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Guard the good deposit that was entrusted to you – guard it by the Holy Spirit who lives in us. (2 Tim. 1:14)

We go through 2 Timothy with each new group of apprentices but it is always fresh and cutting. One of the things that’s really jumped out for me this time is the emphasis on both human work and the Spirit’s work. There is fanning of the flame to do but the fire is God’s gift (1:6). We are to suffer… by the power of God (1:8). We need to guard the gospel… with the help of the Holy Spirit (1:14). We are to be strong… in the grace in Christ (2:1). We are to think hard… and the Lord will give the understanding (2:7). We are to instruct opponents… hoping that God will grant repentance (2:25). We are to preach the Word… strengthened by the Lord (4:17).

Some of us may be tempted to speak only of the Spirit and to downplay human effort. In that case the challenge of 2 Timothy is that guarding the gospel will involve a lot of hard work, hard thinking, intentional effort and careful following of the apostolic leadership training strategy (2:2). Others of us (perhaps more of us) are tempted to focus on human activity and practically ignore (or only play lip service to) the work of the Spirit. For us, we need to remember that the gospel cannot be guarded simply through structures and programmes and curricula. As Ken Irungu pointed out, gospel ministry cannot be professionalised. We wholeheartedly believe in 2 Timothy 2:2 – it is one of the iServe Africa straplines – but transmitting good gospel truth to the next generation of Bible teachers for them to proclaim and teach it faithfully to others will not serve to guard and advance the gospel unless there is also a powerful work of the Spirit.

Why?

  1. Only the Spirit can change hearts. Only the Spirit can move the affections from love of the world (4:10) to love Christ and his people (1:7). Only the Spirit can move us from being ashamed of the gospel to unashamed (1:8). Only the Spirit can produce faithful, hardworking, persevering-through-suffering servants who are concerned to please their commanding officer (2:4-6) rather than the crowd.
  2. Only the Spirit can open minds to understand the truths of the gospel (2:7). J.C. Ryle: “The very same person who is quick and clever in worldly things, will often utterly fail to comprehend the simplest truths of Christianity. He will often be unable to take in the plainest reasonings of the Gospel… They will sound to him either foolish or mysterious.”

So please pray for us! Pray for iServe Africa and the young people starting off their ministry apprenticeship year that the Spirit would go out with His Word and change hearts and minds.

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I was going to finish the sentence with the word ‘rubbish’ but more recently I’ve been learning (rather too late) that in Kenya, particularly among older generations and those with more sensitive ears, the word ‘rubbish’ (Kiswahili takataka) comes across very strongly to the point of being offensive.

What I’m thinking of is the experience of finding everything just slightly frustrated.

  • When I attempt to put up a shelf in my house and it ends up just slightly off horizontal. Perhaps only I will notice that it is not level, or someone who looks very carefully, but I’m annoyed that it is not right.
  • You’ve proof read the manuscript twenty times but when it’s finally printed there’s a typo on page one.
  • The biscuits/cake/meal you’ve spent an hour preparing stays in the oven or on the stove just five minutes too long. It’s still edible but has that acrid taste round the edges.
  • You drop the new phone that you’ve been saving for and looking forward to for ages and it gets a scratch on the screen on day one.
  • The car has just come back from the mechanics, you’ve spent a lot of money, he’s assured you that everything is sorted but then the next day you hear another funny rattle and grumble under the bonnet.

This is not real suffering – bereavement, pain, trauma – it is just daily frustrations and annoyances. It’s good stuff gone a bit wrong. It’s the sort of thing that Alanis Morissette sung about in her 1995 song ‘Ironic’ (as many people have pointed out, what was genuinely ironic was that the song was not really about ironic things at all but simply about annoying things):

It’s a black fly in your Chardonnay
It’s like rain on your wedding day
It’s a free ride when you’ve already paid
A traffic jam when you’re already late
It’s like ten thousand spoons when all you need is a knife

Why is it that things are never quite perfect? Even the best things? The most superb athlete has a blister which ruins his performance. The most beautiful house has a crack on the wall and a tap which doesn’t work. The shine is taken off the best works of gospel ministry by imperfections, mistakes and sin.

The book of Ecclesiastes has the answer. It calls it vanity, frustration. It is the curse of Genesis 3. Fallenness, decay, thorns and weeds. A heavy blanket over everything (Eccl. 6:1) frustrating every sphere of life and every human endeavour.

Four ways to respond:

Thanking God for spoiling the world to us

One of the most famous lines in Augustine’s Confessions is the thought that our hearts are restless until they find their true rest in the Lord. But Augustine is well aware that our wayward hearts can find a sort of rest in the pleasures of this world. So a recurring cry in his Confessions is thanks to God for spoiling the things of the world to him (relationships, entertainment, health) so he could not find rest in them:

You [Lord] being the more gracious, the less you allowed anything which was not You to grow sweet to me. (Confessions, Book 6).

Adelaide Procter, the Victorian poet, probably alluding to Augustine, expressed the same thought:

I thank thee more that all our joy is touched with pain,
That shadows fall on brightest hours, that thorns remain;
So that earth’s bliss may be our guide, and not our chain.

I thank thee, Lord, that here our souls, though amply blesses,
Can never find, although they seek, a perfect rest;
Nor ever shall, until they lean on Jesus’ breast.

(From “My God, I thank thee”)

Longing for the better land

As Procter says, the shadows and thorns and frustrations are supposed to be our guide. They should make us long for a better country where there will be no more curse (Rev. 22:3). Romans 8 talks about the creation subjected to frustration (v20) and then gives the great mark of those who have the Spirit as a groaning eager waiting for the resurrection life (v23).

The New Creation is our great Christian Hope (Rom. 8:24). So let every sprained ankle and faulty laptop and dropped cake and torn dress be a little goad turning us to long for the place where there will be no more frustration, no more tarnish, no more thorns only perfection. And then may our thoughts continue on to the very greatest perfection and joy of that Land – the radiant King Jesus.

Courageously conquering the thorns

In the meantime, until we reach the New Creation, we need to be realistic that there will always be frustrations. But the great news is that these cannot separate us from the love of God in Christ (Rom. 8:35). Rather, all these things are being used for us – to inflame our longing for the resurrection and for our growth in Christ-likeness (Rom. 8:28, 31-32). And so in this way, as Piper has pointed out, we are more than conquerors (Rom. 8:37) – the thorns and weeds harnessed for our good and growth.

Perhaps this is mostly about a change of perspective. As G K Chesterton observed:

An adventure is only an inconvenience rightly considered. An inconvenience is only an adventure wrongly considered.

I need to see the traffic jam or the papers dropped in a puddle as a faith adventure rather than a useless waste of time. There will be frustrations till we reach the heavenly kingdom but each of these mini-mountains can be scaled and overcome. The wise gardener doesn’t bluster at or get depressed by the ever growing weeds, he simply attacks them with gusto as part of the job.

Moving forward in mission

One problem with everything being a bit… imperfect is that it can paralyze us when it comes to moving forward in gospel ministry. I was talking to a brother a few years ago (now a senior minister of a Nairobi church) about mission trips he had done to S Sudan. He was explaining the frustration in not being able to speak the local language there and particularly the frustration that he suspected one of the translators had not been faithfully translating everything he was saying. This led onto a wider discussion about frustrations in gospel ministry. What do you do when things are not quite right? The church leadership structure is not quite right; the small group leaders are not very well trained; the quality of theological education is not brilliant; the resources are lacking…

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In response this brother gave the illustration of a battered, old, badly-maintained car. It’s wheels are all going in slightly different directions, it’s rattling and stuttering, but it will move. The thing is you can wait until everything is perfect – the perfect training programme, the perfect people, the perfect education, the perfect church, the perfect cross-cultural mission preparation, the perfectly crafted sermon – but it’s not going to happen. We’re in an imperfect world under the curse of frustration. That’s not a recipe for settling for poor quality or ungodliness or theological compromise or slackness or foolishness – we need to keep fighting those things and prepare as well as possible – but it is just to recognise that sometimes you need to say, that’s good enough for now, and put the key in the ignition and move forward with what you’ve got, hopefully improving things as you go.

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Excellent advice on attending conferences from Peter Mead: 7 Ways to Guard Hearts at a Christian Conference.

And a few conferences coming up:

And recent conferences now with AV resources online:

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Total Church

Tim Chester and Steve Timis, Total Church: A radical reshaping around gospel and community, IVP: 2007.

The thesis of Total Church is summed up well in the subtitle. It’s a thesis that has grown out of a) the authors’ reading of the Scriptures, b) their reacting against forms of contemporary evangelicalism that either forget the gospel (fluffy emergent church) or forgets community (stuffy conservative church) and c) their practice of actual church planting and church living in The Crowded House in northern England.

It’s readable, fresh and punchy. As Ian Coffey says in the foreword, you may well not agree with all their arguments and conclusions but it makes you think about the things that matter most.

A number of things really struck home, helped and challenged me:

1. The emphasis on deep, genuine, love relationships within the church – interconnectedness.

The core point of the book is that the gospel creates community – Christ saves a people for himself (Ttus 2:14) not just individuals – and that this church/people/community is one marked not only by devotion to the Word but also by radical love for one another.

“this cross-love is the primary, dynamic test of whether or not we have understood the gospel word and experienced its power. Not our doctrinal orthodoxy, as important as that is. Not our ingenious strategizing, as fascinating as that is. Not our commitment to preaching, as vital as that is. Not our innovative approach to planting, as radical as that may be.” (p. 54)

The text of Total Church contains a number of boxes with testimonies and real life stories and interestingly, the first of these testimonies is from a Kenyan who spent some time in the UK. She talks about the differences between her Kenyan church background (a big church of thousands of people and multiple services) and her experience at The Crowded House in Sheffield:

“At first I’d squirm. When we were so close together my sins seemed so much more apparent to others. Back home if you fell out with someone you could always sit on the other side of the auditorium and never had to see them again.” (p. 33)

2. The question of whether our churches are segregated by class or truly reflect the gospel.

In their fourth chapter the authors highlight the priority of Jesus to reach the outcasts and ‘sinners’; the pattern that God chooses the foolish things of this world to shame the wise, the weak to shame the strong (1 Cor. 1:27). We are to invite to the banquet the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind (Luke 14:12-13).

“We are not to prioritize our rich neighbours… Indeed part of our evangelism to the rich is our evangelism to the needy. We subvert their preoccupation with power and success as they see us loving the unlovely. We expose their self-righteousness and selfishness as they see us eating with outcasts.” (p. 71)

What they’re saying here is that if we create churches that are pitched at the upper middle class, where upper middle class people feel completely at home and comfortable, where the setting and interactions and constituency mirrors perfectly their workplace or social circles, where there is never the challenge and potential awkwardness of relating to someone of different class, where there is never a need to get beyond class barriers and see ourselves and others through the eyes of Christ, as brothers and sisters because of the Cross of Christ – then we are not really doing anyone any favours because there we have attendance without community, attendance unchallenged by costly sacrifice, attendance without an assault on pride, attendance without the sort of relating to one another which demands the gospel.

3. Spirituality rooted in the Word and community.

Chapter 9 is a very provocative appeal to a context like ours where individualised ‘spiritual disciplines’ of silence and solitude and fasting are elevated and seen as the key to unlocking blessings and getting to a higher level of spiritual life. Total Church argues (I think persuasively) that true spirituality is not about listening for the still small voice in the silence but listening to God written Word and it is not fundamentally a solo pursuit but a corporate one – reading the Word together, praying together, encouraging one another daily (Heb. 3:13). Read the chapter and see what you think.

4. Apologetics flowing from a theology of the cross not a theology of glory.

Following the lead of Paul, Luther and Pascal, in chapter 11 Chester and Timmis outline an approach to apologetics which doesn’t lean on natural theology or an assumed ability of unregenerate man to reason his way to God but which instead takes seriously a) the fallenness and rebellious heart of man; b) God’s hiding of himself from the wise and revealing himself to those he chooses (an epistemology of grace); c) the genuine challenge of postmodernism in exposing the coercive power often behind truth claims; and d) the need to proclaim the True Truth, the gospel reality, truth which “is not a function of coercive power, but of sacrificial love” (p. 169).

5. Children’s and youth ministry that is Word-driven and community-integrated.

“It is easy to suppose that attractive activities are the key to successful youth work [and] that the corresponding measure of success is weekly attendance. But God does his work through the Word. The key to successful youth work is the Bible.” (p. 180)

And in relation to integration with the rest of the church family:

“Of course, it is only natural for young people to default to spending time with other young people, but the church is not a ‘natural’ agency.” (p. 182)

6. What is success?

“It is actually not that difficult to create a large congregation. Paul tells us how.”

We’re all on the edge of our seats now!

“You give people what will ‘suit their own desires’ and say ‘what their itching ears want to hear’ (2 Timothy 4:3). Entertain the congregation each Sunday with a good performance. Do not focus on the depth of their sin, nor the cost of cross-centred discipleship. Whatever you do, do not challenge the idolatrous desires of their hearts. Instead offer them sermons on how to realise those desires and find success in life.”

But Paul gives Timothy another model of success – preach the gospel Word in view of the return of Christ as judge of the living and the dead (2 Tim. 4:1-5).

“This may well make us less successful, but only if we measure success in terms of numbers. If you view success in a biblical way – as faithfulness to Christ and his word – then being gospel-centred becomes the very definition of success.” (p.189)

There are loads of other things that could be mentioned from this book – the emphasis on church-based training and raising of new leaders (which meshes very well with the iServe Africa emphasis on ministry apprenticeships), the convictions about the church and the Word being sufficient to deal with pastoral issues in contrast to the professionalization of counselling and medicalization of problems (which connects with Rosaria Butterfield’s testimony), and many more.

So basically I love Total Church. Highly recommended. I’ve just got a few minor quibbles and caveats:

  • As mentioned above, the authors are (quite self-consciously) reacting against certain tendencies in the UK evangelical scene around the turn of the millennium. E.g. “Obviously most large evangelical churches remain faithful to the gospel.” (p. 189) Perhaps that’s true in the UK but not necessarily in Kenya. This UK context means that there is perhaps slightly more emphasis on ‘community’ than on ‘gospel’ in Total Church. For our culture context of East Africa I would want to reverse that emphasis and spend a huge amount of time on getting really clear on the gospel of Christ taking the wrath of God in the place of sinners to bring them to rejoice in him and in the Father.
  • There are a couple of pages (p. 112-113) where the authors argue against a church focus on pulpit ministry and argue instead for a more varied view of Word-ministry. Much is helpful here – we do want to value and encourage one-to-one and group Bible study – but I think that can still happen with a focus on the special place of public Bible preaching. I’m not convinced by the biblical and sociological arguments the authors give against pulpit primacy. Christopher Ash has answered them well in The Priority of Preaching.
  • I love the emphasis on community in Total Church. I think that is a really important biblical emphasis and really needed in our churches. But I hesitate at the idea that the church’s community life of loving one another is “the hermeneutic of the gospel” (p. 56, quoting Leslie Newbigin). I’m increasingly unconvinced that John 13:34 and 17:21 (and 1 John 4:12) are straightforwardly evangelistic – the love and unity of the church could just as well convict the world and lead it to hate the sons of light as much as convince it and lead it to want to join them (John 3:20; 9:41; 12:37-48; 15:19-16:11 cf. Philippians 1:27-28). Historically speaking, the love of Christians in the early church for one another led to accusations of incest as much as admiration. I’m not denying that our love for one another can adorn or discredit the gospel message but my fear is that evangelism could drift into a dependence on sociological mechanisms of community inclusion (see the very scary video by Bart Campolo on the power of community building) and away from a dependence on Word and Spirit. I completely support the emphasis on the loving, inter-dependent church community but my question would be how does someone get into that? Is it a) through seeing a loving community, is it b) through the loving invitation of a loving community, is it c) though community plus gospel proclamation, or is it d) first and foremost through gospel proclamation plus the power of the Holy Spirit. It’s d) that seems most to fit the book of Acts but c) that fits the Total Church chapter on evangelism (though this seems to be in tension with what they say in the chapter on apologetics about God’s sovereignty in hiding or revealing the truth to helpless sinners and the need to preach the gospel).
  • A final concern, which is really outside of the text of the book itself, is that the very strengths of the Total Church / Crowded House movement – gospel wedded to community, small churches, authentic relationships – could become a new and subtle source of pride. The authors would hate such a response – the gospel should humble us to the dust – but the human heart is terribly good at finding new ways to look down on others and it would be very possible for someone who has experienced the warmth of a Crowded House-type church to begin to despise other churches, larger churches, more liturgical churches, more wealthy churches.

Total Church – great book. May it take us back to the Bible, back to the gospel, back to community, back to Christ and the Cross, back to the God who saved us (plural).

 

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Thanks to Chris Kiagiri for brilliantly condensing Perman’s What’sBestNext into one of the most helpful sessions of the conference #RTB2015

Eph2Titus2: God saved us for productivity, Matt25: God expects productivity #wbn #RTB2015

“To be productive is to do all the good we can” Every word is important here. DO. ALL. GOOD. CAN. #wbn #RTB2015

RTB 2015 Nairobi WBN

More resources on WBN:

 

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Are conferences a waste of time?
Are they a refuge for the lazy pastor?
Are they a luxury for the busy pastor?

An anonymous pastor who writes a regular column for Evangelicals Now recently gave some very helpful answers:

Picture1For heaven’s sake, confer!

Pastors need days away from the pressures of ministry in the churches they lead. We need each other, new scenery, good friends, encouragement, R&R, and the whole host of other things which conferences give us. Residential conferences in the course of ministry are a gift from heaven to the church’s leaders.

Not all church leaders can get away, of course. Bi-vocational ministries, home-life demands and other factors mean that leaders sometimes just cannot get away. These men deserve our extra support. They should be the exception, though. Most pastors should be getting away.

We must stop seeing conferences as a luxury, but as an essential pitstop for a successful ministry.

Pastors need each other. Too often, our meetings are short and time-pressured. A good residential conference is the perfect time for really catching up and investing in and being blessed by friends.

Here are seven reasons why conferences are so necessary:

  1. Preachers need to hear. Ministry which is received, not given. Pastors need to hear preachers. Sermon downloads are great, but real live and gifted preachers are essential. Pastors need to feed on the word, not just give it to others. Conferences are perfect for this.
  2. Ideas. Ministering to people involves hard mental work and plenty of creative energy in bringing a fresh word to the pulpit, week in, week out. How easy it is to get stuck in a rut, recycling the same sorts of ideas. Pastors need stimulation, for their pulpits as well as for the many different aspects of ministry. Conferences can be rich in new ideas for us.
  3. Space to breathe again. Ministry can sometimes be short on oxygen. The pace of the work, its difficulties and heartbreaks, the loneliness of it at times, the pain of pastoral situations – all of this can leave us gasping for air. Conferences bring a necessary distance for a few days from our pressures. We breathe, and we regain strength and perspective.
  4. Food and sleep. Conferences are time for lots of each. Sometimes what we need most in the world is eight hours sleep after an unhurried meal with friends. Conferences are for rest and recuperation. Extra helpings of food and sleep were the Lord’s gift to Elijah, and they are for exhausted pastors, too.
  5. Books. Books are ministry fuel. Without the stimulation of books, ministries become predictable, dry and dull. Books stretch us, and refuel our ministries. Pastors should always go to conference with some amount of money from the church to buy a book or two which will help them to preach and pastor better.
  6. Laughter. Conferences are places to tease and be teased. They are times for laughing at innocent, silly things. Ministry can be stressful in the extreme, and pastors struggle to find helpful pressure-valves from the stress. Laughter matters, and conferences should have a good degree of plain-old silliness thrown into the ingredients.
  7. Prayer. We all need space to pray, and stimulation to pray. Conferences are great places to rediscover an appetite for prayer, alone as well as with others.

So, is your pastor going to a couple of residential conferences a year? Is he supported by your church to do this, and is the church enthusiastic about his going? They should be – and so should he. Everyone will be the richer for it.

[This article first appeared in the December 2014 issue of EN.]

Book now for the forthcoming Raising the Bar conference, less than 4 weeks away…

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MTC Dec 2014 2

More notes and resources:

And for the 2nd year apprentices:

 

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