Reflections on 40 Years in Ministry

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I aim to be reflective in this article, for two reasons.

First, it’s the start of a new year. This provides a good opportunity to look back and reflect on all that the Lord has done.

Second, and perhaps more significantly, I recently celebrated my 60th birthday. That fact is both a joy and a surprise—I’m not sure how I got to this ripe old age! God has graciously sustained me through 40 years in paid ministry.

During that time I have been active in, or responsible for, a number of church plants—some successful and others not so much. Now is as good a time as any to reflect on what I’ve learned. My hope is that some of these reflections will be helpful—not only to those new to the game, but also for the more seasoned practitioners among us.

1. Focus on living more than launching

When I attempted my first plant, with no experience of planting and absolutely no idea how to do it, our first meeting was a huge success. We had almost 30 people crammed into an old chapel! But I think they must have all moved out of town, because a week later none of them were there.

As it turned out, that was good, because it forced me and my wife to knuckle down and live christianly: building relationships, getting involved in the community, taking responsibility, being a blessing; all with the aim of commending Christ.

So much of the talk and material about planting focuses on ‘the launch,’ suggesting that is the be-all and end-all of church planting. It isn’t. In fact, you can only launch if there is a church to launch, and a church is far more than a group of people turning up to a venue at the same time to sing, pray and listen to a sermon.

A church is far more than a group of people turning up to a venue at the same time to sing, pray and listen to a sermon.

Church planting requires a robust ecclesiology: What is church? What does it mean to live together as God’s people at street level, day in and day out, pursuing Jesus and laboring to make his gospel known?

Be the church in your context, so that the way you launch is an expression of the church you are and not some flimsy structure which isn’t truly fit for purpose. It is possible to have a post-launch-handful of regular attendees every Sunday and still be flimsy and ineffective.

The focus needs to be on living as God’s people together: a people won by his grace, awed by his glory and speaking his truth to one another and a lost world daily. When these things are consistently happening, then consider what a ‘launch’ might look like.

2. Never underestimate the importance of your core team

A core team can make or break a plant, so be careful who you recruit. Avoid naivety and control. You want a group of people who are with you and who not only help resource you, but also add to you, being strong where you’re weak.

But choose carefully and prayerfully. I haven’t always done that. Sometimes, I’ve chosen people on the basis of availability or enthusiasm, or even just the fact that they are breathing. Providentially, this has worked out remarkably well, but it has also ended badly. Belief in the sovereignty of God does not negate thoughtful consideration, even as we rest in the truth that the Lord will build his church, regardless of our skill or planning.

3. Women are gospel ministers too

I’m a complementarian, and therefore someone who knows we need women to fulfill their calling as ministers of the gospel. It’s not some kind of optional, added benefit; we need to be partners in this great task. Women can be great evangelists, Bible teachers, disciplers, organizers, workers and leaders. They are as indispensable to a church plant as they are to a church.

One of the great joys of ministry is seeing women nurtured, resourced, trained and deployed. Encourage and strengthen the women of your church.

One of the great joys of ministry is seeing women nurtured, resourced, trained and deployed. Encourage and strengthen the women of your church. And not just to serve in children’s ministry! The whole body of Christ benefits from women as they become shapers, influencers and culture creators.

4. Know the gospel well enough to be accused of inconsistency

As a young man just starting out in ministry, I was struck by the Apostle Paul’s willingness for Timothy to be circumcised while being unwilling for Titus to undergo the knife. I came to understand that both of those situations were all about the gospel. Paul was adaptable, not inconsistent. He was principled, not pragmatic. But people accused him of flip-flopping.

Church planting has shown me the need to so understand the gospel that I’m not distracted by happenings, swayed by events, nor intimidated by on-lookers. Of course, the gospel must not be tampered with, but it does have different applications in different situations. In order for us to make that call, we need to know the gospel, love the gospel and delight in the gospel deeply enough to both guard it and unleash it.

5. Don’t mistake church growth for gospel growth

Clearly, there are many parts of the world where this doesn’t apply, but it is still true in a number of contexts: it is possible for a church to grow simply by being there. It is certainly possible to grow by being hipper, trendier, flashier, bigger and louder than other churches around.

But not all growth is good growth; just ask an oncologist. Don’t try to plant a church with one eye on what others are doing around you. It would be far better to go to those places without any gospel witness and start from scratch. The growth will be slower, for sure, but it’s much more likely to be gospel growth.

It doesn’t take a great deal to grow a congregation numerically. But to plant a church that puts the gospel of the glory of God on display in the shared lives of restored sinners? That’s a far bigger, costlier and more beautiful work.

In my experience, it doesn’t take a great deal to grow a congregation numerically. But to plant a church that puts the gospel of the glory of God on display in the shared lives of restored sinners? That’s a far bigger, costlier and more beautiful work. That is our calling. It is worth spending some time reflecting on this work—particularly in the context of the New Year. It drives us to our knees in gratitude to the great God who humbled himself to accomplish it.

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