Please persuade me

Version 2I’m a preacher. Something of a frustrated one currently. Most Easter Sundays see me preaching. And if you only ever hear me on this day, you might think I’m a one trick pony. The topic is always the same. Resurrection. Jesus coming back from the dead. The empty tomb. Appearances to the women. Dealing with doubting Thomas. The hope of eternal life. Why death is not all there is. Being prepared for your future beyond your future.

If you get along to church on an Easter Sunday morning, there’s a pretty good chance you know what you are going to get. And if you are the preacher at that church, there’s a pretty good chance you know what you should give. It will be about Jesus. The one who died is no longer dead. There is real hope for humanity. We can know our creator. We can receive his forgiveness. We can be adopted into his family. We can trust him in life and in death. Life can be better—not freedom from suffering, but genuine hope in our suffering. Life can have meaning—not simply protons, neutrons, electrons—life with God, shaped and transformed by God.

Easter is familiar. Like birthdays and Christmas are familiar. It comes around every year. We know what to expect, and we know what to give. It’s comfortable.

So, let me plead with you, preacher. Don’t just preach another sermon tomorrow. Don’t give me extraneous facts. Don’t show me how well you know your Bible. Don’t parrot out the same message you wrote for another gathering a decade ago. Don’t read your manuscript like any other lecture. Don’t make it about you—make it about Jesus. And make it about me, and how much you want me to know Jesus. Persuade me. Implore me. Urge me. Don’t give me reason to ignore you, to tune out, to scan my Facebook. Call on me to take this with deathly seriousness. Prove to me how much this matters to you. Show me how much you care—about me and your message.

Don’t you dare simply go through the motions. Preacher, if you’re not persuaded, then pull out now. Tomorrow you will have people turn up to listen to you. Please don’t let them down. Persuade them. Show some passion.

Stop now and pray. Ask God to speak through you. Pray that you will be captivated by the love of Christ. Call on God to fill you with the power of the Spirit who raised Jesus from the dead. Humble yourself and seek God’s help for your privileged task of declaring that Jesus is alive today.

When I turn up to church to hear what you have to say, please persuade me. Make me so glad I came.

Be like the Apostle Paul…

As was his custom, Paul went into the synagogue, and on three Sabbath days he reasoned with them from the Scriptures, explaining and proving that the Messiah had to suffer and rise from the dead. ‘This Jesus I am proclaiming to you is the Messiah,’ he said. Some of the Jews were persuaded and joined Paul and Silas, as did a large number of God-fearing Greeks and quite a few prominent women.
(Acts 17:2-4)

Blindspots

FIEC-conference-2017-small
Planning is now well underway for the FIEC 2017 National Conference. It will take place at Stanwell Tops in NSW, from Monday 4 to Thursday 7 September.
 
This is the one time of the year when we get together with our brothers and sisters serving in FIEC churches across our country. It’s a time to catch up with old friends, make new ones, and encourage one another to keep serving our saviour, the Lord Jesus. 2017 marks 500 years since the birth of the Reformation, when Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the door in Wittenberg. We thank God for calling his people back to the truth of his word, and we are calling on God to keep us reforming. 
 
This year’s conference is based on the theme of BLINDSPOTS. Where do we need to be changing? What are the threats to the spread of the gospel? Why might we need shaking from our complacency? How will we persevere in bearing testimony to Jesus in an increasingly hostile world? These are some of the challenges we all face. And there are many more we probably don’t even see.
 
We will be asking what God’s Spirit is saying to our churches. I will be opening God’s Word from the book of Revelation, asking God to shine a light on our blindspots. Peter Jensen will speak in the evenings, and many of our pastoral staff will lead us in sessions designed to get us reviewing our ministries, planning for the future, and prayerfully advancing in the strength God provides. There will be seminars, workshops, and opportunities to connect with others doing similar stuff to you.
 
Whether you come from a small church or a bigger one, whether from the country or the city, whether you’re encouraged or struggling—this conference will be designed to spur you on in your service of God.
 
Please plan now to come. Set aside the dates. Budget for the opportunity. Consider who to invite.
 
Full costs, details, and registration will be available on our website soon.

Gospel DNA

gospeldnaDNA is who we are. It’s you and I boiled down to our most basic fundamental parts. It’s our point of difference, our unique identifier. It’s the building block of our health and biological integrity. DNA gets passed from generation to generation during reproduction. Zillions of pieces of code are transmitted intact so that new things grow. Occasionally there are mistakes in the code. Sometimes things go wrong—like in me! I have a genetic mutation. My second chromosome has flipped around, fused with the fifth chromosome, and created a genetic short circuit, thus producing cancer of the lungs.

What about other bodies? What about the body of Christ we call the church? How is it reproduced? What keeps it healthy? The answer is Gospel DNA. The gospel gives spiritual life to churches. People respond to the gospel in repentance and faith, are thereby incorporated in Christ’s body, and knit together by his Spirit. Healthy churches reproduce this gospel DNA without allowing mutations to develop.

Richard Coekin’s new book Gospel DNA is a spiritual health manual for evangelical churches. He focuses on what he calls an ‘electrifying training seminar’ for church leaders. You and I might know it as the Apostle Paul’s words to the Ephesian elders recorded in Acts 20:17-38. In a handful of verses, Paul condenses the essence of what it takes to grow and reproduce healthy gospel-shaped churches. He identifies the matters that matter to God, responsibilities of leaders, the convictions that must shape all we do, and the threats to healthy church growth and reproduction. Richard Coekin spends 22 chapters exploring 22 verses of the Bible that are nothing less than a masterclass for gospel ministers.

I’ve long turned to Acts 20 for encouragement and inspiration for the work of gospel ministry. Simply being reminded that the church belongs to God and has been purchased by his blood, is enough to call me back into line. Paul’s words refocus my lens when I’m pulled here and there by the pressures and challenges of leading a church. They retune me to the matters of first importance to God. They remind me what the church is, why it matters so much to God, what will see it grow bigger and stronger, and warn me to stay alert to attacks.

This book isn’t so much a commentary on Acts 20:17-38 as it is a reflection on the Apostle Paul’s ‘ministry values’. No doubt Paul had more to say to the Ephesian elders, but the message that Luke records takes us deep into his core values of gospel ministry. Richard Coekin works off Paul’s script to explore these values in greater detail, by taking us to other parts of the Bible that expound each value. He explains their significance for promoting faithful and fruitful gospel ministry, often illustrating from his own experience with the Co-Mission network of churches in the UK.

I’m keen to get multiple copies of this book so that I can start reading it with others. In fact, I recommend the churches and leaders in our FiEC network make use of this book as a training manual. It’s a book to read slowly, chapter by chapter, pausing to review, discussing how we can apply its lessons, and making plans to change for the better. Gospel DNA is an excellent resource to use in personal ministry, training our leaders, enriching our elders, inspiring our potential missionaries, and preparing our future church planters.

(Richard Coekin, Gospel DNA: 21 Ministry Values for Growing Churches, The Good Book Company, 2017)

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!

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!

The daunting task of the preacher

Version 2Preaching can be an intimidating task. Knees quiver and voices quaver for some of us when we are forced to speak publicly. But it’s not the people in the audience that should cause us to tremble—here are four things more daunting still.

1. God

The task of the preacher is to speak about God. And we do it with God himself in the room. Perhaps you’ve had the experience of talking about somebody and then becoming aware that they can hear you. You didn’t realise they were there, and then you see them out of the corner of your eye. They’ve been listening in and heard every word you’ve said! The preacher has that experience every time they preach. We talk about God in the presence of God. How important it is we get it right. We’d do well to reflect on the lesson of Job in chapter 42, who basically says, “Look, I should shut up because I didn’t know who or what I was talking about.” And if he didn’t know what he was talking about—and he gets to be in the Bible—then we should be a little careful. Don’t you think?

2. God’s word

God’s word is a powerful thing. By God’s word the heavens and the earth were made. By God’s word this universe continues to function. By God’s word hearts and minds are brought from death to life. By God’s word the church is built and grows into maturity. Our task is to handle this powerful word of truth with great care (2 Timothy 2:15). I may get into trouble for mentioning this, but my brother recently removed his thumb—literally. One minute he is working in his garage with his circular saw. A short time later he is waking up in hospital with a surgically reattached thumb. A circular saw is a powerful instrument. It can do great good and great harm, so we must handle it with care. How much more the word of God. People depend on the preacher to take great care with God’s word. In fact, their lives depend on it.

3. The preacher’s heart

Let me state the bleeding obvious—I’m not perfect. Not even close. And every time I have to preach I’m reminded of this fact. I often feel like Isaiah who in chapter 6, when confronted with a vision of the holy God, says “Woe is me, because I’m a man of unclean lips, among a people of unclean lips.” Isaiah could have been speaking for me.

I know my own sinfulness. I know my weaknesses. I know the things that I do wrong. And yet here I am, charged with speaking about the holy and righteous God—in my state. How important that I remember that God has acted in Christ to cleanse me. How important to remember that God can even speak his truth through a donkey (Numbers 22).

4. The preacher’s life

God calls us to practice what we preach. The apostle Paul called people to follow his example and to copy his way of life. So much of what people learn is caught rather than taught. Our walk should match our talk. When it doesn’t we can quickly undermine our message. How many preachers have called their congregations to sexual purity only to have their porn addictions, their illicit affairs, or their heartless marriages exposed? We know our hypocrisy and they can easily lead to warped preaching. Some will avoid speaking on any topic they’re unwilling to confront themselves. Others will confront their failures by beating on others. They know the deep-rooted greed in their hearts and yet mercilessly challenge others to confront their idolatry and covetousness.

From the gospel to the gospel

We must always remember that ‘but for the grace of God go I’. We have received grace, mercy and forgiveness through Jesus Christ. We bring nothing to the table—it is all of God. We should thank him and trust him alone. So too, our ministries are gifts of God’s grace (Romans 12:3-8). God doesn’t choose the clever, the strong, or the powerful because they are the ones qualified to be his ambassadors. He works among the weak and the imperfect to equip them for his service. God’s Spirit is at work in the messenger and the message. So let us never give up praying that God will transform our hearts and minds and work through our words and actions.

Our message is to be grounded in gospel. So too we must point people to the gospel. We have a powerful life-changing word from God. We must not water this down to a pathetic call to live better lives. Let people hear the hope. And hear it loud. God is in Christ reconciling the world to himself. God is working for the good of all who love and trust him, to make us more like his Son, Christ Jesus. Self-righteous pretence leads to hell, but God-given righteousness, through faith in Christ, leads to everlasting life.

Let’s keep on with the daunting task of preaching the gospel.

Originally published on TGCAu site 20/8/15

How to walk into church

hwic_265It’s important to be able to do things on autopilot. Can you imagine having to think through every step to riding a bicycle every time you got on? Or opening your users manual every time you wanted to watch TV?

However, sometimes, autopilot can be a problem. We visited our premature daughter at the hospital every day for over 3 months until she was able to come home. Many times after that day, I’d get in the car, and be almost at the hospital before I realised that I should have been going in the opposite direction.

I suspect that going to church is an autopilot experience for most Christians. Sunday comes around and we get up, head to church, sit in the same place, and do what we always do. Interestingly, the Bible teaches us that we shouldn’t head to church on autopilot. We should turn autopilot off and engage manual. Hebrews 10:24-25 teaches us:

And let us consider how we may spur one another on towards love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another – and all the more as you see the Day approaching.

We are encouraged to meet together regularly so as to encourage and spur one another on in our Christian lives. I take this as encouragement to make church a regular and important priority. We are also urged to ‘consider’ how me do this, which I take as call to disengage autopilot. We are to think about why we go to church, what we will do when we are there, who will be there, how we might encourage them, and more.

Tony Payne’s brief book, How to Walk into Church is written to encourage us to switch off the autopilot and think how we can make our time at church amongst the most valuable activity we engage in each week. He writes:

We come not to spectate or consume, nor even to have our own personal encounter with God. We come to love and to serve.(p13)

This little book is firmly grounded in Hebrews chapters 10 to 12. We are introduced to the heavenly gathering called church and move to the implications of belonging to this church for how me spend our time together with other Christians in our local churches. Our churches are to be shaped by love, and this only happens as we make God and one another the purpose of our gathering. We meet to love, which means we meet so as to build one another by the truth of God’s word. Tony suggests that every time we walk into church we should be wearing a metaphorical t-shirt that says:

“God is important to me, and you are important to me”. And on the back it says, “And that’s why I wouldn’t dream of missing this.” (p37)

How to Walk into Church contains helpful suggestions for promoting ‘every member’ ministry. You don’t need to be the preacher, the Bible reader, or the song leader to be able to influence others. We can all strike up conversations shaped by the Word of God. We can look out for one another, notice who’s missing, and show hospitality to newcomers. If church has become a passive experience, then this book will help you to turn things back toward active engagement every week.

This brief book is one that I plan to use as a tool in our ministry. Our church has already purchased a box of these books and we are promoting them to our regulars. My hope is that the book can also become part of a membership toolkit. When people indicate that they’re keen to belong to our church, then we will talk through how they can contribute to the ministry. We may well give them this book, urging them to read it, jot down some notes and questions, and we’ll talk about it together. I will be recommending this book to churches, small groups, and individuals.

There are many strengths of this book, not least is that it’s only 64 pages and takes 30 minutes to read. Yet more importantly is that it is derived clearly from the Scriptures. Some books about ‘what to do in church’ simply springboard from the Bible into the pool of pragmatism.

Having read over this book a couple of times, there are improvements that I think could be made in a second edition. It’s a good book that could be even better. I’d like to be able to offer this book to anyone who comes to our church—whether they are Christian or not. Thus, I think the book would benefit by a clearer explanation of how to become part of the heavenly church, the church belonging to Jesus. While this point is made, a few pages completely devoted to the message of the gospel would strengthen its impact.
I’d also like to read more practical ideas for ministry at church. Perhaps in between chapters we could read some cameos of people in their service at church. Alternatively, each chapter could finish with some dot points of ideas, or even a section for personal reflection and prayer for the reader to map out some ideas for service.

I had an opportunity to raise these suggestions with the author at a recent conference and he was most receptive. I sensed that his desire is to serve the church by listening as well as by writing.

This review was written for The Gospel Coalition Australia