The Gospel Partnerships asked me to describe what it’s like to be left behind in the sending church once the new plant has started. Here are my reflections.
Archive for the ‘Ministry’ Category
That’s better. It felt like we got somewhere. Numbers were down on the previous day, which was a little disappointing but to be expected. This was Wednesday and we were competing against sports’ fixtures. But word may also have got round about the historicity talk! This time the audience engagement was considerably better. Perhaps the innovation of a phone number to text questions helped. I certainly think the quality of the talk helped. It was a whole load more engaging. The topic was ‘Outdated: Has Science Killed Christianity?’ I tried to argue that the approach of the New Atheists is to abuse scientific method rather than use it to investigate the evidence for Jesus. And so they hijack in the service of naturalism and ask it to justify an ideology that it simply can’t support.
It generated a fair few questions. One of them was brilliant. And, as you might expect, I fluffed it! The question said something like ‘does creation point in the direction of a creator, or not?’ And I ended up rattling on about the presuppositions which we bring to the debate whether we’re Christian or not. That’s not wrong. And it may have been helpful. But I failed to talk at all about God’s general revelation, which was an oversight! What I should have said was something along the lines that the Bible says that creation speaks of God’s existence and his invisible power and divine nature (Romans 1:18-20). But we suppress the evidence. And the reason that we do that is because we’re predisposed to keeping God at arms’ length. And so although God is ‘speaking’ to us in creation, we do not have ears to hear. But wonderfully God provides another word for us to listen to in the person of his Son, Jesus Christ. He’s less easy to ignore.
I did wonder whether I was the best person to be giving this talk. I’m not a scientist. I was an engineer. Once. But there are reasons why I got out of engineering. And they had to do with not being much good at it and not being remotely interested in it. But an engineering degree from Warwick University is not to be sniffed at. But it raises the question of whether I should have been doing the talk at all. I’ve had guys in our congregation say that people like me (non-experts) shouldn’t do talks where a specialist is needed. They’re not entirely wrong. If you had the choice between Professor John Lennox and me, it’s a no-brainer. But there’s only one of him. He’s large brained, clear thinking and engaging. That combination is rare. Specialists in a subject can be unbelievably dull. I really don’t have anyone in mind. It’s just the kind of sweeping generalisation that I’m in the mood for making. And so I want to speak up for the specialist communicators, the run of the mill pastors who are used to understanding stuff and explaining it. We may not be experts in the field of apologetics but at least we can be understood and engaging. We’ll need to work hard at understanding the arguments. And to do that we’ll usually try and climb on the shoulders of experts like John Lennox, especially but also other apologists. But when we do, perhaps being able to speak apologetically is a speciality! My own view is that you want people who want to win people to Christ not simply people who want to win the argument. Evangelists have to be better than experts because they’ll head for the gospel rather than simply their learning. But I’ve seen John Lennox do both. And it was electric. But apparently he wasn’t available!
Late night, early morning. After the disappointment of yesterday’s decidedly disengaging performance, I went back to the drawing board on the science talk. When I got to bed, I couldn’t sleep because my mind was spinning with Richard Dawkins quotes. And they’re hardly designed to lull into a deep slumber even the most committed Calvinist. The alarm clock had a five on it when I woke up. And I hadn’t even set it that early.
The talk title for today is Outdated: Has science disproved God? It was pretty stressful until late last night, when in God’s kindness it all started to come together. I just couldn’t work out what I was trying to do in terms of answering the question. But God gave me something to say that may even be quite helpful! And, God willing, it’ll do the job. I hope it provokes a few more questions than yesterday’s talk on the historical reliability of the Gospel accounts. In hindsight, it could well have been that I gave the seminal twenty minute talk on the trustworthiness of the biblical testimony to Jesus, and everyone was simply left speechless. I’m just saying it’s a possibility. It’s not what I think happened. Something else accounts for the tumbleweed moment when I asked for questions.
One of the things I’ve discovered in preparing these talks is how little I enjoy leaving stuff out. If the art of a good talk is knowing what to leave on the desk, then I’m artless! I quite like showing what I know. And if I’ve just learnt something then I want to show it before I forget it! Leave nothing of my extensive research out tends to be my modus operandi. But I’m repenting of that and the talks are much better because of it. I’ve read some terrific treatments of the science issue, among the best of which has been Andrew Sach’s UCCF booklet. I’m stealing one of his illustrations because it makes the point about the abuse of science so well. It’s the one about the light machine, if that means anything to you.
The effort that the Christian Union has gone to in running this week of events has been hugely encouraging. This is a big week for them. And they’ve done a great job. Both the UCCF student worker and a local pastor have clearly provided invaluable assistance to the Committee, and especially to the President. There’s been momentum building throughout the week and the numbers at the lunch bars have held up well. There must have been 50 or 60 in attendance yesterday.
The lunch bar concept is a great one. Occasionally people have 12pm lectures and so they can’t make it. But lots of people have been able to get along. Brookes is a split campus university. But we’re on the main one. Though I’m amazed how quiet it is. At Warwick (back in the day) the Students’ Union was heaving. The SU at Brookes is pretty quiet. I suspect that the student life is located in Oxford. When you live in a place like Oxford, that’s your campus. We didn’t have a resource like that on our doorstep. As much as I’m fond of it, who wanted to spend an evening in Coventry? Especially as a student. No, the SU was where we headed. But even though it’s quieter than I might have expected, I’m struck by how lunch bars are a great way to reach students. I suspect in a London context, like ours at CCB, lunch bars are a brilliant way to reach student who commute to university each day from their homes.
One of the things that I failed to mention yesterday was the complete horlicks I made of the question time after my talk. That may have been why no one decided to ask any questions today. Or, as is more likely, they were completely bored by my unbelievably dull talk.
At the end of yesterday’s talk I used a brilliant CS Lewis quote,
‘Christianity is a statement which, if false, is of no importance, and, if true, of infinite importance. The one thing it cannot be is moderately important’.
The questioner put up his arm and asked what it was that had convinced me that Jesus was of infinite importance rather than of no importance. What a gift of a question. It could almost have been a plant. It wasn’t. (Though I was to later learn that the guy was part of the Christian Union). Anyway despite the set up that he’d given me, I bogged it. I wittered. And what I should have said was something like this:
1. the first thing that tipped me over the edge was meeting Christians who gave Christianity credibility. It was amazing really because the first Christians I met were at school. They were only sixth formers and yet it was evident that they had something that I did not. There was substance to them even at that young age. I found them hugely impressive. And I could imagine becoming a Christian and not thinking that would be the worst thing in the world!
2. the second thing that tipped me over the edge was seeing that Jesus’ teaching had the ring of authenticity. Every time I encountered Bible teaching I kept being nailed. Jesus had this uncanny knack of knowing what I was like and why I would do things. It made me uncomfortable but at least I knew that he knew what I was like on the inside. And then I heard an explanation of the cross which made sense of why people got so excited about Jesus. That was the clincher.
3. the third thing that tipped me over the edge was discovering that the historical accounts had integrity. I read some books by people like FF Bruce and Paul Barnett and they gave me confidence that what I was reading was legitimate history. I wasn’t being asked to suspend belief but to exercise belief in the Jesus I encountered. I just couldn’t shake the feeling that I was reading facts! And that mattered to me. I didn’t want to believe a fairy tale. I was an engineer. I needed to know that there was evidence for what was being said. And these writers kept on showing me historical evidence to support what the Bible said.
Some of that came out in the question. But you’d have had to be working pretty hard to access it. First note to self: be better at thinking on your feet!
Today was the issue of the historical reliability of the New Testament. I’ve been reading John Dickson’s book ‘The Christ Files’ which is a very helpful introduction to the issue of the historical studies. Paul Barnett’s book ‘The Truth About Jesus’ has also been an invaluable resource. Neither are technical. They’re paperbacks, which is how I like my theology books in general! But you can feel the weight of scholarship that underpins what are popular level treatments of an important but quite dull question. And so today was poor. The crowd was bigger. But the talk was dull. That was my fault, though I do think the topic lacks the x-factor of some of the other talks. I tried, but the issue of the authenticity of our contemporary versions, the salient historical details being attested by non-Christian writers and the accuracy of the written testimony established by eyewitnesses accounts is hardly edge of the seat stuff. At least, it wasn’t the way I put it! In his book, Dickson himself says ‘It is a sad fact of scholarship (in many fields that the most impressive work is too subtle, cautious and sophisticated – in other words, boring – to be considered newsworthy by the regular media outlets’. He uses that to explain why it’s the ‘Jesus married Mary’ stuff always gets an airing. I suspect that a more sensational approach to my talk might have given it some juice. But I felt constrained by the need for careful explanation and so it felt a bit flat.
My new resolve is not to put my confidence in my fearsome intellect (ahem) but in the God who says that he’ll bring people to faith in his Son through the work of his Spirit as he speaks through his word. And so I’m hoping that the brief exposition of Luke 1:1-4 makes some impact. It wasn’t much. It couldn’t be since time was running on. But I briefly mentioned that the fulfilment that Jesus’ historical biographer, Luke was out to establish had to do with the long awaited provision of a saviour from sin. That’s got some juice!
- to see the family each day,
- to travel through some beautiful countryside in the Thames Valley,
- to read some helpful books on the commute (John Dickson’s The Christ Files today)
- and to eat a lavish lunch from the M&S in Oxford station
I don’t know what you think of your local church. I don’t really know what significance you think it has in your Christian life. I know it’s the church that you attend. It may also be the church of which you feel a part. I’m pretty sure that you appreciate it, and perhaps especially the other people who make it what it is. But, in my view, we consistently underestimate the significance and importance of the local church. We simply don’t share God’s view of it. In all fairness, it’s easily done because the Bible writers tend to use such exalted idealistic language. We can’t help wondering whether they’re exaggerating (or whether they even had our church in mind). It’s one thing to write about the local church from the isolation of the ivory tower. But we live with the reality!
So following on from last week’s threefold description of the Christian, it’s lucky (as Calvin would say) that in the 1 Timothy passage for this Sunday morning’s sermon, the Apostle Paul provides us with a threefold description of the church of which every Christian is a part (1 Timothy 3:14-15). For those of us at CCB, this may be worth remembering as we drag ourselves out of bed in the morning, or away from the Antiques Roadshow for the evening meeting, to unpack church from a school cupboard and meet in a venue in which there’s no natural light and the heating never works as we want it to.
We are the household of God. The Greek word that Paul uses means ‘house as in building’ or ‘household as in family’. And it’s in that sense that he uses it here. Our church family is actually God’s church family. We have been born again by the Spirit of God so that we might become a part of the family of God. God is our Father and he has brought us into relationship with him as sons. And we are brothers and sisters to one another with bonds stronger than blood. When we go to church there’s a sense in which we’re pitching up to the ultimate family gathering. I’m hoping that whets your appetite. But I guess that depends on your experience of these things. For the record, I always enjoy them infinitely more than I think I’m going to. But that’s why getting to church early and lingering around afterwards is almost as important as what goes on during the ‘service’ bit of the morning. It’s family time.
We are the church of the living God. The Greek word that Paul uses means ‘gathering’ or ‘assembly’. It’s not actually a religious word at all. We’re a crowd. But we’re a very special type of crowd. We’re the crowd in which God makes himself at home. He dwells among us. And we meet him when we gather together to listen to his word, sing his praises, express our dependence on him in prayer, love one another and encourage one another to respond to what we’ve heard. And that’s why being in church frequently and not just regularly is so important to our spiritual health. An isolated infrequent church member is like a log removed from the fire. Together with other logs it burns brightly. But on its’ own, the fire soon dims and the heat goes out of it. But by being part of God’s crowd, gathering together with our Christian family, we’ll burn with passion for God and the gospel.
We are the pillar and foundation of the truth. The pillars are the columns that lift the roof of any building into the air. The foundation is the thing that stabilises the building so that it doesn’t crumble. Therefore our local church is what God has ordained to hold ensure that the truth of the gospel is maintained under the weight of false teaching. And our local church is what God has ordained to elevate the truth of the gospel before a watching world. And so church is the place where the truth of the gospel is held firm and held up so that it might be held out to an unbelieving world. Can you appreciate just how significant a little church like yours is? Your town needs you. They may not realise it. Almost certainly they won’t. They may not appreciate you. But they need you. You’re hugely significant for the people of your neck of the woods. No one else is talking about the gospel in your area (apart from the other churches, I mean). People aren’t going to find the good news of the gospel anywhere else. We must remember what significance God has given to us.
Your little, local, imperfect church is infinitely more important than your thoughts betray, isn’t it?
‘The curse of the gifted amateur’, that was how Phillip Jensen berated English Evangelicalism. It was one of his off-piste comments that, had he known he was going to be quoted, he may well have wanted to kill with a thousand qualifications. But he didn’t, which is what makes him so worth listening to! But at the time, his point was that as a theological constituency we had far too low a view of the value of theological education. He was probably right. And there were good reasons for that. We hadn’t had it and we’d had to survive without it. Lots of our flagship churches were run by men who were extraordinarily gifted in intellect, initiative and instinct but whose theological education had ill equipped them for evangelical pastoral ministry. I’m not saying that they weren’t good. They were. And are. And I still benefit hugely from their ministries. But most of the people who went to the theological colleges in Oxford, Cambridge, Durham and Bristol in this period say that they learnt how to do ministry by being involved in student ministry and participating in their local evangelical churches. They weren’t helped by their theological training, which was overwhelmingly liberal in flavour. These men were ‘naturally’ gifted and on their watch they raised up the next generation of young church leaders. Those men now have the privilege of being able to choose between some fine theological institutions that are geared up to helping us teach the truth and refute error. But it’s possible to overplay the theological education card. My Co-Mission colleague, Pete Woodcock, repeatedly reminds us that attending a theological college isn’t a New Testament requirement for consideration for eldership. And he’s right. It’s not. And then there’s Nehemiah 3.
One of the striking features of this narrative is the sheer number and diversity of people who joined in. Just look over the chapter to get an impression of the frequency with which different people are named. The variety of different people is astounding. Every Tom, Dick and Harriet is involved in rebuilding the Kingdom of God. We get a flavour of that from the people mentioned who rebuilt the area around the Jeshanah Gate.
The Jeshanah Gate was repaired by Joiada son of Paseah and Meshullam son of Besodeiah. They laid its beams and put its doors and bolts and bars in place. Next to them, repairs were made by men from Gibeon and Mizpah—Melatiah of Gibeon and Jadon of Meronoth—places under the authority of the governor of Trans-Euphrates. Uzziel son of Harhaiah, one of the goldsmiths, repaired the next section; and Hananiah, one of the perfume-makers, made repairs next to that. They restored Jerusalem as far as the Broad Wall. Rephaiah son of Hur, ruler of a half-district of Jerusalem, repaired the next section. Adjoining this, Jedaiah son of Harumaph made repairs opposite his house, and Hattush son of Hashabneiah made repairs next to him. Malkijah son of Harim and Hasshub son of Pahath-Moab repaired another section and the Tower of the Ovens. Shallum son of Hallohesh, ruler of a half-district of Jerusalem, repaired the next section with the help of his daughters.
Uzziel the goldsmith participated. Did he really know how to wield a trowel. Perhaps DIY was a hobby. Shallum the ruler got involved and so did his daughters in. But what I especially love is Hananiah the perfume maker. The man was a beautician! What could he possibly know about bricklaying? But God used him and all the others to rebuild his Kingdom. This is a grand theme that the New Testament picks up in places like 1 Corinthians 12. God uses gifted amateurs and not simply the professionals to grow his churches. He gifts his people with whatever he thinks they need in order to grow the church in maturity and numbers. Very few of us are professionals. But no matter. God does it this way so that he gets the credit. And rightly so. He uses the glorious diversity of gifted amateurs like us.
To build the Kingdom of God in this country I’m not sure that we need more professionals as much as we gifted amateurs who are prepared to get involved in building the work of the local church.
Nehemiah 3 is littered with examples of people who had social and political clout. It’s full of people for whom labouring on a building site wouldn’t be where you’d expect to find them. But they did their bit. They played team, got involved and did what had to be done. And so the comment in (5) about the nobles from Tekoa strikes a jarring note.
5 The next section was repaired by the men of Tekoa, but their nobles would not put their shoulders to the work under their supervisors.
They decided not to get involved. We’re not told why. They clearly resented being told what to do by their supervisors, so perhaps they thought this work was beneath them. We may be tempted to think that they were work shy aristocrats. And we may be right. But before we judge them too harshly, it’s worth asking whether there are ministries in the church that we think are beneath us. Is chair stacking really what someone with a 2:1 from Cambridge ought to be doing? Durham perhaps, but not Cambridge. I jest. I wouldn’t trust a job of such complexity to a Durham man. I jest again.
But when our church has a recruitment drive for crèche helpers aren’t we tempted to think that looking after babies is beneath someone like us? But this is a ministry that enables both parents to hear the word of God on a regular basis. It’s a ministry that contributes to the growth of the church.
But the nobles of Tekoa teach us that when building the kingdom of God we can’t rely on everyone playing ball. There’ll always be a bunch of individuals who decide to be non-compliant. But the work carried on regardless. The walls were built. And sadly, for them, they missed out on the joy of being a part of it. Presumably this will always be the case. A church is unlikely to get 100% co-operation from everyone. There’ll always be a dissenting minority, perhaps even vocal who will not join in with what everyone else is doing.
What do we learn from this? God built the walls without the co-operation of the awkward squad. Nothing is going to stand in his way of fulfilling is promise to build the Kingdom of God. Not even the non-compliance of people who think that working hard to build the church is beneath them. So crack on. Don’t let their negativity get you down. Enjoy building the church. And trust the Lord.
I’ve been thinking about growing churches this week. I often do. It’s hard not to in a church planting organisation like Co-Mission. But it was forced on me by Nehemiah 3. I’ve never preached on that chapter before. And I approached it with some trepidation. It’s essentially a list of names of people and their contribution to the rebuilding work in Jerusalem. Aren’t you gutted you won’t be at Christ Church Balham on Sunday to hear it? You should be. It’s a fabulous chapter.
Anyway, there’s a bloke called Meremoth. Heard of him? He was the son of Uriah. Ring any bells? Grandson of Hakkoz. No? Me neither. I hadn’t a clue who he was. But I do now. And I’m quite looking forward to meeting him in glory (not least to thank him for his contribution to my sermon).
Amongst this list of people, he’s distinguished by being mentioned twice (3:4 & 21). Apparently in the task of rebuilding the walls, he did that little bit extra. He did what was asked of him and then he did some more. He completed his section of the wall and found that he had the capacity to do another bit. So he did.
The point is not that we need to be like Meremoth. If we can, then great and we’ll get to that. But some of us won’t be able to. We simply don’t have the capacity, the ability or the opportunity to do any more than we’re doing at the moment. And that’s understandable. As I write this, I can think of one stalwart of our congregation who’s been knocked for six by serious sickness. She’s gutted at not being able to join in the work of growing the Kingdom. But no one’s expecting her to contribute at the moment. She needs us to look after her. And we’ll happily do so because she’s family. And so there will be times and often long periods when we’re unable to get involved as we’d like to. For whatever reason we’re not able to do that little bit extra. And we certainly won’t be able to manage what everyone else is doing. And that’s fine. We don’t need to be like Meremoth. But we do need to appreciate those like him and what they do for the building up of the local church.
But we don’t always feel like that, do we? We can react very differently to the contribution of a Meremoth. Sometimes guys like that wind us up for setting the bar of self-sacrificial service so high. They’re just a bit keen, driven and zealous. They make the Christian life seem unattainable and we don’t like being played offside. And so, it’s not unheard of for us to move beyond plain and simple jealousy to despise them. They can make us angry because they’re denying us what we want; to feel justified by our contribution. But that’s self righteousness.
There are some who work very hard for the growth of the Kingdom at our church. Some of them will remain anonymous either because they prefer it that way or their contribution takes place behind the scenes. But there are people at CCB who have an extraordinary capacity for work and self-sacrifice who are happy to contribute that little bit more. God has given them their capacity for self-sacrifice. And it’s a great gift to the church. People like that aren’t the most important people in our church family. And we mustn’t make the mistake of thinking that they are. But it’s probably true to say that there aren’t many growing churches without people like them. And so we mustn’t forget to appreciate them, to encourage them and especially to thank God for them.
The office is quieter than normal today. And that’s fine. I’m being quite productive. And the reason is that the Ministry Trainees are away on the 9:38 Apprentices Conference. This seemed a good time therefore to post something I produced just before Christmas for the South East Gospel Partnership website on the subject of Ministry Apprenticeships. I was asked to write on the subject of running a ministry training programme in the context of a smaller church. Though I principally aim my comments at whoever runs the staff team, I had the team of elders in mind as well. Obviously, CCB is the smaller church context, where I’m the team leader. But, as part of the Co-Mission network of churches, we can also tap into the benefits of a combined ministry workshop which takes place on a Wednesday morning at Co-Mission HQ in Raynes Park. In all hoensty, I’d still run an apprenticeship even if we didn’t have the Co-Mission option. It would just be different, fractionally less good but definitely worth doing! But here’s what I wrote.
Small churches are the best place to train in gospel ministry. That’s just an opinion. And it’s mine. But I probably need to nuance it with a few qualifying comments. And then justify it.
Obviously, small churches are not the only place to train. You can train in larger churches. And they have their benefits. In particular, a larger church staff team can often appoint specialists to a particular ministry role. One of these roles might be ministry training. And so that staff member can be preoccupied with single-mindedly training a cohort of trainees. And therefore many of us in smaller churches assume that we can’t sensibly be involved in ministry training until we become a larger church. But that’s simply not the case. Smaller churches have two distinct advantages over larger churches. In the first place a ministry trainee is likely to have greater access to the senior pastor. Although he’ll be busy, a small church pastor won’t have to spend a huge proportion of his time managing a large staff team, overseeing a busy church programme and co-ordinating an administrative juggernaut. And so a ministry trainee can expect to spend a good proportion of his time in the company of the pastor and his family. And that’s what many of them want. They want the theory but they especially want to know what ministry looks like in practice; the good and the bad. And secondly, a small church pastor tends to be involved in a greater variety of gospel ministry. He’s not only preaching the Sunday sermon, he’s probably running the Christianity Explored course, speaking at the seniors’ tea and training the kids’ workers as well as a whole host of other stuff. And so the ministry trainee can expect to be exposed to a broad range of ministries. And that’s good since most ministry trainees will go on to become generalists in smaller churches rather than specialists in larger churches. And so training in a small church context can provide the ideal preparation they need.
In our Co-Mission Ministry Training Scheme we’ve sought to prioritise three complementary commitments; first, the strengthening of theological convictions, secondly the development of ministry competency and thirdly the formation of godly character. Although we now have a weekly combined workshop which all our ministry trainees attend, everything that we currently provide at that larger event could be done, and has been done, in a local church setting. And in many ways it was better when we were smaller. Theological convictions are formed through biblical exposure, ministry competency through critiqued experience and godly character through personal discipleship. No workshop training programme guarantees that. They need access to a pastor. And the more experienced the pastor the better. Together they can read through Wayne Grudem’s Systematic Theology for an hour each week or study a book of the Bible in preparation for a forthcoming preaching series. Together they can reflect on the ministry trainee’s talk at the youth group and discuss how a progressive revelatory understanding of the scriptures helps us understand what David and Goliath is really about. And together they can address and pray about the ministry trainee’s tendency to be dismissive in way in which he talks to older men. Those things happen best in the context of a deepening partnership and friendship. I treat our trainees like younger brothers and they treat me like an older brother. Ministry training is not a course in a workshop, it’s a shared life. And on reflection, I reckon that those who’ve had the best ministry training experience at Christ Church Balham were those with whom I was able to share my life and ministry. They were involved in evaluating my talks in our Monday morning staff meeting, reflecting on strategy and church politics as we travelled to ministry meetings, thinking about a particular pastoral situation over a cup of tea and reflecting on life and marriage over a beer at the end of an evening meeting. There wasn’t a programme that we followed. We just did life and ministry together.
I’ll be honest, it takes both time and energy. But it’s worth every moment and effort. If I train them well then although they’ll consume some of my time, in fact they’ll multiply the ministry. If it’s just me then the ministry is limited by my capacity. And I’ve only got five days of work in me. But if I give a day of my week to a ministry trainee then although I’ve only got four days left, so too have they. And that’s great news for the gospel and our church. And so I’m always looking for the spiritually hungry ministry self-starters because they’re the people worth investing in. And I tend to try and look within our congregations rather than recruit from without.
We are not a big church. We were 25 adults when we started and in the last ten years, under God, we’ve trained ten apprentices. We’ve exported most of them. And that’s the downside; you eventually get rid of your best. Wonderfully two have come back to be my assistant pastors because I knew what they could do. Of the others, one is serving as a missionary. Three are running churches overseas. Three are involved in children’s ministry. And one is church planting in Brixton. There are lots of things that we’ve been unable to do as a small church. But training apprentices isn’t one of them.