Encouragement From The Word

Marking an anniversary

Australian Christian singer-songwriter, Darlene Zschech, famously sang these lyrics some years ago, written by Hillsong worship pastor, Geoff Bullock:

     I will never be the same again.

     I can never return, I’ve closed the door;

     I will walk the path, I’ll run the race,

     And I will never be the same again.

I have long resonated with these words, for they reflect two stories in my life: my conversion, and my call to ministry.  (You can read the rest of the lyrics to the song here.)  When Jesus calls us to faith in him, we cannot ever be the same again.  We have turned away from sin, as the Westminster Confession of Faith says, which is our nature, to grace and salvation in Jesus. Such a radical change means we can never return!

Likewise with a call to ministry – which we all have, though for a few, it is to full-time Christian service.  Once we are called, finding our niche in ministry, whatever that is, puts us on a path. It might be leading worship, or keeping spaces clean, or organizing events, or teaching children, or leading a small group, or praying fervently.  There are countless areas of ministry where God can call us to serve, and when we find the one or ones for which we are spiritually gifted, we find ourselves walking a path, running a race, and never being the same again.

Is your discipleship walk such that people who knew you before you were a Christian would say that you are not the same person you once were?  In whatever ministry you serve, would you yourself say that you are not the same because of the ministry you undertake?  I encourage you to consider those questions, and if need be, dig deeper with Jesus, because he calls us to be different in and because of him.

I reflect on the words of that song today, as I mark the 25th anniversary of my ordination to the ministry of Word and Sacraments.  Since God got hold of me, I have never been the same.  And since God called me to full-time Christian service, it’s been a wonderful adventure that I’m grateful to be on. Whatever avenue of service you undertake for Jesus, I pray that it is a life-changing adventure for you!

[A]nyone who belongs to Christ has become a new person. The old life is gone; a new life has begun” (2 Corinthians 5.17, NLT).

Book Reviews

BOOK REVIEW: DIDN’T SEE IT COMING BY CAREY NIEUWHOF

There is a certain romanticism about Christian ministry.  Many – dare I say, most – 9780735291331people who enter ministry, especially younger in life (as I did), tend to have a view of pastoral leadership as something ideal:  we get to preach God’s Word, share in people’s highs and lows of life, and live as full-time disciples of Jesus.

While all of that is true, there are many other aspects to ministry that our romanticized view conveniently blots out.  They are not as fun, not as exciting, and often highly challenging.

Carey Nieuwhof, Founding and Teaching Pastor at Connexus Community Church (with campuses in Barrie, Orillia, and Midland, Ontario) has written a book which will be most helpful to all people in church leadership, especially younger leaders.  Having gone through a career change early on (he studied and practised law briefly before accepting God’s call), being appointed a student pastor while still studying for ministry, leading a congregation through exponential growth and eventually out of the denomination in which he had served, he found himself at one point – about 12 years ago – in a period of burnout, from which he initially wondered if he would ever recover.

I was keen to read this book, not only because Carey is a longtime friend of mine, but because the latter part of that story eerily paralleled my own.

When I started in ministry over 30 years ago, the church and the social landscape were vastly different.  I was educated to lead a church in a Christendom world, where churches were strong and pastors were well-respected.  Today, those realities, in the Canadian church at least, are long gone, and we live in a time where change is the only constant.  There’s a lot of adapting that needs to be done, by church leaders and congregants alike.

Younger leaders may find this season in history especially challenging, because they are starting at the bottom of a steep hill.  Didn’t See It Coming, while applicable to everyone, is especially helpful, I think, to those younger leaders who are starting out in the pioneering work of bringing in God’s Kingdom on earth.

Carey addresses cynicism – how we get there and how we get out of it; he addresses intellectualism – how we are trained to think but also need to learn to experience God’s goodness and grace; and he addresses character – how Christians, and especially church leaders, need to be honest and transparent about developing lives like Jesus.  Most of the rest of the book builds on these themes.

Readers of Carey’s blog (careynieuwhof.com) will find some familiar words in this book, as much of Didn’t See It Coming piggybacks on a number of Carey’s more popular posts.  But there’s sufficient illustrative material and extrapolation to warrant reading the book, even if one has already read the blog.  I am a faithful reader of the blog, and still gained insight from the book.

Carey addresses a number of issues about which I wish I had learned as a younger leader, especially before my season of burnout – topics like solitude versus isolation; personal growth preceding helping others grow; technology, with its ups and downs; and studying culture.

From his own experience, Carey uses this book to help readers avoid the pitfalls he faced.  While, by grace, he did not find himself in a situation of moral failure as some other prominent church leaders have, he has written Didn’t See It Coming as a tool to help other church leaders avoid the challenges that can lead to ministry-ending situations.

I recommend that all church leaders read this book.  It is not a long read, but it is a thought-provoking read.  It will be widely available as of September 4, 2018.

Didn’t See It Coming:  Overcoming the 7 Greatest Challenges that No One Expects and Everyone Experiences, by Carey Nieuwhof (New York: WaterBrook, an imprint of the Crown Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC, 2018).

Disclosure: I received an Advance Reader Copy from the publisher, electronically, of Didn’t See It Coming.

ADDENDUM:  If you want an ‘insider look’ at the book, you can listen to Ann Voskamp interview Carey about the book on his podcast here.  It really adds to the already rich nature of this book.

Encouragement From The Word

Who’s the customer?

Today’s Encouragement is a reprise of one I wrote several years ago.  The message still applies!  Blessings.  JFL

         Recently, I had the opportunity to visit two different businesses in a community different from the one I live in.  One was a musical instrument store, and the other was a hobby shop.  Anybody who knows me well can understand that both are the kinds of stores I tend to frequent.

When I walked into the music store, I was in the place perhaps thirty seconds when I was greeted in a friendly way by a fellow who turned out to be the manager.  He told me his name, and asked me mine as he shook my hand.  With his disarming demeanour, it was easy for me to tell him exactly why I had come into the store.  Like a good salesman, he took me into a separate room to show me a high-end version of what I was looking for.  When I said that I was impressed but unable to spend what that unit would demand, he completely understood and escorted me to another area of the store to show me a unit that was well-priced and, while not as good as the first unit he showed me, would serve me well.  He took the time to demonstrate it, and answered my somewhat amateurish questions without missing a beat.  When my wife came in, he even made a joke with her that we all laughed at.  All the staff in this store handled customers the same way.

Needless to say, I made a purchase there.  I had seen other units in other stores, but the service I received at that point in time was what made me buy there.  And because of that experience, I will shop there again, even though it’s not exactly handy to my home.

By contrast, when I walked into the hobby shop, I was ignored – despite the fact that I was one of two customers in the store and there were three people working there.  Since I had come all the way to the place, however, I browsed for a few minutes.  A stock person spoke to me when I spoke to him, and he opened a locked cabinet to allow me to examine more carefully something that had caught my eye.  I picked up something I needed, and when I went to check out, I waited for ten minutes.  (Remember, the help-to-customer ratio was 3:2!)  When I produced my ‘loyalty club’ card, which I assumed would save me 7 percent on cash purchases such as the one I was making, I was told that because I had not spent a sufficient amount of money in the store in the past year, they could not honour the 7 percent discount.  And the clerk was in no way apologetic about this.

I walked out of that hobby shop – in which I had spent quite a lot of money over the course of several years – having decided it is unlikely I will ever spend money there again.

Do you see the contrast between those two businesses?  Both sell things that musicians and hobbyists need.  Neither holds a monopoly in its field.  These are tough economic times.  Every business should be grateful to have customers at all!  So why was one so encouraging and the other so ignorant?

Personality will have something to do with it, to be sure, but I think the key is that the music shop staff refused the temptation to take customers for granted.

Lest you think this is merely a consumer rant, let me apply this to the Christian life.  When I was inducted as pastor in an earlier church, the preacher at the induction asked this question of the church:  Who is the customer, and who is the sales person?

Many church people assume that the customer is the church member, and the sales person is the preacher.  Wrong.

The customer is the newcomer to the church, and the sales person is the church member.  This has always been true, but in these days when many churches are in a state of decline, it is more true than ever.

The apostle Paul wrote, “We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us” (2 Corinthians 5.20a, NIV).  Paul was writing about himself, but he was encouraging all believers to be ambassadors, to be ‘in sales’ for the gospel.  Churches where the people believe that they have no responsibility to care for guests don’t grow, because their guests often have experiences at church like I had in the hobby shop.  Churches where the people know they have a hand in caring for guests will grow, because their guests will feel cared for and will want to come back.

Of course, the Holy Spirit plays themajor role in church growth, but, oddly enough, the Spirit chooses to work throughGod’s people.  Thanks to you, and God working through you, your church can be more like the music store than the hobby shop.  That’s my prayer for you!

Encouragement From The Word

Don’t leave it to the professionals

What’s your ministry?

A lot of church people would say, “Ministry?  That’s the minister’s job.”  We pay professionals to teach our children piano lessons, or to bark at us at the gym, so we often assume that ministry is to be left to the “professionals”.  But is that really a biblical model?

The noted Quaker theologian, D. Elton Trueblood, once said, “If you are a Christian, then you are a minister.  A non-ministering Christian is a contradiction in terms.”

Each person who has received the grace to follow Jesus possesses at least one special ability to serve God and build up the church – to minister.  And the word ‘minister’ simply means ‘serve’.  Do you know your spiritual gifts?

Lots of people keep busy in the church, and sometimes, they burn out – not because the work they are doing is not in some way valuable, but because these people may be serving outside of their gifting.  Do you feel burned out?  It could be that you are serving in an area that is not working for the way God wired you up.

If you’re serving in the church and are experiencing the joy of the Lord, as well as seeing spiritual fruit borne, congratulations; you’re serving according to your gifting.  If not, it may be time for a change.  Take a spiritual gift inventory, learn how God has equipped you to serve, and adjust your ministry.

If you’re not doing ministry, though, why not?  It’s not enough to come to church and “be fed”, if you’re not making practical what you’re being fed!  (To get a blunt take on this theme, listen to this clip of one of Amy Grant’s lesser-known songs.)

Do you love Jesus?  Then understand that he has given you abilities to serve him in the church, to minister.  Discern those abilities, those gifts, and put them to work.  Every local church has all the spiritual gifts among its people that are necessary to undertake the work God has planned for that church; we just need to unwrap those gifts!

He makes the whole body fit together perfectly.  As each part does its own special work, it helps the other parts grow, so that the whole body is healthy and growing and full of love” (Ephesians 4.16, NLT).