4 Sermons That Changed My Life

Cedric Moss, Francis Chan, Bryn MacPhail

The past two days I have had the privilege of playing “host” to Francis Chan for a 2-day conference in Nassau, Bahamas. I had great expectations for Francis in relation to this event and, by God’s grace, he massively exceeded them.

I had difficulty falling asleep last night after hearing his message earlier in the evening. I was then wide awake at 5 am (borderline miracle), again thinking about Francis’ sermon and subsequently about the myriad of great sermons I have heard over the course of my life.

I have had the pleasure of hearing hundreds of great sermons, and am thankful for how God has used a variety of individuals over the years to influence my thinking and my living in profound ways. Last night’s message got me thinking about those rare messages that get etched in your soul and forever transform the way you live. Four such messages stand out in my mind. Conspicuously absent is a reference to the sermon which led me to receive Christ in the first place. That message didn’t come from a pulpit, or even from within a church, but at a Christian camp (Muskoka Woods) nearly 30 years ago, a few godly young men shared the Gospel with me and my life has never been the same. The 4 messages noted below have also changed my life in some very serious ways.

4. The Surpassing Value Of Christ
by John MacArthur at Muskoka Baptist Conference (early 1990s)

Preaching from Philippians 3, MacArthur had me diagnose the condition of my relationship with Christ in a way I had never done before. Until this message, I was content in delighting in my conversion—content in delighting that my status was “in Christ”. What I had not thought about yet was the destination of my faith. I had not thought about aiming my faith in any particular way. I was arrested by the apostle Paul’s example: “One thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus” (Phil. 3:13, 14). MacArthur’s summary of that pursuit: “Christ-likeness”. Everything else, every other pursuit, is “rubbish” (“dung”) by comparison. (Phil. 3:8).

3. Be Amazed At Answered Prayer
by Francis Chan at a Desiring God Conference (2011)

I don’t often listen to sermons while sitting at my desk in my home office, but God had arranged in His sovereignty that I hear this particular message by Francis Chan. This message can still be heard online and though the message is somewhat long (an hour), I commend it to anyone looking for more intimacy with God through prayer. The section of the sermon that took a particular hold on me begins at the 34:00 mark, where Chan deals with the subject of unanswered prayer and unpacks Isaiah 58. What I can highlight from that text is the idea that God doesn’t listen to our prayers if we are doing particular things that are evil—or if we are failing to do certain things which are of great necessity.

In Isaiah 58, the concern is with the care and treatment of the poor and most vulnerable. The congregation I serve in Nassau, Bahamas, borders an impoverished community with one of the highest crime rates in the country. It was as though God was using Chan’s message that day to tell me that the trajectory of my ministry had to change (see the post from Sept. 20, 2011). It’s as though God was telling me, “You’re missing the mission I have for you. Here it is. Go to it. I will be with you and this and you will experience My favor.”

2. Stop Serving Jesus (As Though He Needed You)
by John Piper at Moody Pastors Conference (late 1990s)

I was in my mid-20s and already an ordained minister when I heard this message. I had committed my life to “serving Jesus”. Christ had done so much for me, and now it was time for me to do some serious things for Him—so I thought. Skillfully connecting 3 New Testament Scriptures, Piper totally changed my perspective on how I was to function as a pastor. The first thing I needed to hear was that God doesn’t need me. That’s what the apostle Paul told a gathering in Athens, “(God) is not served by human hands, as if He needed anything, because He Himself gives all men life and breath and all things” (Acts 17:25). That text momentarily paralyzed me. Now what?

Then came the 2nd text, from Mark 10:45, where Jesus announces to His disciples, “The Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life as a ransom for many.” Piper’s translation: Let Jesus serve you. Not just when He saves you. Let Jesus serve you every day of your life.

Those 2 texts nicely set up the 3rd from 1Peter 4:11: “Whoever serves, should do it with the strength God provides, so that in all things God may be praised through Jesus Christ.” Piper’s translation: Whoever does the work gets the credit/glory. Let Christ power your ministry so that Christ gets all the glory.

One of my elders at the time, told me many years later, that my approach to ministry and my preaching dramatically changed when I got home from that conference. The supremacy of Christ in all things became the aim of every initiative and every ministry step.

1. Your “Happily Ever After”
by Francis Chan at the Revive Bahamas Conference on April 5, 2014

I’m still digesting, and processing, this sermon—just 12 hours after Francis delivered it, not far from my home in Nassau, Bahamas. Since St. Andrew’s Kirk was one of the two congregations that organized this event, I had an opportunity to have close proximity to Francis Chan during his 2-day stay in Nassau. The crazy thing about what I will call “The best sermon I have ever heard” is that Francis wasn’t sure what he was going to speak on when he arrived in Nassau. He wasn’t even sure what he was going to speak on an hour before we started. He wasn’t even sure what he was going to say as he stepped forward to the podium!

I hope to eventually post the message online, but I can summarize the message using the gambling metaphor employed by Francis Chan: “I’m betting on God…And I’m all in.”

Francis showed us the various ways in which we try to establish heaven on earth, or a “happily ever after”, by investing too heavily in temporal things—i.e. having a certain kind of home, a certain kind of family life, a certain amount of wealth.

Because we are uncertain about what heaven will be like, and about how good it will be, we hold back in our investment into things of eternal significance.

As I examined myself, listening to Francis from just a few feet away, I was deeply convicted.

I’ve been hedging my bets.

I, too, am betting on God, but I haven’t pushed “all in”—not even close.

I’m trying to have the best of both worlds. But contrary to what some might say in our day, we’re not supposed to have “(Our) Best Life Now”. Our best life might come “Soon and Very Soon”, but our best life is not our earthly life. Our soul won’t be satisfied until we see Christ face to face in glory.

Intellectually, I’ve believed this for a very long time. Last night, Chan preached in such a way that my will and my desires were deeply affected. I want to push “all in”. I want St. Andrew’s Kirk to push “all in”.

We’ll need to learn how to wait for that glorious celebration. We’ll need to wait to celebrate because, right now, there is work to be done; there is a race set before us. And I’m not prepared to stop running until the very end—when I hear my Master say, “Well done.”

10 Things I Want To Say To My Former Congregations

1. It was very hard to leave you

I get attached to people very quickly, and so the prospect of leaving a congregation of people I love was not something I could easily do. I remember my final service (joint service) at St. Andrew’s (Beeton) on May 26, 2002 as if it were yesterday. I remember blessing each child personally. I remember Fiona Allan’s solo, “Give Me Jesus”. I remember how the tears flowed freely. The same kind of emotion accompanied our departure from St. Giles Kingsway, but in this instance it felt as though our grief and tears began many months before the actual transition. In both cases, we left behind many individuals who were like family to us.

2. Don’t be afraid to fail

When I began as a pastor, at age 25, I was fiercely afraid of failure. I’ve since learned that the greatest ministry risks are often accompanied by the greatest ministry rewards. I’ve seen things that shouldn’t work succeed–because God was in them. We have been conditioned to plan and evaluate using worldly measurements, but often God’s math is different. And, even when an initiative does fail, I have always learned valuable lessons in the process, which made the attempt worthwhile.

3. I’m sorry

I’m reluctant to count all of the mistakes I’ve made in ministry, but one regret in particular stands out among the rest. Those who know me recognize that I hold my convictions firmly. My regret is that I think the manner in which I held, and articulated, some of those convictions offended, and even alienated, some of the church members I was charged with shepherding. I owed them more grace than I demonstrated. For that I am sincerely sorry.

4. Don’t sweat the small stuff

For whatever reason, congregational leadership has a natural drift toward things of secondary importance. “How many pies do we need for the bake sale?”, “What colour do we paint the nursery?”, “Who moved the piano?” are just a few of the common examples that jump out from my experience. The most unusual example of this emerged from a meeting with the president of the congregation’s women’s group, who called to say that we needed to talk about a “huge problem”. Turns out, the “huge problem” was that one of our adherents was drinking too much milk(!) on Sunday morning, which was threatening the congregation’s weekly milk supply. Most of the time the small stuff can be easily resolved without taxing the mission of the church, or the energy of other church members. Don’t major in the minors.

5. Cling to Jesus

If someone were to ask me the key to fruitful ministry, my immediate reply would be, “Cling to Jesus”. Jesus said as much, “I am the vine; you are the branches. If a man remains in Me and I in him, he will bear much fruit; apart from Me you can do nothing” (Jn. 15:5). My experience has confirmed this. My proximity to Jesus, and my dependence on Him, is the most important variable for how effectively I lead others as a pastor. Clinging to Jesus isn’t just for pastors, it is vitally necessary for every follower of Christ.

6. Plan ministry for those you haven’t yet reached

My earliest example of this was when I was given a tour of St. Andrew’s, Beeton. I had asked to see the nursery and was led to a room with no toys or books. Instead, the room was full of cabinets and boxes—basically “junk” that no one was quite sure what to do with. I asked why the room was in this condition and the answer I was given was, “We don’t have any babies here.” My reply was, “And we’ll never have any so long as the room remains in this condition.” I give the leaders of St. Andrew’s, Beeton, full marks—they not only cleaned out the room, but went on to renovate and create a larger space for children who had not yet come to us. In business, you sometimes hear people say, “Dress for the job you want, not for the job you have.” Similarly, I think congregations should “dress” for the role they want to play, not simply for the role they are already playing.

7. Forgive one another

An unwillingness to forgive another church member can be one of the most damaging things to the health of a local congregation. I have seen this too often. A congregation can be doing many things well–the preaching might be good, the music might be excellent, the Sunday School may be effectively ministering, but if members are at odds with one another it can undo the good being done elsewhere. Jesus never said, “They’ll know you are my disciples if you gather to hear an effective preacher.” He never said, “They’ll know you are my disciples by your music program, and by your children’s program.” No–Jesus said, “all men will know that you are My disciples, if you love one another” (Jn. 13:35). It is massively important, if someone in the church has offended you, or performed under your expectations, that you forgive them.

8. Resist the status quo

I don’t know what it is that causes congregations to want to keep doing things the same way, forever and ever, amen. In a world, where change is constant and sometimes rapid, there are a plethora of local congregations doing ministry exactly the same way as they did 20, 30, 50 years ago. This is a huge mistake. It has been said that the final words of a dying church are, “We’ve never done it that way before.” I’m not talking about changing the message/the gospel, but I am referring to the delivery of your ministry strategy. Try new things–as Paul put it, “become all things to all men so that by all possible means I might save some” (1Cor. 9:22).

9. Be generous toward those outside the church

During my first year in Nassau, the focus of the leadership was to improve what we were doing inside our walls. Our growth during that year was marginal. In year 2 and 3, we changed our focus and intentionally invested time, energy, and resources in those outside of our fellowship. Primarily, we invested in the local orphanage for teens, Ranfurly Homes, and in the neighboring community to the south of us, Bain & Grant’s Town. (I’ve written about one of the effects from that investment here.) Our congregation is currently growing far beyond our expectations. It is a counterintuitive, God-thing, that the more we invested outside the church, the more we grew inside the church.

10. I loved you more than you likely realize

I’m not an overly emotional person–at least not in public–and I’m not very adept at conveying to others how I feel about them. For this reason it is important that I take the opportunity within this post to tell you that “I love you”. More than you’ll likely ever realize. It was common for me to go through the church photo directory and to pray for each family, photo by photo. I resonate with Paul’s words to the Philippians, “God can testify how I long for all of you with the affection of Christ Jesus” (Phil. 1:8). Being your pastor was never a job for me–it was my passion and my great delight. Thank you for the privilege of calling me, for a season, to be your pastor.

A Time To Be Silent

If you have visited this blog in the last year, you would have immediately noticed that I haven’t been posting anything new. My posts went from less frequent in 2011, to intermittent in 2012, to scarce in 2013. In light of the myriad of posts I made between 2008 and 2010, I wrestled with what was behind my reduced passion for posting. Do I make a connection between my diligence in posting and my final years as Pastor of St. Giles Kingsway? And given the immense satisfaction I’ve had with ministry in Nassau, why so few posts? I don’t have a comprehensive answer for the change in my posting patterns. The best answer I can give comes from a single verse from the Book of Ecclesiastes, “There is a time for everything…a time to be silent and a time to speak” (Ecc. 3:7).

For a Pastor who enjoys speaking and writing, I’ve sensed a call in recent years to listen more than I speak, and to read more than I write. Perhaps this is for a season, or perhaps it is a part of God’s transformative plan for me. Time will tell.

Recently, I have felt my passion for writing return, and I’m glad about that. For example, in my sermon prep, instead of labouring to add to my “word count” to make my sermon long enough, I’ve been having to spend considerable time reducing my word count so as to not unduly lengthen Sunday worship! I’ve also had something on my heart, which I want to transmit in a post–a message to my former congregations. From Jan. 1998 to June 2002, I was the Pastor of a 2-point charge, St. Andrew’s PC in Beeton, ON and Fraser PC in Tottenham, ON. From June 2002 to June 2010 I was the Pastor of St. Giles Kingsway PC in Toronto, ON. I think about those ministries often. Later today I intend to write a post entitled, “10 Things I Want To Say To My Former Congregations”. After a season of blog silence, I feel as though it might be time to speak again.

For Whom Did Jesus Die?

I was recently asked to speak at a Men’s Conference at a nearby church in Nassau. Initially I was told that the theme would be the “Solas” of reformed theology and that my assignment would be to teach on “Soli Deo Gloria” (to God alone be the glory). Shortly after receiving this assignment, the conference theme changed to: “What Is The Gospel?”. I then came to understand that I was to attempt to answer the question, as best as I could, while staying with my assigned “Sola”.

The audio message below does not provide a comprehensive answer to the question: “What Is The Gospel?”, but it does make the assertion (based on Romans 3) that Christ did not merely die for our sake, but that He died for the sake of His Heavenly Father, and His righteousness.

I am indebted to Pastor John Piper who was the first to highlight for me the God-centredness of the Gospel in his best selling book, “Desiring God”.

Soli Deo Gloria!

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My Favourite Day Yet

Today was a very special day.

I began visiting the Ranfurly Homes for Children a little over 2 years ago, shortly after my arrival in Nassau. It began with a basketball game in which I was greatly outmatched by a group of emerging basketball stars and where I learned what it feels like to be dunked over (a bit frightening). I quickly discerned that I needed another venue to connect with the Ranfurly youth—realizing that my aging body wouldn’t hold up playing ball against these boys. I began to regularly take a few boys from Ranfurly to breakfast at McDonalds on Saturday mornings. Relationships were forged, and I began formally mentoring one of the boys. Over time, they began to ask more and more questions about the Kirk and about Christianity. Eventually, I am told, that many of the youth requested to the Ranfurly Administrator that they be allowed to attend services at the Kirk. Shortly thereafter, a bus was procured by Ranfurly and was used to transport most of their youth to the Kirk each Sunday.

Those who know me well, know that I resist titles. I’d rather you not call me Reverend MacPhail or Pastor MacPhail. “Just call me Bryn” has been my mantra during my 15 years in ministry. These youth, however, only refer to me as “Pastor Bryn” (pronounced “Pasta Bryn!”). I must admit, that I’ve grown to like that address. Not because I like being addressed according to what I do, but because of what I think they intend by the phrase. To many of the youth at Ranfurly Home, they see me as their pastor. This theory was confirmed when I inquired as to whether some of them were interested in taking Bible classes with me, with a view to joining the Kirk as members. The children were surveyed, and 7 signed up for the 6-week course.

When I showed up at Ranfurly to teach the first class, 17 showed up! For 6 weeks we studied together, what I termed, “the essentials of the Christian faith”. To my delight, some of the leaders from the Kirk showed up each Tuesday to audit the class and to build relationships with these children. The youth at Ranfurly enthusiastically engaged in the process. They were eager to read Scripture, ask questions, and dialogue about what it means to be a Christian living in Nassau in the 21st Century.

As the course drew to a close, it dawned on me that there might be a couple youth who have not yet been baptized. I asked them to put up their hand if they needed baptism. 11 of the 17 raised their hand.

This morning, at St. Andrew’s Kirk, 17 youth from Ranfurly professed their faith in Jesus Christ and became members of the church. 11 of the 17 were first baptized.

It is difficult to put into words how I felt. I tried not to think too much about what was happening for fear that I might be overwhelmed by emotion and not be able to proceed effectively. I could see people in my periphery wiping tears from their eyes. I think everyone in the room fully understood how huge this moment was–first, for these 17 youth, secondly, for this 202 year-old congregation, and thirdly (most importantly) for the kingdom of God. Young lives are being transformed and these baptisms and professions of faith were marking this profound change for us.

After the professions of faith, I proceeded to hand out Bibles to the youth, along with a hand written note for each of them. When the formalities were done, someone yelled (uncharacteristically!) from the congregation, “Amen!”. Moments later the congregation broke out into spontaneous applause.

I recognize that not every Sunday service is a memorable one for those that gather. Today was different. I suspect that everyone present at the Kirk today will remember what they saw, and will give thanks to God for it.

After lunch, I took a couple of visitors to Nassau on a tour of Ranfurly. When we went into the boys dormitory we immediately realized that we had awakened one of the boys from a nap. It was one of the boys who had professed his faith in Jesus earlier in the day. I was moved by what I saw–this boy awoke, not clutching his pillow, but clutching the Bible which was given to him a few hours ago.

I will forever thank God for allowing me the privilege to participate in His plan to draw young men and women to Himself. What a blessing.

Yes, today was a very special day.