The Hard Yards

I’m in my seventh year of being the lead pastor of two small urban church plants. It’s not been plain sailing. It’s not all evangelistic conversations and training people for the work of the gospel. Sadly. There’s a lot of management; mainly of people and their issues, whether that’s serious illness, sin or ongoing social involvement. You sign up for that when you decide to become a Pastor. But it can get overwhelming. And then there are the usual discouragements, criticism, e-mails, disappointments, departures and so on. And those are wearying. And so I’m not unfamiliar with the temptation to quit and find less demanding job!

A senior pastor friend and I joke about the joys of becoming a UPS driver. Imagine it. You don’t even have difficult decisions about what clothes to wear; autumnal colours work with me! There are no tough decisions to make; the Sat Nav tells you where to go next! There aren’t even awkward people to deal with; everyone’s thrilled to get a parcel! I’m sure there are downsides but they’re not immediately obvious. And when they are, they’re not immediately offputting! O blessed mundanity.

Repenting of my aspirations to become a delivery man, I decided instead to reflect on teh Apostle Paul’s instructions to the young church leader Timothy. I’ve concluded that one of the things that the Lord is teaching me is the need to persevere. I need to learn to stick at something, to keep going when quitting would be easier.

Paul wrote to encourage his young colleague to keep going in the face of two pressures. First, there was pressure from inside the church. False teachers, people who wanted to reinvent what the Bible was saying, had risen up and were causing havoc with a distorted presentation of the truth. Secondly, there was pressure from outside the church. State persecution of Christians meant that church leaders like Paul were being arrested and imprisoned. In the face of these not insignificant pressures, Paul wrote to encourage his young colleague to remain loyal. Timothy 2:1-7 is a challenge. Paul begins with three instructions.

i. Be strengthened

2:1 You then, my child, be strengthened by the grace that is in Christ Jesus,

Timothy needed to look in dependence to Christ, not only for salvation but also for the strength to sustain him in a lifetime of service. In Christ there are all the resources we need to persevere in his service. I need to depend on him.

ii. Train others

2 and what you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses entrust to faithful men who will be able to teach others also.

Paul had some strategic advice for Timothy. Ministry may be tough but he had a job to do. He had to train up his replacements. In order to preserve the gospel for the next generation he had to identify, recruit and train leaders.

He needed to recruit people of reliability; church leaders need deep convictions, or backbone. We don’t need to be stroppy, aggressive and cantankerous. But we do need to have such deep convictions that we’ll challenge and confront untruth. There are already too many wimps in church leadership, we don’t need any more.

He needed to recruit people of ability; church leaders need thorough learning, or brains. We don’t need to be the sharpest tool in the box. But we need to be able to understand articulate what’s true and what’s false.

And so we need both brains and backbone. If you have brains but no backbone, then you can pick apart everything that’s wrong with untruth but you lack the courage to engage in the conflict. If you have backbone but no brains, then you pick fights but have nothing to contribute to the argument. It ends up being all heat and no light. I need to rejoice in the opportunities God is given me to train future leaders.

iii. Expect suffering

3 Share in suffering as a good soldier of Christ Jesus.

Against the backdrop of radical Islam and other forms of religious fundamentalism we’re uncomfortable with the phrase ‘soldier of Christ’. But Paul’s point is not that Christians are to engage in Jihad. The expansion of Christianity will take place not through coercion. Christ forbade the use of force. The spread of Christianity ought to take place through persuasion. And that’s different. Persuasion employs argument. As people are confronted with the truth and are willing to engage with it they’ll be persuaded that following Jesus Christ is a sensible lifestyle decision. Whereas once they opposed God and all that He stood for now they willingly entrust their lives to His direction and instruction. But Paul’s point is that to be engaged in that sort of battle is no walk in the park. It’s wearying; it invites criticism and it attracts hostility. I need to ‘man up’ and manage my expectations. Of course ministry’s tough; get on with it you wuss!

Paul provides three metaphors that build on this notion of persevering in ministry; the soldier, the athlete and the farmer.

In (7) Paul concludes by telling Timothy to mine these pictures for all that they’re worth.

7 Think over what I say, for the Lord will give you understanding in everything.

And so there’s much that could be said about these pictures. For example, they teach that the Christian Minister should be found at his place of work, whether that’s the trench, the track or the tractor! They teach that the Christian Minister is to look ahead to a future reward, whether that’s liberation from war, victory in the race or the abundant harvest. But I think that principally they warn about the threat of potential failure. All three illustrations have an ominous negative feel to them. And so Paul warns us of three potential dangers; desertion, cheating and slacking.

1. Don’t desert the battle (4)

4 No soldier gets entangled in civilian pursuits, since his aim is to please the one who enlisted him.

In war the soldier is paid to be in the trenches. That’s what pleases the Commanding Officer. Civilian affairs are a distraction. A soldier preoccupied with what’s happening away from the frontline is not focussed on the battle. Becoming entangled in civilian matters leads to desertion from duty. And that’s humiliating. To be a coward and walk away when others are counting on your leadership is shameful.

How does a Christian leader desert the battle?

For Timothy it meant that he needed to engage the false teaching within his church. Failure to do so was tantamount to desertion. His congregation needed him to lead the way and engage in battle. So we mustn’t walk away from contending for the faith. We need to do it graciously but we need to do it. When the Bible is saying something and it’s being denied, we mustn’t take a backward step. There are people in our churches counting on our protection. They’ll look to us to know what to believe and how to live. I mustn’t desert.

2. Don’t cheat in preparation (5)

5 An athlete is not crowned unless he competes according to the rules.

In athletic contests the athlete is expected to compete fairly. Cheating is reprehensible. The one who dopes to win the race is a disgrace. I read an article in the Times over the summer by Simon Barnes, in which he expressed the hope that Usain Bolt would turn out to be clean. We don’t want the shame of another Ben Johnson on our hands.

How does a Christian minister cheat?

We cheat when we don’t do Christian ministry as it should be done. We cheat when we don’t give the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. Many now find some of the Bible’s teaching unpalatable. But we can’t pretend it’s not there. We need to give people the gospel even when it rubs people up the wrong way. And so we need to include the unpopular and the unwelcome bits. We can’t leave out the small print simply because we’d like more people to accept what we say. We’d love to be popular but God may be asking us to follow him in a time of unprecedented opposition. I mustn’t cheat.

3. Don’t slack from hard work (6)

6 It is the hard-working farmer who ought to have the first share of the crops.

Now we’re in the world of agriculture. The farmer is expected to be in the fields around harvest time, not loafing on the sofa watching the Ryder Cup. He has to put in the hard yards if he wants to have something to show for his labour at the end.

How does a Christian minister slack?

Rufus told me on holiday this year that I only work one day a week. He meant it. Toerag! He was absolutely convinced that what I do in the study, in attending meetings and seeing people during the week doesn’t count! I expect that sort of scornful contempt from the lads at the rugby club but not from a six year old boy! But the truth is that there are lots of opportunities to be lazy in ministry. Most of our work is unseen and so no one has a clue whether we’re doing any. I mustn’t slack.

And so I need to persevere in Christian ministry. Right to the end. And I need to avoid these three potential dangers.

I mustn’t desert the battle when others are looking to me to take on the enemies of the gospel and fight for the faith.
I mustn’t dilute the message when the world needs to hear all of God’s word on all of the issues.
I mustn’t doss about in Christian work when there’s so much to be done and so few of us to do it.

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