Gospel in WW1

An evangelistic talk based on this year’s centenary

Gospel in WW1

Army chaplain conducting a service in France during WWI | photo: Creative Commons (David Mclellan / National Library of Scotland)

(view original article here)

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.

Uncle Harry

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.’’

Cynic’s view

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’.

SGM Lifewords gave away 43 million items of Scripture between 1914 and 1918. This year they are re-issuing the Active Service John’s Gospel as a replica edition for churches, schools and remembrance events. For more information or a sample copy, visit www.sgmlifewords.com


This article was first published in the May 2014 issue of Evangelicals Now. For more news, artciles or reviews, visit us online www.e-n.org.uk or subscribe to en for monthly updates.

What in the world are we doing?

What in the world are we doing

(view original article here)

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.

Second-class image

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.


http://www.globalconnections.org.uk/mission-issues/article/uk-to-global-mission-research-2011 Such questions were raised helpfully at the recent Global Connections ‘Finding our Place’ conference.

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.


This article was first published in the May 2014 issue of Evangelicals Now. For more news, artciles or reviews, visit us online www.e-n.org.uk or subscribe to en for monthly updates.

Building a team – Richard Bewes with advice for church leaders

Building a team

(view original article here)

Would we ever have picked them?

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’.

This article is an extract from Equipped to Serve by Richard Bewes, recently published by Christian Focus, ISBN 978 1 781 912 867, £8.99.
1. John Newton by Richard Cecil, augmented by Marylynn Rouse, Christian Focus.


This article was first published in the May 2014 issue of Evangelicals Now. For more news, artciles or reviews, visit us online www.e-n.org.uk or subscribe to en for monthly updates.

Letter from America by Josh Moody: Death of a… communicator

Letter From America

(view original article here)

Arthur Miller’s famous play, Death of a Salesman, has come to mind recently in a somewhat facetious, but applicable way.

The first time I was aware of it was when a then-famous preacher asked me what my role was at College Church. This in itself was not particularly unusual. Titles for positions of church staff are sometimes opaque, and it makes sense to delve a little further.

Before I had a chance to reply though, he interjected, ‘Are you “the communicator”?’ I was caught off-guard, for while my main role is indeed preaching, I had never thought of myself as quote, unquote, the communicator. I mumbled a hesitant, ‘Uh, yeah, I suppose so…’ and the conversation continued along other lines that are not pertinent to the point of this article.

What we call preachers

Since then, that conversation has continued to ring in my mind as I have observed various labels related to preachers develop in popular Christian subculture in America. The most obvious is the category known as ‘gifted communicator.’

I ask myself these days what that actually means. Obviously, I believe in there being different gifts given by God to edify the body and reach the world. Equally obviously, I do not think I need to look through the particular list of gifts in the NT (such as in 1 Corinthians and Ephesians) and specify a particular gift by name in order to include it in the pantheon of giftedness today. God’s grace gifts are gracious, and I am sure there are more gifts than specifically mentioned in those lists, overlapping and exemplary as they probably are.

Paul, the gifted communicator?

The concern I have is not so much with the category of a gift which cannot itself be found in the gifts of the Spirit in the Bible; though that causes me to pause. I can comfort myself that different translations of different gifts could be expressed in various ways in the vernacular, and that there are surely more gifts present than are listed there.

No, my concern is that I am suspicious that the category of ‘gifted communicator’ actually falls more naturally, within the NT’s descriptions, in a somewhat negative rather than positive light. After all, when you read through 1 Corinthians, you find that Paul – no doubt self-aware of being a gifted speaker, in some sense, and a gifted writer – was heavily criticised for his lack of spectacular gifting in these areas by the Corinthian church. In fact, as the category of ‘gifted communicator’ goes, he seems pretty determined to distance himself from that idea.

In retrospect, I probably should have answered the question ‘Are you “the communicator”?’ with: ‘No, I am a preacher of God’s Word by God’s power, not human rhetoric’. It seems to me that that is closer to what Paul is saying in 1 Corinthians.

The relevant passage is worth quoting in full, for while you can no doubt find it in your own Bibles, I would especially like to draw attention to the way that Paul frames his understanding of his purpose as a preacher of God’s Word in God’s power. It is inescapably polarised against preaching with the rhetoric of the standard schools of rhetoric (read, ‘communication theory’) of his day:

‘When I came to you, brothers, I did not come with eloquence or superior wisdom as I proclaimed to you the testimony about God. For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. I came to you in weakness and fear, and with much trembling. My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power, so that your faith might not rest on men’s wisdom, but on God’s power’ (1 Corinthians 2.1-5, NIV).

Dr Lloyd-Jones

In case you think this is an interpretation of this passage that suggests that preachers, therefore, should not attempt to communicate well, should not do their homework, should not try to structure their talks and writing in ways that are most likely to persuade, consider Martyn Lloyd-Jones. Surely he, of any of the 20th-century preachers, was at times given to preach with God’s power, and had, most would say who heard him, an unusual communication ability. Yet he did not view preaching the same as having perfectly-crafted, gifted communication. Sentences were not always grammatically accurate; structure was not always perfect. He lived in a different time and had different issues against which to contrast his ministry, but the point I think is well taken in our context.

Being able to speak for an hour without notes and make everyone laugh as you do so, all the while keeping within the bounds of conservative, reformed evangelicalism, does not necessarily equate to preaching with the power of God. In fact, perhaps, if we take Paul’s writing above carefully, on its own it cannot.

Josh Moody is the senior pastor of College Church, Wheaton, Illinois.

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

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.
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Marathon Men – the advantages of long-term ministry

Marathon Men

For a few years, I have been working on a book.

Persistently Preaching Christ is about what God has done in and through one particular local church fellowship in Cambridge over half a century1. Reflecting on the ministries of the two men who led the church during that time and considering their priorities has been a fruitful exercise. One thing that has struck me time and again is this: while there are clearly exceptions, long-term ministry in one place has very significant advantages.

Mark Ruston and Mark Ashton served one church family for a total of 54 years between them and, for both men, their ministry at St. Andrew the Great (formerly ‘The Round Church’)2 could be described as their ‘life’s work’. You can no doubt think of many other ministers who’ve done the same sort of thing. Perhaps the Scottish trio — Willie Still (52 years at Gilcomston, Church of Scotland), James Philip (39 years at Holyrood Abbey Church, Edinburgh) and his brother, George Philip (40 years at Sandyford Henderson, Glasgow). How about: Dick Lucas’s 37 years at St. Helen’s, Bishopsgate; EN’s editor, John Benton, who has already clocked up 33 years at Chertsey Street, Guildford; Jonathan Fletcher, who has just retired after 30 years at the helm of Emmanuel, Wimbledon; John Stott, who was anchored at All Souls his entire adult ministry life — five years as curate, 25 years as Rector and 36 years as Rector Emeritus? And there are, of course, many other current ministers who have served for two, maybe three decades and counting.

It strikes me that there are many good things about the ministry of a pastor who aims to be ‘in it for the long haul’ and to give himself to a single ‘life’s work’. I’ve heard some ministers say that they’re not wired up this way. Rather like the ‘golden eagle’ approach from the world of management consultancy, they feel they’re more gifted at swooping in, working out what’s wrong, then prescribing and delivering a solution. Other ministers opt for something in between — a stint of around seven to ten years in one place, perhaps, and then a move to pastures new.

The Bible doesn’t dogmatise about duration of ministry — and we do so at our peril. I don’t think there is anything in Scripture to prescribe how long a minister should stay in one post. Having said that, the words used in the New Testament for church — ‘household’, ‘family’, ‘fellowship’, etc.3 — would seem to imply duration, consistency and long-term commitment. But of course the example the apostle Paul gives us is that of peripatetic ministry — he travelled and moved around and ministered all over the place.

As I worked on Persistently Preaching Christ and read many hundreds of letters and emails from people who had appreciated and benefited from the ministries of Mark Ruston and Mark Ashton, several distinct advantages of long-term ministry struck me. My research and thinking are ongoing and I don’t want to dogmatise, so my list of advantages is in the form of questions.

1. Does long-term ministry provide the best environment for expository preaching?

As I started to compile a list of ‘long-term’ pastors, I was struck by how many of them have a reputation for fine expository preaching. A mere coincidence? Or is there something about remaining in one place, teaching the same group of people year after year, seeking to demonstrate that all Scripture is useful4 which enables the preacher to develop and hone his preaching gifts?

2. Is it best for developing good, solid relationships in the church family?

In Persistently Preaching Christ, Professor Bob White remarks: ‘I well remember Mark Ashton commenting soon after he arrived that it is relatively easy to breeze in and then to leave after a few years. But if you are in it for the long haul, then building and maintaining relationships through all the ups and downs of church family life is what will show the distinctiveness of the Christian way’.5 Staying in one place means that difficult relationships have to be worked at, not run away from. And, of course, there are the ‘ups’ as well as the ‘downs’ — passing the years together means shared joys, common experiences, real friendships. Mark Ashton’s comment from his perspective as a preacher is telling: ‘It is only with time that a minister gets to know and understand his congregation, and to be known and understood by them.’6

3. Does it help guard against reliance on human strategies?

The ‘golden eagle’ consultant can swoop in with lots of exciting new ideas and strategies — but that approach will probably pall somewhat after 20, 30, 40 years. And perhaps that’s a good thing. God’s word is living and active and that’s where ministers will find the wisest ‘strategies’ and ‘ideas’. Another couple of thoughts from Mark Ashton: ‘As time passes in a preacher’s ministry, it gets harder and harder to lead purely by innovation or human energy. … Only by faithfully teaching the word of God will an individual’s leadership stay fresh and revitalising over decades’.7 The minister who is preaching the word of God week in, week out will never run out of ideas and never run out of things to say — because neither the preacher nor the preached-to will ever finish understanding God’s word this side of heaven.

4. Does it help avoid the temptation of careerism?

Mark Ashton’s words again: ‘There may be a few men who are particularly gifted at leading a church through the early stages of growth, and then do best to pass the baton to someone else. But in general the best pastor-teacher will not be the one who is constantly wondering whether he should move on to new pastures or whether there is a better job on offer somewhere else. Patterns of church life which constantly move pastors from one church to another … rarely build a local congregation over the years. It is characteristic of most of the strongest evangelical churches in the UK at the beginning of the 21st century that they have all enjoyed prolonged ministries by their main preachers’.8

Each of us suffers from mixed motives. Might the thought ‘I’ve done all I can do here’ sometimes be a thinly veiled desire to have a more prestigious position?

5. Is it best for growth?

Statisticians tend to consider duration of ministry in terms of numerical growth. There are all sorts of theories about when greatest numerical growth is likely to occur and whether it tails off if a minister stays ‘too long’. But numerical growth is just one factor, surely. How about growth in spiritual maturity, godliness, unity, generosity, evangelistic zeal, perseverance and so on? I’m not sure statistics can measure those things very well, if at all. Under God, what kind of ministry encourages that kind of growth — is longevity better than several short-term stints? Is a strong, united, wholehearted, outward-looking congregation which is devoted to the Lord Jesus likely to emerge, under God, from a string of ministries — or from long-term ministry? Does it also enable a greater ability to look outwards — facilitating church plants and ‘grafts’, encouraging young men and women to train for ministry in this country and overseas, supporting like-minded gospel work in other parts of the country. And is it perhaps even more significant when it comes to building relationships with the wider community?

Of course there will always be times when a move will be the wisest thing. Personal circumstances involving children, spouse, ageing parents, or health perhaps. A pastor may be correct in concluding that he genuinely doesn’t have the necessary gifts or personality to lead the church forward to the next stage. There may be other factors too — perhaps the size of the church or the type of area (inner city, rural?) makes a difference. I’m still asking lots of questions — but my interim conclusion is that there are many significant advantages to long-term ministry.

Mary Davis is part of St. Nicholas Church, Tooting, in south west London, wife of the minister and mum of three children. Occasional editor of Christian books.


1. Persistently Preaching Christ (eds. Christopher Ash, Mary Davis, Bob White, ISBN 978 1 845 509 828) reflects on the importance of the local church, the ministries of Mark Ashton and Mark Ruston over more than 50 years, and includes Mark Ashton’s ‘Eight Convictions about the local church’. It is published by Christian Focus Publications and is available from them direct for £10.99, or from http://www.10ofthose.com for £8.79.
2. The fellowship was initially called ‘The Round Church’ after the building where the church met for many centuries. In 1994, the church family moved to the newly restored building of St. Andrew the Great. Mark Ruston was vicar there for 32 years (from 1955 until his retirement in 1987) and Mark Ashton for 22 years (from 1987 until his death from cancer in April 2010).
3. For example, Galatians 6.10, Ephesians 2.19.
4. 2 Timothy 3.16-17.
5. page 99, Persistently Preaching Christ, as above.
6. page 19, op. cit.
7. page 19, op. cit.
8. page 18Ð19, op. cit.

(This article was first published in the April 2013 issue of Evangelicals Now. For more news, artciles or reviews, subscribe to EN or contact us for more information.
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