Returning to the scene

IMG_8551It’s been an anxious week as I’ve anticipated returning to the exact place and the same event where I first noticed the symptoms of my cancer. It was the Geneva Push church planting conference and I was speaking on leadership, church planting, and the vision to reach Australia with the good news of Jesus. It was the end of November in 2011 that I climbed the three flights of stairs at Scots Church in Melbourne, stopping on each landing, completely breathless, not knowing that within a few days I’d be in hospital fighting for my life.

Fast forward six and a half years and here I am at Scots Church, speaking on ministry, team work, and persevering as a Christian, and listening to others teach about the urgency of sharing the message of Jesus with those around us. I walked the same stairs to get to lunch today, pausing on each landing and reflecting on the amazing kindness of God. Wow! Who’d have thought I’d be remission? But more than this, I mean the wonder that God cares so much as to reach out to us, send his Son to die for us, welcome us into his family, gather us together in unity, transform his children into the likeness of Jesus, and equip us to work together to build something that will last for eternity—the church of God. Not human institutions, but the gathering together of people belonging to him.

We’ve been reminded once again that God’s vision for this world is to restore broken relationships. Primarily our broken relationships as sinners to a holy God, but also our relationships with one another. In days where the church seems out of touch and past its use by date, we are encouraged to understand our world, to listen to others, to show kindness, love, and patience, as we seek every opportunity to share the amazing news of Jesus Christ. No, not religion—Jesus!

davemaccaIt’s a joy and honour to be able to gather with men and women, young and old, to spur each other on to reach Australia with the life transforming, eternally consequential message of Jesus. People are getting jaded by the endless cycle of meaninglessness promoted by our society. People are searching for meaning. Surely there has to be more that work, sleep, eat, over and over again. Or are we just caught up in an endless Groundhog Day?

Our scientific materialism has ripped us off. It can’t deliver answers to the questions that matter most. It doesn’t offer meaning or purpose. It leaves us rudderless, lost, and unsatisfied. No, the truth is there is much more to life. The transcendent, living, almighty God has entered our world in Jesus Christ. Jesus has shown us what it really means to be human. He’s taught us what life is all about. More than this, by giving his life for us, and through rising from the dead, he has placed God within reach. He’s made peace with God possible. He’s gathering people to himself. He’s planting, growing, and building churches—gatherings of weak, ordinary, forgiven people. People who deserve nothing but are given everything. That is such good news.

Thank you God for bringing me back—not simply to Scots Church and another church planting conference—but to you, to Jesus, to your family, to a certain hope for all eternity.

Endings and beginnings

thanksToday marks the end of another chapter of our life—a significant chapter that in many ways has felt like a bonus. Less than five years ago, I believed that my ministry days were done and dusted. I didn’t anticipate preaching again, far less leading a congregation or pastoring a church. Today we received special thanks from our brothers and sisters at Stromlo Christian Church for the past three years of serving among them. I preached my final sermon as lead pastor at Stromlo and later this week we will head away for a few weeks leave before commencing a new role in 2017.

It has been a privilege to exercise this ministry and we thank God for equipping and enabling us to do his work. Two years of juggling the impact of chemo around preaching, leading, pastoring, equipping, outreach, and other ministry commitments. It has been hard—at times very hard—but God’s grace has been sufficient. We’ve been blessed my people’s understanding, encouragement, and response to his word. We’ve been spurred on by many people, generously offering their time and resources, and using their gifts to build the church.

We are thankful to have had godly leaders to serve alongside, who have invested in our lives and the lives of others. I have not felt pressured to meet others’ expectations—it has only been my own that I’ve had to manage. The decision of the Stromlo Admin Committee to provide me with extra ‘Chemo Leave’ has helped refresh my body, but also my spirit, as I’ve worked to do what I can. God has enabled me to do more than I imagined, with the help of others’ support and the prayers of many.

We believe this is the right time to hand on the reigns of leadership and spiritual oversight to others. We thank God that Dan Evers has been appointed to become lead pastor in the new year, and Paul Avis to support him as associate pastor. We also thank God that Sarah Rootes will continue her wonderful work with the children and youth.

So what does 2017 hold?

In February 2017, God-willing, I am taking up the inaugural position as National Director of the Fellowship of Independent Evangelical Churches (FIEC). My role will be to help define and shape the  manner in which our churches ‘fellowship’ and work together, and to lead both in strengthening our churches and their leaders for the long haul, and in developing and driving strategies for extending the reach of the gospel through church planting in Australia and beyond. This will be a full-time position. I will be accountable to the FIEC board, and will work together with Jim and Lesley Ramsay, FIEC pastors, and others.

We plan to remain based in Canberra as we explore what this role will involve. Canberra seems a logical place from which to lead a national organisation—I seem to remember it being built for this purpose some years back. Our hope is to continue involvement in the Stromlo church community, but there will be times when we are away with other churches around our nation. Our youngest child has now finished school, so Fiona and I are moving into new territory as parents and grandparents. We are keen to share some aspects of the ministry within FIEC together, and for Fiona to help provide support to ministers’ wives.

As we reflect back on our lives, the experiences God has given us, the churches we’ve been involved in, and the struggles of life and ministry, we think that God has equipped us in so many ways for the challenges that lie ahead. But we are also very aware of our weakness and inadequacy. We will need to rely on God’s strength to do this work.

Please partner with us in this next chapter, asking God to strengthen and sustain us, and provide us with everything we need to lead with humility, integrity, grace, and wisdom. We approach the future with a mixture of excitement and enthusiasm, but also fear and trepidation. It will be very different not leading a church. I expect to miss the weekly preaching and teaching of God’s word. We anticipate feeling a little isolated and we feel pulled in many different directions. So please pray for us and encourage us in this new role. We will not be able to do this alone—and nor do we want to!

Too much, too little

screen-shot-2016-09-18-at-2-45-24-pmMy new year resolutions for 2016 included reading a book a week. The plan was to finish 52 books before the end of the year. I wasn’t following a recommended reading list, but there were a few books that I was keen to knock over. Someone had suggested mixing things up with a range of genres and topics. There were issues I was interested in researching and their were numerous new books that piqued my interest. During this time I also discovered audio books and bought myself a kindle. So my list represents an eclectic mix of styles, difficulty, issues, media, and… quality. Yes, I also discovered that some books had done little more than steal my time.

Here is my list:

1. Forever, Paul Tripp
2. The Story of Everything, Jared Wilson
3. Why Trust the Bible, Greg Gilbert
4. Ordinary, Michael Horton
5. Seven Practices of Effective Ministry, Andy Stanley
6. The Martian, Andy Weir
7. Brothers, We Are Not Professionals, John Piper
8. The Rider, Tim Krabbé
9. The Churchill Factor, Boris Johnson
10. The Pilgrim’s Progress, John Bunyan
11. Sex and Money, Paul Tripp
12. Side By Side, Edward Welsh
13. Dangerous Calling, Paul Tripp
14. Lectures to my Students, Charles Spurgeon
15. Creating Community, Andy Stanley and Bill Willits
16. Knowing God, J.I. Packer
17. Do More Better, Tim Challies
18. Teaching Isaiah, David Jackman
19. Organising love in church, Tim Adeney and Stuart Heath
20. Mission Drift, Peter Greer and Chris Horst
21. Why bother with church? Sam Allberry
22. The Cross of Christ, John Stott
23. Taking God at his Word, Kevin DeYoung
24. Zeal without Burnout, Christopher Ash
25. Living Forward, Michael Hyatt and Daniel Harkavy
26. Seeking Allah Finding Jesus, Nabeel Qureshi
27. Praying the Bible, Donald S. Whitney
28. Word-filled Women’s Ministry, Gloria Furman and Kathleen Nielson
29. Living in the Light, John Piper
30. What’s Best Next, Matthew Perman
31. The Ideal Team Player, Patrick Lencioni
32. Who Moved My Pulpit? Thom Rainer
33. Strong and Weak, Andy Crouch
34. Big Blue Sky, Peter Garrett
35. Wild at Heart, John Eldredge
36. The Life You Can Call Your Own, David Aspenson
37. I am a Church Member, Thom Rainer
38. Unashamed, Lecrae Moore
39. Autopsy of a Deceased Church, Thom Rainer
40. The Gospel, Freedom, and the Sacraments, Barry Newman
41. Fool’s Talk, Os Guinness
42. How to Read Proverbs, Tremper Longman 3rd
43. Life Together, Dietrich Bonhoeffer
44. Shattered Shepherds, Steve Swartz
45. Canon Revisited, Michael J. Kruger
46. What is a Healthy Church Member? Thabiti Anyabwile
47. Center Church, Tim Keller
48. The Gospel and Mental Illness, Heath Lambert
49. True Friendship, Vaughan Roberts
50. A Model of Christian Maturity, D.A. Carson
51. Why Your Pastor Left, Christopher Schmitz
52. Independent Church, John Stevens

I’m not planning in this post to a comment on each of these books, but rather to share some overall observations, and in no particular order.

True to form, I didn’t read many novels. It’s rare for me to read fiction. But, on reflection, it would do me good to read more. Sitting in a hammock, reading The Martian, took me to another place! This book, together with Boris Johnson’s riveting biography, The Churchill Factor, were my most relaxing reads of the year. They both helped me to forget about my life for a while.

Audio books have been a great find. They’ve made long car trips pass effortlessly and they’ve redeemed so much wasted time in daily commutes. Some books are more suited to this media than others. If you’re grappling with a new topic and need to take notes, then it’s probably not the best approach. I’ve found great reward in using audio books to ‘re-read’ a few important books that I have been deeply influenced by in years past. Packer’s Knowing God, Spurgeon’s Lectures to my Students, Stott’s Cross of Christ, and Tripp’s Dangerous Calling had all previously left their mark on me. Hearing them over again was an excellent way to refresh.

Much of my reading has focused on thinking through ministry, mission, and leadership matters. Life Together is a classic that I come back to regularly. What’s Best Next is full of wisdom, but way way way too long. Zeal without Burnout is a simple book that I anticipate revisiting over and over.

Center Church has been sitting on my shelf for a few years. It’s been too intimidating to start, but people keep referencing it, so I decided to dig in and give it a go. This is Keller’s magnum opus on church and his philosophy of ministry. I haven’t digested everything as yet. Much was stimulating, but some parts were just annoying. Maybe I will attempt a serious review sometime in the future.

I will offer three awards:

  1. Diamond Award—a small and precious gem.
    Shattered Shepherds, Steve Swartz.
    A must read for those who’ve been devastated by their ministry going wrong.
  2. Kodak Award—for under-developed and over-exposed ideas.
    Wild at Heart, John Eldridge.
    A best seller that is more pop culture than biblical wisdom.
  3. Orange Award—fresh and healthy, but could sting if it comes into contact with an open wound.
    The Gospel, Freedom, and the Sacraments, Barry Newman.
    A very fresh socratic-style approach to revisiting what the bible says about baptism and the Lord’s supper.

Overall, I think I’ve probably read too much too quickly and taken too little in. I don’t remember much about some of these books and I haven’t allowed sufficient time for important discoveries to take root. Unlike previous efforts, I’ve neglected to annotate most of these books, failed to record important ideas and quotes, and not written summaries or reviews. For these reasons, some of these books are going back onto the desk for another go next year—a little more slowly, and a lot more carefully.

Guidance on guidance

There seems no end to books on divine guidance and discovering the will of God. How do you know what’s worth reading? Proverbs says to seek advice before making a decision, so let me offer mine. I’d steer clear of books that claim to teach you how to listen to God’s voice outside the Bible. The assumption of these books is that Scripture is insufficient and you need to discover additional messages, directly from God to you, in order to discern his will.

My contention is that God doesn’t contradict himself. So his words in 2 Timothy 3:15-16 that “all Scripture is God-breathed” and will make the person of God “complete and thoroughly equipped for every good work” must be taken seriously. The Bible gives us everything we need for life and godliness. This must be our framework for approaching guidance and seeking God’s will. This doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t seek the counsel of others, read extra books, or weigh up the options. The Bible itself affirms the necessity for using wisdom in making decisions. In fact, we have whole books devoted to helping us do this—Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Job—and parts of many others.

If you want to read books on guidance, and I recommend you do, then read books that will point you to understanding God’s revealed will in the Scriptures. This means that the best book on guidance and for guidance is the Bible itself. And every other book must be measured against how faithfully it represents Scripture.

Here are a few that I’ve found helpful…

decisionI first read Decision Making and the Will of God by Garry Friesen in 1982, when I was grappling with where my life was headed and what God wanted me to do. It revolutionised my thinking, pointed me to the freedom God has given us to make decisions, and lifted the burdens of guilt and insecurity from my shoulders. It’s a large book, but very easy to read. My only warning is that you must read past the first section of the book. No more spoilers.

limgres-22_2The person who has given me the most direct guidance about guidance is Phillip Jensen, who was the chaplain at UNSW where I studied Social Work in the early eighties. He helped me to love and trust the Bible, and I went to more than one conference where he taught us the importance  and relevance of the Bible for understanding God’s will for our lives. Much of what I learned during this time is in included in an excellent little book called Guidance and the Voice of God by Phillip Jensen and Tony Payne. This book addresses an important matter that many overlook—and this is where God guides. To understand what God wants us to do with our lives, we must first understand where God is taking history. A clear grasp on salvation history and the purposes of God in Jesus give the essential perspective for understanding God’s will for each of our lives.

justdoLet me also recommend a third book on guidance that, I suspect, has been deeply influenced by both books above. Just Do Something by Kevin de Young is another short, clear resource for grappling with questions of God’s guidance. Some people get paralysed, wondering and confused, because God doesn’t seem to have revealed his specific will for their life. Every little decision becomes a blockage rather than an opportunity. This book aims to overcome the inertia of people waiting for God to reveal which step to take next. We have the Bible, God has revealed his plan for us to love him, to trust and obey him, and to enjoy the abundant freedom that comes from living this way.

Finally, any book on guidance is only as useful as how it gets used. A map may include the best routes and most precise details for getting from A to B, but if we don’t follow its instructions it becomes functionally useless. Let’s not render God’s word obsolete in our lives. Rather, let’s unfold the map and follow where it leads us.

 

 

Hope when your child has cancer

Screen Shot 2016-08-31 at 10.45.28 AMThis interview by Dominic Steele with his friend, Andrew Barry, is deeply moving and profoundly encouraging. Andrew’s son has very serious cancer. His situation has moved me to pray for him regularly. In this heartfelt chat Andrew talks about suffering, marriage, family life, work, treatment, salvation and what it means to have an eternal perspective. Take the time to watch it all and grab the tissues! Click on this link to watch the conversation.

Qualifications to read the Bible in church

bible-readingLooking for people who can read the Bible out loud in church? Trying to fill the Bible reading roster? Building a team of Bible readers? Then let me ask you “What qualifies someone to be able to read the Bible?” Do they need to have a background in performing arts? Or perhaps have been a newsreader in a previous life? Should they audition for the task? Or complete a training course for reading in front of others? Is volunteering enough or is vetting needed? What makes a good Bible reader?

I’m sure that there are plenty of good ideas that will help people to read well in church, but I wonder if we might overlook the most important qualifications. Here are four qualifications to keep at the top of your lists.

To qualify for reading the Bible out loud in front of church you must be…

  1. One who trusts that the Bible is the authoritative, inspired Word of God. Only if you appreciate the author will you read with the attitude needed to pass on a message from God. We’re not reading shopping lists or Facebook posts. We’re communicating the very words of God.
  2. One who reads the Bible regularly for your own instruction, edification, comfort, encouragement, or rebuke. We mustn’t cause one another to stumble in hypocrisy by asking them to do something in public that they don’t do in private. Let’s get our own house in order before calling on others to do the same.
  3. One who understands the meaning and implications of the Scripture you are reading. This will require studying the passages of Scripture beforehand. If we don’t understand what we are reading, then we won’t communicate the message clearly or faithfully to others. We might need to look up a commentary or spend time with the preacher in advance to help us fully grasp the meaning. The key to good communication is understanding what you are saying.
  4. One who prayerfully seeks to apply the message to your life. This will require us to read over the text well before reading in public so that we can meditate upon it, pray about it, and determine what difference it should make to our life.

Does this all sound a bit much? Does it sound more like the qualifications for the preacher or teacher? Perhaps this is why the Apostle Paul called Timothy to devote himself to it.

Until I come, devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture, to preaching and to teaching.  (1 Timothy 4:13)

There’s an obvious lesson in all this for service leaders and preachers. If we want good Bible readers at church, then we need to find suitable people and give them plenty of time to prepare. We should be willing to work with people in helping them to understand, apply, and communicate the Scriptures. Extra work? Absolutely—and worth it.

Now to go and put this into practice.

Apprenticeships for ministry

IMG_2710Once upon a time Christian ministers were viewed with respect. Ministry was voted among the more trustworthy of professions, but not so much any more. The appallingly bad behaviour of some has damaged the reputations of many.

The solution is simple. People serving in ministry must first be Christians—born again by the Spirit of God. Genuine ministry isn’t something you can fake. There’s no place for bluffing your way as a leader in God’s church. Leaders must first be followers—followers of Jesus. Pastors (or shepherds) of the flock need to understand they are first of all sheep, and they always remain sheep, guided by the Chief Shepherd.

Ministry is about God and people and life. It’s about change and transformation, character and integrity, truth and love. These aren’t the lessons you learn in the lecture room. You can’t download them from the internet, or glean them from books. These lessons are taught by God in the business of life. They come through practice, experience, application, devotion, heartache, weakness, and failure.

Those who would lead God’s people are to watch their lives and doctrine carefully (1 Timothy 4:16). Of course, this means hard work in studying the Word of God, but not in academic isolation. It’s not simply the head, but also the heart and the hands that need to be changed.

It’s for these reasons, and more, that I worry when people are in a hurry to go to theological college in preparation for a life of ministry. I worry when people dismiss the idea of growing into their ministry now, to work out if they are suited for more ministry later. I’ve observed impatient men and women dismissing the idea of practical training and jumping quickly into academic training.

Don’t get me wrong—theological education is so important for training in Christian ministry. But training must also be personal and practical and relational and communal.

For this reason, apprenticeships can be an excellent format for helping people to assess their suitability for Christian ministry. Spending time with a trainer, growing in life and ministry together, can offer an excellent opportunity to work out what it means to serve and lead others in the ways of God. You can focus on ministry competencies, while growing in theological conviction, and building Christian character.

If you are serious about preparing for a life time of ministry, then I encourage you to consider a ministry apprenticeship. You can talk with me or contact the Ministry Training Strategy.

This is not a solicited or paid advertisement!