the great city of Nineveh and proclaim to it the message I give you.’ Jonah obeyed the word of the Lord and went to Nineveh.”

The Reformers mostly saw Jonah as an illustration of repentance. He fled in disobedience but then he turned around after being given a second chance and listened to God’s voice. Even when we’ve run far away from God, and Jonah had, we can still return to him. Jonah encourages us when we’ve blown it big time.

So, there is much to like about Jonah... or is there? Appearances can be deceiving and on closer inspection the book of Jonah contains some surprises that lead us to draw different conclusions about Jonah. If we are to go back over Jonah’s supposed positives in greater detail we find some disappointing flaws.

SOLID DOCTRINE?

Firstly, is his doctrine sufficient?

The reality of his self description in 1:9 as a Hebrew who worships God who made the sea and the dry land is dripping with irony. How does he think he is going to run away from the creator of the stuff he stands on and then floats on? Where does he think he can hide? His own behaviour undermines his confession.

The fish swallowing Jonah and Jonah praying from its belly is a tad surprising. He prays in 2:8-9 with a certainty of salvation that sounds entirely presumptuous. He takes God’s mercy to him entirely for granted. He doesn’t pray a confession but instead he assumes he’ll be saved and pre-emptively thanks God for it. To top it off, he’s not thankful that the pagan sailors did their best to save him but rather has a jab at those who cling to worthless idols.

Now look again at his prayer to God in 4:2b with the allusion to Ex 34:6-7. He admits to knowing how gracious, compassionate and abounding in love God is and yet he can’t stand the fact that God might have mercy on Ninevah.

We rightly put a premium on Christians knowing what they believe. We can know our doctrine and quote the Bible at length but if we undermine this with our own words and actions we make a mockery of precious truths. Christian maturity is not about what you know, but using what you know.

“But solid food is for the mature, who by constant use have trained themselves to distinguish good from evil” Heb 5:15

SOLID PREACHING?

Secondly, is his preaching something to emulate?

He might be efficient and effective in his preaching but his heart is not in it. He preaches pure judgement without any instruction for repentance nor any offer that God might relent.

Even if we assume that this opportunity for repentance is implied, there is no denying that Jonah is hoping and expecting that Ninevah is to be destroyed. After completing his task he sits safely outside the city but once he is aware that God’s mercy has arrived he has no thought for the newly repentant city taking a further step of faith. There is no hint of any desire to follow through on caring for those who hear and obey the voice of God.

SOLID REPENTANCE?

Thirdly, can we really admire his repentance?

Perhaps the biggest surprise is in 4:1 when Jonah becomes irate over the deliverance of the Ninevites. The fire and brimstone that he is waiting and hoping for does not arrive. He is overcome with a righteous anger but God questions if this anger is in fact right. By the end of the book there is no sign that Jonah has allowed his mind to bend to the will of God. Jonah may have turned from his outward disobedience and eventually followed the command of God but clearly his heart is not at peace with the plans of God.

Jonah says, “I’m so angry I wish I were dead” (4:9).

When it comes to repentance, it is the Ninevites, not Jonah, that are the ones to emulate!

Therefore, The Book of Jonah is a satirical debunking of the orthodox prophet who has no mercy. We must allow God to extend his mercy to whomever he wishes even when it violates our standards of justice, since absolute justice would mean destruction for all. We need to be careful not to exclude people who are different to us, especially those on the fringe. The whole book makes it clear that if you want to be in line with God’s purposes then we need to be willing to bless those who curse us.

But the truth is that the Book of Jonah is not about Jonah but about God. We learn that God is sovereign. That he gets done what he wants to get done. He has providence over nature. He can handle a disobedient prophet. He is the king of the cosmos and his will is unstoppable when he wants something to happen.

We also learn that God has a view to care for those who have turned their backs on him. There is a message of mercy for entire nations. There is no escaping his voice of compassion for others.

The smart thing to do, of course, is to trust and obey.

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