Seeing Ourselves as Others See Us

Oft quoted lines from Scotland’s most famous poet, Robert Burns, (partly translated for the sake of those unfamiliar with the dialect) are:

“O would some power the giftie gie us (the gift give us), to see ourselves as others see us.”

The fact is that we rarely have an understanding of how we appear to others.  In fact an obsession with what others think could be harmful.  But often we are blissfully unaware that we are doing things wrongly, or not doing them in the best way.

In Christian circles, more often than not, church officers and church members are satisfied with things as they are, things that could be improved or altered to the benefit of the church and the glory of God.  I am not thinking here of doctrinal errors.  Obviously they need to be corrected.  Rather I am talking about the way churches go about their worship and their other activities.  This can apply even to preaching.  Few young ministers ever ask a senior pastor to comment on their preaching.

This can apply to any church, but non-denominational, independent churches are particularly vulnerable in this respect.  Most if not all major denominations have senior advisors.  Episcopalians have a hierarchy of individuals; Presbyterians have a hierarchy of committees; Methodists and Baptist Union churches have area superintendents.  These are usually officially appointed, and so do not always possess the close friendship and confidence which can exist when a mentor is personally chosen.  It is so easy for ministers, and indeed churches, to be self-satisfied whether in or out of a denomination.

When my wife and I went on holiday this year we sought and found an independent evangelical church in the locality and attended their morning service.  They did not have an evening service.  We were warmly welcomed, the building was tastefully decorated, and the seating was comfortable.  We also had a good word from the assistant pastor.  But there were a few things concerning which they could have done with help and advice.

First of all the service started late, significantly late.  It is not as though the pastor wasn’t there, he was.  He wandered about chatting to this one and that one while the musicians waited on the platform, and the congregation waited for the service to begin.  Eventually he strolled up to the lectern and began the service.  If a meeting is announced publicly and on the internet that it will start at a particular time it should start at that time as near as possible.  If a congregation of 40 are kept waiting for ten minutes that amounts to 400 minutes, over six hours, of wasted time.  Oh, I know that someone will say that they could be reading their Bibles or praying, and no doubt some did, but that is not the point.  It did not surprise me that several people came in late even after the service had actually started.  They had no doubt picked up the idea that punctuality was not important and that the service would start late anyway.

More serious is the fact that there was no proper Bible reading.  The minister did read four verses when he began his sermon, but there was no separate reading.  In view of the widespread ignorance of the Bible in the nation, and the growing ignorance of the Scriptures among Christians, the public reading of Scripture should be a priority.  And sizeable chunks should be read, preferably from both Old and New Testaments.

Neither was there a proper pastoral prayer from the front.  At one point the pastor threw the meeting open for someone to pray and two women in the congregation offered brief prayers.

This kind of thing can only work in a small church.  In a large gathering they would not be heard.  Furthermore, generally speaking, in a public meeting it can be unwise to allow just anyone to take part.  In any case the minister or worship leader should offer a prayer that covered the needs of the congregation and also set a standard of public prayer so that others may learn what is acceptable.  There was, actually, an “appeal prayer” at the end of the sermon, but that was all.

There were just three modern songs, none of which contained much substance.  Those who know me will confirm that I am not averse to modern compositions provided that they are biblically sound, contain appropriate worship or good teaching (Colossians 3:16) and have singable tunes, and are not just an excuse for musicians to show off.  My own preference is for the inclusion of some of the older hymns which contain profound theology.

So there was a church that needed outside advice.  But I doubt if they would seek it, nor welcome it if it were offered gratuitously.

In our church In Dunstable, over the 27 years we were there, we introduced many changes, most of which we had learned from other pastors or churches, either during my time there or in my previous pastorates.  Such practices as Home Groups, All-Age Bible School, Leadership Training, the Christian School, the annual Re-affirmation of faith, the missionary Faith-Promise scheme, the appointment of a full-time Administrator, Church Care by the Home Groups, and so on, proved immensely valuable.

One of the few benefits of the Restoration Movement with its various “streams” was that there were travelling ministries which offered advice and guidance.  Unfortunately, in some cases, that degenerated into “heavy shepherding” and ungodly control and manipulation.  In other cases this extra local input was so laissez-faire that it tended towards lack of order and even antinomianism.

Churches and pastors should be prepared to ask for advice and appraisal from experienced pastors, not necessarily from their own circles.  Recently I came across this testimony from a young pastor on the internet:  “Really, I think what [young pastors] need to do is be mentored by older pastors that are at least 45 or 50, if not older, and really hear from them and submit themselves in accountability to a pastor they want to be like. That would be my biggest word of advice to young pastors. That’s what I do myself. I have four mentors that I lean on, all of whom are older, and they don’t all agree on everything. They don’t always agree with me, but I’m held accountable in my ministry and my personal life. I think it all begins there. It’s not going alone, but really having a veteran preacher stand by you to help you to give you the confidence you need to be faithful in the things that are important.”  Well said!

The trouble is when we are young we do not realize how much we do not know.  Or we may be self-satisfied, not realizing there are better ways of doing things.  If you shine a torch on a wall the circle of light may represent your knowledge and the darkness around it your ignorance.  The border between the two represents your awareness of your ignorance.  As you pull the torch away from the wall the circle of light gets larger, representing your growth in knowedge and experience.  But the border, representing your realization of what you don’t know gets larger too.  The more you learn the more you realize what you don’t know.

Sometimes we do not ask because we are afraid to expose our ignorance, because we are proud, or because we don’t realize how ignorant we are.

My father was wounded twice in the First World War, but he rarely talked about that conflict.  As a youngster I never thought to ask him for details.  After he had died I realized there were lots of things I would like to have known, such as, where actually in France he served.  I deeply regret that I did not ask him more about his time in the Army. Those familiar with these things know that many records were destroyed in the Second World War by bombing.

My recommendation to young pastors, indeed to young people generally, is to ask questions of older people.  And if you don’t know what to ask, then ask what  questions you ought to be asking!

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