Posts Categorized: Church

A Note to the Skinflints and the Slackhands

One of the great advantages of being in a church is that you may well know lots of useful people, people who know how to do stuff. I have friends who can write contracts, fix radiators, and mend fences. And since they’re called to love me, they can do it at a discount, right?

In a video course called Biblical Finance, Doug Wilson gets onto the subject of Honest Work and makes a few challenging remarks in his typically humorous way.

Honest work means that you don’t take advantage of other people just because they’re in the family of God. And it’s really amazing how the carnal heart works on this. ‘Oh, our cat’s sick, and this veterinarian goes to our church. Maybe we’ll go to him, and maybe he’ll give us a deal because we go to the same church. Maybe he’ll give us 10% off… Or maybe I can get it for free if I hit him up at the fellowship hour and tell him what’s wrong with my cat.’

Or you find out that somebody’s a doctor at the fellowship hour at church, and you want to show them your rash.

Don’t take advantage of your brothers.

Instead of going to the vet with your sick cat thinking ‘Maybe he’ll take 10% off because I’m a brother’, you need to be thinking, ‘Maybe I should add 10% to whatever he bills me. Maybe I should add 10% because he’s a brother.’

If you’re trying to use the brotherhood of God as a way of getting from people, your thinking is all wrong. Look at every Christian business opportunity… as a way to bless them above and beyond, instead of looking for ways for them to bless you above and beyond.

Now, there is a kind of grace in receiving a gift, including services offered at a reduced rate. So we don’t have to assume that the vet isn’t allowed to offer you a discount, or that the doctor won’t take a sneak peak at that rash and offer a word of advice. But the point is that the onus is on you to honour them, and not vice versa.

In fact, Paul does (sort of) make the same point.

Those who have believing masters must not be disrespectful on the ground that they are brothers; rather they must serve all the better since those who benefit by their good service are believers and beloved. (1 Timothy 6.2)

Here the roles are reversed, but the principle is the same. He’s saying that if you’re employed by a fellow Christian you should work even harder as a service to them simply because they are Christian. But the bigger point, or the underlying principle, is this: don’t take liberties with a brother as though he owes you. Rather, consider how to serve him even better, whether by your generosity or your hard work.

This post originally appeared over at Think Theology.

Iceberg Pastors

When you’re a pastor, from time-to-time people will ask you, ‘What do you do during the week?’ It’s an excellent question (but not usually for the reasons people ask it).

There are no job descriptions for pastoral ministry in the New Testament. There are directives and pointers that feed into the picture of what pastoral work looks like. But generally speaking I’d say that how a pastor spends his time is usually more influenced by a whole range of other factors — personality, church culture, theological heritage, character, and context.

For me, it is a matter of constant adjustments and course corrections. I doubt I shall ever be satisfied that I can confidently tell you what a pastor should do during the week, and that’s partly because there simply cannot be a universal job description for this calling.

But there is one rule that I think ought to underpin every pastor’s understanding of his calling, which is that he needs to be an iceberg. What do I mean? Simply this: that whatever public ministry he engages in (that bit above the surface) needs to be built upon a lifetime of preparation, growth, character, learning, and reliance on God (the mass under the surface). Public prayers ought to be a taste of how he prays in private. Preaching ought to be the cream scraped off the top of his brain.

Sometimes I sick a little into my mouth when I think about the cult of celebrity and entertainment that has built up around so much of pastoral ministry and church life, and the concurrent consumerist approach of the average churchgoer. If Andrew Wilson is right, and we’re heading into winter, one benefit we can look forward to is the death of such things in the church. Winter will not tolerate palm trees and piña coladas. Winter will give birth to bigger icebergs.

What does this mean in practice? It means that in amongst the many and varied jobs that need to get done in church life, a pastor must carve out time to grow, and that is part of his job.

Weirdly enough, I think a lot of pastors actually feel guilty if they pray or read on the job. I’ve often heard people reason down these lines: if your church members have to pray and read the Bible outside of their working hours, you should too, otherwise you can’t keep encouraging them to do it. That’s fine in so far as you (the pastor) need to be working hard and not be the slackest member in your church. But it’s also stupid because giving yourself to the word and prayer is your job: it’s literally the one thing we ought to all agree that you’re paid to do. The rest is more or less up for grabs.

The tragedy is that often the models and priorities of church life today do not favour the pastor-iceberg. As a result, most pastors will be tempted to fill up their week with a lot of work that doesn’t allow them to grow deep in God. This is a constant war ground for the pastor’s heart. Here are two brief applications:

1. Church members, you must realise that your pastor is called to give himself to the word and prayer (see Acts 6). There are a lot of things you might like him to be that are not part of his calling.

2. Pastors, if you are feeling stretched thin, weak in faith, over-worked, under-inspired, neglectful of the things that feed your spirit, and altogether too lightweight, then take some time to rethink your priorities and your planning. If wise productivity is all about putting in the big blocks first, then let your growth in God be the first thing you plan for.

This post first appeared over at Think Theology.

Is It A Good Thing To Want To Be An Overseer?

For a while now I’ve assumed that every Christian man ought to aspire to church eldership. Look at 1 Timothy 3.1:

“The saying is trustworthy: If anyone aspires to the office of overseer, he desires a noble task.”

On first reading it sounds like Paul is saying something to the effect that the men ought to desire eldership, that this is a good and noble desire. But I think my reading has for a long time been coloured by the way I’ve heard this passage preached, where the ambition to leadership is held up (like a rabbit before a pack of greyhounds) as something to help motivate men to grow up and mature. In fact, I’ve preached it this way myself.

But on a second reading I’m not at all sure that is what Paul’s saying. For one thing, he’s not addressing all the men in the room, but only a selection — notice the “if”. And furthermore, by saying “he desires a noble task” he is not necessarily saying “his desire itself is noble”. I think the meaning is not so much an affirmation of ambition, but an affirmation of the dignity of the role. It’s like saying: “If anyone wants to climb Everest, he has set his sights very high.”

The qualifications that follow in verses 2–7 are then not so much to be treated as goals to attain, though they are worthy goals for any Christian, but rather as a checklist before daring to step into such a role as eldership. So, the overall meaning is like this: “If you want to climb Everest (which is very high) you had better be fit, well-funded, well-trained, and well-bearded.” There is not, to my mind, any comment on whether someone ought to make this a goal in the first place.

What of the ambition to lead? The reality is that many men in churches do want to be elders, and that this desire can spur them on. Is this ambition good, or is it bad?

Calvin thinks that Paul is gently permitting the desire to eldership (the very fact that Paul is addressing such men shows a tacit acceptance of the desire; he doesn’t say the desire is wrong, after all). But Calvin adds some helpful words of caution and advice:

“If ambition is condemned in other matters, much more severely ought it to be condemned in ‘the office of a bishop.’ But Paul speaks of a godly desire, by which holy men wish to employ that knowledge of doctrine which they possess for the edification of the Church. For, if it were altogether unlawful to desire the office of a teacher, why should they who spend all their youth in reading the Holy Scriptures prepare themselves by learning? What are the theological schools but nurseries of pastors?”

So there are men whose passions and interests have led them to pursue vigorous study, and if that is coupled with desire, it may be a good thing for them to find outlet for their gifts for the benefit of the church. He goes on:

“Accordingly, they who have been thus instructed not only may lawfully devote themselves and their labours to God by a voluntary offering, but even ought to do so, and that too, before they have been admitted unto the office; provided that, nevertheless, they do not thrust themselves forward, and do not, even by their own wish, make themselves bishops, but are only ready to discharge the office, if their labours shall be required.”

That is, if a man has been trained he should start finding any and every opportunity to use what he’s got long before he gets ordained. But don’t push for ordination, wait for a summons.

“And if it turn out that, according to the lawful order; they are not called, let them know that such was the will of God, and let them not take it in that others have been preferred to them. But they who, without any selfish motive, shall have no other wish than to serve God and the Church, will be affected in this manner; and, at the same time, will have such modesty that they will not be at all envious, if others be preferred to them as being more worthy.”

This is undoubtedly the test of whether ambition for leadership is well-motivated or not: how a guy reacts when he’s refused the place on the leadership team. Will he have this modesty and complete absence of envy? Will he take it as God’s will?

This post first appeared over at ThinkTheology.

Commit Fewer Abominations

I’ll readily admit that, from time-to-time, Dr Lloyd-Jones was a little too trigger-happy with his use of the word ‘abomination’. (Few would agree that collecting illustrations on index cards for use in sermons is truly abominable.) But his resolute determination to live and preach and pastor as though God is real is often the underlying motive behind his strong language. He had no time for methods in ministry that were more reliant on human ingenuity than any dependence on God to act.

This is a Biblical concern. Just before Ezra makes the vast and dangerous journey back to Israel from Exile with his companions and resources to start the rebuilding we read this:

Then I proclaimed a fast there, at the river Ahava, that we might humble ourselves before our God, to seek from him a safe journey for ourselves, our children, and all our goods. For I was ashamed to ask the king for a band of soldiers and horsemen to protect us against the enemy on our way, since we had told the king, “The hand of our God is for good on all who seek him, and the power of his wrath is against all who forsake him.” So we fasted and implored our God for this, and he listened to our entreaty.

Ezra 8.21–23

Ezra tells Artaxerxes he doesn’t need his protection, and he does so as a statement of faith and confidence in God.

This impulse is seen in many stories in the Bible — the resolute desire not to rely on men but to prove God by taking a decision in which, if he doesn’t act, failure is certain.

If I had to articulate one hope for Grace London it would be something down these lines. A passionate desire to demonstrate that God is true to his word, that his gospel works, and that it’s enough. There are few things that dismay me more than churches where the fruit is so explainable to a watching world. I’m not sure God is glorified when churches grow through our clever marketing, entertainment, and watered-down gospel-lite. Perhaps this really is an abomination to God.

Anyway, I attempted to explain a little more of this last Sunday and the summary of the message is here.

It’s all about the Cross

IMG_2578A long time ago I heard CJ Mahaney refer to a book that, he said, “defines Christian ministry for me”. Whatever problems Mahaney has faced in recent years, I’ve always admired his relentless focus on the Gospel. I heard him speak at a major leadership conference with thousands of church leaders present, and rather than offer up your typical conference message guaranteed to get the crowd going, he instead chose to preach on Golgotha. His little book, The Cross Centered Life, changed the way I understood my faith. It radically refocussed my life (along with The Discipline of Grace by Jerry Bridges and a series of messages on grace by Terry Virgo). So, when Mahaney said that a particular book defined Christian ministry in his mind, somehow that lodged in my mind.

But for whatever reason I never got around to picking up that book until a few days ago. It’s The Cross and Christian Ministry by DA Carson. In this book he’s explaining a few sections of First Corinthians. It’s absolutely brilliant. There are echoes of Dr Martyn Lloyd-Jones (but with a little more balance). Here are a few selections well worth thinking about.

On the temptation to pursue ministry strategies v. preaching the cross:

“At the moment, books are pouring off the presses telling us how to plan for success, how ‘vision’ consists in clearly articulated ‘ministry goals,’ how the knowledge of detailed profiles of our communities constitutes the key to successful outreach. I am not for a moment suggesting that there is nothing to be learned from such studies. But after a while one may perhaps be excused for marveling how many churches were planted by Paul and Whitefield and Wesley and Stanway and Judson without enjoying these advantages. Of course all of us need to understand the people to whom we minister, and all of us can benefit from small doses of such literature. But massive doses sooner or later dilute the gospel. Ever so subtly, we start to think that success more critically depends on thoughtful sociological analysis than on the gospel; Barna becomes more important than the Bible. We depend on plans, programs, vision statements—but somewhere along the way we have succumbed to the temptation to displace the foolishness of the cross with the wisdom of strategic planning.”

On the tendency to platform celebrities to make our churches seem more credible:

“Why is it that we constantly parade Christian athletes, media personalities, and pop singers? Why should we think that their opinions or their experiences of grace are of any more significance than those of any other believer? When we tell outsiders about people in our church, do we instantly think of the despised and the lowly who have become Christians, or do we love to impress people with the importance of the men and women who have become Christians? Modern Western evangelicalism is deeply infected with the virus of triumphalism, and the resulting illness destroys humility, minimizes grace, and offers far too much homage to the money and influence and ‘wisdom’ of our day.”

These first two quotes come from his comments on 1 Corinthians 1.18–2.5. This final one, from later in the book, rounds the ideas off well. He’s making the point that a church must be built on the foundation of the Gospel or it isn’t a church.

“If we see this clearly, then many other things will fall into place. We will perceive that it is God’s revelation to us of his Son that is of paramount importance. Recognizing the need for the Spirit of God to illumine the minds of men and women who otherwise will not grasp the gospel, we will emphasize prayer. We will live and serve in the light of the final judgment, for we must give an account of our ministry. It is not that we shall refuse any practical help from those who have something to say about technique or sociological profiles; rather, we will remain utterly committed to the centrality of the cross, not just at vague, theoretical levels, but in all our strategy and practical decisions. We will be fearful of adopting approaches that might empty the cross of Christ of its power… and the only approval we shall seek is his who tests the quality of each builder’s work on the last day.”

Church plant: A request for your prayers

I first announced the church plant in May, a little over two months ago. During that time our small core team have been meeting together regularly to pray hard about the future, and I want to invite you to put us on your prayer list too.

Every time I meet with the team who are helping to plant this church I’m amazed and grateful to God for the rich array of gifts and skills they possess. But over and above that, there is a real sense of faith, of believing that God’s with us.

A couple of big milestones are in front of us, and if you want to pray in a focussed way these are the things I would encourage you to pray for. Continue reading

Church growth: Why numbers don’t tell the whole story

big crowdIt is fashionable these days to judge the success of a church or ministry based on its size. Typically, the men on platforms at Christian conferences are the guys with the biggest churches. Pastors flock to hear their methods and imitate their strategies. I’m not sure when this trend began, but it doesn’t seem to be a strong theme throughout the history of the church, and least of all in the New Testament. I have a number of problems with this extremely narrow view of success. Continue reading

The good and the bad of church in Central London

Central LondonI’ve been part of Westminster Chapel for over 12 years now. That has given me a lot of time to reflect on the dynamics of being a city centre church. As we’re about to plant another city centre church these considerations — on the pros and cons of city centre church life — have weighed heavily on my mind. Continue reading