What to think when a ministry is discredited
Bad things happen in churches. Sin rears its ugly head at all levels, including – sadly – leadership. And we should be saddened and shocked, but not surprised that this is the case. At a time when the UK news has been filled with stories of all kinds, the jailing of one minister has – rightly – still made the headlines. What are we to make of such a man's ministry? It's a key question – not just for this particular case, but for others. My wife sat under the ministry of one particularly high profile "fall from grace" for four years. There are plenty of others. And we remember being blessed, taught, built up, stirred, converted even under the ministry of such men. We saw churches flourish under their ministry. We saw baptisms, growth, planting, men trained for ministry. Are we to write all these off?
I don't believe so. Whilst never condoning sin in all its ugliness and barbarity, we must also acknowledge that God, in his sovereign ruling, can work through such people beyond themselves. Indeed, this is the story of ministry in its entirety. No minister is perfect – and though we pray against the kind of evil we have heard about this last week and lament it when it happens – we must acknowledge that there is deep sin in us all. The very fact that our sin has stayed in our hearts and not overflowed into action is a measure of God's grace. But we must never think that the ministry success we enjoy (such as we do) is in any way down to our own doing.
So, it is possible to look back on the ministry of someone who has since been discredited and give thanks that God was at work, despite everything. We can rejoice that people were saved. We can delight that churches grew. We can give thanks to God the Father for the way his Spirit delivered people from the reign of darkness and brought them into the kingdom of the Son. And we can do that whilst feeling deep remorse and sadness that one of our own succumbed to sin and for the pain and anguish caused to others. The two are not incompatible. Indeed, at some level, that is the story of every ministry.
And it should make us plead with God for our own hearts. We all need to put to death the deeds of the flesh. And this is a sobering reminder that there is work, dear brother, to be done in you and me.
How to encourage a friend
Speaking to and spending time with many ministers, there are some recurring messages. One of these is very simple, but can have a profound effect on ministries. Ministers are lonely. They feel isolated. Perhaps you can identify with this. You are slogging your guts out working in one of the few Bible believing, Bible preaching churches in your area. Those other ministers around you in similar churches (whether Anglican or Free Church) think you're a bit of a right wing nutter. The reality is that you can be friendly towards them (and indeed, you are), but they are not really partners in gospel work. You don't get encouragement from them to keep going. You don't find them identifying with the struggles you have. You can't phone them up because you're wrestling with a particularly knotty text.
So, the two options are we remain friendless, or we work at cultivating friendships. It's no surprise that we advocate the latter. This is something that is easier in some places than others. Easier in the city, for example, than in the country. Easier in a larger church with a staff team than a smaller church where you're the sole practitioner. Easier if you've already got a network (e.g. from college) than if you've being serving away on your own for years.
It's why our residential conferences are not just places to learn. We deliberately make them places to hang out too. Not everyone wants that. Some people with huge capacity want teaching session after teaching session. But we don't put on our conferences for that small minority (though we hope they may get something out of them). We build in down time to make, build and cultivate friendships.
And it's a great way to use the EMA. Perhaps you're a regular? Who is the local guy who's friendless who needs an invitation? Is there someone locally who needs you to say to him, "Come along with me." Or, even if you're not a regular, why not use this year, where there's plenty of space, to make a friend, take a friend? You could be doing yourself, him and the cause of the gospel the power of good.
The road to the Barbican
The venue for this year's EMA, the Barbican conference centre, is easy to find. Honest. Just follow the directions on our website. If you've booked, these will be emailed to you shortly. It takes about 5 mins from Moorgate (see below) or Barbican. 10 mins from Bank or Liverpool Street.
EMA featured books #6
Paternoster have done us a huge favour by collecting together a new Packer anthology focused on the Bible. It will be one of featured books at the EMA. The volume contains a collection of essays, interviews, articles and excerpts all about the word of God and engaging with it. It's a gold mine. I found myself underlining on nearly every page. It's classic Packer, readable, yet deep; honest yet perceptive. There are some really good chapters on preaching in particular, including re-asserting a classic evangelical view of preaching as something which mediates not only God's authority but also his presence: something we all believe but perhaps we need to be more explicit about?
Here, as a taster, are Packer's convictions that he believe every preacher must share. Each, of course, warrants further comment from Packer, but these are the kind of insights which makes reading him so rewarding.
- Scripture is revelation
- God is glorious
- People are lost
- Christ is unchanging
- Persuasion is needed
- Satan is active
- God's Spirit is sovereign
Amen and amen!
Just four weeks to go…
Today it's four weeks to go until the Evangelical Ministry Assembly. At this stage we're normally full – indeed if were still at our old venue, we would be closed for new applications about now. But we're at a new venue precisely so we can accommodate more people and we'd love to see you. Even if you've not been for a while, why not set aside some of the EMA days (Monday 24 June to Wednesday 26 June) to come and join us? And why not bring someone along? Whom could you encourage in ministry – perhaps a beleagured local friend who needs the solidarity of your fellowship and help? Perhaps a new local minister that you could invite along as a way of getting to know him?
If you're outside of London we've got some free accommodation options where local church members have very graciously offered rooms for nothing. Please do contact the office if you would like to make the most of one of these and save on train fares. We look forward to seeing you. You cam book here.
Got a proposal through today for the EMA. I was sent a marketing email telling me that I could spruce up my event with DrumCafe who would put a drum on every seat.
Give everyone a drum and watch the room unite and transform into a spectacular drumming orchestra
Tempting, I know. Mr Lucas would, of course, lead the group.
EMA featured books #5
PT publishes two series of books – one is the well-known Teaching series (more about that another time). But we also have a secondary series which we call, informally at least, the Practical Preacher series. These are books that are useful for preachers and churches and which address issues particular to preachers and preaching. Our latest in this series is called Ministry Medical and is by Jonathan Griffiths, one of our teaching staff. The book is based on 2 Timothy and is, in essence, a checklist for those in word ministry. It sets out Paul's priorities and in 36 short chapters encourages us to measure ourselves against the Apostle and what he says to young pastor Timothy. It's the kind of book you might read a chapter of per week or even read together with leadership teams (I'm going to suggest ours does that). It's challenging and convicting, but also hopeful in that it holds out the word of grace to us and shows that we can, prayerfully and in the power God provides, be more the men that God calls us to be.
Peter Adam wrote "This book by Jonathan Griffiths is a brilliantly effective study, which makes good use of 2 Timothy to give us a diagnostic tool to assess the health of our ministry. It would be equally productive for those starting out in ministry, those in their middle years, and those nearing the finishing line! It is simple and straightforward: the format of questions and comments works very well, and make the book very user-friendly. This book will help you fight the good fight, finish the race, and keep the faith. Highly commended"
Recharging emotional batteries
So, a few responses to my post last week about running on empty. Thank you to those who wrote. The responses all tended to ask the same question: how, recognising that we're depleted emotionally, do we recharge? We, for the most part, know how to do this spiritually and physically, but emotionally….? Short answer: I'm not too sure myself and I'm working through it. But here, for what it's worth, are my initial observations. These are not particularly biblical, or even from years of experience. They are simply things that I'm finding useful in the moment.
- I've had to recognise that the emotional is not separate from the physical, nor the spiritual. I am a whole man! Everything is connected to everything. At one level, emotional energy is spiritual energy is physical energy. So, taking care of my physical and spiritual self has vast benefits for my emtional self.
- Sleep is a remarkable restorative for every part of life. I have found CJ Mahaney's sermon on this particularly useful.
- I find that being disciplined about planning times for things I enjoy has helped me enormously. I don't know if there's any science behind this, but lack of emotional energy has meant that I have not been able to be joyful about things, so I decided to try to restore some of that energy by planning….well, enjoyable things.
- Intimacy in relationships is important. For marrieds that means sex and time with spouse (these go together!). But there is intimacy (of the right sort) in all kinds of relationships. I've planned a day at the British Museum with a good friend. I already know it will be emotionally recharging.
- A break is important. Next week is our school half term and I've planned some time away. I'm going to disconnect my iPhone's work email account. So there.
- I've tried to build in some escapism. That sounds pretty dodgy, so let me explain. Ministry is emotionally draining and all encompassing. I find it quite hard to read a Christian book, for example, without thinking about whom it might also be suitable for in the congregation or which fellow pastor might benefit. I need a break from that. So, a good fiction book I can lose myself in (or a series) or a suitable TV series (Mrs R and I have been watching Borgen) helps me switch off from emotional outgoings and, it seems, helps with the ingoings.
You'll have other ideas, and much more spiritual ones (this is deliberately not a biblical post). Just don't ignore the issue….
You’re speaking not writing
There’s an article in this month’s Briefing that I liked so much that we asked permission to print off a copy for every Cornhill student. It’s called ‘Deadly, dull, and boring’ (now there’s a catchy title). It’s an edited extract from a forthcoming book from Matthias Media on how not to preach deadly, dull and boring sermons. The book’s by Phil Campbell and is called Saving Eutychus (geddit?).
In the article Phil offers ten tips. None of them are about showmanship that attracts attention away from Scripture and towards the preacher. They’re all obvious things about effective oral communication. And, like many obvious things, they’re often only obvious when someone points them out to you. A crucial one that I think would improve many worthy sermons at a stroke is this: use shorter sentences.
Here’s an example from me of a seemingly decent opening line in a sermon: “If you watch the news on TV or read the newspapers, aren’t you often struck by the way in which humanity does not seem able to get any better and keeps repeating the same mistakes?” Now apply Phil’s principle to that and you get something like this instead: “Watch the TV news. Does it look like the world’s getting better and better? Read your newspaper. Is humanity learning from its mistakes?”
The same content, but much punchier and therefore more effective. Not dumbed down, just expressed more engagingly. And as an extra bonus the preacher also get the thrill of breaking all those rules about writing style that your English teacher taught you – if you went to that kind of school.
One other thing. Before I joined the Cornhill staff I used to read The Proclaimer blog (honest), and was always impressed that Adrian’s blogs had time-stamps like 7.07am and 7.16am. I have now discovered to my relief that the blogs are written in advance [Ed: not too much in advance, please note!] and the time-stamp gives the time that the server automatically releases them, or something like that. We try to work hard around here, but not stupidly hard. For the record, I’m finishing this at 8.50am in the real world.
Christ our representative and the shape of evangelical preaching
In my most recent post I was recommending an approach to sermon applications from biblical narratives which avoids both simply drawing out moral examples and just preaching biblical-theological points which can feel pretty same-y across lots of different narratives. In this post I want to suggest one possible underlying theological reason why well trained expository preachers in our context are often nervous of moving from preaching the biblical-theological point, e.g. David is a type of Christ winning the victory for us – to also preaching David as a positive example for the believer to follow, e.g. David as a model of faithful action when the honour of God is maligned.
My suggestion goes like this: these two strands of application follow from different aspects of God’s act of salvation in Christ. The ‘biblical-theological’ application is an outworking of Christ’s substitutionary work: he died on the cross in our place, doing what we could never do for ourselves. Hence in seeking to apply 1 Samuel ch.17 we look for what is unique about David in his action on behalf of Israel.
On the other hand, the ‘moral example’ strand of application is an outworking of Christ’s representative work, in particular in the union of the believer with him: we were united with him in his death and raised to new life with him. A key consequence of this is that the believer ought to be growing in Christlikeness, obedient as he was, self-sacrificial as he was. Hence in seeking to apply 1 Samuel ch.17 we will look for what David, even in his function as a type of Christ, shares in common with faithful Christian believers.
My hunch is that some conservative evangelical preachers who have (rightly) drawn deeply on such books as Goldsworthy’s Gospel and Kingdom are nervous about this second kind of ‘moral example’ application because we have tended to be much less familiar in our piety and preaching with Christ’s representative work than with his substitutionary work.
Maybe this puts it more simply: theologically, we should preach (e.g.) David as a unique type of Christ because of what Christ has done for us that we could never do for ourselves. And we should also preach David as an example for the believer because in his role as a type of Christ he demonstrates some of the Christlikeness that we, in our union with Christ, ought to be growing in.
Or even more simply: we’re not David, and also (from another perspective) we are David. The former is what prevents the latter being the dreaded ‘pure moralism’; the latter is what prevents the former from making all the richness of scriptural narrative seem essentially pointless. Such is the mystery of God’s saving action for us in Christ, and therefore such can be the richness of biblical application to those who are in Christ.