Situations Vacant

There is a desperate need for men to fulfill a certain vital role.  There are many vacancies in Christian work, of course, but the ones I have in mind are rarely recognized as a special need.  The role I have in mind is that of mender of broken churches.  It is not an easy job, and usually requires a measure of experience.  All around the country are churches that are declining, dying or dead.  We read in the media about business men who have the skill and know-how to turn around failing businesses.  We need ministers who have the experience and know-how to turn around dying churches.  Here I am not speaking of revival.  In revival things are taken out of the hands of men.  God takes the field and thousands are converted in a short time.  Hundreds of churches are planted very rapidly.  But while we pray and wait on God for revival, we must continue to work.  And there is no greater need than mending broken churches.  This is not an attractive task for most men.  Most ministers would, understandably, rather go to a thriving church or one with obvious potential.  Or they would rather plant a new church, and there is a great need for that ministry, too.  It is an attractive, though difficult task to start a new church in the present spiritual climate.  But it is attractive because one can start with a clean sheet, as it were, with no old die-hard traditions to overcome.  At least that is the case if the church is formed with new converts.  A church formed with malcontents from other churches is likely to get off to a crippled start.  But to take on a church that is at a low ebb and turn it round, that is the great need today.  Why? Because there are thousands of such churches, and few men to take them on.  It is often easier to start from scratch.  So some churches do need to be shut down, others closed temporarily and then re-started.  But many, with the right leadership can be brought to life again.

What qualities are desirable for this task?  Well, first of all, the qualities listed in my previous blog, The Call to the Ministry.  In other words, it is preferable that the minister has some experience.  It is by no means impossible for a new minister just launching out to be used to turn around his first church, but normally experience is required.  So there are additional qualities required, or existing qualities to be re-emphasized.  Here are the ones that come to me.  Other people may have other suggestions.

  1. Stickability, or willingness to persist in the face of difficulties and opposition.  An outstanding example is Charles Simeon, who experienced vicious and persistent opposition and persecution in Cambridge for ten or so years, before he saw victory and great blessing.  Read Derek Prime’s new book on Simeon to learn from that.
  2. Along with persistence is patience.  This is almost the same thing, but not quite.  Such a task is not achieved overnight.  Even where there is no strong opposition, patience is needed to see fruit.  Only last week a retired minister who had seen great blessing in his thirteen year ministry in a certain  church, and is chiefly remembered for the blessing, told me himself, that for the first six years,  there was, to use his own word – nothing.  No blessing for six years, then after that the tide turned and blessing ensued.
  3. Agape love.  This is something we do not have naturally.  Some men are naturally affable and outgoing.  Others are not.  But we all need to grow in grace and the fruit of the Holy Spirit.  We must love the sheep even if we cannot naturally like some recalcitrant old ewes!  (I Cor. 13; John 13:34, 35).
  4. Much prayer.  This is a truism and as such is easily overlooked.  All ministers must pray regularly and earnestly or they are hypocrites, but special prayer is more than ever needed in a dead or dying church.  Read the biographies of men greatly used of God and without exception you will find they prayed much.  If possible, gather a few prayerful folk to pray together at times apart from the regular services.  Our Lord took Peter and James and John further than the others in prayer.  Power Through Prayer by E. M. Bounds never fails to challenge and inspire me.
  5. Stand firm for principles, biblical principles not prejudices, but be flexible on non-essentials.  And move gently, carefully and steadily.  Avoid giving unnecessary offence by avoiding scolding, sarcasm or harsh words.  A Christian couple started attending  a certain church and after some weeks the minister made reference briefly to the Jews in a sermon.  Afterwards this couple asked him about his views on the Jews.  He gave a blunt no-compromising answer on the spot.  They never came again.  He would have been better to have said something like, well, this is a big question; may I come and talk to you about this some time?  I made similar mistake.  After I retired a lady at the church we attended for a time asked me if I was a Calvinist.  Yes, I replied.  I could tell that she did not approve, though she did not leave!  On reflection I realized that I should have said something like, well, it all depends on what you mean by Calvinism.  I say this because not only are there several shades of Calvinism, but also because many people have a complete misunderstanding of what Calvinism is.
  6. Distinguish between teaching and preaching.  We read of our Lord that he went around teaching and preaching.  This is not a tautology. It is not meaningless repetition.  Although there is a measure of overlap and some teaching takes place in preaching, many ministers fail to take advantage of the difference.  Preaching is declaration as a herald with no necessary feedback or immediate response from the congregation.  Teaching, however, takes many forms and allows for feedback, or discussion, and encourages it.  Jesus asked questions of his hearers and answered questions they asked him.  One of the great advantages of flexible teaching is that the teacher can clear up misunderstandings, and also find out where the hearers are, what they believe, what they understand or misunderstand.  In any case, valuable insights and useful contributions may be made by members of the congregation.  A great opportunity is missed if not only the Sunday services but also the mid-week meetings consist only of preaching or lectures.  Both teaching and preaching should be made relevant by loving application.  All-Age Bible School or Sunday School has proved invaluable, not only because there is then no cut-off point where teenagers leave because they have reached the top class, but also because it causes adults to engage in serious Bible Study.
  7. Engage in discipling.  We are to make disciples not converts (Matt. 28:19, 20).    The words Christian and believer are rarely used in the New Testament.  The regular word is disciple, and a disciple is a disciplined learner. Spending time discipling new Christians will pay dividends in the long run.  There are excellent books available on this subject, such as Discipleship by Alan Hadidian.
  8. Introduce training of leaders and preachers.  These two are not identical.  Good leaders are not all good preachers.  How inconsistent it is to expect pastors to be trained but not elders or deacons.  Good preachers may not necessarily be good leaders though, of course, many are.  J. Oswald Sanders’s classic, Spiritual Leadership, is well worth reading several times over. We should aim to pass on to others what we have learned. (2 Timothy 2:2).
  9. Never stop learning.  No one ever has known it all, nor ever will.  When a person stops learning they nearly always stop teaching, or at least cease to remain fresh.  To assume that you know it all is not only false, but it is a manifestation of pride, the basic sin.  That means being open to suggestions and correction.  This does not mean that you accept every suggestion or attempted correction, but that you are willing to consider what others say without rejecting them out of hand.
  10. Maintain your own close walk with the Lord.  This is essential, not only for your own sake, but for the sake of the flock.  You need to be a clean channel so that the living water may flow freely.  This includes being careful to shepherd your own family (if you have one) for they are your primary concern as a shepherd.  An itinerant preacher once stated that when he visited a church he looked at the minister’s wife, and if she seemed to have been baptized in lemon juice he knew there was a problem!

In all our work we must proclaim Christ crucified in the power of the Holy Spirit.  After all, we are exhorted to go on being filled with the Spirit (Eph. 5:18), and the Spirit testifies of Christ.  This is best done by the careful, lively, relevant exposition of the Word of God, for it is the Word of grace that builds up a church (2 Tim. 4:2; Acts 20:32).

Where are such men to come from?  The Lord Jesus Christ gave the answer when he said, pray earnestly to the Lord of the harvest to send out labourers into his harvest (Matthew 9:36-38).

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