I am thankful for my four years at Bible College.

As is the Baptist Union and its constituent churches, to be honest, since it kept me out of harm’s way for four years while they tried to knock some sense into me.  Looking back, I was in my mid-twenties, and was too young to be a responsible husband and father, let alone be entrusted with the soul-care of God’s people.

With hindsight, I should have sought an assistant pastor’s role in a church for a few years. This would have enabled me to learn from an older, more experienced Pastor, and thus saved myself (and my first churches) a shed load of grief. In learning from another Pastor, one may learn as much from what one wouldn’t do like them, as what one would.  Then there is also the small matter that I would have been a few more years older and more mature before starting out on my own.

There were three reasons why I didn’t go for an assistantship. One, they are relatively rare in our Baptist world, where the median size church is 47 members. Furthermore, I had trained in Evangelism and Church-Planting, and assistant roles with that brief are even rarer.  Beyond all that, however, we had all been imbibed with the great myth that real ministry was solo ministry. As one Regional Minister said to me, “why would you even go and work with someone else, when you can run your own ship?”  We will leave the debate about where that puts Team Ministry for another day.

Thus it was that in 1993 I launched out as Pastor of a 55-member Baptist Church in London… and soon hit trouble.

Looking back I quickly realised that there were certain things that College had simply not prepared me for.

Now there was lots to be thankful for. I am grateful for New Testament Greek, and my studies in Mark, John, Romans and Ephesians.  These taught me a lot on how to mine the Bible for the truth that lay below the surface,and not to be superficial in my study.  There were other things that were quite frankly confusing, both then, and now.  I’m not really sure why we did so many gobbets, or what use they were. And I still sometimes shudder at being told that it was wrong to apply Isaiah 53 to Jesus, and that one could not use Deut 6 to preach the gospel.  One lecturer used to say, “you don’t understand now why we are teaching you these things, but when you have been out in ministry for a few years, you will.”  I had a friend called Steve who also settled in London. We used to ring each other up on a regular basis and say “remember that stuff they said didn’t make sense then, but would when we’d been out in ministry for a while…any of it any use yet?”  “No,” would come the reply, “what about you?” “No, me neither.”

Then there was some mystifying stuff on leadership. We had a former Army leader come to do a day’s training. When one of our cohort explained that his ‘command and control’ approach was very interesting, but in Baptist Churches we had to get everything of substance agreed by the community of the church, he was astonished, as if he had never heard of such nonsense.  Leadership is such a situation, he assured us, was impossible.  Ummm, mute point!

Which leads me to the main point here.  My College training taught me theology, it taught me how to interpret the Bible, it gave me some insight into Baptist history and principles, and it gave me useful stuff on the conduct of worship. But it did not teach me how to be a Pastor, it did not teach me how to do ministry on a week-by-week, year-by-year basis, so as to actually build a church and take it somewhere. Above all, it did nothing to prepare me for conflict. And conflict, I have discovered, is the make-or-break issue in most churches and in most ministries.  At some point you will face the deacon from hell, or the irrate and angry group in the church. At some point there will be the people who seek to undermine you behind your back, or stir-up dissent in the Members’ Meeting.  How you handle that will not only determine the future direction of your ministry, but also go a long-way to determine the health of your church.

In too many churches we simply don’t know how to handle conflict.. It gets side-stepped or swept under the carpet.  As a consequence, ungodly malcontents can hold too much sway in a church, in extremes almost holding the Body of Christ to ransom, as members would rather keep the peace than face the pain of angry words and hurtful comments.

In my 22 years of Pastoral Ministry, I would conclude that it is the failure to face, address and deal constructively with conflict that is the main reason why churches do not grow.  Unresolved conflict makes for a sick church, and sick churches struggle.

In my next article, I want to explore some of the reasons why conflict is such a difficult issue for us.


Leadership is a buzz word these days.

You only need to type the word into the search engine at Amazon.co.uk and you will be deluged with enough books to keep even the most veracious reader busy for a decade or two.

It has also become a high-profile issue in the Christian church. There are conferences, seminars, and yes, loads of books.  Today you’re expected to set the strategy, define the values, identify your style, and of course you must have a vision and communicate it. Leadership is the name-of-the-game. Or is it? Do our Baptist Churches need leaders? Do they even want them?

I used to joke that the average Baptist Church liked its Pastor to give a clear, strong lead, so that the Church Members’ Meeting has something definite to disagree with!

An old friend of mine had an even stronger view. He claimed the typical scenario went like this: “when you are called to a church, lots of people will say ‘this place needs strong leadership’. You very soon discover that what they actually mean is ‘this place needs a leader who agrees with me.’ After you’ve been there for a while and start taking the church in the direction you believe is right, those very same people are the first to say ‘this guy’s a total dictator.’”

Interestingly, there isn’t a huge amount about leaders or leadership as such in the New Testament. Yes, obviously there are “leaders” of sorts, but I can’t help but feel that they were very different to what the world today usually means by ‘leaders’. I offer the following brief observations.

1. The main task of leaders in the NT seems to be to preach and teach the Scriptures to people, especially the gospel.

There is virtually nothing about ‘developing the vision’, but huge amounts about proclaiming the Word. As Calvin said, the Pastor leads the church by preaching the Word from the pulpit.

2. Paul’s main concern with choosing new leaders for the churches under his care is character, not gifting.

In today’s church it sometimes seems the other way round. All to often, Christian leaders come off-the-rails because their gifting carries them to places that their character cannot sustain them.

3. Paul’s letters to Timothy are full of advice that Timothy should make his own personal growth as a godly Christian and as a Pastor of integrity, his number one concern.

This is because Pastors are not supposed to model a commitment to endless meetings and ever-busy programs. Rather they are to be examples to the flock of true godliness worked-out in the midst of every day life.

4. Modern leadership is full of talk of ‘servant leaders’, often with a favourable nod towards Jesus of Nazareth.

However, what they mean is if you serve others by helping them get the company’s job done, you will be a successful leader (and get promoted). But Jesus didn’t say that serving was the pathway to greatness; He said serving was greatness. In that little difference of words is all the difference between the World and the Kingdom.

In short, the NT doesn’t seem overly concerned about charismatic leaders sharing the vision and achieving goals. It seems far more focused on godly men and woman who make it their business to help others become godly men and women.

So…do our churches need leaders?

Yes, I believe they do. But we must rethink our understanding of leadership along Biblical lines.

There is far too much today of the ‘christening’ of secular ideas. I am not against learning from the world, but we must be ultra careful in applying the world’s ideas on leadership, to God’s Church, which He purchased with His own blood.

In this series of articles, aimed at young and emerging leaders in the church (whatever their title may or may not be), I want to explore what leadership means from a Biblical perspective, and how we might grow into more godly, effective leaders.

I need a plan.

It has become something of a cliche that “leaders are readers.” (For ‘leaders’ you can put ‘preachers’, ‘thinkers’, ‘writers’…almost anything really.)  No-one really doubts that the effective preacher needs to find time for serious reading. Yet enter the study of almost any minister and you will find a stack of unread books; some of them unread in years!

We say we need to read. We say we believe in its importance. Yet we struggle.

Rather than analyse the many reasons why this is so, I intend to do a series of short articles looking at how we can conquer this problem.

I know that for me, I need a plan. But I also need a why. I need something more than ‘ought’ and ‘should’. I need to understand why it is so important to read and what benefits it will bring to my ministry. So I start in my next post with “why do we read anyway?”

Finally Mentioning Jesus…

Long term readers of this blog (for whom professional counselling may be advisable) will know that I have been struggling to mention Jesus of late.

The reason for my dilemma was Jonah 1. What does one do if one’s exegesis does not naturally lead to Jesus or the gospel?

You may remember that I explained the tension in terms of

         The Grammatical-Historical Method of Interpretation    (text means what it meant in its original context to its original hearers)


       The Christo-centric/Theological Method of Interpretation       (the text being viewed in the light of the whole Bible & especially Jesus)

I made the point that it isn’t always easy to cover both approaches in the same message. Indeed, it might make for a rather confusing double message.

Well I still haven’t resolved the issue definitively, but I am thankful to the Puritans and Jim Packer for at least helping me out with Jonah 1.

I heard J.I. Packer back in 1993 at the Evangelical Ministry Assembly in London. He did two masterly talks on preaching. In one of them he spoke of a simple template that the Puritans often used in examining Scripture. They said that each text should be searched for three different elements:

  • Law
  • Gospel
  • Example 

Every text had at least one of these, if not all three. As Packer explains:

Law: is anything that convicts us of sin, shows us that we are under God’s judgement, and points us towards our need of salvation. So under this head might come such things as God’s righteousness, His glory, His laws and commands, as well as our sinfulness.

Gospel: is anything that speaks of God’s saving provision. So here would come His grace, mercy, faithfulness, as well as the obvious gospel matters of  Christ’s death, resurrection, ascension, and so on.

Example: are stories and/or people that illustrate the above.

Jonah 1 is a wonderful passage as it contains all 3! So I was able to show this simple framework to my flock and then explain how the first message had been about Law shown through Jonah’s Example–the disobedient, runaway prophet being described as causing the same kind of evil as God had condemned Nineveh for!

But now, in the second message, we were going to see Gospel worked out despite Jonah’s Example, as God is able not only to discipline and turn-around his way-wood servant, but also cause the salvation of a ship load of pagan sailors in the process. Such a message speaks hope and encouragement to us in our fallenness, as we see God’s power to fulfill His purposes and His grace to transform people and situations.

Even I could get to Jesus from there!!

Non-Christians just don’t get it.

Still preaching through Jonah, and by a happy coincidence we had Jon 2 with the Prophet’s prayer from inside the fish on the same Sunday as a believer’s baptism! There were quite a few non-Christians present, so I tried my best to be interesting as well as preach the gospel clearly.

I started off (and finished off) with a reference to the anniversary of the JFK assassination. My major point in the sermon was on how Jesus had used the sign of Jonah to speak about His own death and resurrection.

One non-Christian fell asleep.

The other telling event was the look of sheer incredulity on the face of a 20-something visitor when I spoke about the literal, bodily resurrection of Jesus. Her face said “wha-? You believe this stuff! Man I must have come to some kind of cult or something.”

I found the whole thing depressing. Not least because all the Christians thought it was a great service and a top-notch message! In other words, it made sense to them….but not to the unbelievers present.

I am starting to realize how disconnected the average non-Christian really is from church and faith. We don’t even have the common language to have an informed communication about the gospel.

In fact, we are quadrupally alienated.

1. Church culture is odd and strange to them.

2. Christian language does not communicate anything meaningful any more.

3. The Christian world-view is also radically different to their own modern/post-modern secular consumerist one.

4. Even our Christian ethics and value are no-longer broadly shared (consider the fury generated by traditional Christian views on hetrosexual marriage).

What did I learn this Sunday? The gap is huge. Perhaps it is no longer even possible to minister to non-Christians in the same sermon or service as believers.

Still Not Mentioning Jesus…

I’m Getting Really Worried Now.

Just to talk about a sermon that does not explicitly talk about Christ or the Cross or the Gospel just….well….just feels wrong. I’ve decided to give-up trying to be clever about all this, and simply think-out-loud and see where it leads me.

Firstly, there are other things that make a sermon distinctively ‘Christian’. If I preach on the Fatherhood of God, on our adoption as His Children, or on the difference between being a son of a God and a child of God, then these are distinctively Christian messages. If I focus on the Holy Spirit, His personhood, His deity, His ministry, these are also distinctively Christian. Likewise, the classic framework of Creation–Fall–Redemption–Consummation that gives the Bible its metanarrative, would make for a distinctively Christian message.

Now it might be objected that none of these can be preached without reference to Christ. For example, how are we adopted as God’s children? Through Christ’s redeeming work on the Cross. However, one could also contend that no Christ-centered truth can be fully preached without reference to the Father or the Spirit. For instance, can we fully preach the Cross without reference to the Father’s role? Or the resurrection without reference to the Holy Spirit’s working?

So perhaps true Christian preaching is not so much Christo-centric, but Trinitarian?

This is to me and interesting thought. The old joke about preaching says “what shall I preach about?” To which the answer is “about God and about 20 minutes!”  Perhaps a more accurate version would be “about the Trinitarian God and about 20 minutes.”

[More to follow…]

(This is a follow-on from my previous post “What I Learned About Preaching THIS Sunday – Oct 27th”)

OK, when I put it like that, it seems terrible!…Doesn’t it?

To me this raises two important and related issues:

I. What Makes a Sermon a Christian Sermon?

II. What Does One Do If One’s Exegesis Doesn’t Get One to Jesus

Let me deal with these, over several posts,  one at a time.

I. What Makes a Christian Sermon a Christian Sermon?

There is a line of thinking that says that Jesus must be the focus and subject of every sermon.

I have heard this put in various ways…

“Whatever the text is, make a bee-line from it to the Cross” (after CH Spurgeon)

“If you preach a sermon from the Old Testament that a Jewish person would preach, then you have preached it wrong.”

“Every sermon should reveal the gospel.”

I am sympathetic to these approaches. If a preacher is proclaiming a text and  there is no mention of Jesus or the Cross or the Gospel, one may well wonder if that is indeed a Christian message. But… I am also uneasy.

The underlying principle here seems to be that every true Christian sermon will take a text and then show how it fits in to the wider, broader, Christio-centric meaning of Scripture as a whole. Now that is surely a good thing, a right thing, a necessary thing. But,

  • EVERY message, on
  • EVERY text

1. Is this preaching or theology?

This seems to be more a practice of biblical or even systematic theology. What about actual exegesis? What about what the text actually says? What about what it actually meant in its original context?

I accept that no Biblical text can be viewed in its original context alone. If we hold to a high view of Scripture, then every text began originally in the heart of God, where Christ has dwelt since before eternity. Therefore from God’s perspective, every text’s original context was in some way Christ.

2. Do we take context seriously enough?

However, God also chose to unveil His full revelation slowly and in stages. He chose to reveal Himself in and through history–real people and real events in specific historical and cultural contexts. Therefore, if preaching a text without placing it in its wider gospel/Christ context is to not fully preach the text, then to preach its Christ dimension without also preaching its specific historical and cultural context is to not fully preach the text as well.

To take my dilemma as an example, Jonah chapter 1 meant something specific to its original audience, not just in the light of Christ. To fully understand and expound the text, I must do both. I must show how it fits into the Christ context, but also how it fits into it’s specific ‘there and then’ context too.

3. From Christian sermon to Christian series?

The thing is, I’m not convinced you can always do that in one sermon. If you have 50 minutes, maybe. But 20 or 25? And what about the idea of each sermon having one specific proposition or thesis? (This is the idea that one of the things that makes a sermon a sermon, as opposed to a talk or a lecture, is that it has a very focused message and purpose. It is like a nail or an arrow, a singular message designed to penetrate a specific target.) What does one do if one finds one dominant theme or message from the Christo-centric context, and a different one from its specific historical/cultural context?

In other words, one sermon may not be enough to legitimately expound the different meanings of a text, and not every one of those meanings may explicitly be Jesus. Hence, a sermon that is not explicitly about Jesus or the Cross.

Perhaps we need to say that a sermon series may or may not be fully Christian, given its overall emphasis of different truths. But that within any given series, individual messages may not talk about the Cross or the Gospel.

[…to be continued.]