A Constant Gardener by Pastor Anonymous: They held hands


Constant Gardener Trowel

(view original article here)

We were chuffed that they’d chosen our church.

A couple with good jobs, and well-behaved children, and they wanted to be part of our church. Our church?! A lovely, eager, problem-free family, landing in our pews and our lives. We all looked forward to getting to know them and enjoying helping them get stuck into the church’s work. God is good.

He is good, and he was very good in bringing us this lovely couple and their kids. They did get stuck in. My family and theirs had meals at each others’ homes, and they were some of the most vocal encouragers I had. And even I, naïve and slightly optimistic younger Pastor as I was then, knew that smiling faces can easily hide crying hearts. After a couple of years I saw the husband’s tears when he opened up to me. It was the marriage.

Opening up about marriage

Middle-aged men don’t easily share their problems. Marriage problems are some of the most painful, and the hardest to share. But he opened up. One day he told me that the marriage was little more than a convenient partnership. Loveless, sexless, grey, sad, and even tragic. The kids knew the simmering anger between the parents, the separate lives they led, the enforced smiles when at church. The dad was terrified that this strain was starting to have its effect on the children. Divorce frightened him, too, but he knew it was an option. He knew he needed to get some help.

First step

We all know that finally owning up to problems is the first step to tackling them. I felt honoured that this dear friend told me just how bad things were. We know, too, that men are particularly guilty of not recognising problems, or explaining them away, or just plain ignoring them. I believe that it was a work of God’s Holy Spirit that this man said that he needed help. He and I sat down for a couple of long conversations. I knew that he and his wife would actually talk more freely to a Christian marriage counsellor than to me, and that in this situation that was the right recommendation to make. So they set their first date for an open discussion with the counsellor, and those meetings began.

Beautiful story

What happened next, and what’s happened over the ten or so years since that conversation, is a simple but very beautiful story of healing. Slow, obviously, with fits and starts, and some relapses into old attitudes and patterns of behaviour, but the solid rebuilding of trust and love, and establishing intimacy again. I remember how he shyly smiled as he proudly told me ‘we held hands last night. We just sat on the sofa and held hands.’ I was so thrilled for them both. Today they are still at our church, seeing their children grow towards adulthood. They’re just as committed to the gospel. And their lives show those marks of Christian authenticity. The Holy Spirit’s enabling, the grace of God, faith in his promises, obedience to his Word. It’s all there. And it’s beautiful.

Encouragement

Why tell you all this? To encourage you. God works in ordinary people, taking ordinary trials and tears, and bringing new strength, and real progress. If that couple had divorced, people would have grieved for them, but then moved on. God’s Spirit brought them both to long for change, then to seek help, and to work for change. And here they are today, as real, time-tested signs of the quiet power of God.

The church is a strange coming-together of weak, struggling people. Make sure appearances otherwise don’t deceive you. Treasure your church family, they are a most precious gift of God. Pray for each other, help each other. Be honest, and pursue openness. Believe in very every-day and yet wholly supernatural grace. Celebrate those who are still pressing on in the gospel.

Pastor Anonymous is in full-time pastoral ministry somewhere in the UK!

This article was first published in the May 2014 issue of Evangelicals Now. For more news, artciles or reviews, visit our website or subscribe to en for monthly updates.

A Constant Gardener by Pastor Anonymous: Hearts break


Constant Gardener Trowel

People are fragile.

Illness, depression, family tragedies, sexual temptation and sin, terminal diagnoses, adultery, mental health crises, redundancy and unemployment stalk everyone, and Christians aren’t immune from any of them.

For every ten happy faces you see on a Sunday morning, ten others come bearing the marks of stress and anxiety. Look closely enough, and at least a couple of those smiling faces are actually etched with tension. We are a great mix and all of us, at different times, feel overwhelmed or even crushed by life’s problems. Then church must stop being a club or a nice place to spend time in, and become a community where there is real care. That’s where pastors come in.

Deepest needs

Being a pastor means trying to help people in their deepest needs We deal with people when life collapses in on them. Here are some reflections on pastoral care for strugglers.

1. Pastors must be at the forefront of care. The study is not a place to hide out in while members of the body are in pain. Our sermons must have hands and feet – and at times of suffering, they’re our hands and feet!

2. Pastors mustn’t suppose that they are to give all the care. There may be others better qualified to help, in the church family or beyond it. We mustn’t be so foolish as to think that it’s all down to us.

3. Caring usually goes beyond prayer, but never goes without prayer. Pastors need to schedule extended times of prayer for people who are really going through it. As well as praying for their strengthening by God’s grace, we pray for insight into how we and the church body can care for them.

4. Pastors are often very unsure how to help, and sometimes hesitate in helping others for that reason. We’re so concerned to look as if we have all the answers and gifts, that we shy away from sufferers out of fear that we’ll look clumsy. That is sinful pride, and must be repented of and overcome.

5. Pastors have no magic wands, and no magic promises. How many Christian people have been damaged long-term by easy-breezy spiritual assurances given in the face of horror by their so-called shepherds? Sometimes suffering sticks for years and years. Hearts go on breaking. People need us not to make shallow, unbiblical promises.

6. Pastors are fellow strugglers, not action-heroes. Pastors should beware of the temptation to feel indispensable when sufferers need their care. There is only one Special One (that is Jesus, not José Mourinho!).

7. Pastors and those who try to help sufferers are fragile, too. If pastors are in a long-term and costly form of care-giving, they should make sure that others are looking out for their welfare. Churches by and large need to work a lot harder at supporting and encouraging their main care-givers.

8. Jesus wept. That means that we’re allowed to. Sometimes, that’s the very thing we should do.

9. Pastors must plan not to forget people’s suffering. We need to write down significant dates somewhere. Anniversaries of losses and tragedies stab at the heart and tear at faith. We need to reassure our people when those times come around each year that God is always good, and that his grace is sufficient.

10. Some problems never get solved. Ministry is not the inside track on miraculous grace. It is, though, God’s way of bringing strengthening grace to his people in their trials. Our willingness to visit, encourage and support those who suffer through months and years speaks volumes about the Lord’s commitment to his own, even if he doesn’t remove all their pain in this life.

11. Talk about heaven often with those who suffer. This is not a cop-out, it is indispensable to true Christian hope and present discipleship. Always, always, always encourage strugglers with the certainty of their future home.

12. One of the best snippets of wisdom I ever heard when it comes to caring for others is this: ‘walk towards the pain’. In other words, make people’s problems your priorities. Pastors, refuse to be indifferent, and refuse to be a coward. And church members – love your pastors.

Pastor Anonymous is in full-time pastoral ministry somewhere in the UK!

This article was first published in the April 2014 issue of Evangelicals Now. For more news, artciles or reviews, visit our website or subscribe to en for monthly updates.

A Constant Gardener by Pastor Anonymous: They held hands


Constant Gardener Trowel

(view original article here)

We were chuffed that they’d chosen our church.

A couple with good jobs, and well-behaved children, and they wanted to be part of our church. Our church?! A lovely, eager, problem-free family, landing in our pews and our lives. We all looked forward to getting to know them and enjoying helping them get stuck into the church’s work. God is good.

He is good, and he was very good in bringing us this lovely couple and their kids. They did get stuck in. My family and theirs had meals at each others’ homes, and they were some of the most vocal encouragers I had. And even I, naïve and slightly optimistic younger Pastor as I was then, knew that smiling faces can easily hide crying hearts. After a couple of years I saw the husband’s tears when he opened up to me. It was the marriage.

Opening up about marriage

Middle-aged men don’t easily share their problems. Marriage problems are some of the most painful, and the hardest to share. But he opened up. One day he told me that the marriage was little more than a convenient partnership. Loveless, sexless, grey, sad, and even tragic. The kids knew the simmering anger between the parents, the separate lives they led, the enforced smiles when at church. The dad was terrified that this strain was starting to have its effect on the children. Divorce frightened him, too, but he knew it was an option. He knew he needed to get some help.

First step

We all know that finally owning up to problems is the first step to tackling them. I felt honoured that this dear friend told me just how bad things were. We know, too, that men are particularly guilty of not recognising problems, or explaining them away, or just plain ignoring them. I believe that it was a work of God’s Holy Spirit that this man said that he needed help. He and I sat down for a couple of long conversations. I knew that he and his wife would actually talk more freely to a Christian marriage counsellor than to me, and that in this situation that was the right recommendation to make. So they set their first date for an open discussion with the counsellor, and those meetings began.

Beautiful story

What happened next, and what’s happened over the ten or so years since that conversation, is a simple but very beautiful story of healing. Slow, obviously, with fits and starts, and some relapses into old attitudes and patterns of behaviour, but the solid rebuilding of trust and love, and establishing intimacy again. I remember how he shyly smiled as he proudly told me ‘we held hands last night. We just sat on the sofa and held hands.’ I was so thrilled for them both. Today they are still at our church, seeing their children grow towards adulthood. They’re just as committed to the gospel. And their lives show those marks of Christian authenticity. The Holy Spirit’s enabling, the grace of God, faith in his promises, obedience to his Word. It’s all there. And it’s beautiful.

Encouragement

Why tell you all this? To encourage you. God works in ordinary people, taking ordinary trials and tears, and bringing new strength, and real progress. If that couple had divorced, people would have grieved for them, but then moved on. God’s Spirit brought them both to long for change, then to seek help, and to work for change. And here they are today, as real, time-tested signs of the quiet power of God.

The church is a strange coming-together of weak, struggling people. Make sure appearances otherwise don’t deceive you. Treasure your church family, they are a most precious gift of God. Pray for each other, help each other. Be honest, and pursue openness. Believe in very every-day and yet wholly supernatural grace. Celebrate those who are still pressing on in the gospel.

Pastor Anonymous is in full-time pastoral ministry somewhere in the UK!

This article was first published in the May 2014 issue of Evangelicals Now. For more news, artciles or reviews, visit our website or subscribe to en for monthly updates.

A Constant Gardener by Pastor Anonymous: Man of mystery?


Constant Gardener Trowel

Here are 20 things your pastor wished you knew about him.

1. He knows and feels that ministry is a wonderful privilege (despite appearances which suggest otherwise, sometimes).

2. He is sometimes overwhelmed by a sense of failure in his ministry to you.

3. He’s not always sure if you know how much he loves and respects you.

4. He wishes you would open up to him more. He’s not a mind-reader, and he sometimes feels that you are content to keep him at arm’s length. Are you?

5. There are times when all he wants to hear from you is ‘thank you.’

6. He’s been sure that he should leave your church a few times already. He’s slogged through times of almost overwhelming darkness, as well as invitations to look at other churches. He’s stayed because he loves you.

7. He longs that you would say something (anything!) to him about the sermon on Sunday, or what you’re learning in the Bible.

8. He goes home from Sunday services thinking about you. Sometimes he even dreams about you. You are on his heart and mind far more than you realise.

9. He actually doesn’t care if you or anyone else in the church forgets him when he’s retired or gone to glory. As long as you’re safe in heaven, he’ll be more than happy.

10. He (mostly) loves preaching. He would hate you to think that it’s a burden to him.

11. He knows that no one in the church, not even his Elders, knows how difficult it is to preach, week in, week out.

12. Even when you’re at your most spiritually cold and fault-finding, he genuinely longs for a deepening spiritual friendship with you.

13. He puzzles over how much you think about your salary, but never think about how much your church salaries him.

14. He prays for you regularly. This is a heart, will and time commitment.

15. He needs your prayers and your encouragements. Pastors are in the devil’s firing-line.

16. Nothing thrills him more than finding out that you’ve been busy in gospel work, without advertising your work to others.

17. He loves being a part of the church family, as a regular member, as well as the pastor. He loves eating, laughing and sharing life with his Christian family.

18. He deeply respects your complicated,busy life. When he’s calling for commitment to the church, he’s not forgotten all that you’re already juggling.

19. He remembers your acts of kindness to him, probably long after you’ve forgotten them.

20. He loves Jesus. Even when he gets it wrong as he pastors you, he’s trying to work out his love for the Lord to you.

Pastor Anonymous is in full-time pastoral ministry somewhere in the UK!

This article was first published in the March 2014 issue of Evangelicals Now. For more news, artciles or reviews, subscribe to EN or contact us for more information.
http://www.e-n.org.uk 0845 225 0057

A Constant Gardener by Pastor Anonymous: Ministering to the moaners


Constant Gardener Trowel

They never set out to be grumblers.

But 40 years into their Christian lives this couple were known in the church above all as people who were never satisfied. Everyone knew them as trouble. People endured their moans, but no one ever challenged them, including the church leaders – and including their pastor. How did they let this couple harm so many others for so long, and maybe themselves, worst of all? Why do people moan and complain? Here are some ideas:

Because they may be in pain. Moaners are hurting people. They may well be hurting about something in church life. Often, it’s a pain in another area of life which finds its angry expression sometimes in the trivial details of church. If, for example, you’re being badly treated at work, chances are you might be taking your stress out at church. Sounds familiar?

Because they probably do care. However badly expressed, moaners are often those who really do care about the church. Just because they don’t express themselves helpfully, it doesn’t mean that they don’t see what needs fixing. I always try to think of my moaners as ‘critical friends’, however unfriendly they might be! Moaners could well be the church’s greatest asset, if challenged on how they behave, and then given the opportunity to express themselves better.

Because it’s empowering. When you moan, you’ve suddenly got people’s attention. You’ve grown in importance in their eyes, as they listen to you. Or so you think. I recall hearing of a number of people who went to their pastor with deep concern about their church’s complainer. They’d rumbled her for what she was, an insecure person who needed the power of Christ to renew her heart.

Because sin wants to master us. Sin is destructive, to ourselves and to others. In our sin we can love to take down those we don’t like. Some desires to complain are just destructive, and nothing else. Complainers always need to be challenged, tenderly, respectfully and firmly.

Because the devil is real. He wants to devour souls, pastors and churches. He wants to replace our praise with bitterness and sniping. He wants to bring the chaos of disunity through gripes and moans. Complaining is one of the weapons he uses against the Lord of the church.

So, what should we do when we feel the force of complaining?

A word to pastors

Two things for you to think about. Firstly, search your heart when you hear about complaints, or receive them personally. Don’t explode, and don’t collapse. It’s a fool or a coward (or probably both) who refuses to listen to unpleasant things. Seek to learn, grow and change. Secondly, take moaning seriously. It’s a great blight amongst God’s people. You must go to its source as soon as you can. Don’t put it off and hope it’ll go away, because it won’t. Your job is to love your people enough to speak into their problems, especially into their complaining.

A word to church members

The fruit of the Spirit includes love, peace and self-control, even as we deal with disappointment, in the church of Christ just as elsewhere. Make your pastor’s job a joy and not a burden, not by keeping your problems to yourself, but by seeking to express them with the care which honours the Holy Spirit and enables his work. Aim only to say what is helpful, for building others up. And pray for the courage to respond in a God-honouring way to those who want to get you onside with their complaints. Refuse to complain, and resolve to bring your problems with leaders and members alike to those they concern.

Let’s return to the couple I started with. A godly man sat down with these two people, and showed them the sin which had gripped their hearts through all those years. They were shocked, not at his courage in speaking the truth in love, but in seeing who they had become. As the difficult truth was ministered, this couple caught the first glimpse of the pit they had fallen into. They are making a steady and wonderful recovery. So how are you ministering to the moaning?

 

Pastor Anonymous is in full-time pastoral ministry somewhere in the UK!

This article was first published in the February 2014 issue of Evangelicals Now. For more news, artciles or reviews, subscribe to EN or contact us for more information.
http://www.e-n.org.uk 0845 225 0057

A Constant Gardener by Pastor Anonymous: Why this new column?


credit: iStock

credit: iStock

I don’t think that many EN readers are avid consumers of the Guardian newspaper.

Still, you may have heard of ‘The Secret Footballer’ column in that paper. For the last few seasons an anonymous Premiership footballer has chronicled the ups and downs of the professional game. For us readers, it’s the inside story on a world we might think we know. But as we read it, we discover that we’ve only been guessing all the while.

What’s it like to be a pastor?
In my experience, committed Christians have little understanding of what their pastor does. Sure, pastors preach, lead meetings, visit the sick, chase down the evidently lukewarm, do ‘ministry stuff’; but beyond that it’s all a bit of a mystery. No one ever dreams of asking us just what it was we did last week. Have you ever asked your pastor how he spends his time, and what it’s like doing his job? I thought not.

That’s why I’m writing this column. I’m a UK pastor and I love the work of the ministry. I’m working in a mixed congregation of ordinary people. By ‘ordinary’ I suppose I mean those who are loveable, and those who are, to me at least, less loveable. We’re not a huge church, and we’re not a handful. We’re not failing too awfully, and we’re not having an earth-shattering impact on our area. Not yet, anyway.

Beyond that, I won’t tell you who I am. That’s because I want to use the column to write about my ministry. A ministry that’s earthed in the real lives of people, and that’s shaped by God’s grace in my own situation. If you know me or my church, then it’s hard for me to write. Because you don’t know me (and I’ll be careful to cover my tracks), I can write with greater freedom, and so I can get to the heart of some of the issues in church life and ministry.

More than anything, I want to show you what it’s like being a pastor. I’m not writing with axes to grind, moans to indulge, or agendas to promote. I’ll be writing this column about pastoral ministry for two reasons:

A joyful life
First, I want you to see that my life as a pastor is a really joyful one. Despite appearances, we pastors are largely a very grateful and glad breed of men. Oh I know, pastors can be miserable and pastoral ministry brings miseries and agonies. I’ve been there and I’m sure I’ll be there again. But the vast majority of pastors I know love their calling and those they serve. I want you to see why, for your encouragement. Ministry is the partnership of leaders and people. Who wants to be partnering with a professional misery? I want to show you where my joy is as a pastor.

A sacrificial life
Secondly, I want you to see that ministry is a deeply sacrificial work. If I’m doing it properly, my work is deeply costly to me. That’s true of almost any job of course, but ministry has particular demands. The man who stands up on Sunday may be ministering out of a heart filled with tears. You may be the cause of his tears. What does it mean to carry your cross as pastor? As we see the cost for our leaders, we can learn to support them.

Coming soon!
So, part diary, part musings, part confessional. I look forward to sharing some ministry inside out with you. Next month: church hand grenades and other terror tactics from the pews.

Pastor Anonymous is in full-time pastoral ministry somewhere in the UK!

This article was first published in the January 2014 issue of Evangelicals Now. For more news, artciles or reviews, subscribe to EN or contact us for more information.
http://www.e-n.org.uk 0845 225 0057

Editors commentary: Too much of a good thing?


What did your pastor preach last sunday?

Hopefully he preached faithfully from the Bible. And probably he gave an ‘expository sermon.’ By that term we mean that he took a passage of Scripture, explained its meaning and brought practical application for living.

Often these expositions are consecutive. Over the weeks the preacher takes the congregation through a whole Bible book. So if we’re asked what’s going on at church we might reply, ‘We are going through James,’ or ‘We are looking at Esther.’

This expository method of preaching, taught on most conservative evangelical Bible courses, can be of enormous benefit. One of the great formative experiences of my own Christian life as a young man was to hear Stuart Olyott, over a period of about six months, preach through Romans so that we could remember the shape and argument of the whole book. It also has many advantages. It delivers the congregation from being continually exposed to the minister’s hobby horses. It means that we don’t avoid the difficult bits. We have to face up to the teachings which are at odds with today’s society; we have to include understanding God’s wrath as well as his love. Expository preaching also naturally leads into an overview of the whole Bible, which is good for everyone.

Time for a rethink
However, I have wondered whether we have put ourselves in something of a straightjacket. While noting its many advantages, is this expository method the only way to teach Scripture authentically?

A number of factors have prompted a rethink.

First, though there is something like it in Nehemiah 8, we don’t generally find this kind of sermon in the Scriptures themselves. The sermons we find in Acts, for example, certainly refer to Bible texts and explain their meaning, but they are not restricted to one passage. Usually they draw on a number of references as they pursue a message. The particular problems of a local church set the agenda for Paul’s Letters, which he then addresses, deploying Scripture appropriately, not the other way around. Sometimes the writers of the Letters could even be accused of the dreaded ‘error’ of ‘proof texting’ – though, of course, never out of context.

Second, in our pursuit of consecutive exposition, are congregations becoming doctri-nally ignorant? They know many Bible passages and what they teach, but these have never been put together in any ordered systematic way. This means they don’t have a theological framework in their minds by which to think their way through life. This can lead to spiritual disaster. For good reasons churches used to have catechisms. Wouldn’t it be helpful from time to time for a church to be taken through its Confession of Faith showing its biblical basis? If the different books of Scripture are like different instruments in an orchestra, sometimes the whole orchestra needs to be heard on certain doctrinal or practical themes.

Third, congregations are refreshed by hearing a different approach. Variety can help.

Fourth, sometimes the consecutive exposition method can encourage a kind of mechanical approach in a pastor which is not good for any one. He knows what he is doing next week and he just gets on with it. There might be a crying need for teaching on reconciliation or handling terminal illness in the church, but he is in the 23rd chapter of 2 Chronicles and has already prepared his message.

Don’t misunderstand. I love expository sermons. But isn’t there more than one way to skin a cat?

I shall probably be accused of heresy.

John Benton

This article was first published in the January 2014 issue of Evangelicals Now. For more news, artciles or reviews, subscribe to EN or contact us for more information.
http://www.e-n.org.uk 0845 225 0057

The Music Exchange from Richard Simpkin: Songwriters serve who?


‘P.S. Are you singing any good new songs lately?’

This is a phrase that often comes at the end of emails sent to me. I don’t know if it’s just me, but there seem to be more and more asking the same question, which is odd, because there are hundreds of songs being written every week and disseminated on the internet from all over the world.

What’s more, the theology of the songs being written is much more solid than in the mid-90s, but I’m still struggling to find new material that a normal congregation finds easy to sing. Even at the London Music Ministry Conference (which I help run) I haven’t been bowled over with confidence in the new songs we’ve presented during the ‘New songs’ session.

Ten million YouTube hits

What about ‘10,000 reasons’ by Matt Redman? Extremely popular, over ten million views on YouTube, two Grammys, lots of churches trying to sing it. But (and please don’t burn me at the stake — it’s only a song, not the Word of God, and this is only my fallen opinion…) it’s actually quite hard to sing when there are only 50 in the congregation, and it’s hard to play by the average Joe church muso. There, I’ve said it. It’s a good song to listen to and to sing along to, and it has helped literally millions of people delight in the goodness of God. That’s not the issue — it’s wonderful that songwriters are writing faithful songs that are being sung by so many people. The issue I want to address is the lack of strongly congregational songs being written these days.

Listening or singing?

This is down to lots of reasons. I have always believed that the main reason is the pressure on songwriters to write to the ‘listening’ market (CDs, mp3s, downloads, concerts, gigs) rather than congregations who want to encourage and admonish each other with the truth in a church meeting. Again, it’s a great thing to have concerts that proclaim the name of Jesus, but here are some humble pleas to Christian songwriters who want to serve the average congregation.

First, praise the Lord that lyrics are much more Bible-centred and less ‘me’-centred these days. Then, once you’ve written the lyrics, please write us tunes that are easy to sing, and that serve the words well. This word/music balance has always been a battle for Christian songwriters (and the music usually wins in the end!). We need tunes that make it as obvious as possible which note is coming next. If we’re always fumbling around for the notes it takes the focus off the words and we end up listening to the musicians again. One way of solving this is by writing the tune first rather than going for a chord sequence or riff.

Now I love guitarists, but this is the reason many songs written by guitarists are hard to sing — because their songs are driven more by rhythm than by melody. Put the guitar down, think of a tune, then pick the guitar up and shape the chords around the tune.

Second, please don’t try to be too clever (especially those who write songs from the piano). If you feel that your songs are a bit samey, please don’t ‘freshen things up’ by writing songs in crazy time signatures. Most drummers struggle to play them and congregations struggle to sing them — especially if the time signature changes half way through the song.

No bridges please

Third, we don’t need a bridge. No really, we don’t need a bridge.

I know that a bridge makes the song long enough to make it a viable track on a CD, and it can heighten the tension before the last chorus, but it’s yet another tune we have to learn the music to. Most of us leave the bridge out anyway, so it would save us all a lot of time.

To conclude, songwriters, please keep those songs coming, and please carry on working hard to help us sing great truths in our congregations, not just on CDs or on stage. We love listening to you, but we’d also like to sing with you!

Richard Simpkin is Director of Music at St. Helen’s Church, Bishopsgate, London.

This article was first published in the June 2013 issue of Evangelicals Now. For more news, artciles or reviews, subscribe to EN or contact us for more information.
http://www.e-n.org.uk 0845 225 0057

Remember the poor – Local church responsibility towards financially needy believers


Remember the poorWe are living in days in which many Christians have been plunged into great financial difficulties.

This is often through no fault of their own. Our country is in the throes of significant economic recession, and it seems likely that far greater financial heartaches are just around the corner for our stagnating economy.

Christians are not immune from the effects of the near collapse of Western capitalism. Unemployment can suddenly strike, or be the unwanted lot of students even years after graduation. Sickness within the family can bring less opportunity to earn, coupled with greater living costs. State benefits have been squeezed and the criteria for receiving them toughened, often rather arbitrarily.

I want to bring out five key principles from the New Testament to show that local churches have a responsibility for those in financial difficulty in their midst and beyond. And then I want to show how one very ordinary local church, with fewer than 100 members, has sought to help those going through such times. My aim is to spur churches to think about their God-given duties in this area.

1. Supporting others is normal

The organised support of the poor in the fellowship is part of normal church life. This was part of the everyday life of the church in Jerusalem, seemingly from its inception (Acts 4.34-35, and 6.1ff).

Doubtless there were exceptional circumstances there, as many converted at Pentecost remained in the city to learn more of their newfound faith. Yet, surely, the principle of organised help for the needy jumps out to us from the text. Sadly, a combination of right suspicion against a ‘social gospel’ and the rampant individualism of our culture have deadened us to the need for organised care for those in dire financial straits in our midst.

2. Consequence of love

Organised care is a natural extension of individual Christian love. The joy of new life in Christ and of truly belonging to God’s people inevitably brought a spontaneous sharing and hospitality in the days after Pentecost (Acts 2.44-45). Indeed, such practical love is the natural and essential fruit of true conversion (Matthew 25.34ff). And, as time passed and the needs increased, it was very appropriate that the ministry of care was formalised, so that needs were not missed (Acts 4.32-35, compare 6.1ff).

3. The issue of need

The issue of need is the key question (Acts 2.45 and 4.34-35), not how the people got into that need. These matters must be handled with grace and understanding, though it may well also be important to seek to provide help with handling money, if the financial support is to be truly effective.

The ministry of Christians Against Poverty (CAP) can be very useful here, though that doesn’t obviate the need to preach on such issues in the church life. Some question whether there is any need for churches to support their poor, living as we do in a wonderful welfare state. Yet, often, benefits do not arrive quickly enough, nor are they generous enough to meet all needs. Others point out that some financial needs are so great — for example, wealthy believers becoming bankrupt — that few, if any, churches could help meet those needs. Yet local churches can still provide help, which can be wonderfully reassuring and vital to the mental and spiritual strength of those fallen on hard times.

4. Practical wisdom

Support needs to be handled with wisdom, grace and efficiency. The apostles were made aware of flaws in the system of welfare distribution in the Jerusalem church (Acts 6.1). Whether those failings were due to prejudice or inefficiency is hard to say, but it brought dangerous tensions and conflicts to the church. Indeed, anyone who has been in church life for any length of time will have experienced church tensions over money, especially when it comes to being generous with it! That is why it was necessary to have such a group of wonderfully spiritual men to sort the apparently pretty straightforward practical problem out (Acts 6.3). Support always needs to be wisely and sensitively tackled.

5. Outsiders too

The church’s responsibility is not restricted to those in our own back yard. Preoccupation with our own fellowship can be selfish and unspiritual. The New Testament gives us a vision, not simply for the evangelism of the whole world, but for meeting the practical needs of the wider church community. Surely, no thoughtful Christian can remain unchallenged by Paul’s preoccupation with the collection for the poor believers in Jerusalem (Romans 15.23-28).

One church’s experience

Among the things that we at Dewsbury Evangelical Church have been able to do to help believers financially have been the following. We have helped asylum seekers with their living and legal costs, including, on occasions, making a commitment to pay them a weekly ‘subsistence allowance’ and making collections for solicitors’ fees. We have provided holidays for poor families, sometimes by arranging for them to stay in the homes of believers (living in rather nicer areas than Dewsbury!) while the owners themselves are away on holiday. We have paid for youngsters attending YP groups to go on our church camp.

We have sometimes sent money with our Asian worker on his visits to Pakistan to try to help the struggling church there. We have set up a small disasters committee in the church so that the church members can be encouraged to make collections to support famine or earthquake relief (often through Christian organisations) when the need is most urgent.

Help on a weekly basis

And we have established a scheme to provide poorer members among us with bags of groceries on a weekly or fortnightly basis. Since this is an effective, much appreciated, and easily replicated scheme, it is probably worth explaining how it works in some detail.

This scheme was the brainwave of one of our lady members. We provide bags of groceries for those most in need in the fellowship, serving perhaps six or seven families or individuals in an average week. More than 10% of our membership has received them. Recipients include the unemployed, the low paid, asylum seekers, the sick, the elderly, and those under sudden and unexpected financial strain.

The groceries, including hopefully some more luxury items, are collected from better off members in the congregation — most of us! Members are encouraged to buy a little extra when they visit, or order from, the supermarket and to bring it with them to church on a Sunday. That is then organised into bags for those in need by two thoughtful ladies in the fellowship who have gladly undertaken the responsibility. A letter has been issued by the deacons to all who belong to us explaining the working of the scheme, and giving advice about the range of stuff required in our somewhat multi-cultural congregation.

The bags are then either picked up by those for whom they are intended, often after the evening service or the prayer meeting, or delivered to their homes. The bags of groceries are not huge, but they make a real contribution to those in need and express the sympathy and love of the church to those who receive them. We encourage all members to be on the look-out for those in need among us, as many believers are very reluctant to ask for help, even if their needs are urgent.

Giving and receiving

The scheme is far from perfect, but works well and is relatively simple to operate. If needs exceed supply we try to inform members of that situation, but often that has brought the opposite problem! Sadly, we have very little facility to store groceries, and none to store furniture: more room would be a great asset to this work.

Some have found it difficult to receive from the scheme, but it is easier when they realise that others in the church also benefit. Many also respond to the thought that if and when they are in a better financial position they will be able to contribute to the scheme which is helping them now (2 Corinthians 8.14). Sometimes it throws up difficult questions about whether we can and should extend the service into the community, but on the whole it has been a really helpful development in church life. I have written about it not to trumpet what we are doing, but simply to show others one way in which our corporate responsibility to the poorer among us can begin to be met.

Graham Heaps is pastor of Dewsbury Evangelical Church, Yorkshire.

 
(This article was first published in the February 2013 issue of Evangelicals Now. For more news, artciles or reviews, subscribe to EN or contact us for more information.
http://www.e-n.org.uk 0845 225 0057)

Who are all these people?


Who are all the peopleAs Britain’s population is changing, what are the implications for the ministry of our churches?

According to the 2011 census, published in December, the population of England and Wales was 56.1 million, the UK total being around 63 million.

Other sources expect that roughly two million will be added to the population of England each five years up to 2031. But who are these people? Who will make up our congregations in coming years? Who will be the people we are to evangelise for Christ?

Elderly people

The number of people aged 65 and over in the population has increased by 14.4% since 2001. One in six people are of retirement age. Numbers of elderly people are set to grow even more because the post-war baby boomers are about to enter retirement age. Other sources say, the numbers aged 85 plus will grow as well, almost entirely due to reductions in mortality.

This provides us with a number of pastoral challenges. We will need to grow ministry to older people. With more families caring for elderly relatives, we will need to care for the carers. With the breakdown of family life in society generally, will churches be involved in providing care to the elderly in the neighbourhood? Churches may need to look to have ‘age workers’ as well as ‘youth workers’.

Alongside this, we may well see an increase in the numbers of active, healthy and able people in the church who have retired. Yes, many will be involved in looking after grandchildren and aging parents, but others may wish to be useful to the church. How can we train and release these folk into some kind of ministry (Titus 2.14; 3.8)?

Immigrant people

International migration has been much higher in the last ten years than in the previous decade. The 2011 census found that seven and a half million people living in England and Wales were born outside Britain, an increase from 4.6 million a decade earlier. White British people are now a minority in London. Migrant inflow is dominated, currently, by those coming to study. Some migrants have a Christian background. Many other migrants are from other faiths. Often people from overseas seem far more open to the gospel than indigenous Anglo-Saxons. Pastorally, this means that there are increased opportunities for friendship and evangelism towards internationals.

Three million people live in households where no adult speaks English as their first language. We need to recognise and use the folk in our congregations who are able to speak foreign languages — often Spanish, French, Arabic or Polish are very helpful. Migrants can be helped by the church running an ‘English conversation’ group which aids their knowledge of English and perhaps can help them more generally with filling in forms and being alongside them in the ups and downs of immigrant life — dealing with landlords, employers, etc. Can we use Christianity Explored in its simpler English format?

Young people

The birth rate increased in 2008, but by 2011 had fallen back slightly. It seems that much of that increased birth rate is among people from overseas. Many migrants have tended to keep to the traditional structure of the family with husband working and wives at home with the children. They tend towards larger families. Of the population more generally, one in three children lives with a single parent or step-parent.

The white indigenous population has shied away from marriage and, if they are married, often both husband and wife work and have smaller numbers of children. How this will affect our traditional ‘youth works’ is yet to be seen. If, for example, the bulk of young people in future are from a Muslim background, how accessible will they be to the churches? The facts are that child populations are expected to grow fastest in cities (in particular, Nottingham, Leicester, Manchester and London).

Single people

In 2011, a quarter of people living in England and Wales were single (in some way — never married, divorced, widowed). This amounts to 11 million people and reflects the growing number choosing not to marry. In church the estimate is that there are three single women to every one single male.

This is a time bomb for the churches, because, whatever your take is on single folk, most single people feel at best awkward and at worst unwanted in church. Singles believe church is aimed at families and they don’t fit. Many leave the church due to this. But, if trends continue, the future is much more single than married.

In a recent survey on the dating site Christian Connection, 80% said that their church did not put on anything for single people, or did not recognise them or affirm them. 46% said that their church leaders’ advice was unhelpful, unrealistic, impersonal or simply lacking.

A friend who runs a singles group says candidly that singles are very sensitive and often over-react, as they feel marginalised. About two-thirds of single people would prefer to be in a relationship.

Let me lift the lid a little on the singles’ world. Those who have never been married tend to grieve or be angry that God has not answered their prayers and provided a spouse and children. This is not recognised in most churches. Many singles feel worthless because they are not in a relationship or have a family. They are rarely in church leadership. Singles may have personal issues, problems, which make them awkward and not ready for a relationship. Divorcees frequently carry guilt over the break-up of marriage. Single parents shoulder huge burdens of raising a family alone. Widowed people often idolise their deceased partner and find it hard to accept anyone else. Most singles feel isolated and lonely. Singleness is on the increase and is not something churches can afford to leave on the sidelines any more.

Poorer people

In future, we are likely to be less well off. The current recession and accompanying austerity will be very difficult to climb out of and is expected to continue until 2018. We are likely to see many more redundant people in our congregations who need our help. Without work people tend to feel worthless and can fall into depressive or dependent life styles.

With the economic uncertainties, there will be more couples where both work to fund housing and family life. The 2011 census indicated that the number of people in private, rented accommodation has almost doubled, while homeowners with mortgages fell significantly. This may also go along with greater mobility, as people move more frequently to get work. Will this mean it will be harder to retain younger and middle-aged people in a local church and give stability to the work? During the recession of the 1980s, one pastor said it was like preaching to a procession rather than a congregation.

Religious people

Between 2001 and 2011, the number of people identifying themselves as Christian fell from 71.7% to 59.3%. Meanwhile, those who say they have no religion increased from 14.8% to 25.1%. The number of Muslims increased from 3% to 4.8%.

Tweeters, bloggers, etc.

Our times have seen the dawn of the Information Technology age. With websites and emails and Twitter and podcasts and Facebook, there is lots more information available and the people of a church are and seemingly will be exposed to many more ‘voices’ and opinions than ever before.

One result is that our people have access to a lot more ‘Christian’ resources. To put it bluntly, they might listen to their pastor perhaps twice a week. But they may well be listening to five or six of John Piper’s sermons on podcast each week. Well, praise the Lord for that. But who is their pastor? If their pastor is not up to JP’s standard, how well do they listen to him?

And what happens when it’s not John Piper they are listening to, but some cowboy on ‘the God Channel’? How do church leaderships get to grips with this? There’s a lot of good teaching out there, but also a lot of false teaching. How do leaderships guard their people?

Many things remain the same in church life, but here are some changes to consider as we face the future at the beginning of a new year.

John Benton
Chertsey Street Baptist Church, Guildford, Surrey

 

(This article was first published in the January 2013 issue of Evangelicals Now. For more news, artciles or reviews, subscribe to EN or contact us for more information.
http://www.e-n.org.uk 0845 225 0057)