Enduring commitment

We are naturally impatient people.  We sigh and get annoyed if we have to queue for too long, if it takes too long at the drive through, if staff are stocking shelves whilst we’re stood in a queue at a checkout.  If someone is running late.  If the person we’ve told to do something doesn’t do it when we said.  If ministry is hard or fruitless.

We are impatient. Even, maybe especially, in ministry. But real ministry takes time, it is

green tractor pulling red bin on field at daytime
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like the long slow work of the farmer, ploughing, tilling, planting, weeding, feeding, watering, hours and hours invested before any harvesting.

All around us God orders the natural world to teach us patience, yet all the time we chaff against it with our technologically fuelled desire for quicker, faster, better.  In an era of fast it is hard for us to have the patience and the commitment to persevere in the slow change that is growing in godliness.

But change is slow and we find that frustrating.  We read the accounts of Acts and forget that all the action and growth doesn’t just take place in the 3 or 4 hours it takes us to read it but over decades.  We read of Paul and think of him as a hit and run evangelist/church planter.  He goes somewhere for a few months, or maybe at most a couple of years shares the gospel, gets opposed, sees converts, plants a church and moves on.  Too often that’s our model of ministry, though ideally without the opposition.

But biblically we’re missing something vital.  Firstly Paul’s ministry is unique in terms of his planting and secondly that way of thinking about it is just biblically inaccurate.  Paul gives considerable time to establishing and strengthening the disciples he led to Christ, and the churches he helped plant.  His whole ministry was about long term committed relational ministry. In Acts 14v21-28 at the end of the mission journey, rather than rush back to Antioch the quick way, they go out of their way to travel back through the places where they have planted churches, why?  To strengthen the disciples and strengthen the churches.  Then they establish elders for those churches so that this ministry is carried on by local men committed to the gospel and the church.

Again at the end of their second missionary journey, what do they do?  They go back to all the churches strengthening the disciples.  Paul wasn’t a hit and run evangelist.  He wasn’t short term.  He made disciples and was committed to seeing those disciples to the finish line. He goes out of his way and expends considerable energy to physically be with these disciples.  If we misread Paul and Acts we will never commit to the long term or be patient in ministry.

Evangelising and discipling are long term projects.  They require great patience.  They require a relational resilience and commitment.  They require a pouring out of ourselves not for 3 months, or 2 years, or 5 years but over the long term.  This is especially true in communities that don’t change quickly.  In communities like those across Yorkshire and the North East that because of their working class culture don’t see much change at all, but rather generations staying in the same area or even the same house.

And yet these communities, especially in Yorkshire and especially the working class are not used to sustained committed patient presence.  They have been burned by initiative after initiative that pumps money and resources in amidst promises and visions and long term plans but which then pull out and up sticks after 3 or 4 years when the funding runs dry because of a change of policy, or a new initiative that becomes sexy.  Our churches must be different, our evangelical culture must be different, we must be different.  We must commit, we must resolve to patiently endure, proving to people that we love them over the long term, even as they push us away to test that.  Earning trust.  Proving the doubters wrong.  Patiently plugging away with the gospel even when there is seemingly no fruit for years.


Finding men who will lead

handI was preaching on Acts 20:17-38 yesterday and Paul’s final teaching to the Ephesians elders.  It is a challenging passage as Paul teaches the elders from his example what eldership looks like.  I’m not going to rehash it all here but in summary elders share life with the congregation, leading from among them not above them, they work hard to teach the all the truth of scripture evangelistically and pastorally without flinching, they watch themselves so they minister out of an overflow of relationship with God, they whack wolves as well as feed sheep, and they give willingly to the congregation, pouring themselves out for the flock not fleecing it.

But what has really struck me as I’ve thought on this passage and the many people bemoaning the lack of elders and leaders in the church was Paul’s repeated phrase “You know how I lived from the whole time I was with you…”  “You know that I have not hesitated to preach to you…”  “Remember that for three years…”  “You yourselves know that…”  Paul’s example to these leaders is what drives this last charge to them.  Paul says they know him, they have seen, they have experienced his life, love, ministry, passions and so on.  And as he calls them to lead as he goes, he does so knowing they have seen up close what eldership looks like, his characteristic are contagious.

If we find ourselves with a lack of leaders we have to ask the question, is that because we, or a previous generation of leaders, haven’t shared their lives, their passions, their faith in action, their Saviour and enjoyment of him with the next generation?  If we currently have leaders, are we, are they, sharing in the way Paul does, so that the next generation of leaders are in the incubator day by day, week by week, so that elders are being formed over the long term by our example?