In Melbourne last week The Gospel Coalition of Australia (Victorian chapter), organised a day gathering for pastors and lay leaders. There are 2-3 similar gatherings held each year. The purpose of these meetings is to encourage men and women through faithful expository preaching, by praying for Victoria and for each other’s ministries, and to facilitate networking and building of relationships between churches and between Christian leaders.
In a city that is notoriously tribal, whether it’s football or even Christianity, TGCA is proving to build bridges amongst many of the Churches and parachurch groups. Last Wednesday around 250 men and women attended, representing over 100 churches and parachurch organisations, from across many denominations. Such gatherings are unusual in Melbourne, but they are certainly a beautiful sign of God’s grace and of the power of the Gospel to draw people together. It is a joy to see TGCA serving as a means for bringing evangelicals together from around Victoria.
Mark Dever (the Senior Pastor of Capitol Hill Baptist Church in Washington DC and President of 9Marks) was visiting Australia and speaking at a number of events across our major cities (and Sydney), and he graciously agreed to speak at the Victorian gathering. Without repeating everything that was said and discussed throughout the day, here are 4 things that stood out to me, which I would like to share with you.
1. Ministry isn’t performance
The venue hosts (to whom we are greatly thankful for their generosity and hospitality), were setting up the auditorium’s lighting and sound when Mark requested that the lights be turned up. Why? Christian ministry isn’t a show with the spotlight shining on the preacher and where he can’t see the faces of the congregation/audience. Christian ministry, including the public teaching of God’s word, is not an exercise of spiritual manipulation or creating chasms between the ‘expert’ preacher and the congregation. Mark wanted to see and engage with the people present. For example, during question time, he would ask for peoples’ names and the church they belong too.
Observing this short interaction just prior to the event beginning reminded me of this salient point; ministry isn’t performance. It isn’t about the preacher or whoever is standing on the stage. Sometimes we complicate ministry by adding unnecessary elements which can create unhelpful theological and pastoral barriers. In public teaching or certainly for Sunday church, are we relying upon or utilising special effects in order to create the moment or to elucidate a response from the congregation? Does our architecture, our stage managing, and our use of multimedia support our ecclesiology and our trust in the power of the Gospel and the sufficiency of Scripture, or are we undermining these things?
The topic of church music came up during question time: Does our music encourage the saints to sing, to encourage each other and to glorify God, or are they passive bystanders watching, admiring or criticising the band? Does the band function as an edifying accompaniment or as the main act? As someone who used to earn a living from playing music, I appreciate fine musicianship. I enjoy listening to a full & loud sound from a band. Even more, I love hearing the congregation sing. Let’s not interfere with or discourage the sounds of the congregation. The point is so simple and yet we sometimes miss it. I am less seeking to answer these questions here, but to raise them for others to wrestle with them in their own context.
2. Ministry is foremost about remembering old things, not searching for new things
“Now, brothers and sisters, I want to remind you of the gospel I preached to you, which you received and on which you have taken your stand.” (1 Corinthians 15:1)
“He must hold firmly to the trustworthy message as it has been taught, so that he can encourage others by sound doctrine and refute those who oppose it.” (Titus 1:9)
A comment that I heard repeated throughout the day was that people were not always learning new things, but they were being reminded of truths which they already new and believed, and were thankful to God for these reminders. This is not to say that we cannot learn new things in theology and in how we go about doing ministry; far from it. We want to be humble students of the Word and also to learn the culture in which we are serving. We can expect God to teach us things that we have previously misunderstood or not thought about. Ministry, however, is far more about practicing consistently what we know to be true rather than looking for new ideas to ground and to direct our Churches. Paul didn’t teach the church in Ephesus to move onto neoteric ideas, but to remain rooted in what they had come to believe. But remaining in God’s word growth would inevitably come (Eph 4:11-16).
Pastors are not immune to being enticed by new ideas and by promises of success in building large churches and gaining peer recognition. There’s a reason why books that unveil the ‘secret’ to growth are so popular; pastors and churches get sucked in and buy them. It is perhaps one reason for the popularity of some Christian conferences; we pay and listen to buy the formula which will save and grow our Churches… and then, after trialing and failing we then move on to the next faddish book and ministry.
With an air of unoriginality and yet wonderfully refreshing, Mark spoke about the role of preaching and the ministry of prayer and about discipling others in the faith and of the God-given grace of patient perseverance. Again, it was simple, and yet our fidgety minds are sometimes too eager to complicate and move from these basic principles of pastoral ministry.
As Mark said, “faithfulness is the yardstick for success”.
3. Membership really matters
The subject of church membership was addressed in Mark’s presentations and it was again raised during question time and in the panel discussion.
It is staggering to see how many churches don’t practice church membership, and those which do, often think little of it. Church membership is biblical, and it is also sensical and pastorally helpful. No doubt, membership cuts against the grain of our individualistic culture, where we join and leave workplaces, clubs, courses, and relationships, more regularly than any previous generation. We are a noncommittal generation, wanting to try and taste without any meaningful responsibility. Our yes is yes until there is a moment’s disagreement or patch of discomfort and then we turn our yes into a no. This pursuit of individualism and a lack of emphasis on biblical church membership hamstrings long term Church health and unity. I’m reminded of something Murray Capill once wrote about Paul’s Second letter to the Corinthians,
“The letter shows, somewhat plainly, that church life is not always happy, relationships are often complicated, our best attempts are easily misunderstood, the gospel and the church is constantly under attack, divisions easily occur, mistrust can develop, and even great pastors can come unstuck.”
Church membership is one of the forgotten branches of Christian spirituality. Membership is amazing and arduous. I am praying that one of the outcomes from last week will be pastors and lay leaders going away and thinking more deeply about this all-important topic of membership. Without it, we are working against the spiritual vitality of each believer under our care and against the wellbeing of our Churches.
4. Let us not neglect the love of God
“Love is not an optional part of Christianity”. Mark Dever
In the evening session, Mark expounded 1 John 4:7-21, reminding us of the extraordinary love of God in Christ Jesus. Christian ministry must be ground in God’s love, a cross-centered love, which frees us to love God and to love each other. Indeed, it was a great place for ending an encouraging day
“Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love.”
I was encouraged by the teaching and by meeting and praying with many other believers from across Melbourne and Victoria. If you are interested to find out about future events, please visit this link and sign up – http://www.thegospelcoalition.org.au/victoria/