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Many Christians spend a good part of their early years wrestling with the question of their unique gifting. This is especially the case where the church has overemphasized the place of gifts more than the place of character and service. I remember sharing with a friend that I was thinking about Christian ministry back in college and the first thing they asked was what’s my gifting. According to them, Gospel ministry was for those who knew their specific ministry gifts.

But I think this question isn’t just important to those considering full-time Christian ministry but one that explains service in our local churches. You see if people wait to discover their specific gifts so they can serve then you are going to have a lot of people on the waiting list. Someone will argue I cannot teach so I can’t join children or youth ministry. Another will say I’m not good with people so I can’t do welcoming and hospitality. Or I’m not as good as the song leader so the music team isn’t for me.

This inward-looking question will in the end keep you away from service and you’ll not actually discover what you can do for the body of Christ. But here I want to suggest you avail yourself first and let your specific gift if you only have one be discovered later. Because the gift is from the Spirit and for his church then begin by rolling your sleeves to do anything that your hands find to do for the church family. I’ll give 3 reasons as we reflect on this.

Jesus is calling Disciples not Gifted Professionals
When Jesus called his first disciples he didn’t sit them through an interview process to know how good they would serve him. He called anyone who would come to him. Coming to follow him, being with him, and obeying his calling was more important than what they could do for him later, see Mark 3:14. It wasn’t until later that he would send them out in the great commission yet they did serve him by being there with him. They were with him from the beginning, they walked with him and served alongside him without titles. You can say they were his errand boys but who wouldn’t want to be Christ’s errand boy.

What I’m saying here is that the body of Christ needs people who are willing and ready to roll their sleeves and do the work. It needs those available to serve in any and every way not just those with specific gifting and experience. The church needs people to be available in what is called the ministry of presence and to fill in the gaps as they notice them. And it’s only when you are available and ready to serve that the church can then discover your specific gifts not when you sit and wait.

When I did my first apprenticeship I didn’t know what was my specific gift but that meant I was available for anything. I was given an admin job which I wouldn’t have availed myself for before but it was the best ministry I have ever done. That’s where I actually learned how to write as I prepared weekly briefs. Then I tried youth ministry which was at first scary and then it became something I cherish today. I went on to welcoming which I always thought wasn’t for me only to realize how strategic it is. In the end, I wasn’t concerned about my specific ministry gift but was looking for where there was a need. I realized if you are willing to serve then you can have all the gifts to choose from.

Service is the end of Gifting
We can all agree that if the most gifted pastor doesn’t use their gift to serve the body of Christ then it’s a useless gift. They may talk about how good they are with the microphone but that benefits no one. Jesus didn’t call his disciples to display their abilities but to roll their sleeves and work for his church. It’s not our unique abilities that matter but our preparedness to serve and to do it wholeheartedly. It’s actually as we give ourselves fully to whichever area of ministry that is available that we discover what we can do best for King Jesus.

I find people who label themselves with a particular gift early on close the door for service too early. They are content with being evangelists when they haven’t tried hospitality. They pride themselves on their preaching skills without ever discovering the beauty of children’s ministry. They walk around with empty titles when their local church needs them to be available and do whatever is needed. It’s good to clarify that I’m not against discovering our unique gifts early on but I think service is bigger than us and our specific gifts. Because the gift belongs to the church then our availability to serve God’s people is what matters not what we do specifically. In time we may realize a unique need and our ability and decide to concentrate on one or two areas of service but we should always be ready for whatever the master calls us to do.

The Kingdom is bigger than my Gifting
It’s not a surprise that there are countless ministries built around a specific person and their unique gifting. It’s actually very human to rally people behind what we believe and are good at. And it’s not always wrong or premeditated that it happens like that. But we need to be careful if our churches and ministries draw and produce people who are just like us. We may be the most charismatic preacher or the most organized administrator and the most welcoming guy but we must be ready to have and grow many who are unlike us and yet fit for the kingdom of God. Let them come and discover the endless opportunities there are to serve the Lord.

God’s church needs all kinds of servants for all kinds of ministry for the benefit of the whole body. I think it’s a tragedy if everyone in a team thinks and serves like everyone else. Worse if we only think there are only 5 ways or so one can serve the church family. In time this would bring competition and complacency if there are only a few areas that all can do. But the way God has constituted his church is that we find all kinds of people with all kinds of abilities and opportunities to serve in the kingdom of God. The better way to view the church isn’t checking everyone’s gift in order of priority but seeing everyone as a unique gift to the local church. I think if we all set aside titles and abilities we would realize just how much we are needed in the kingdom. We would see beyond us and the vast harvest all around us. We wouldn’t shy from service on account of specific gifting instead we would discover just how gifted we are as a church.

Conclusion
In this article, I have argued that being available is better than being gifted. Yes, I would rather you try to service and fail if anyone ever can fail at service instead of waiting to be good to serve. More than that I think we need to realize that Christian gifts are not qualifications for a CV but opportunities to serve. They are actually not your gift but they belong to the church. In the end, service is what matters not how well we score in a certain area of ministry.

Many people live and die without knowing their unique gifts yet toil so hard for Jesus. And when we come to him the words welcome good and faithful servants is what will matter, see Matthew 25:23. I believe that in heaven we’ll find people who were totally unknown and unappreciated in their diligent service yet are regarded highly by the one who knew their good works without a title. Friends, it’s better to be an errand boy for King Jesus than wait to be recognized by your gifting here on earth.

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The world needs passionate men and women. People who are committed and self-driven to serve the Lord wholeheartedly. Those won totally and visibly by the Gospel. Those who are using every second to build the kingdom of God. It’s exciting when people speak about reaching the lost so passionately. About going out of their way to reach the unreached. Risking their necks for the lost overseas. It’s great to hear from those passionate about children ministry, church planting, students, families, preaching, evangelism, and so on. 

Talk of changing our political scene with faithful leaders, influencing the corporate world with men with true faith and godly practice. What about the education level, media and technology, the police, the judiciary, the transport sector, and whatever else gives you sleepless nights. We need passionate men and women in all spheres of life that the Lord calls mine. I pray that the Lord would make me this kind of man so passionate for him that I ooze the Gospel and its influence in my corner.  But there’s a danger when we are too passionate in one area of ministry.

When we Only See our Corner 

There’s a danger with people who are too passionate in one area because they can be too invested in their corner of ministry and miss the forest of God’s vast kingdom. When we feel all resources, time and energy should be directed to our area and especially to us we’ve narrowed the kingdom too much. I’m passionate about training people for Gospel ministry and availing training resources to the next generation. I hope we can invest as much in this area. But if I imagine that’s the only way to serve God or it is the only area that matters then I’ve lost the bearing of the kingdom of God. 

What’s worse, passionate men can be selfish and proud men. We might look down on others and what they are doing. We might think they are wasting time. We might feel we are doing a better job. We might be jealous if they get the resources that we think we deserve. We might actually speak ill of them and their ministries. But all this is sinful friends regardless of our commitment to the Lord and the specific causes we are pursuing informed by the Gospel. 

We need to survey our hearts and our motivations that we are being godly and not after selfish interest and our own glory in our ministry pursuit. I would say we need to force ourselves to speak well of others. To say little of, I’m doing this and why are you not joining my corner. Instead to encourage those serving in a different area that we are probably less passionate about. Speak about their work and pray for them genuinely to be provided for even more than us if it pleases the Lord. After all, it’s his work and they are his labourers. 

When we Expect Others to be Like us 

If we are passionate about children’s ministry that is good and commendable but we need to remember the Gospel has many other groups in mind. Men and women, rich and poor, office workers and construction workers, rural and city people, Africans and Asians all need the Gospel. Just because someone is not passionate about our ministry and just because they don’t see how strategic and urgent it is doesn’t mean they are not serving the Lord. 

In the case where someone seems to lack passion in anything we deem important we shouldn’t look down on them. As the word says it’s before their master that they stand judged, see Romans 14:4. Actually, if everyone was passionate about everything very little could be achieved because no one would be convinced to come alongside others. You need people you can challenge. You need others to encourage. Others need their energies redirected while others need to be given a Gospel passion. And perhaps you also need a broader scope of the kingdom of God and be clear on the calling we have all received.

You see being passionate about ministry isn’t the end goal anyway. We need to always ask ourselves where our work and ministry ends. All ministry work however important is actually temporary because worship is the end goal. In heaven, we’ll not be doing walk-up evangelism or even full-time Gospel ministry. Our gifts, our strategic ministries, and all our passions will have ceased when God’s people arrive to be with their Saviour forever. That’s the end goal friends, to walk with the Lord now and enjoy him forever. Fellowship with the Lord is the end goal. Our walk with the Lord and bearing fruit for him in our lives is the first calling. What we do for the Lord however passionately follows after we are walking with him. Remember on that last day your passion and your ministry won’t save you, Jesus will.

When we Mistake how People Change 

People who are too passionate think they can move mountains. It’s a beautiful thing and there’s a lot we can do for the Lord when we give it our very best. We should have big dreams in our ministries, we should make big prayers and go for big steps. But we should remember that only God can change people’s hearts, see Ezekiel 36:26-27. Whatever we are passionate about isn’t our own doing anyway. We were not born passionate in that area. We didn’t even care about it before the Lord opened our eyes to that need. It was the Lord who sowed the seed and watered it before we claimed it our own. 

If you’d love for more people to be passionate about a certain ministry go to their Lord and Saviour and ask for his help. Don’t argue, abuse, call hell down, mourn and complain before you ask the Lord. If you sense a brother would make a great children’s minister save up some convincing energy for asking the Lord for his passion and commitment. If you see a gap that exists in the church don’t kill the pastor with new demands. Start praying about it and call others to pray on it. If you feel a particular ministry isn’t getting enough attention don’t spread hate and call people names. Talk to the Lord about it. You’ll be surprised how he starts to change you and others in that direction. 

Weighing our Passion

All of us however sold out to the Lord and his work need to remember we are on a discipleship journey. None of us have arrived and yet so often we operate like we have already made it to heaven and are back helping others. That’s a lie that blinds us to our blind spots in our walk with the Lord. We also need to remember nothing we have is our own, see 1 Corinthians 4:7. Not even our passion, our gifts, our clarity of the Gospel, and our key ministries. They are all gifts from the Lord and he has many other gifts and many other areas of ministry with many other faithful people. Let’s be careful not to miss the forest of God’s kingdom for our small tree.

If the Lord is calling us to a certain area let’s go for it with all the energy he provides. Let’s come to him with big prayers on the same. Let us get as many others excited on the same. But let us also remember the kingdom of God is bigger than us and our area of ministry. If others thrive in other areas of ministry we should praise the Lord for them. If some don’t seem as excited or convinced to join us we should pray about it and be okay with it. But we should also be careful not to build a kingdom around us. We need to remember it’s the Lord’s work we are doing, the resources come from him, the passion is his to inspire and the opportunities are his to open which means it’s him to have all the glory. If we weigh our Gospel passion and find we are at the heart of it, that we are always fighting on it and hating others because of it we need to repent and ask God to give us a bigger vision of his kingdom.

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When you think about Gospel ministry I wonder what comes to your mind? What do you think a call to ministry actually means? Do you think there’s a chance God is calling you to ministry? I suppose most of us who are genuine and aware of our inner self think about what a noble and difficult task this is. We think about God’s word, about preaching to others and shepherding. We wonder how can I, a mere sinner help others in their relationship with God? How can a broken man lead others to the holy God? In this case, we think the call to ministry is something others can do but not us. No, we don’t qualify to lead others.

But perhaps your answer is different. If you’ve been serving elsewhere perhaps you do feel this is where the Lord is leading you. Your pastor thinks you can do it. You’ve led a Bible study before and enjoyed it. You’ve been involved in organizing for missions that went well and many souls were saved. And when you’ve had the opportunity on a Sunday to hammer the word people do seem to like your preaching. So it feels like yes God is calling you to ministry. You do realize it’s a noble task and you need help but you are largely convinced God is calling you to ministry.

Both of these are responses we hear every time we try to encourage people to do ministry. And there’s one thing that seems to drive these responses; if our heart is in the right place we think about the flock which is admirable. We ask ourselves can I serve God’s people? I’m I the right guy for the mission of God in reconciling the world to himself? Do I have the gifts and skills to pastor them? I’m I equal to the task of bringing others to the kingdom of God? Which I think is a very important question for anyone considering Gospel ministry.

The thing many of us forget or seem to miss is that a call to ministry though is actually a call first to personal discipleship before it is a call to disciple others. God’s call on his minister begins with the minister himself. He doesn’t call the qualified he qualifies those he calls. And to a great extent they never really qualify. No one is fit for that job. No one graduates to be a minister, instead, it is the student of the Word that leads other students in Gospel ministry.

But I know when I talk about ministry and mission the place that easily comes to mind is Matthew 28:16-20 which is the classic place we got to encourage people for missions and Gospel ministry. That’s where we get our job description. Now, I hope you don’t get this wrong but I think that’s the wrong place, to begin with, get me right I said to begin with. First, because if you read the Gospel accounts carefully as they should be read that’s where you end not where you start. Second, because when we start there we assume a lot about the people going for ministry and think very highly of them.

If you read the Gospels carefully you’d see how insufficient the men God sends are. This is especially clear when working through Mark’s Gospel. It should shock you that Jesus decides to send these guys. None of them qualifies. They want to be lords, not servants. They struggle to grasp what Jesus is doing, they are not A students. In the end, one betrays him, the other publicly denies him and they all desert the Saviour when he needed them the most. How can they qualify?

Now I’m not trying to split hairs and argue for the sake of it. Actually, I would still use Matthew 28 to encourage people to go to the ministry field and I think we don’t do this enough in our churches. But I do want to convince you why discipleship needs to come first before mission because even in the Gospel accounts it comes first. When Jesus called his disciples heres what we are told was to be their Job description:

14 And he appointed twelve (whom he also named apostles) so that they might be with him and he might send them out to preach

Mark 3:14 ESV.

We easily get the second part of that verse but we miss the first. The first mission for the first disciples was Discipleship, to sit and learn from Jesus. He called them to be with him and he stayed with them 3 years before he could issue the Great Commission. And even at that point, I would say still these guys were not ready and they were not going to be ready.

Brothers and sisters what I’m trying to convince you and I is; that it’s only after we have been with Jesus when we are walking with Jesus when we are killing sin and striving for holiness every day that we can even think about Gospel ministry. In others words, the call to faithful ministry is a call first to be a faithful Christian. And it’s a daily call, not something that happens once in a dream. Not something that happened when they commissioned or ordained you. The Higher calling is not calling others but answering the call yourself first.

This is the case even when we think about the people of Israel. God’s call on Israel was a call to himself even before they could be a light to the nations. What does God say in Exodus 19?

5Now therefore, if you will indeed obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession among all peoples, for all the earth is mine; and you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.

Exodus 19:5 ESV

The call on Israel like the Christian call and to the Gospel preacher is a call to God first. The things we’ll do for God are great. The sacrifices we make for God are worthwhile and part of the package. The souls we’ll preach to and be added to the kingdom will glorify God. But if we miss the calling on our lives for the calling of others then the heaven we talk of is a place we’ll never set our feet on. Others will make it partly because of our ministry but Jesus will say on that day depart from me for I never knew you. If you think Gospel ministry is for you think about your devotion life. If you sense you’ve got the gifts for the job ask yourself if you have the heart for it. And if you feel weak and unqualified and yet see the need for Gospel ministers then ask God to qualify you and to do so every day.

Every year at iServe Africa we send out invitations to college graduates who are sensing a calling of God for ministry to do our one-year Apprenticeship program. This offers them an opportunity for training and testing the waters for ministry. The problem is often times when we talk about ministry they like us tend to think about preaching, going for missions, and discipling others. We think about ourselves as agents that God is sending to others so they can hear the Gospel which is partly right. But the thing we spend most of our time trying to convince our apprentices is that ministry is more about becoming than it is doing. For them, the year is more learning and unlearning than it is hammering the Gospel. It’s about discipleship before it’s about the mission. For only the faithful disciple makes a faithful Bible teacher.

The rebuke we need to hear friends for those of us in ministry is whether we are leading others where we are not following. There are extremes of those who are clearly leading others astray leading them to themselves and to the idols of their hearts. But if we claim to be faithful ministers we need to ask if we are faithful disciples. This is not aimed at guilt-tripping us or making us feel insufficient although that’s how we should feel. But to encourage us to go the Father so he can qualify us with his word. We ought to think the word we are preaching applies to us, not just the naughty teenager in front of us. We need to feed so that we can point others to where they can find pasture. For we are all sheep and we have one Shepherd, the Overseer of our hearts, our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.

If you are starting on in Gospel ministry or trying to make that decision I hope you can see where it all begins and stays. It’s a higher calling because God wants your heart before he can use your mouth, hands, and feet. Actually, I hope all of us can see that in one way or the other God is calling all of us for ministry. We may not have the gift set of a pastor but God is calling us to himself so he can send us to our neighbors. God is calling us to fellowship with him before we can go out for his mission. He’s asking for our hearts before we can give him our hands. Our heads before our mouths. Our life before we give him our gifts and skills. This is the higher calling.

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By God’s grace, I’ve been thinking through what true repentance is made of, especially when it comes to the affections I feel. Most recently I’ve been thinking about the difference between shame and guilt. Both are Biblical words used in the diagnosis and punishment of sin but what do they really mean? Is there one more preferred than the other? How do they apply to repentance?

Let’s begin with understanding what these words mean. In its essence, the chief defining trait of shame, is embarrassment. Feelings of awkwardness mostly from being found out in wrongdoing. Guilt on the other hand, in its essence is about responsibility for an action. Feeling to blame for wrongdoing. Each can have some traits of the other but I think the chief difference is that of embarrassment versus responsibility.

How does this apply when we think about our sin before God and others? When we think about sin, it is not enough to simply know that something is bad and abominable before God, God cares for how we view it and what feelings it invokes in us. This is where shame and guilt come in. We need to feel both embarrassed and responsible for our sin. Embarrassed because we knew better and still went on and did it. Embarrassment because we did what we think others shouldn’t or did to others what we would not like to suffer from them – the embarrassment of our hypocrisy. The embarrassment of choosing what fails and is doomed to fail. I think this embarrassment is what God speaks about in Isaiah 1:29, when He speaks of redeeming Zion by justice. The effect is that those dwelling in Jerusalem as Isaiah is speaking will be ashamed of their idolatry because it will fail them and cause them to face God’s wrath!

But we must also feel responsible. That we deliberately took action and walked a certain path because we wanted to. That we are to blame for the choice and the consequences that followed. Guilt considers that God is right in His verdict of our sin and that we can give no defense; we are rightly accused and judged, indeed guilty! Isaiah at his call in Isaiah 6, sees God and is immediately conscious of his sin. He knows that he is guilty and deserving of death. “Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts!” v5. He understands and takes ownership of his sin and knows that it means he is doomed.

How then do these two feelings work together in our repentance? Let us consider King David, his sin with Bathsheba and how shame and guilt work together in his repentance as seen in 2 Samuel 11 – 12  and Psalm 51. David sees a woman bathing, finds out she’s someone else’s wife and still calls her up to his room and sleeps with her. She gets pregnant and David devises this grand plan to have her husband sleep with her to cover up the pregnancy but when that fails, he plots Uriah’s death in war. He then takes Bathsheba to be his wife and bear his child. He does all this in secrecy thinking that he is all safe. But God has been watching and sends him a prophet to expose his sin. The prophet quite expertly exposes David’s sin through a story of injustice. David, as the ‘righteous’ ruler is rightly angered by the injustice and proclaims the proper judgement for the sinner. Prophet Nathan then says simply, “You are this man!” and goes ahead to proclaim Yahweh’s verdict and judgement on him.

How does David respond? “I have sinned against the LORD.” This, I think, is the result of shame and guilt. He is ashamed because he gets to see himself clearly. He is able to plainly see his actions in the light of what he knows and has received from Yahweh’s hand. He sees his hypocrisy plainly – how can he judge the unjust man in the story when he has done exactly the same thing to Uriah? His shame humbles him before the LORD to hear and accept responsibility for his sin. With things now so clear, with him off his high horse, then he can take responsibility for his actions, rightly confessing it, “I have sinned against the LORD.” Shame humbles the sinner and gives proper room for guilt to work to bring about confession and then hopefully godly sorrow that leads to repentance.

Psalm 51 records David’s response to the exposure of his sin. “Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions. . . For I know my transgressions and my sin is ever before me. Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight so that you may be justified in your words and blameless in your judgement. . . Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; wash me and I shall be whiter than snow. . . Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me. . . Deliver me from blood-guiltiness, O God, O God of my salvation, and my tongue will sing aloud of your righteousness. . .

The shame and guilt have worked out their proper course on the road to repentance for David. We shall do well to learn from him. When God mercifully exposes our sin, in private or public, we ought not to take quickly to trying to excuse/justify our sin. There is never a good reason for sin! Then we are to have a good look at our sin – to name it (blood-guiltiness) and understand what it is that we have believed, said and done that is contrary to God. Often times I’ve found that when I am aware of a sin, I want to skip this step of properly understanding and taking responsibility for it because I am so embarrassed by it. But what I am learning from this is that I do not properly feel the guilt of it – take proper responsibility for it, because I haven’t properly diagnosed the error. This means that I oftentimes stick at sinning because I’m busy trying to treat the symptoms and not the root of the problem. I’m busy trying to put out the fire without understanding its cause. “Let’s just move on!” yet we haven’t known what it is we are moving on/away from. I have found that it is when I have properly understood my sin that I can clearly confess it and then seek to turn away from it, which in fact is what repentance means! How can we ever hope to confess and turn from (repent) what we do not understand? How can we be equipped to recognize sin in its different guises when we’re not humbly taking responsibility for it, understanding it at its root? True repentance involves the pain of shame and guilt followed by the real confession of sin and seeking to turn away from the sin we have just confessed as God cleanses and helps us. Skipping any step leaves us simply wallowing in sin not mortifying it!

This article was written by Leah Kagure. 
Leah is a Ministry Training Facilitator at iServe Africa doing bible teaching,  mentorship and looking after female apprentices.

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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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