Sabbaticals are seen by too many as the refuge of the lazy, the weak and the workshy.
If a Christian minister is to leave his post for a period of time, he may think it confirms his church’s suspicions that he’s a sponger, exploiting his congregation’s goodwill.
I for one know very few lazy evangelical pastors. I know dozens who are worn-out, overwhelmed and therefore ineffective in their calling.
These men need a sabbatical, and they and their churches need to understand what that involves, and why it can be such a blessing.
Pastors need sabbaticals
Ministry is exhausting. If you are properly preparing and declaring God’s Word week in week out, it will exhaust you. If you are caring for people, really bearing their burdens, weeping with them as they weep, it will take its toll. If you are making yourself the servant of peoples’ deepest spiritual needs, you will pay the price. Sabbaticals are not luxuries; for most proper ministries they are essentials if the worker and the work will flourish long-term.
What is a sabbatical?
I see it as an extended time of paid leave, when the pastor has no responsibilities in the church he is serving. A month is a minimum, six months is certainly a long time in UK circles, three months is a good length. Ideally, the pastor (and his family) should aim to be away from the home and church for at least some of that agreed-upon time.
What should you do on one?
The answer is, whatever you need in order to get refreshed. Lie on a beach, if that’s your thing; do a course of study, whether that’s your own planned reading, or a seminary module; write an article, or a book; learn an instrument; go and be part of and study another congregation or ministry. Just work out what will refresh and encourage you for the next leg of ministry, and make your arrangements.
Arrangements are complicated.
If you are married, or have school-age kids, then you must think and talk these things through. How will your wife and the children benefit? Three months being dragged off after husband’s / dad’s pet ambitions is a recipe for family strain.
Talk, plan, pray, prepare. And don’t attempt too much. This is to be a rest, after all. The last thing you need on sabbatical is to feel frustrated at how little you accomplish – you’ve got ministry for that! Set realistic goals which don’t over-exert.
Arrangements for the church need time to put in place. The church needs to understand what the sabbatical is, why you’re seeking one, and what the implications are for the church’s life. This needs a series of leadership-level conversations held a minimum of six months before the proposed sabbatical. Pastors, expect the church to be surprised at the request and probably daunted by the implications. Take time to answer all questions from your fellow leaders and church members. At the end of the day your sabbatical must be something they’re enthusiastic about, too.
Never apologise for seeking a sabbatical, if you’re convinced you need one. And remember, it’s common in the secular workplace for employees to have courses, opportunities for exploring other work-experiences, or managed career-breaks. Asking for a relatively modest time away from the burden of ministry is not an outrageous request. It can also do the world of good to a church. The pastor is not the church’s Saviour, simply his servant. It can – and should – do without its Undershepherd for a season every now and then.
Policy in place?
Does your church have a policy of sabbaticals for your pastor? Have you discussed a sabbatical with him? And if not, why not? You and he could be missing out on a highly enriching experience.
Pastor Anonymous is in full-time pastoral ministry somewhere in the UK.
We’ve established that. But they’re exactly like anyone else, and no less so than when it comes to holidays. Pastors need to rest, but find it very hard to rest well. Now we’re into holiday season, here are a few thoughts and pointers on taking time out in the summer.
Not taking full holiday
Many pastors (I include myself) don’t usually take the full allocation of their holidays. This is true. They are usually conscientious, we love the job, and sometimes we are just not organised enough to take off necessary and entitled rest. If you’re a Christian leader and this is your habit, then you need to address this fast. Don’t listen to that nonsense which says, ‘I’ll take a holiday when the Devil takes one’. And don’t think your skimping on rest tells everyone that you’re tough and godly. You may be tough and godly at the moment; the chances are that you’ll join the casualty list of the fallen if you don’t take proper holidays. It’s an overtired, joyless vulnerable you who will be your church’s next disaster. Get out of town!
Tips for the pastor on holiday
Pastors often have the grumps on holidays. Ministerial exhaustion seeps out and colours everything. Sometimes, very sadly, it spoils everything. I almost always collapse in tears at least once on our holidays over something (usually trivial). I discover that all my mental and spiritual energy has been used up in ministry. I need to watch out for all sorts of emotions. Be aware, and remember that forewarned is forearmed.
Holidays aren’t heaven. How often are our holidays spoilt by silly expectations? Holidays can be about sinners attempting to gain the world. That will fail. We Christians are people seeking a bit of R&R on our way to the real rest of heaven. If you expect that a holiday will meet all of your needs, you’ll be disappointed. Relax – it’s only a holiday.
The holiday is for you. Pastor, you are exhausted, you need to rest. Holidays are for going slowly. They are for sleep, and unhurried meals. If you really need to go white-water rafting after a ten mile pre-breakfast jog, then do it. Probably, you don’t, and shouldn’t. Don’t flog yourself to try to give your family a week or two of unforgettable thrills. They need you to be refreshed for the long-term, even if you’re not the 24-7 action dad on holiday.
That said, the holiday is for your family. Enjoy yourself, and do the things you love to do. Don’t feel guilty about the odd morning on your own, if that recharges you. But be as generous as you’re able to be in giving yourself to your family. Don’t resent or get out of family time. Your family goes without you a lot through the course of your ministry year. Holidays are pay-back! Serve them by being all-in on your holiday.
Remember your soul. Plan to feed yourself spiritually. Choose your books carefully before you go. Take something which stretches you spiritually, something which warms and reassures, something you would never normally read, and a novel or something else totally removed from work. Know what you want to read in your Bible, and stick to it. Load your iPod with sermons. And don’t try to read or to listen to everything, it just won’t happen! Go where your mood takes you. Also, aim to get an extended time of prayer, away from everyone else, in the first day or two of the holiday. That has a wonderful way of putting things back into focus before the Lord, so that you begin to rest properly as the holiday unfolds.
Tips for church members
Lastly, two pointers for those who love their pastors:
Insist that your pastor takes his full holiday allowance each year. He will be better for it, and so will his ministry. Elders need to make him accountable to rest just as much as they should encourage him in the work. Does your church have that one covered?
Then ﬁnally, how about paying for, or making a contribution towards, your pastor and family going away? And not to a wind-battered static caravan somewhere you got dirt cheap but wouldn’t dream of going to yourself. Give generously, and invest in their rest and together-times, as an act of love. That might be better done anonymously, as a pastor’s job is often harder when he’s aware of particular gifts within the church. However you do it, make him sure that he’s taking a break with your love and full support.
Holidays and rest are a big subject. Over the next three columns we’ll think about burnout, and the place of sabbaticals. For now, remember, you need to go away. And enjoy it, for Jesus’s sake.
Pastor Anonymous is in full-time pastoral ministry somewhere in the UK.
Preachers communicate. No, change that. Preachers are called to be, and must learn to be, communicators.
Often, though, we preachers make rather a bad job of it. We want our words to give a particular message, but our faces, voices and bodies are actually giving a very different one. It’s communication, alright, but it’s totally confused, and confusing.
So what are two of the preacher’s biggest communication problems? For my money, it’s shouting and whispering. Many a good ministry has been spoilt by these tendencies. Preachers need to own up to them if found guilty – and learn to change!
Givin’ it large!
By shouting, I mean that tendency in the pulpit to preach at 100 decibels when it’s really not needed. That could mean actual shouting, belting it out as the noise bounces off the walls. It certainly means that strained, overly-intense delivery which assaults the mind, rather than feeds it. The listeners probably won’t be listening, though they’ll be putting up an attempt to fake it. Shouters are exhausting. They exhaust themselves, and those they’re called to communicate to. The sermon is delivered with such volume that they’ve long since stopped communicating.
I was listening to a Reverend Shouter last year. He said very little that was new, and nothing stimulating. Yet he worked himself into a frenzy of exhaustion, straining and sweating himself into a torrent of unedifying verbiage. All fireworks, but no fire. And no edification. Let’s be clear: preaching is an urgent business. It’s a living word from the living God. But heaven give us the wit to see when it’s the preacher who’s set himself on fire and not the Spirit of God. Shouting may impress, but it is not gospel communication.
But what of the whisperer? I’m not thinking here of actual whispering. Of course, the preacher must be audible, and clear in his speech. A preacher who can’t fill the room with his voice needs urgent help. I’m thinking more of the man who preaches everything with a very English reserve, poise, and quietness. Nothing is urgent, nothing is pressed on the congregation. It’s a ministry full of propositions, even encouragements. But there are no ultimata, no clear ‘turn or burn’ challenges. The pulpit of the Reverend Whisperer never shocks, never shames, never argues, never rebukes, and never, never, raises its voice.
Imagine a preacher who preached hell with no obvious sense of dread and horror, and heaven with no brimming emotion? Instead, he just gave us ideas, factually accurate truth about them. How nice. But how awful. It should be unthinkable. Pulpit communication means handling each truth with the right emotion, to help the hearers feel the weight of the truths, and to give them the space in the sermon to process them. They need rousing, and stirring, and, on occasion, pulpit tears may be the Spirit’s gift to bring truth home. They also need compelling Bible logic, clearly delivered as they work out the Bible’s message for their lives.
Let me offend everybody!
I’ll stick my neck out, and tell you where you’re likely to find these preachers. The shouter’s a Baptist, more than likely (his Celtic cousins may be Presbyterian ministers). After all, Baptists have always been a largely uneducated lot, so they probably need a good shout (and might even enjoy it). The whisperer preaches to his Anglican parish, in moderate, dulcet tones. His people are educated, of course. They probably know their Bibles, so his business, he reasons, is to remind them, and invite them to believe what the Good Book says. Exceptions abound, but the rule, I think, applies.
So, sermon hearers, help your preacher. It’s not wrong to help him think about how he could communicate more effectively. Do it with care, and spoonfuls of tactful love, and you are doing him a great service
And, my dear brother preachers, look at yourselves. Better still, listen to yourselves. Go on, I dare you! Listen to a recording of yourself preaching, and identify how you could communicate God’s Word better. And please don’t think you’re safe because occasionally you ask a trusted congregant, ‘what did you think of the sermon?’. Instead, pluck up the courage to ask them, ‘how did I communicate in my sermon?’. Find out what your communication bad habits are. Learn to change, while you can.
Pastor Anonymous is in full-time pastoral ministry somewhere in the UK.
It is a great joy, as well as a daunting responsibility. I’ve been preaching now for about half my life. I can barely remember a Sunday before regular preaching duties. I don’t want to think of a retirement without preaching. Please don’t misunderstand me: preaching is not my self-justification. I happily listen to other preachers. I don’t ‘need’ to preach. It’s just that preaching is the consuming reality of my life.
It’s also the hardest thing I do in my week. Nothing gives me so many worries, frustrations, such a huge sense of disappointment in myself, and such a sense of inadequacy in front of my church. I would so often rather visit, administer, do leadership tasks, tidy my study, even do door-to-door evangelism! It’s honestly the hardest part of my ministry.
People in evangelical churches occasionally catch glimpses of the work and cost of preaching, and they’re almost always surprised and often shocked. ‘It takes you how long to prepare your sermons?’ Ask a promising younger man in church if he would consider preaching his first sermon, and his breezy confidence is soon exchanged for a careworn, weight-of-the-world expression as the appointed Sunday comes into view. There have been happier faces going to the guillotine. I know men who’ve worked in big business and who’ve had high pressure jobs who are now in full-time Word ministry. They tell me how the responsibilities of handling God’s Word brings a quite unique strain, week in, week out. Perhaps no-one else realises what a heavy responsibility the preacher’s task is except the man in the pulpit. I’m fine with that, but if you’re not a preacher, I think it helps you to be aware of it.
I preach twice most Sundays. That means that sermon preparation dominates my week. And I’m a pastor who loves to be out, seeing people, training the gifted and evangelising unbelievers. I have to discipline myself to be in the Bible and in the books that will help me to preach accurately and thoughtfully. When I’m in the car or doing exercise I will try to listen to sermons on the passages I’m preaching. I’m always hunting out illustrations, scanning the news, mentally playing back conversations – anything which I can use to make my ministry fresh and helpful. I go to bed with sermon prep, and wake up with it. Preaching is consuming. I actually love it that way.
My Sundays now are fuelled by two things – grace and adrenalin (caffeine doesn’t count). I wake early on a Sunday with that churning, ‘why aren’t I a postman, or a marine biologist, or just about anything else?’ feeling. I get to my study early to pray and work through my notes. I preach at church just as well as I’m able, grace allowing. After I’ve preached again in the evening I frequently feel on a high, relieved at the close of another Lord’s Day, so grateful for the privilege, cheered by signs of engagement from my hearers, and eager to start the work of prep all over again for next week.
Mondays are the pits. Ask any preacher. In the cold light of day we see just how far short we fell from what we wanted and hoped for. As we review our sermons (or get others to), we realise how much clearer, kinder, more interesting or accurate we should have been. We see the many ways our preaching failed – again. We ask the Lord for forgiveness (we sometimes feel like asking the congregation for theirs, though I don’t think that will help things). The best thing to do on a Monday is to believe the gospel, get humble again, and get into the study to start work on Sunday’s ministry.
There’s a famous old statement on preaching which we preachers love. The American pastor Phillips Brooks famously said, ‘If any man be called to preach, don’t stoop to be a king’. I love these words, because I know how they affirm the preacher’s task. I passionately believe that preaching is the highest and best calling this side of glory.
Two things to do
Two requests for church members: ﬁrstly, please, please encourage your preacher. He needs to know that you’re listening, taking in the Word, growing, and following the Saviour as the fruits of his ministry. Please don’t assume he knows you value his ministry. On his worst days he probably thinks you don’t at all, and can’t bring himself to ask you. Send him an email, buy him a book, find fresh ways to express your appreciation, beyond ‘thanks for that’ as you hurry out of church. Build him up, so that he can build you up, week in, week out.
Secondly, pray for your preachers. Pray for them as they prepare through the week, and as Sunday comes. Pray for them once they’ve discharged their duties. Preaching is, after all, hard work, and heavenly work. A church’s praying will be the power of the pastor’s preaching. Believe it, and expect it.
Pastor Anonymous is in full-time pastoral ministry somewhere in the UK.
There is a stream of advice that young preachers should only preach dazzling sermons which are all their own work. They have to be completely original.
I beg to disagree. I feel that this advice is not only unhelpful to these men but is actually damaging churches. I am not calling for plagiarising sermons from the internet or books, by-passing any preparation. But I do believe that sparkling originality can be an unnecessary burden.
Reasons for disagreeing
First, even the writers of Scripture copy one another sometimes. 2 Peter and Jude are almost word for word identical in large sections. Who uses whose material? Isaiah quotes from Micah. Or is it the other way around? We don’t know. Theories of how the Gospels were written posit common material which originated we do not know where – except that the Holy Spirit used it in the work of more than one writer.
Second, the emphasis on originality in all their pulpit work can easily foster a preacher’s pride rather than humility. And while unspiritual hearers always desire to hear ‘some new thing’ (Acts 17.21), it is preachers who are keen to be innovative and novel in their interpretation of their texts that are most prone to straying from sound doctrine.
Third, feeling they must come up with unique insights and brand new ways of handling a Bible passage means that some young ministers spend their whole week in the study. Other essential pastoral duties like visiting the flock and spending substantial time in prayer, get neglected. Or if they do give time to these duties they find they can only possibly produce one sermon a week. This is leading to the downgrading and even the closure of evening services. I know of one church in London where the morning service is simply repeated in the evening. If ever there was a signal that said, ‘Don’t bother to be in church twice on a Sunday,’ this is it. In some places the evening service is reduced to a cup of tea and a discussion. The Puritans would have gone nuts!
This ‘originality’ advice is, in some ways, peculiar to the contemporary scene. To assist young preachers the great Anglican Charles Simeon published Helps to Composition; or sixhundred skeletons of sermons; several being thesubstance of sermons preached before the univer-sity. The university he refers to is, of course, Cambridge and the work became popularly known as Simeon’s Skeletons. He defines the skeleton of a discourse in the following way: ‘It should be not merely a sketch or outline, but a full draft, containing all the component parts of a Sermon, and all the ideas necessary for the illustration of them, at the same time that it leaves scope for the exercise of industry and genius in him who uses it.’* Simeon looked for young preachers to use his sermon headings and ideas so as to learn the art of exposition and to mature as preachers. Similarly, when C.H. Spurgeon published his voluminous work on the Psalms, TheTreasury of David, every exposition ended with ‘Hints to the village preacher’.
It’s fine if you have original ideas. But equally, dear preacher, if something from another writer or preacher has blessed you, then pirate it for the good of your congregation. You are not called first to be original but to be helpful.
This year, of course, sees the centenary of the start of the First World War.
It began on July 28, 1914 – and lasted until November 11, 1918. It brought into conflict the ‘Triple Entente’ of France, Russia and the United Kingdom with Germany and the Austro-Hungarian Empire. It was, perhaps, the most terrible conflict the world had ever seen and perhaps will ever see. On the Allied side some 22 million were killed, missing or wounded and on the German side the same statistic was around 16 million. And although the war is associated with cheerful songs such as ‘Pack Up Your Troubles in Your Old Kit Bag’ and ‘It’s a Long Way to Tipperary’, actually it brought death on an industrial scale and traumatised most of those who survived.
When I was a lad, some of those men were still around in my town. I had an old uncle who lived across the road from us in a very sparse cottage, uncle Harry Johnson. I will always remember his gaunt features, the grey stubble on his chin and his grim attitude. He still wore his puttees from the trenches – those bandages the WWI soldiers used around their lower legs. He was a hard, sad man who, I think, spent most of his money on drink to drown the memories.
The conflict left a deep scar on our nation, not just because of the vast numbers of lives lost, but the feeling that the generals on both sides had carelessly squandered the lives of thousands of men who they sent into hopeless battles with little chance of survival.
Where was God?
It was absolutely horrific. Understandably people ask: ‘Well, where was God?’. The Bible’s answer is two-fold. First, the cause of war lies with human beings (James 4.1). It is human greed, pride, jealousy and sin which starts wars. And part of God’s judgment on a sinful world is that he ‘gives us up’ to reap the fruits of our own sinfulness (Romans 1). He does this in the hope that we might come to our senses and turn back to him.
But the second part of the Bible’s answer is the gospel. Into our war-torn, foolish and selfish world, God has sent the gospel – the promise of eternal life through his son, Jesus Christ, who died for our sins. And it seems that in the midst of the terrible conflict of WWI, God was actually greatly at work bringing many men to personal salvation in Christ – so that though they might die, yet they would have eternal life which no one could take away from them.
There is a striking photo of an army chaplain, standing in the observer’s cockpit of an early bomber, preaching to the troops. I don’t know if this padre was preaching the gospel (rather than the nationalistic nonsense of ‘God is on our side’) – but much gospel work was done in those years. For example, an organisation called Scripture Gift Mission (SGM, now SGM Lifewords), who gave out thousands of Gospels and New Testaments to troops, has recently published some of the letters they received 100 years ago from troops and they say: ‘All across Europe, soldiers were turning to Christ in their thousands. There was a longing for God, and an appetite for the Bible that church ministers had not seen before’.
Letters from the war
Here is an example: ‘When your small Testaments were distributed on the Common at Southampton, I, among others, accepted one in a more derisive than complimentary manner. I little dreamed that I should use it and find in it great consolation in lonely hours… I have learned to realise the great personality of the Saviour. When at night I have been on duty alone with him by my side, and the Germans but 30 yards away, I realised that I needed more than my own courage to stand the strain. When the shells of the enemy have burst periodically at my feet I have marvelled at the fact of still being alive’.
Jeremy Williams of SGM Lifewords says: ‘While many soldiers may well have received the Gospels and New Testaments with scant interest, or even as a ‘lucky charm’, for many they became treasured possessions, read and re-read in times of loneliness, boredom and fear. Some were brought home and kept. Others were posted home with the personal effects of those who died. One sad letter in SGM’s archives was passed on by a clergyman in Manchester. ‘Perhaps you may remember speaking to two young men at (censored ). They were starting to join their regiment, and you kindly gave them copies of Mark’s Gospel. One of them is still in training, but the other – my only son – was killed in action last month. The contents of his pockets were returned this morning. Amongst them was the little book, well thumbed and stained with his blood.’’
The Bible holds out the promise of eternal life. For example, the Apostle Paul speaks of ‘the hope of eternal life, which God, who does not lie, promised before the beginning of time, and at his appointed season brought to light through the preaching entrusted to me’ (Titus 1.2).
Amid the great tragedy. many were turning to Christ, believing such promises. Now, some might react scornfully and say: ‘Well, the soldiers were frightened and they swallowed a lot of pie in the sky to calm themselves’. The cynic might say: ‘There is no eternal life and to preach such things to men in that situation is just a sick joke’. But Paul’s text speaks of ‘the hope of eternal life’, given by ‘God, who does not lie’. Paul insists that God is reliable – a ‘man of his word’.
Captain Robert Campbell
Last autumn, in the Daily Telegraph, a story from WWI came to light about a man of his word. He was Captain Robert Campbell – an officer with the East Surrey regiment who was captured during the Battle of Mons early in the war, in August 1914, and kept as a prisoner in Magdeburg Prisoner of War (POW) camp.
In 1916 he received news that his mother, at home in Gravesend, was dying. What he did was to write to the German Kaiser, asking to be allowed to go and see his mother before she died and absolutely promising that if he was allowed to go he would come back. Incredibly the German emperor granted his request, allowing him two weeks leave. The only bond he placed on Captain Campbell was his word as an officer. Captain Campbell returned to his family home in December 1916 and, sure enough, kept his promise to go back to Germany and back to the POW camp.
Though the temptation must have been great to stay, he kept his word. Perhaps even more astonishing is the fact that the British Army let him go back. After all, here was another officer they could have sent back to the front.
God will keep his promise
Now here is the point. If a mere man like Captain Campbell was someone who, no matter what, kept his promise, and if a human institution like the British Army was so concerned to show itself honourable in making sure that one of its officers kept his promise, we can be more than assured that God, who is far more truthful than any man, will keep his promise.
The Bible tells us that God is one who is jealously concerned for his own glory, his own honour. Through Jesus Christ, he promises the forgiveness of sins and eternal life. He will not, he cannot, let his promise in the gospel fail. The gospel is no trick. It is ‘the hope of eternal life, which God, who does not lie, promised before the beginning of time, and … has brought to light through the preaching entrusted to me’, says Paul.
In the middle of tragedy
Amid the tragedy of WWI God was at work giving many eternal life. You may have many troubles in your life. Many people sadly have to view their own lives as a tragedy. But in the midst of that tragedy God offers salvation – eternal life.
The Bible says: ‘Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and you will be saved’.
Michael Prest encourages the UK church to get out more!
World mission is not exactly having a heyday in the UK church.
Numbers coming forward for long-term mission are down and, as the church in the global south continues to grow, our own place in world mission often leaves us scratching our head.1
Let’s be honest, the world has moved on since Hudson Taylor got on a slow boat to China. If it’s not PC to talk about truth at home, then the idea of sharing our faith with those far away sounds ultra colonial. ‘Leave them in peace’, the world says. ‘OK’, we reply. And, after all, these days ‘the world is on our doorstep’, so let’s sit tight.
And then there’s the image problem. The UK church planting movement comes to us via Twitter, has a real sense of purpose and a multitude of ‘big name’ endorsements. Global mission all too often comes with a once-a-year rendition of ‘facing a task unfinished’ and a dusty missions noticeboard full of people that no-one has ever heard of.
OK, so all of that is a bit of a caricature, but you get the point. Often, by implication, we’re left thinking that sending people overseas is something we did in the past. Global mission can just be done at home. All of which means that our attempts to rally the troops to respond to the needs of the wider world often meet with quizzical looks. It’s all a bit passé.
Now don’t get me wrong; it’s great that local mission is high up on the agenda right now. It’s great to see so many being identified, equipped and set apart for new plants. It’s thrilling to see opportunities among international students and immigrant communities being identified and taken. You sense the ‘but’ coming, don’t you?
Preparing for the ‘but…’?
Praise God for a vibrant, roll-your-sleeves-up and-get-on-with-it movement of church planters in the UK today. With just 6% of Brits heading to church each weekend and at least 94% thinking the gospel has nothing to offer, there is an urgent and pressing need for many more to follow where they go. And… behind the gloss of being the focus of the current Christian media, praise God that so many leaders and their flocks – those who go and those who send – are willing to make the tough, costly decisions to break new ground and to be on mission here, in our own back yard.
Praise God too for the local, cross-cultural mission to the nations that God has brought to us. The opportunities are thrilling and the stories remarkable. In the years I was in ministry in the UK we baptised as many people from other nations as we did from our own. We met people that God had brought to the UK who would likely never hear the gospel in their home countries. And of course there are the non-student communities from around the world that God has placed us among. It’s tough work, yet praise God for the believers who are doing beautiful things for Jesus, loving those that society rejects, sharing the good news with those that society passes by. There is so much more to do.
And so there’s no need for a ‘but’. How could any believer mourn the progress of the gospel in the UK? Praise the Lord! Faithfulness in mission is not about getting on a plane. The big imperative of the Great Commission is to make disciples. The going and baptising and teaching obedience all focus on that, they’re not ends in themselves.
Where we’ve gone wrong
And perhaps that’s where we’ve gone wrong in our call to missions around the globe. Perhaps we’ve been too quick to emphasise the ‘going’ as the litmus test of obedience in mission. And maybe in turn, that’s why the term ‘mission’ overseas has become so blurred in our minds, being attached to anything and everything done by anyone and everyone who heads across the ocean, as if something magical happens as soon as we leave UK airspace.
If global mission is primarily about going, then we’ll talk about adventure, exciting cross-cultural experiences and crazy exploits with foreign cuisine. Now there’s nothing wrong with any of that, but here’s the thing – the next generation of Christians don’t need to go on a mission trip to experience jumping off a waterfall or updating their blog on the back of a rickety bus half way up a mountain. They can take on those challenges in all sorts of ways and many of them already have.
Making disciples worldwide
However, if world mission is primarily about making disciples, then yes, while we might get to jump off a waterfall and eat some crazy insects, we’ll primarily talk about serving, evangelism and discipleship.
On the surface, they don’t sound like inspiring strap-lines for a new mobilisation campaign and yet, as we come back to the Bible, we see that nothing could be more contemporary, nothing could be more relevant or urgent.
Because the wonderful stories of the growth of mission here in the UK are part of the bigger story of what Jesus is doing all around his world. He is seeing to it that the gospel of repentance for the forgiveness of sins is preached to all peoples, to the ends of the earth. This work, Jesus says, is as integral to salvation history as were his death and resurrection (Luke 24.44-49). And this work is to continue until the day he returns (Matthew 28.20).
All of that is certain, even before we look at the needs around the world, before we see the stats of those who have yet to hear and the stories of those who wait in darkness. And so, while making disciples is what we’re called to do, geography remains hugely important. To speak of global mission is not to speak of a tension between, or competition with, mission at home. We’re to make disciples in every nation, from every nation, to every nation.
Of course questions remain. How are we to work in a world that looks so different to the one in which we once exerted so much influence? How does the growth of the church in the global south change the way we approach our global task? Important questions, vital questions, but questions that must help clarify – not prevent – our engagement in the task that God has given his church until his Son comes again.2
So, what in the world are we doing? How are we doing at understanding and communicating the global, vital, promised work of Jesus in our world? How are we and our churches getting on when it comes to intentionally praying for the Lord to raise up workers for his harvest fields around the world? How are we doing at identifying, training, equipping and sending gospel workers overseas as well as round the corner?
Maybe it’s time to dust down that noticeboard. Jesus is at work and the gospel is on the move.
Michael Prest works with UFM in SE Asia and was formerly a minister at Beeston Free Church, Nottingham.
Michael is helping to organise the first Local Church Global Mission conference, on Saturday 7 June 2014 in Nottingham. It aims to encourage churches to be active in identifying, training, sending and supporting workers for cross-cultural mission. Jonathan Lamb and Andy Paterson are the main speakers. The conference is being backed by nine organisations including FIEC, Affinity, Keswick Ministries and Crosslinks. Full details at www.localchurchglobalmission.org/details.
Could they really have been the start of a mighty movement, numbering today up to 2.3 billion devotees across the world?
There they are gathered for the inauguration of the Lord’s Supper. A dispute arose among them as to which of them was considered to be the greatest (Luke 22.24).
Up gets Jesus. Silence falls. Off comes the tunic, out comes the basin, on comes the towel. ‘Your feet please, John… your feet, Peter… your feet please, Philip.’ Christ’s washing of his team members’ feet was symbolic of the world’s greatest act of servant-hood about to take place next day: the washing, through the shedding of blood, not only of his few friends from their sins of a lifetime, but of millions upon millions of future believers of every language and country.
When the evening was over, Mark tells us they sang a hymn and went out. They were hardly singing at the start. Suppose Peter had earlier announced ‘Let’s sing number 15, everybody’! At that point they could hardly look into each other’s faces. But hearts melt at the actions of Jesus.
The proof of servanthood
As with Jesus, servanthood in a team tends to emanate from the leader. It takes only days for a fellowship to detect whether their incoming evangelist or pastor is a true servant. We must learn this well. Not until we have proved our servanthood can anything of lasting significance be achieved.
A former colleague of mine, Alex Ross, was to become a pastor and preacher of high attainment and international renown. But when still at Bible college, he was assigned to assist in a church I was then leading in north-west London. The one task Alex was given, Sunday by Sunday, was to carry a box of toys into the infants’ group, unload them, and stay around to ‘help’. And, despite Alex’s considerable Bible knowledge, nothing else. Up-front ‘Word ministry’? There was none for him! But he proved to be a cheerful and loyal team member. His college principal, Dr Gilbert Kirby, later called me: ‘Make sure Alex Ross joins your ministry team!’
John Newton – transformed two centuries ago from slave-trader to hymn-writer – once declared in a conversation: ‘If two angels were to receive at the same moment a commission from God, one to go down and rule earth’s grandest empire, the other to go and sweep the streets of its meanest village, it would be a matter of entire indifference to each which service fell to his lot, the post of ruler or the post of scavenger; for the joy of the angels lies only in obedience to God’s will, and with equal joy they would lift a Lazarus in his rags to Abraham’s bosom or be a chariot of fire to carry an Elijah home’.1
The cross sets the standard
The Bible tells us that we learn that true greatness is measured by the cross of Christ. The disciples had been unable to take this in. Why, with these great crowds they were becoming famous; they were on the threshold of power!
And if this mindset could predominate at the Last Supper, I fear it can take over any of us, among today’s preachers, music bands or worship leaders. It can invade local church elderships and, indeed, the Christian press. Could any individual stay content under Christ’s gaze, when dubbed ‘Preacher of the Year’? When the cross loses its central place, an entire church can become self-contained, with its unspoken adage, ‘We have no need of you’.
The team’s leader
A three-fold task awaits God’s team leader – whether youth worker, street pastor coordinator, bishop or fellowship leader. We are to protect, to inspire and to unite – with the pure teaching of God’s inerrant Word behind all three priorities. Once lose that vision and we are left with a disunited and powerless body in confused disarray.
Newly-appointed team leaders need not fear too much about their lack of Bible knowledge. We can but learn! The key question relates to the direction in which we intend to lead the team.
Where is the direction?
My wife Pam and I have long known the Norfolk Broads in England’s East Anglia. Imagine a boat-load of holiday-makers setting off from the boathouse at Ranworth Broad. They are supposed to be heading towards one of three islands, where a picnic lunch is awaiting them. Inside the boat a disagreement is under way.
‘Look!’ says the leader. ‘Island A – right ahead. Pull away!’
‘No!’ cries an oarsman. ‘We should be heading to Island B – just to the right. Alter course by a tiny fraction!’
‘Rubbish!’ shouts a third. ‘You’re all wrong; it’s Island C, way off left! Change course by 90 degrees!’
The question is, who is the most dangerous person in the boat? The advocate for Island C? No. Nobody is taken in by such a blatant error. The danger comes from the call for Island B. It is so close to Island A – and if the boat heads that way, it will only just miss the correct destination… but it will miss it.
The principle of the angle
It is the principle of the widening of the angle. A church or fellowship has only to veer half a degree from what the New Testament describes as the word of truth, the good deposit, the trustworthy message, the faith once and for all entrusted to the saints – and ten years later we will see that group neatly diverted into a backwater of spiritual powerlessness – and they won’t even know it.
The leader, then, must establish just where future team members are starting from before appointments are made – however little they may know! How ‘hungry’ are they? Where are they intending to be, in relation to God and the Trinity, to Jesus Christ, to the centrality of the cross and the way of salvation; to the Holy Spirit, to prayer – and to the inspiration and inerrancy of the Scriptures?
What makes a credible team?
The words from prison by the apostle Paul can be taken as a motto text: ‘Whatever happens, conduct yourselves in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ. Then, whether I come and see you or only hear about you in my absence, I will know that you stand firm in one spirit, contending as one man for the faith of the gospel without being frightened in any way by those who oppose you’ (Philippians 1.27,28).
The work is done together. We are to be seen standing in unity. The very first time your chosen team meets for Bible study and prayer, it will be apparent within the hour whether you have unity or not. And if the team has unity, so will the wider fellowship. Then there can be no stopping you!
Paul’s friends were also to be seen standing in adversity among those who opposed them. Suffering is actually ‘granted’ to us by the once-crucified Christ (Philippians 1.29). To stand by each other, when everything is going wrong, is the authentic test.
Further, they were to be standing in humility, with nothing done from selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility counting others better than themselves (Philippians 2.3). At a meeting in the 1880s the American evangelist D.L. Moody was invited to introduce fellow preacher Henry Ward Beecher. ‘Introduce Beecher?’, he exclaimed. ‘Not I! Ask me to black his boots and I’ll do it gladly.’
There’s nothing like the power of a close-knit team for God! I think of an African proverb from my own birthplace in Kenya: ‘Sticks in a bundle are unbreakable’.