This is a gist of what I shared at the Baptist Union Minister's Refreshers Conference in Swanwick on Tuesday, 25th September. Please feel free to use if you find it helpful Rather than make the posts too long, I thought I would add one every day or so. I made seven points in my address - so here is the first one.
If God grants me the joy of living to become an old man, then I would love to be described like the person of Psalm 92:12-15:
The righteous flourish like the plam tree, and grow like a cedar in Lebanon.
They are planted in the house of the Lord; they flourish in the courts of our God.
In old age, they still produce fruit; they are always green and full of sap,
Showing that the Lord is upright; he is my rock and there is no unrighteousness in him.
There is something beautiful and beguiling about older people who have walked with Christ for many years and are still fresh, still in love with Christ. They are magnetic, drawing you in by their warmth and their love and their grace. They almost appear to glow with a sense of God's grace and tenderness. There is also something deeply troubling about an older person who has become more and more bitter in their outlook. They become hard, critical, unhappy people whose words are cold and uncaring and selfish. I remember a particular time in my ministry when we held a special 90th birthday celebration for three people in our church. Two of them were gentle, wonderful people but one was critical and difficult. The stark difference was very disturbing.I want to be a person who grows closer to Christ and becomes more like Him as I get older.
Something that I think is even more troubling than an older person who has become hardened and cynical, however, is a minister or pastor who has hardened over the years. Perhaps because of disappointment, or struggle or opposition. There can be a thousand reasons why as a church leader we become hardened or cynical. Whatever they are, though, I never want to be a pastor who ends up putting people off God. It's easy to let the years and the problems and the challenges wear you down - but it is also wrong.
I was church planting when I was 19. Since then, I have been invovled in leading, planting and pastoring churches. Despite doing other things at the same time, and I continue to do so, I count it a huge honour and a blessing to pastor and lead local churches. I love it. Yet there have been many times when I have been ready to walk away. Times when disappointment and despair havebeen my companions and I have wondered if I would make through another day, let alone another week. I am always deeply moved by Paul's words about the pressures he faces. Having listed many things that I have yet to experience, and pray I never will, Pauls says in 2 Corinthians 11:28:
And, besides other things, i am under daly pressure because of my anxiety for all the churches. Who is weak and I am not weak? Who is made to stumble, and I am not indignant?
Make no mistake, ministry in a local church setting is hard - but it is worth it. John Newtown said, 'the Christian ministry is the worst of all trades, but the best of all professions.' That is so true. Spurgeon is reported as having advised prospective ministerial candidates that they should only enter pastoral ministry if they felt in their hearts that they could do nothing else. I'd like to share just a few simple toughts about maintaining our focus and passion in ministry. They aren't rocket science - but they are important.
Keep Jesus at the centre of it all.
The simple truth is that Jesus IS good news. The Gospel is not just about Him, He is not simply the subject of a debate, a dialogue or a sermon. The Lord Jesus Christ IS the Gospel. His whole purpose, identity, meaning, cause. What He is, Who He is and How He lived are all 'good news'.
A simple glance at the New Testament tells us this. He is the singular subject of all four Gospels - remember we have four accounts of the Good News not four different Gospels. The writers of the Gospels are known as the first evangelists. Their good news is the birth, life, death and resrrection of Christ. The whole of the New Testament points to His Lordship and Kingship. His life demands response - repentance, re-birth and empowerment come through Him and what He has done.
In the words of one modern song, 'Jesus at the centre of it all'. It's simple, really, but vitally important - Christ must stand at the centre of our lives if we are to be effective ministers for Him. Like Peter, James and John at the mount of transfiguration, we must see who Christ is afresh. We may not have that moment of glimpsing His radiating glory - but we shouldn't miss the point of the transfiguration. Christ's character, His essence, was exactly the same before, during and after the transfiguration. The glimpse of glory the three disciples saw was not about Jesus become something new, instead it was about them seeing Him as He has always been and always is. We need to be careful to keep Christ at the centre.
Patty Hammond has said, 'Your ministry will never be bigger than your vision of Jesus'. SImple - and challenging. The challenge is this - we cannot have Christ at the centre of our lives and ministries whilst at the same time occupying that place ourselves. I wonder how many pastors, ministers, priests, evangelists, apostles, prophets, teachers and other leaders have slowly stepped into the centre of the circle of our own lives and by doing so have pushed Christ to the edge? It is a dangerous thing to stand at the centre of your own circle. You become the master, the controller, the one 'in charge'. So much of ministry in a church context gives us the opportunity to buy into this wrong mindset. If we aren't careful, we end up behaving as if we are indispensible. The church can't survive without us. Our people need us. We can't let go of the pulpit, or the platform or the church. We are beguiled into a sense of self-centred and self-obssessed importance. It's a dangerous thing.
I love the church I lead - and I love the people. I am blessed beyond words to be thier pastor. Every single day of my life I pray for them, lifting them to God and asking Him to comfort and strengthen and support them. At the same time, I know that I don't own them. I am not their boss. I don't own the church - Jesus does. I think more than ever before, in the last six or seven months I have been drawn further and further into a place of feeling absolutely powerless to lead or care or love or pastor or teach or preach or pray without God's grace and strength. I can't fulfill this calling with Christ. I can't change a single person's life. All of my good ideas amount to nothing if Christ is not their Instigator. He must stand at the centre of it all if it is to mean anything.
A few weeks ago I was coming back from an overnight break with my wife and some of our children. As we drove back I was struck by something that I have thought about many times. Over the years there have been a number of people in Gold Hill who have been called 'Pastor' or 'elder' or 'deacon' or 'minister'. The same is true in my wider work and ministry - there are a number of people who can do what I do, many of them doing it better. That doesn't put me off, though, it strengthens me, because it reminds me that one day someone else will bear the titles, roles, responsibilities and live in the relationships that I now have the privilege to carry because of my responsibilities. No-one else, however, will ever by the father to my children or the husband to my wife or the son to my mother that I am. My mum recently spent some time in England staying with us as a family. It was a particularly busy time for me and on a couple of ocassions I had to duck out of something to spend time with my mum. Why? Because I was a son before I was a pastor.
If we are to be effective in ministry, Christ must be at the centre - and we must not. We must step out of the centre of our own circles.
One last thought - do you remember the passion, the energy, the joy, the commitment, the excitment and the exhiliration of when you entered ministry? The desire to serve God, the hunger for His Kingdom, the commitment to His cause? Well, despite all that might have happened since then, the disappointments, the failures, the successes, the accomplishments and the blunders, He remains our King and we remain citizens of His Kingdom.
Keep Christ at the centre.