At the table

My wife and I have found a new way of doing ministry: eating (now I’ve got your attention!) To be truthful, it’s eating and inviting, or inviting for the purpose of eating. The technical term for it is hospitality, but for some people that sounds too overwhelming. So we are going to come up with another label. Perhaps something like “eat and meet” or “together at the table” or simply, “at the table.” Because in essence, that’s what it is. It’s not about the food or a nice clean house or elaborate presentation. It’s about caring enough about people to invite them to a table – just to talk. Where that table is located doesn’t really matter. It might be at home, it might be at a café, or it might be outside by a lake. And it might be coffee, it might be a beer, it might be soup and bread or it might be MacDonald’s. How it’s done isn’t as important as that it’s done.

We’ve always known hospitality matters. It was drummed into us when we were new to the Christian faith. And over the years we’ve made it an important part of our lives and ministry (being in pastoral leadership you can’t really get away from it). But coming out the other side of COVID, after being locked away from people for weeks, and the pressure of new people turning up at our church, it’s made a new comeback. My wife was determined that we scale it down and make it easy. And we mix it up. Sunday is soup and bread. And maybe a salad. Saturday night is something a little nicer.

We’ve found that people love it. They don’t care about what’s on the table. What they care about is we’ve invited them to a table. Sometimes we join with other families (i.e. extend the table), then invite people to join the party. That’s gaining great popularity. Whatever people want to bring, we eat. If they don’t bring anything, we still eat – because there is always plenty to go around. You can even invite people outside the Christian faith to this sort of thing. They are entirely comfortable because, after all, food is an international social event.

I’ll give you an example. We had a new family arrive at our church from South Africa recently (actually we’ve had several). Let’s call them Lyla and Oscar. Lyla and the kids are there every Sunday.  Oscar, Lyla’s husband, watches on from the side-lines. I think he’s waiting to see if this Christianity thing is the real deal. Anyway, Oscar loves to host people for meals and he loves to Braai. Braai is SA for BBQ (if you can follow that). The meat that comes off Oscar’s Braai melts in your mouth. I mean this dude can really cook. And it’s not just meat, it’s veges and lasagne and whatever else he puts his hand to. So Lyla and Oscar’s place is now the favourite place to meet and eat. And it’s here that my wife and I get to interact on a closer level with people both inside and outside our church. It’s a win-win. Oscar’s happy, we’re happy and the guests that eat Oscar’s food are really happy.

It’s the simplest, most natural and enjoyable way to do ministry. We just love it.

We recently listened to a great talk on this subject by Sam Chan. He lives in Sydney, Australia. He and his wife have been doing this for a number of years. He talks about the need for us to merge our universes. We have our Christian friends and then we have our non-Christian friends and we tend to keep these separate. When our non-Christian friends want to do something, we go with them and when our Christian friends want to do something, we go with them. Sam said we need to merge those universes and bring those groups together. Well, the table is a perfect place to do that. Throw a party or have someone else throw a party and then invite others to it. Offer a beer or a wine and some cheese and away you go. The conversation will get going and you’ll soon find people opening up. Just listen. Show that you care. And you’ll earn the right to speak into their lives.

There’s a guy called Jesus who did this all the time. They always found him at parties. I guess he knew what he was doing.

Note: If you’d like to have a listen to Sam’s talk here’s the link: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yj_jfQ6aCio.

 

 

 

All In

One year ago, I wrote about five unforgettable days I had at a Student Life Conference in Queenstown. They had invited me to be their speaker. Well, they must be tigers for punishment because they invited me back. And the experience was just as rich and rewarding as the first time. In fact, I think it even topped it.

The theme of this year’s camp was “All In.” If we are going to be followers of Jesus; if we are going to live for God’s cause, we have to be all in – not half in, not even three quarters in, but ALL IN. And everything they did at camp modeled that. When they sing, they sing loud. When they have fun, it’s all out fun. When they evangelize, it’s all hands on the deck and they hit the streets. When they open up the Bible, it’s the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth – no holds barred. There are no half-baked, half-hearted, half-in-half-out Christians among this lot. It would be very difficult for that type of individual, in this kind of environment, to survive.

Students in prayer for one another after a main teaching session

This year they had a record attendance of 140 plus students and leaders, as well as a larger-than-usual number of what they call “explorers.” These are the students on the campuses who have shown an interest in the Christian faith and want to know more. While the other students were attending their various levels of training, the explorers worked their way through a Christianity Explored course with some of the student leaders. They could ask any question they liked. Nothing was off limits.

I sat in on a discussion time one day. I was really impressed with the leader (thanks Joshua) in the way he led the discussion. When a question was asked, he didn’t jump to answer it. He let it sit, and then asked some of the others what they thought about it. Then he asked another question back, and then let that one sit. This slowed the discussion down and caused everyone in the group to think and ponder about the matter. I was suitably impressed and humbled. This was not the typical way I led a discussion in a group. God was teaching me something.

On my last day, each one of these “explorers” was paired up with a Christian. I got paired up with a student called Abi. Abi is from India and is studying biochemistry at Canterbury University. Abi comes from a Hindu background and was very eager to learn about Christianity. The difficulty is Hindus believe in many gods, and when you tell them Jesus is God, they are happy to add him to their collection of other gods. But for Jesus, that simply will not do. He commands exclusive allegiance to him alone. There can be no other gods.

With Abi after our talk together

I suspected Abi might have some difficulty with this, and I was right. So I kept gently bringing the conversation back to this (putting into practice what I’d learned from Joshua) and asked, “Why do you think Jesus demands exclusive loyalty to himself? There must be a reason for this; what do you think it could it be?” If Abi is ever to come to know and understand who Jesus is, it must be revealed to him. And in order for that to happen, he must first believe who he claimed to be. Faith comes before sight and not the other way around (which is why so many in Jesus’ day were blind to his true identity).

Student Life also taught me a lot about teamwork. I picked this up in their leadership meetings. There was a certain efficiency about the way they ran things. Everyone had a part, and they made sure the job gets done. Whatever they did, they did it with all their heart and to the best of their ability. One person talks during a meeting and everyone else listens. There is mutual respect and mutual love for each other and for the work they do. When Jesus prayed for unity; that Christians would be one as he and the Father were one, I think this is what he had in mind. It’s just the way he wanted it.

Reviewing the day with the staff teams from Otago and Canterbury

The impact this team and their work has on the students is quite stunning. Not only are students finding their way into the Kingdom of God, but they are also being trained and prepared for mission. Everything is aimed at that. Take Kathy for example, who has just finished a law degree and is giving up a year to be involved in a staff internship. Why? Because she has a heart for lost students and is more interested in seeing people won to Jesus than making good money. And take Josh, who is weighing up taking an internship with his local church after he graduates this year. Why? Because he’s passionate about the gospel and helping students get grounded in the Word of God.

All the full-time staff have given up opportunities to advance in their careers and establish themselves financially in the world so that they can advance God’s cause in the world and raise up more student labourers. It’s hard work with low pay and long hours. But it is also tremendously rewarding. The impact they are making in people’s lives will go on into eternity.

Driving out of camp to the airport, I began thinking: if only this kind of energy and passion and commitment could be generated in people in the local church and harnessed for mission in towns and cities across our country, the result would be absolutely staggering. This country would be a different place. Perhaps I should stop “wishing” and start praying. As William Carey once said, “Expect great things from God, attempt great things for God.” Perhaps my expectations of what God could do, along with those of my fellow pastors, is too low. We need to up our game.

Speaking of games, here’s a clip of a crazy one they came up with in one of the main sessions. Aim: stuff as many marshmallows in your mouth as you can and then pronounce a phrase to another team member. First one who gets it wins.

Enjoy.

A Pastor’s Heart

This coming Sunday we launch into a study of the book of 1 Thessalonians. As I was preparing for the first message this week, something flew out of the page in Paul’s opening greeting that I had not seen before. Paul says this:

“We always thank God for all of you, making mention of you constantly in our prayers. We recall, in the presence of our God and Father, your work produced by faith, your labor motivated by love, and your endurance inspired by hope in our Lord Jesus Christ.” (1 Thessalonians 1:2–3)

I had intended the main focus of my message to be faith, hope, and love – that wonderful triad we see repeated in the New Testament on a number of occasions (1 Cor 13:13; Gal 5:5-6; Col 1:4-5; 1 Peter 1:21-22). But then looking closely, I discovered that they are the part of a bigger picture; namely Paul’s overflowing, grateful heart for what God was doing in the lives of those he ministered to.

Paul was forced to leave Thessalonica prematurely (lest he is lynched by another mob) and was whisked off to Athens along with his missionary team, Silas and Timothy. He feared what might become of this newly formed congregation in his absence. After all, they were still babes in Christ. Finally, when he could stand it no longer, he sends Timothy back to check on their welfare (1 Thess 3:1-2). After a period of anxious waiting, Timothy returns. They are not wavering or struggling in their faith but standing strong. What’s more, a report of their faith is going out all over the world. Paul is overjoyed and sits down and pens a letter to them.

Paul beings by expressing his gratitude to God for the grace that transformed the lives of the Thessalonians. He prayerfully and purposefully recollects evidences of God’s gracious work in their lives – recalling their names and faces and then gives thanks to God for them.

If you read the beginning of Paul’s letters you will notice this is a recurring pattern:

“I give thanks to my God for every remembrance of you, always praying with joy for all of you in my every prayer,” (Philippians 1:3–4)

“We always thank God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, when we pray for you, for we have heard of your faith in Christ Jesus and of the love you have for all the saints because of the hope reserved for you in heaven. You have already heard about this hope in the word of truth, the gospel” (Colossians 1:3–5)

And note, he does not do this occasionally but continually. “We always thank God for all of you…” (1 Thess 1:3) And he does not pray for one or two of his favourites but for each and every one of them – even the imperfect and flawed ones.

Reflecting on this I asked myself, is this the pattern of my life and ministry? Do I bring to mind the names and faces of those I minister to and prayerfully and purposefully recall evidences of God’s grace in their lives – no matter how small or insignificant, and then give thanks to God for those evidences? And then in addition, do I tell those individuals that I am thanking God for those things that I see in them? Can you imagine how encouraging that might be for those people if I were to do that?

Perhaps you are a home group leader or a leader in the youth ministry in your church. Do you regularly recall to mind evidences of God’s grace at work in the lives of those in your home group – whether that be trust in God amidst trials or a deep love for lost people or acts of generosity, and then give thanks to God for those things? Or in the case of your youth ministry, do you deliberately and prayerfully recall evidences of the work of God in the lives of the teens you lead – whether it be teachability or a willingness to make a stand for Christ, and then give thanks to God for those things? Or do you grumble and complain about them and bewail their insufficiencies and shortcomings?

As one commentator rightly says,

“Christians differ in attainments, but there is always something of Christ in each, and hence always something for which to thank God, since Christ is the oil that feed the lamp of praise.”

Paul models for us what it means to be a spiritual parent to those in his care. We impoverish not only ourselves but also those we minister to when we do not prayerfully reflect and recall evidences of God’s grace in people’s lives. Such impoverishment produces a thankless and unappreciative heart.

There was much cause for deep, personal examination after thinking through these things. I don’t think I love the people I minister to like Paul did. And I’m not as thankful to God for his work in their lives as I ought to be. There is much work to be done in my heart.

All this, and I haven’t even made it past the first three verses.

Sasha

Belarus Trip Day 2
Mission: visit church planters and gospel workers supported by SGA NZ
Place: a small village outside of Minsk

Meet Alexander (Sasha). He is from the city of Minsk in Belarus. He has an incredible story that you need to know about. Sasha was an alcoholic. He was in such a bad way he knew if he did not do something about it, he would die. There was no help for people like him in Belarus; he did not know what to do. Then he heard about a drug and alcohol rehabilitation centre in Ukraine that was run by Christians, and so he went there seeking help. It was there he found Jesus and was freed from his addiction.

Prison photo of Sasha before rehab

He then began praying and asking God how he could serve him. God spoke to him through his Word and said, “Go serve those who are just like you used to be.” In 2012 he returned to Belarus and purchased an old house and section in a village outside of Minsk. He began reaching out to addicts and brought them to this house and worked with them one-on-one. He did this for a year and a half, on his own. Then he trained an assistant, so they could take shifts. Men with addictions need 24-hour supervision, over a period of many months, before they are completely clean.

Over the years work was done to improve living conditions for the men. A tool shed was built to store farm implements, along with a chicken coup, rabbit hutches, and a basement for storing vegetables and canned food. Sasha wants these men to experience normal life which involves daily work in maintaining the small farm, preparing food and feeding animals. It’s all part of the rehabilitation process.

Every day the men gather around the table to study the bible and learn how God sent his Son into the world to rescue people from the addictive power of drugs and alcohol and our own sinful desires. Not only do these men find freedom from addiction; they find spiritual life.

“You will know the truth, and the truth will set you free…So if the Son sets you free, you really will be free.” (John 8:32 & 36)

And this is exactly what happens. Since he started the centre over 6 years ago, 25 men have come to faith in Christ. A number of them have married, are serving in churches and raising children. 10 have gone off to Seminary to train to be church planters. Compare those stats to the average church in New Zealand, or perhaps anywhere in the West. They wouldn’t touch it.

Sasha showed me pictures of these men on his computer. They are his pride and joy. He also showed me the church he has started close by, after he completed training at the Minsk Seminary. It’s only a small congregation and is made up of mostly ex-addicts (which makes perfect sense). And it’s growing.

Ex-addicts who are being baptized

One of many men who have been freed from drugs and have married and started a family

But here is what you need to know: Sasha works full-time in the Rehab centre, leads the church-plant, and helps the men who are attending seminary in Minsk WITHOUT FUNDS. If he could work a job, he would. But this is his job. His total monthly income for the centre is $120 dollars a month (Belarussian currency). And that comes from income earned by the men when they work on farms nearby during summer harvest. I asked him how on earth he can run the centre with this amount of money. He shrugs his shoulders and then points upwards.

Sasha has a wife and children to provide for. There’s no way he will be able to continue this work without some help from the outside. This will be a new project I will create for SGA New Zealand as soon as I get back home. I will be seeking help from anyone who might consider giving regular monthly support for this ministry. Please pray and ask the Lord whether this is something he might have you do. You will receive regular reports from Sasha through SGA, along with pictures and other media. Sasha will be under the care and supervision of the Minsk SGA Regional Centre. They are keeping an eye on him and encouraging him all they can. And I will be returning to this place in the future, to see progress.

If you would like to know more about this work or how you might help finance it, simply visit the SGA NZ website here or email me directly at peter@gracechurch.co.nz  I’d love to hear from you.

After interviewing Sasha, I met with some of the men in rehab. They sung a song of praise to God for what he has done in their lives. Here’s a short clip:

Why men are leaving the church (and how we might get them back)


We have a problem here in the West. Our men are leaving the church. Of course, huge numbers of men don’t even come to church. But that too is part of the problem. And for the few that do regularly attend, they are often bored and unengaged.

I called the men of our church together for a breakfast a couple of months ago (that’s about the only way to get men to come to something these days: feed them). When asked who the special speaker was going to be I replied, “I am. I’m going to talk about why men’s ministry has been failing and how we can get back on track.” Over 70 blokes turned up and we nearly ran out of food.

After some food and friendly talk, I got up and addressed them with some sobering news:

“In the UK, over the last 20 years, 38% of believing men left the church. For men aged under 30, nearly 50% left in the same period of time. I suspect the numbers here in New Zealand aren’t much different. We’re in a crisis fellas. And if we don’t do something about it, we’re not going to have any more men in the church – here at Grace or anywhere else.”

“OK guys, so tell me why you think this is the case. Shoot. There are no women here and the place is not bugged.”

Some hands immediately shot up. Here were some of the answers:

  • Men often find church a bit of a bore
  • Today’s church isn’t built for men, it’s built for women
  • Worship songs go too long and are all about feelings
  • Men aren’t good at small talk; women often are
  • There’s a lot of talk about being loving, caring and sharing and almost nothing about being strong, courageous or risking – the stuff men are wired for

I glanced down at my piece of paper. They nailed just about every point I had down. These guys aren’t dumb, I thought to myself. They see it.

“OK, I said, “So here’s what we’re going to do about it. This isn’t a silver bullet, and it might need tweaking along the way. But we’ve got to try something. Nothing going to change the way we are going.”

A plan for the future of men’s ministry at Grace. The small group ministries feed into the big events. The 4×4 groups are the heartbeat of the whole thing. Without them it will fall over.

I then gave them a vision for a way ahead for men’s ministry at Grace. Big events (like men’s breakfasts, fishing trips etc) are OK, but they don’t transform lives. Nor do they build close community. And if we are going to succeed, we have to build community. My plan was to have small groups of men – no more than four, meeting regularly together in their own time. The key is to get the bible opened – at least for a portion of the meeting. There’s where the transformational power lies. That’s how men’s lives are changed. Meeting together just to shoot the breeze (what we often call “fellowship”) just doesn’t cut it.

It looks something like this:

 – Plan a weekly meeting before work, after work or at lunchtime (max. 1 hour)
 – Share for a few minutes how your week has gone
 – Read a portion of Scripture together, out loud
 – Talk about what God is showing you
 – Pray for each other and leave

I then had slips of paper distributed to all the guys and had them indicate their preference for the day, time and area they would like to meet as a cluster. About 75% responded. Then, with the help of some others, we arranged all the men into groups. A number of them are now up and running. But the true test of whether it succeeds is time.

I met with my cluster group for the first time after work last Monday in the local Mall. One of the guys, Shane is a new Christian. After some brief introductions and ordering a coffee, we got down to business. I started by having us share our testimonies – the story of how we come to faith in Jesus. Then we opened the book of 1 John and read the first chapter out loud. I gave them a few minutes to look over the passage again and think about what it was saying. “OK,” I said, “so what is God showing you? What is this about?” After some discussion, we concluded the focus was on this word “fellowship.” But in amidst all this, a whole bunch of questions came up (mostly from Shane, who was eating this up) about the Word, the Spirit, the Trinity, the difference between disciples and Apostles – things that matter but we often don’t talk about. It made the discussion come alive and the two other men in the group – Gavin and Vern, were speaking into Shane’s life with God’s truth. I sat back and watched. If I could duplicate this 3 or 4 or 5-fold in our church I thought, we’ll turn this whole town upside-down.

It will be interesting where things might be 6 months or a year down the track. There are no guarantees. All I know is we have to try something.

I went to that cluster meeting a little apprehensive about how things would turn out and left walking on air. In talking about the meaning of true fellowship in the bible, we actually experienced it. I think this is how God intended things from the start.

Especially for us men.

Five Unforgettable Days


When I boarded the plane in Nelson on Saturday heading to a Student Life conference, I did so with mixed feelings.  There was a sense of excitement about what God was going to do in the lives of those I would be ministering to.  But there was also a sense of anxiety: How would I be received? Would the content of my messages be suitable for my hearers?  Would I be able to connect with them?  By the second day those fears had faded.  By the third day they had disappeared altogether.  On the final day, I didn’t want to leave.

The conference was in Queenstown (I know, suffering for the Lord – right?).  I’ve never been to Queenstown in the winter and I have to say, it’s worth it.  The views are breath-taking.  The camp was positioned right on the lake front with 360⁰ views of mountains, towering above us on all sides.  Each morning I would walk out of the dining room on to the balcony of the camp building and gaze at the awesome scene in front of me.

Those mountains – formidable, beautiful, immovable, and majestic, just like the One who made them.  Wonder turned to worship as I gazed at them.  I was reminded how insignificant and small I was, compared with the great I AM.  It was good tonic for the soul before stepping before a crowd who will be attentive to my every word.  Preachers are always prone to growing big heads.  The mountains helped to put things in perspective.

Let me tell you a little about Student Life.  Student life (formerly Campus Crusade for Christ) operates on six of our university campuses – Auckland, Waikato, Palmerston North, Wellington, Canterbury and Otago.  Their mission is “to turn lost students into Christ-centred labourers.”  From what I saw over those five days, they are right on target.

There were around 80 students attending, all at different stages of their study and their Christian journey.  Each year that a student attends a conference, they are part of a training track where they are equipped to share their faith, grow in their relationship with God, disciple new believes and then in their final year of study, learn how to live and speak for Jesus in the workplace.

Once my job was done (speaking at the morning session), I jumped into one of these tracks to see what they do.  I was suitably impressed.  By the time a student has finished university, they are fully equipped to make disciples and have likely been on at least one or two summer missions.  They learn that life is not about making lots of money and being successful in their careers.  It’s about serving Christ and reaching the lost.  If we could replicate this kind of equipping in the lives of those who attend our local churches, it would turn the world upside down.

I was also impressed with the caliber of the staff.  After finishing their degree and completing their training, a student can apply to be a staff member.  They raise their own financial support and work on campus full-time.  I know the pressures of full-time ministry.  I’m a pastor.  But I don’t have to raise my own financial support.  And I don’t lose a third of my congregation every year.  Nor do I wear myself out silly, staying up to all hours of the night talking with students who don’t understand the meaning or need for sleep.  I  take my hat off to these leaders.  Their reward is in heaven.

Enjoyed some quality time with Drey, the leader of Student Life in Otago. Drey became a Christian during his first year at Uni through a student outreach.

They do experience however, a measure of reward here on the earth.  It comes in the form of life – new spiritual life.  And if you are a follower of Jesus, you know that nothing is more thrilling and more exhilarating than seeing people come to faith.  There were a number of students attending this conference who were not Christians.  They were part of what they call the “explorers track.” While the others were in training sessions, they were learning all about the Christian faith.  On the second day, one of them gave her life to Christ.  On my last day, while waiting for my flight at the airport, I received a phone call from one of the staff members: three more students had just committed their lives to Christ.

I don’t get to see this sort of thing in my church.  Conversions are (sadly) few and require an immense amount of patience and hard work.  I’m not saying the leaders at Student Life don’t work hard.  They do.  It’s just that the people they are working with are young men and women in their prime who are making life-altering decisions.  You couldn’t catch them at a better time.  Four young individuals, who were previously bound for eternal separation with God, have now become children of God.  Heaven rejoices.  And so do I.

I’ll never forget these five days.  I’ve never bonded with a group so quickly in such a brief period of time.  I feel as if part of me was left there and I have taken part of them back home with me.  Thanks Enoch and the leadership team for inviting me.  May God continue to use your ministry to bring more people into his heavenly kingdom and may many more young men and women be equipped for serving the Saviour and seeking the lost.

Dissonance


Last Sunday at Grace was a difficult day for me.  Later I learned that I was not alone.  It was a difficult morning for a number of people on the worship team.  Things just didn’t sync.  There were sounds made as well as words spoken that didn’t harmonize.

There’s a word for this kind of phenomenon.  It’s called dissonance.

Dissonance is when you have musical chords that contain acoustic frequencies that interfere with one another and set our nerves on edge.  The result is a kind of jarring.  Listeners with a musical ear will pick it up.  Those who don’t might not.

Driving away from church on Sunday I sensed a deep unrest within.  There was something about the morning that wasn’t right.  There was a spiritual dissonance.  Even before the service started our team was unsettled.  Our Service Leader tried leading us into an extended time of prayer.  Suddenly, one of the fold-back speakers exploded (at least that what it sounded like).  Everyone jumped, setting us more on edge.  Prayers were short and lacked heart.  There were long periods of silence.  One or two people shuffled their feet.

Dissonance.

And I had a part in it.  I was speaking on the glorious reality of being united “in Christ.”  There were two places in that message where I went off script.  Once when I was encouraging our people to look at their bibles while I was reading the text.  I spoke too roughly and harshly.  My tone was out.  I was exhorting them to do something good, but not in the right way.

Dissonance.

In the second occasion, I was drawing their attention to the words of a great hymn by Charles Wesley.  Many of the great hymns of the past are filled with profound spiritual truth about the gospel – unlike much of our modern worship music.  This fact has always been an irritation for me and this irritation was vocalized, rather vividly, right there on the spot.  I had a mini-rant about the superficiality of modern worship songs.  It was unscripted, a little too forceful and it didn’t fit with the rest of the message.  Unsurprisingly, it irked one or two of our musicians.  One took offense and wrote to me about it the next day.

I had no doubt that Satan had a hand in this.  He has an aversion to harmony, particularly among God’s people.  He uses all the tricks he can think of to bring about discord, disagreement, dissension and disturbance.  He stirs up feelings of unease and agitation over every little thing (and big thing).  He’ll use feedback speakers and human speakers.  He’ll use kids crying and tea cups dropping.  He’ll use anything he can to cause disruption of what God intends to do in and through his people, which is to bring them into a closer and fuller and richer relationship with himself and each other.

What I found interesting, in the days following, was that an equal number of people were greatly encouraged by the morning and sensed that God spoke to them from his Word in a powerful and real way.  Those of us in ministry can be heartened by that.  Despite the enemy’s tactics; despite his meddling and interfering causing distraction, disruption and discord, God’s Spirit is at work bringing about beauty, unity and coherence.

So, we might say, heaven’s harmony overcomes the devil’s dissonance.  The Spirit of God wins out over the spirits of the evil one.  Greater is He who is in you than he who is in the world (1 John 4:4).

There is still a lesson here for me (as well as for all of us).  I need to be on guard.  I need to stay alert, spiritually speaking.  I am prone to pride and self-promotion.  I am passionate about the truth, but that same passion can easily manifest itself in the flesh.  I must guard my heart.  I must also listen carefully to my critics – there will always be some element of truth in what they say.

Finally, I must remember that our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this darkness, against evil, spiritual forces in the heavens (Ephesians 6:12).  Therefore, I must take up the armour of God, fasten my belt and take a stand.

Here’s hoping this Sunday I will be better prepared.  And so might you.

Apprenticeship v. Internship: why we made the change

Recently I was interviewed on Sunday morning by our Youth Pastor, Sean Young about the new ministry apprenticeship track we have started at our church.  It’s a deliberate move away from internships (the classic model that has been used in churches for decades) to something that is more robust and intentional.

Here’s how the interview went:

Why have we started an apprenticeship program at Grace?

It’s the best training model.  And it’s proven.  Let me explain: when young people desire to enter into Christian ministry, the first thing they ask themselves is “How can I be trained?  How can I be prepared?”  They need two main things: 1) theological training, and 2) ministry experience.  So they sign up with a bible college somewhere and then work for a Christian camp or if they are lucky, get a part-time paid position in a local church.  But often the two aren’t connected.  So they’re learning all this head knowledge over here and trying to run a youth program over here with no one helping them to connect the two.  That’s why we’ve come up with an apprenticeship scheme.

I wanted to be Fitter-Turner engineer, so I signed up for an apprenticeship – 8000 hours (approx. 4 years) of training.  It was on training on the job, under a qualified tradesman.  He showed me how turn and cut steel on a lathe, how to sharpen drills, how to mill gears etc.  I went to block courses during the year where I learned all the theory – you know, the technical stuff and then came back to work and put that into practice, still watched by a tradesman.  By the end of it I could do everything a qualified tradesman could do.  This is how you train doctors and teachers and many other professions.  We simply want to do the same in the local church.  Put a young person under someone more experienced and train them on the job.

Why apprenticeship and not internship?

Because internships don’t equip people.  Here’s how an internship typically works:  you take an eager and promising young person who is keen for ministry.  He or she says, “I want to go into ministry.  I need some experience.  I’ll do anything.”  You say, “Great, we need someone to run this program over here.  We can pay you 15 hours.  But things are tight (you know how it is in the church…), we can only afford $6.00 an hour.  You start on Monday.  Oh, and by the way, if you have any problems, don’t call me.”  And what happens?  In 6 months the person is burnt out.  Or, if they do somehow survive, it’s by a miracle.  No one has invested in them.  No one has mentored them.  No one has explained what to do when ministry gets hard.  They throw their hands in the air and say, “I’m obviously not cut out for this.”

Sound familiar?  Happened to you?  We don’t want to do that here.  That’s why we are doing apprenticeships.  It’s an investment.

What does the program look like?

We are going to invest in a young person’s life and help form them in 3 critical areas:

  1. Conviction
  2. Character
  3. Competency

We bring them into the staff team, we absorb them in local church ministry, and we expose them to everything that happens in the local church, so they get to see how church ministry works, how they need to be led, how to deal with problem people and issues etc.   It’s a test run for them.  So, at the end of the apprenticeship they can say, “I sense that God is calling me to this full-time” or “I don’t sense the call to full-time ministry but I am now much better equipped for lay leadership in the local church.”  We also put those individuals under key leaders of ministry, so they can be discipled and mentored.  If they are young women, we put them under Francelle and Rochelle.  If they are young men, we put them under the likes of you or another male ministry leader.

We also want to direct them into good theological training.  I don’t want them signing up with any old place.  If they are going to study theology, let’s have them studying bible-based, gospel-grounded, Christ-centred theology that will provide them with a foundation that will last the journey.  Most Christian workers bail out – not because it was too hard or because they weren’t cut out of it, but because of inadequate theological preparation.  It’s the sole reason (aside from the grace of God) that I’m still sitting here after 25 years of ministry.

How does this all fit with our church’s mission – “God’s grace, to us, for the world?”

That’s a theological statement.  It’s a soundly biblical statement.  And it’s from the heart of God.  It will keep our church on track and on mission with God, as long as we remain faithful to it.  That’s where you need leadership – solid leaders, gospel-grounded leaders who will remain faithful to the mission.  What happens when all the present leaders die?  Who’s going to carry it on?  We need to raise up another generation of faithful leaders who clearly understand the church’s mandate and who are committed to gospel ministry who will lead God’s people forward and raise up another generation of faithful leaders who will then raise up another generation of leaders etc.

Why Mel? Why have we chosen her to be our first ministry apprentice?

She’s here.  She’s available.  And most importantly, she’s teachable.  Mel is one of us.  She is not an outsider.  She knows our church and she knows the people.  And she’s already proven to be faithful in the ministries she has served in.  What better person to start with?

Meet Melody Phipps, our new ministry apprentice at Grace.  Mel helps run our FUSE ministry, is part of the leadership team at DETONATE youth and serves in our children’s ministry on Sunday mornings.  She also works at Waimea Intermediate with 24/7, a program designed to place young Christian leaders in state schools for the purpose of mentoring and support.  Mel is studying toward a Diploma in Ministry Leadership through Pathways College and is being discipled by Sean Young and my wife Francelle. 

Top Twenty Christian Books

A few weeks ago, an individual in our church asked me to write a post on the best Christian books to read.  “Hang,” I thought to myself, “that’s a tough call.”  There is SO much good stuff out there – where do I start?”  Yet, I remember as a young Christian asking the same thing to many Christian leaders and Pastors.  I wanted to know the books that had the most impact on their lives.

So here’s my top twenty.  Of course, not everyone is going to agree with this list, as it is entirely subjective.  Yet I do believe there is content here that you will find in many other “best Christian books” lists.  Some of these are classics (such as “Pilgrim’s Progress” and “The Knowledge of the Holy”), having been around for years, and others appeared only the past decade.   Some influenced me early in my Christian life and others more recently.  There is a real good mix here – theology, biography, church history and apologetics.  It’s not an exhaustive list, and doesn’t cover the entire spectrum of the Christian life or hit every Christian doctrine.  They are just, simply put, great books.

These are not in order of priority, with the exception of the first five, which I would recommend that every Christian read at some point or another.  So here we go:

1. Pilgrim’s Progress, by John Bunyan.

It’s a classic.  I believe every Christian, young or mature, should read this book – seriously.  I suggest a modern language version; you’ll find it easier and more pleasurable reading.  But the original rendition is still fine.

2. The Knowledge of the Holy, by A.W. Tozer.

This little book packs a serious punch.  Tozer explores the different attributes of God and then at the end of each chapter invites you to bow down before the greatness of God.  The opening words in the first chapter are priceless: “What comes to our minds when we think about God is the most important thing about us.”  Read that again.  Think about it for a moment.  Then get hold of the book.

3. A Praying Life: Connecting with God in a Distracting World, by Paul Miller.

Every Christian should read books on prayer from time to time in order to keep their prayer life alive (I do this annually).  This the best of the bunch.  It is encouraging, grace-filled, faith-filled, and not condemning!  The opening chapters on becoming like a little child and learning to talk to God as Father are precious beyond words.  It will change the way you view God as well as prayer.

4. Knowing God, by J.I. Packer.

If you want to know what God is like, this is your book.  It’s sold millions of copies and still continues to benefit thousands of Christians around the world.  You’ll learn more about God as well as yourself.  You’ll come to understand the weight of sin and the beauty of the gospel.  “Sons of God” (chapter 19) is all about our adoption and has to be one the sweetest, richest chapters on the reality of our salvation I have ever read.

5. Tortured for Christ, by Richard Wurmbrand.

This may surprise some that I have this book as one of my top five.  But I think it is a must read for every Christian.  Pastor Richard Wurmbrand endured fourteen years of Communist imprisonment and torture in his homeland of Romania.  He documents the sufferings he endured, but also the sweet communion with God he enjoyed through, by the indwelling Holy Spirit.  His strong faith and love for his torturers will inspire and encourage you.

6. Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life, by Donald Whitney.

A rich Christian life doesn’t come without discipline, and in this book Donald Whitney examines many different disciplines for the Christian life, such as Bible reading, prayer, journaling, fasting, and solitude.  This is the best book on this subject in my view; it’s biblical, practical and thought-provoking.

7. The Ultimate Priority: Worship, by John MacArthur.

This is not a book about worship in the church.  It says little about music styles and taste.  This is about the heart, and will help you think rightly about what true worship is all about.  It also spells out what true worship isn’t.

8. The Rare Jewel of Christian Contentment, by Jeremiah Burroughs.

This is my all-time favourite of the Puritan Paperback series.  Burroughs defines contentment as “that sweet, inward, quite, gracious frame of spirit, which freely submits to and delights in God’s wise and fatherly discipline in every condition.” (p.19).  He then unpacks that in the remainder of the book.  If you find yourself struggling with contentment in your job, marriage, or any other situation, this book is for you.

9. Christ’s Call to Discipleship, by James Montgomery Boice.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve picked this book off my shelf in my sermon preparation.  This still the best book on discipleship that I’ve ever read!  It will challenge your perspective on Christianity in a number of areas and make you ask some hard questions about the superficiality of the contemporary church.  Boice doesn’t sugar coat anything, so prepare to be challenged.  I can’t recommend this book highly enough.

10. Desiring God: Meditations of a Christian Hedonist, by John Piper.

There are few books that have my understanding of what it means to love God than this one.  Loving God is more than just duty, it is delight. “One has already made a god out of whatever he finds the most pleasure in,” writes Piper.  His mission is this book is to have you finding your greatest pleasure and delight in this life in God.

11. Trusting God: Even When Life Hurts, by Jerry Bridges.

All of us will go through trials of some sort, and this book will equip you to trust God in even the most difficult circumstances.  The chapter of the Sovereignty of God is just brilliant: personal, biblical, and faith-filling.  My favourite quote: “Trusting God is not a matter of my feelings but of my will.  I never feel like trusting God when adversity strikes, but I can choose to do so even when I don’t feel like it.  That act of that will, though, must be based on belief, and belief must be based on truth.” (p. 52). Bingo!

12. The Reason for God, by Tim Keller.

In an age of doubt and skepticism, Tim Keller offers wise, winsome answers to those who are asking questions.   This is a great book for believers because it gives a solid platform on which to stand when thrown difficult questions, and a great book for skeptics, atheists and agnostics, because it provides a challenging argument for the existence of God and the reasonableness of the Christian faith.  You should always have one of these one your shelf to give to an unbeliever.  Then go have coffee with him (or her).

13. Shadow of the Almighty, by Elizabeth Elliot.

Every Christian is familiar with the story of Jim Elliott and his four missionary friends who were speared to death trying to reach an unreached tribe in the jungle of Ecuador.  But few know about his life.  In this book you’ll follow Jim from childhood through school and into adult life.  It’s filled with excerpts from his personal diary, letters to Elizabeth when he was courting her as well as a plethora of other spiritual jewels which will enrich your soul.  If you are going to read one Christian biography in your life, read this one.

14. The Holiness of God, by R.C. Sproul.

R. C. Sproul, in this classic work, puts the holiness of God in its proper and central place in the Christian life.  He paints an awe-inspiring vision of God that encourages Christian to become holy just as God is holy.  This is not a safe book.  Once you encounter the holiness of God, your life will never be the same.

15. Disciples are Made, Not born, by Walter A. Henrichsen and Howard G. Hendricks

This is the go-to book on discipleship.  My wife and I have taken scores of people through this in our discipling.  It’s a great book for training leaders (especially Youth Group Leaders) because the emphasis is on life-on-life transformation, not activities and entertainment.

16. Don’t Waste Your Life, by John Piper.

I took a group of men through this book a number of years ago.  Some of them are still talking about it.  On the back cover it reads, “Most people slip by in life without a passion for God, spending their lives on trivial diversions, living for comfort and pleasure, and perhaps trying to avoid sin. This book will warn you not to get caught up in a life that counts for nothing.  It will challenge you to live and ide boasting in the cross of Christ and making the glory of God your singular passion.  If you believe that to live is Christ and to die is gain, read this book, learn to live for Christ, and don’t waste your life!”

17. The Screwtape Letters, by C.S. Lewis.

I could recommend a lot of different books by C.S. Lewis, but this one is probably my favourite.  Written as a conversation between a senior demon and a younger demon, it provides fascinating insights into the ways of Satan.  You’ll never think of the devil the same way again!

18. Church History in Plain Language, by Bruce Shelley.

Every Christian should be somewhat acquainted with their history.  And there’s plenty of it (over 2000 years worth).  As the famous quote goes: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” (George Santayana).  In order to remember it, you first need to know it!  You’ll learn everything you need to know about the early church councils and the battles that were fought, famous Christian leaders as well as heretics (there’s a good dose of them).  You’ll also learn about great periods such as the forming of the Bible, the first Pope and the Reformation.  Easy reading, as well as accurate, which is why I like recommending this book.

19. Humility: True Greatness, by C.J. Mahaney.

There are few things more important to God than humility.  If you want to grow in humility, read this book (it’s worth it for chapter 2 – “The Perils of Pride” alone).

20. Found: God’s Will, by John MacArthur.

Navigating the decision-making process as a Christian can be so confusing in life, whether it’s deciding on a new job or making a choice on which church to go to.  MacArthur strips away the confusion and makes it all very simple.  You could read this in one setting.  It’s short, simple and to the point. Great for a new Christian as well as leaders.

 

 

Warning Lights for Highly Vulnerable Leaders (part 3)

Over the past couple of weeks, we have considered a number of warning signs that our spiritual life might not be as healthy as what we thought.  These came to my attention while at a pastor’s retreat some weeks back led by Rowland Forman.  So far we have covered six of them: pride, prayerlessness, oversensitivity, joylessness, fatigue and disillusionment.  Today we cover the last three – insensitivity, immorality and impatience.

WARNING LIGHT #7: INSENSITIVITY

Are you neglecting those that are closest to you?  Rowland writes:

“Thankfully, after attending a parenting seminar, early in our ministry life, my wife Elaine and I adopted a value that we come back to often: “No amount of success in God’s service is worth failure at home.”  We apply that to our marriage and to our family.  I’m aware that ‘success’ at home base is all of God’s grace, but we do need to take 1 Timothy 3:4-5 seriously.  How can we manage God’s household if we are making a mess of our own?”

The question posed to us was:

  • What would your spouse say if someone asked how you are navigating ministry and family?

Well, I decided to ask Francelle this.  Her answer was, “Do you want the honest truth?” (I always struggle with that question).  She did, and I don’t have to repeat that here.  The point is, this is an area I need to constantly guard.  When things are going smoothly at home, there is the potential to neglect quality time with my wife and my children.  Then there is a small crisis, the pendulum swings, and I over-compensate – for a week or two.  Then I fall back into my old habits.

This is the prayer I wrote after contemplating these things:

“Lord Jesus, I know I neglect those closest to me – my wife, my daughters and my sons.  I think this is due to my working too hard (question to myself – for what? What’s driving that?).  Or it may be due to selfishness and lack of real care.  Please work in me a deep, caring love for my family Lord, for your glory and their joy.” 

WARNING LIGHT #8: IMMORALITY

Are you spying greener grass?  Rowland writes:

“Have you been taking liberties – becoming more intimate with members of the opposite sex?  Like King David, have you begun to feel indestructible?  It’s as if everything was on the rise for David up to the affair with Bathsheba in 2 Samuel Chapter 11, and everything was on the decline after that.  Joy disappeared from his life (Psalm 51:12), fatigue became the norm (Psalm 32:4), and his family disintegrated (2 Samuel 12-24).”

Just this past week I was alerted to another incident with a high-profile Christian leader: Ravi Zacharias.  If you are unaware of the detail you can read his statement that he wrote for his lawsuit here: www.rzim.org/global-blog/ravi-zacharias-statement-on-my-federal-lawsuit/

Going on everything I have read, and especially this statement from him, I believe he has being truthful.  This was an innocent exchange (on Ravi’s end) of correspondence in order to help someone that he thought was genuine.  It all came back on his head.  This was a very close call for him.  It could have ended his ministry.

I wrote to my elders asking them to read the report and to pray for Sean (our Youth Pastor) and myself, as well as our whole staff team.  I asked them to pray that Sean and I would be vigilant and wise and careful whenever we correspond to, or meet with women – especially outside of our church family.

The world’s a minefield for this kind of thing.  Pornography, sensuality, sexual exploitation of women and children, immorality and unfaithfulness and the list goes on.  Pastors and Christian workers are not exempt.  In fact, if anything, they are MORE vulnerable.  They are direct targets for the enemy, who seeks nothing more than their total spiritual ruin and disqualification from ministry.  If you are a pastor like me, you need to be extra vigilant.  You need to have people who will get in your face and ask you the hard questions.  And if you are married, you need a jealous wife (the more suspicious, the better).

The question asked of us was:

  • How are you doing in the crucial area of purity of mind and body?

Here was my prayer:

“Lord, thank you for alerting me once again to this danger.  I know how easy it is for me to become lax in this area, thinking that as long I am the Word and in prayer each day, and I’m not looking at lewd or sensual images, I’m all-OK.  Lord, how foolish I am to think that.  Lord, the heart is deceitful above all things and desperately wicked (Jeremiah 17:9).  I cannot trust it.  How quickly I can rationalize some foolish action – “it’s fine to meet with so-and-so alone; nothing will happen” or “there’s only a couple of sexually explicit scenes in this movie; the rest is OK.”  Lord Jesus, help to guard what I do, what I watch, what I read and where I go.  Keep me close to my wife, so that I will cherish her and love her and remain faithful to her to the end of my days.”

WARNING LIGHT #9: IMPATIENCE

Rowland shared with us the story in Numbers chapter 20, where God instructed Moses to take his staff, gather the assembly of Israel, and speak to the rock.  He did the first two and then he lost it.  He struck the rock and spoke roughly to it.  He didn’t obey God’s instruction, nor did he trust him with the outcome.

Rowland writes:

“Are you patient with your people?  Are you tired of trying to do the right things, of applying church growth, then church health principles and then apparently failing? Craig Brian Larson in Pastoral Grit tells of one-step-forward, three-steps-back experiences in several small churches he pastored.  Then he says, “I must have patience.  I cannot be intimidated by the expectations of others but must have a sense of security about who God has made me.  And I must have faith in God’s Word despite what I see now.  In short, I must follow in the steps of Abraham.”

The question we then had to contemplate was:

  • To what extent are you impatient with people and progress in ministry?

Well this one really hit home.  I am, by nature, a very impatient person who rushes from one thing to another.  I have a hard time staying with God’s timetable, which typically operates a lot slower pace than my own.

Here’s my prayer in response:

“Lord Jesus, you know how impatient I can be with you and with your people.  I want things to happen in my time, not your time.  I am often unwilling to wait on you and let you build your church your way and in your timing.  Forgive my impatience Lord.  Expose every sinful frustration and annoyance and every ounce of resentment.  Cause me to love your people the way they are, and not what I want them to be. Amen.”

CONCLUSION

If you were the sole driver in a car and saw warning lights come on the dashboard but took no notice, that would be very sad.  But if you were a pilot of a 777, responsible for hundreds of people, or an air traffic controller accountable for thousands of passengers as well as flight crews, and you ignored flashing lights, the result would be catastrophic.

Keep a record of these warning lights somewhere.  Tuck them in the flyleaf of your bible or put them somewhere where you can quickly retrieve them.  They may one day save your life.  Really.

(You can read Part 1 of this series here and Part 2 here)