My Job Has Changed

Urban Renewal CentreMy focus in ministry has changed over the past year. I didn’t mean for it to. I’m not even sure how to explain it. My theology is pretty much the same, so why is the application of my theology changing so dramatically?

For the first 13 years of ordained ministry, I was consumed with the work that took place within the walls of the local church I was called to. I was like a manager seeking to maintain peace and order within the institution. Today, I find myself consumed by the work which lies outside the walls of the local church I am called to. I feel like a hybrid between a local church pastor and a missionary.

Some of my colleagues would say that I’ve moved from an “attractional” ministry model to a “missional” one. That might be the best explanation. For the sake of those who do not recognize those terms, an “attractional” ministry sets itself up in such a way as to become attractive to those who might be looking for a church home. In the attractional model, ministry is largely fixed in a particular location while hoping to draw others in. The “missional” model, by contrast, is marked by sending (see John 20:21). Members of the local church are encouraged to go (see Matthew 28:19) and be difference makers in their respective communities.

I don’t know that there was a defining moment that pushed me into the missional mindset. Nor can I point to a meeting or a decision that rendered St. Andrew’s Kirk a missional church. But as I write this, it has become obvious that the shift has already happened. We’re meaningfully involved as a primary partner for the Bain & Grant’s Town Urban Renewal Centre. We have a regular presence at the Ranfurly Homes for Children. We’re in discussion with a nearby high school about how we can help mentor teens who are struggling. Every Sunday we pay for a bus to go through the neighbourhood to pick up children who have no other way to get to church.

The number of Kirk members who are involved in these efforts is growing at a rapid pace. The resources being expended beyond our walls is increasing. I discern our ministry posture becoming joyfully missional.

One of the other really neat things I have discerned in this ministry shift is that the ministry within our walls is being enhanced.

I know—it sounds counter-intuitive to say that focussing ministry outside the walls of the church is the key to improving ministry within the walls of the church, but that’s exactly what I perceive to be happening.

This approach may be counter-intuitive, but it’s biblical. Jesus told us to “Go and make disciples” (Mt. 28:19) and explained that we are to be His “witnesses…to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8).

I’m grateful to be able to say that I think we might be tasting some of the blessing described in Isaiah 58, where the Lord says,

“If you spend yourselves in behalf of the hungry and satisfy the needs of the oppressed, then your light will rise in the darkness, and your night will become like the noonday. The Lord will guide you always; He will satisfy your needs in a sun-scorched land and will strengthen your frame. You will be like a well-watered garden, like a spring whose waters never fail.” (Isa. 58:10, 11).

I’m a bit embarrassed by how long it took for me to embrace this ministry emphasis. And I get the sense that we’ve only just begun. Being missional can’t be reduced to a few strategic initiatives. Being missional, I suspect, is something we become and will grow in as we give ourselves to Jesus and His priorities. It’s entirely possible then, that my job will continue to change.

Preferring Church Over Jesus

The letter to the Church in Ephesus, recorded in Revelation 2:1-7, captures my attention in that it describes a gathering of people who appear to care more about their church activities than they do about their relationship with Jesus.

The letter begins well. We are pleased to read that the Lord Jesus Christ perceives that many good things are happening at the Church in Ephesus. The commendation given to them by Christ is quite an impressive one.

I know your deeds”, Jesus tells them (Rev. 2:2).

This appears to be a busy congregation. This is not a congregation that merely gathers for an hour on Sunday morning and then scatters—the Ephesian Christians are accomplishing things. They are like a congregation in our day that has a vibrant Sunday School and a variety a mid-week programs. I suspect that the Ephesians are attentive to the needs of the poor and the disenfranchised.

Jesus goes on to commend them, “I know . . . your toil”.

That is to say, ‘I recognize the effort required in your deeds.’ The Greek word for toil implies a loss of strength; or a weariness that results from the work. Apparently, the kind of deeds being carried out in the Church at Ephesus required significant energy. The work being done was not a nominal work. These were the kind of people who could be counted on to roll up their sleeves and get their hands dirty.

Jesus commends them further, “I know . . . your perseverance”, He tells them.

The work of the church in Ephesus was not a short-term venture. This congregation is seeing their work through to conclusion. There don’t appear to be any ‘quitters’ in the Church at Ephesus. Evidently, the people who had signed up to do particular tasks were staying with their tasks.

If the commendation of the Church at Ephesus stopped here I would be sufficiently impressed, and yet, Jesus goes on: “I know . . . that you cannot endure evil men, and you put to test those who call themselves apostles, and they are not, and you found them to be false” (Rev. 2:2).

That the congregation in Ephesus is unwilling to “endure evil men” points to their integrity. This is a morally upright group of people. We also learn that they are a discerning group of people. The Church at Ephesus had the ability to identify imposters—people who presented themselves as apostles, but were not.

And then, after all of that—after saying all of those positive things about the Christians in Ephesus, we read what no church ever wants to hear from our Lord:

BUT

But I have this against you, that you have left your first love” (2:4).

The Lord Jesus Christ perceives many good things about the Church at Ephesus, but He also perceives that there is something fundamentally lacking with them—the people have forgotten that which is most vital: a loving relationship with Jesus Christ.

We can be sure that this is no little shortcoming based on the language employed by Christ. The element of loving Christ is so critical that the diminished expression of this love causes Christ to say that He has something “against” the congregation at Ephesus.

This is severe. If someone approaches you and says, ‘I have something against you’—that’s serious. So when Christ tells the congregation in Ephesus that He has something “against” them, my attention is sufficiently arrested. My attention is arrested, in part, because of the severity of the statement, but it is also arrested because I suspect these words apply to more congregations than we could probably number.

And, I suspect there are at least occasions when these words of our Lord apply to you and to me . . . “I have this against you, that you have left your first love.

The notion that you have diminished your love for Christ need not cause you to altogether despair. It brings me great relief to see that Jesus follows His severe words with an obtainable prescription. Though Christ be against us when our love departs, He prescribes for us a course that will return us to a right relationship with Him.

Christ prescribes for the people of Ephesus, and He prescribes for all who have wandered from the love of Christ, “Remember” . . . “Remember therefore from where you have fallen, and repent and do the deeds you did at first” (2:5).

What is implied in this prescription is the notion that our love had a distinct character when we began with Christ. I know mine did. I remember how I felt when I first comprehended that Christ died for me on the cross and that, in Him, I had found forgiveness for all my sins. I remember how inflamed my love for Christ was at the thought that He had become my Saviour, my Lord, and my friend.

Now, remember that each for yourselves. Did you have such a day? Was there a time when your love for Christ was such that you longed to pray to Him; a time when the prospect of gathering with His people on Sunday morning excited your very soul?

If there was such a time, remember it. Bring to mind those thoughts that overflowed into loving devotion.

If there was such a time when loving Christ was your first priority, if there was a time when Christ was the most important thing about you, it will also be helpful to ask yourself: “What has happened? Why is Christ less than that now?”

I agree with Charles Spurgeon, who asserts that our love grows cold when we neglect communion with Christ (not talking about the Lord’s Supper). Spurgeon is referring specifically to our dealings with Christ in prayer and our dealings with Christ as we read the Scriptures. Spurgeon goes on to say, ‘We shall never love Christ much (unless) we live near Him.’

Jesus’ call to “repent” (a word which means “to turn around”) then, is a call to us who are far off, to come near again. It is a call to us who have grown cold in our prayers, to return to fervent prayer. The call to repent is to us who have regarded the words of Scripture as bitter, to once again reckon them to be “sweeter than honey” (Ps. 119:103).

This is the prescription of Jesus Christ to all those who have left their first love.

And lest anyone think that a return to Christ is unnecessary, He finishes His message to the Ephesians with strong words of persuasion, “I am coming to you, and will remove your lampstand out of its place—unless you repent . . . (but) to him who overcomes, I will grant to eat of the tree of life, which is in the Paradise of God” (2:5, 7).

In other words, this is a matter of life and death. The punishment threatened here is corporate—the removal of the “lampstand” signifies the removal of light and life from the local congregation.

What is your local congregation like? Does your congregation run excellent programs? Does it serve the poor? Do your people exert themselves for the Gospel? Is your congregation marked by moral integrity? But, of course, the Church in Ephesus was marked by such things.

It appears that we are not going to be judged according to how busy we are. It appears that we are not going to be evaluated according to whether we accomplish the items listed in our mission statement.

The most critical point is whether or not Jesus Christ is our first love.

Jesus doesn’t simply want us to love Him a lot. He wants us to love Him first.

I’m challenged by that. But I want that—for myself, for my family, for my congregation, and for you.

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“Recovering First Love”, based on Revelation 2:1-7, was preached at St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Kirk on Sunday, June 26, 2011.

The Blessing Of Friendship

LtoR: Cliff Cline, Duncan Macgregor Jr., Bryn MacPhail, Matt Pomeroy, Dave Terry, Ric Jacka

The popular proverb states that “You can’t choose your family, but you can choose your friends.”

I think this cliche is meant to console those of us who have to cope with challenging family dynamics. Our family—our parents, our siblings, aunts, uncles, cousins—may cause us stress, but we have an opportunity to surround ourselves with individuals who impart energy to us by the manner of their friendship.

I don’t mean for this post to sound anti-family—I deeply love my imperfect, idiosyncratic, family of which I am a part. My aim here, rather, is to highlight the blessing of friendship. I say “blessing” as a way of qualifying the notion that we “choose our friends”. Of course we choose our friends, but I also strongly believe that God has positioned certain people in our life in order to facilitate the fostering of friendships that bring us encouragement and draw us closer to Him.

I’ve just returned from 28 days in Ontario, Canada (where I was born and raised), and the theme which continues to linger in my mind is the theme of friendship. Having been away (living in Nassau, Bahamas) for 13 months, there were many that I was eager to reconnect with. While it proved impossible to see all of our friends, we did get some meaningful time with some of our best friends.

In Proverbs we read, “A man of many companions may come to ruin, but there is a friend who sticks closer than a brother” (Prov. 18:24). I feel so blessed to say that there are men in my life who, by every appearance “stick closer than a brother”.

One friend, whom I met as a 12 year-old at camp (Muskoka Woods), along with his wife Sandee, hosted us for three nights and treated us to gourmet food and poolside fun. Twenty-six years later, Duncan Macgregor continues to stick closer than a brother.

My former clerk of Session from St. Giles Kingsway, Don Taylor, and his wife, Lois, hosted a dinner party for us. When I was Don’s pastor, he was my always-supportive colleague and wise friend. Seeing Don again reminded me how blessed I was, and am, to have such a loyal and generous friend.

After some time at our our cottage in Eastern Ontario we returned to the Greater Toronto Area where we would spend a night at the home of Dave & MaryAnne Terry. Dave was my “best man” from my wedding day, 17 years ago, and has been among my very best friends for two decades now. Our friendship overflowed into ministry support when David served as an elder at St. Giles Kingsway during my time as Senior Pastor there.

The next evening took us to Ric & Andrea Jacka’s home. Andrea, a dental hygienist, kindly cleaned all of the MacPhail’s teeth—a luxury for us since we have yet to procure a dental plan in The Bahamas. Ric & Andrea have been one of our closest “couple” friends since we connected at the church of my student ministry (Good Shepherd Community Church) 17 years ago.

Our final night was spent in Beeton, ON–the town where I began ordained ministry 14 years ago. We stayed at the home of Jim & Fiona Allan. Jim was one of my elders from Fraser Presbyterian Church in Tottenham, ON, and in that ministry season there was no one I leaned on more than Jim (outside of my wife, Allie, of course!). I remember reading in 1Samuel how Jonathan made an oath to David “because he loved him as he loved himself” (1Sam. 20:17) and thinking that Jim and I had a friendship like that. No, we still have a friendship like that!

I missed seeing one of my closest friends, BK Smith, who now lives in Victoria, BC, where he was recently called to pastor. BK’s Christian integrity has inspired and challenged me for two decades. Time with BK, reminds me of the Proverb, “As iron sharpens iron, so one man sharpens another” (Prov. 27:17).

I could go on—as there are other men that God has used over the years to provide me with profound encouragement (Heb. 10:24,25) and comfort (2Cor. 7:5,6). There are also the new friends I have made since transitioning to Nassau, Bahamas. God appears to be repeating His gracious pattern of surrounding me with loyal, God-fearing, friends.

As I consider the blessing of friendship I have received, I am immensely grateful. I am also challenged by the generosity of these friends. I don’t know that I can ever match, or repay, their kindness to me. But I am nonetheless inspired to attempt, in my own small way, to give myself to others so that they too may know the blessing of friendship.

From Paradise To Cleveland

Parkside Church Conference
Earlier this week, I traded one kind of paradise for another. I left the comfortable confines of Nassau, Bahamas, and flew North to Cleveland, Ohio, in order to attend Alistair Begg’s 2011 Basics Conference. This is a journey I have done 9 out of the last 10 years, but it is the first time I’ve attended this conference since becoming the pastor of St. Andrew’s Kirk in Nassau.

Now, with all due respect to Cleveland, the notion that I visited another kind of paradise had nothing to do with the actual city of Cleveland. No, I found a slice of paradise in the suburbs, Chagrin Falls, within a church community called Parkside.

What do we do at this conference? In a word, we worship. We go back to the basics of the Christian faith. We sing together, we pray together, we give attention to the Scriptures together, and we eat and fellowship together. Pretty ordinary stuff on the one hand, and yet I found our experience of these basic things to be nothing short of extraordinary. This year was no different than previous years–amid our time of singing, I marveled at how compelling the environment was. I imagined our gathering as a microcosm of what heaven will be like–vibrant worship marked by profound joy, genuine humility, and unity.

The speakers, Alistair Begg, John Dickson, and Rico Tice, were as insightful as they were inspirational. On the theme of “Doing The Work Of An Evangelist”, Rico Tice challenged us to “help create disciple-making disciples of Christ”, reminding us that we are not to be a “reservoir”, but a “river”.

All of the speakers sounded a similar note regarding the manner in which we convey the Gospel. The Gospel itself should set the tone for our delivery–we concern ourselves, not with status, but with service. We give up security in favour of suffering. Our obsession should not be with obtaining a crown, but with shouldering a cross.

John Dickson wondered whether some of the difficulties that congregations experience has to do with the posture of that local congregation. Dickson suggested that some congregations have taken such a pronounced posture of admonition that they have ceased to have a posture of mission. As a result, we have antagonized in places where we should have been engaged in a loving rescue.

Admonition, of course, has its place–but only after mission has done its work. To put it another way, obliging others to obey a list of commands is not our prerequisite work. Our primary work is to magnify the majesty of Jesus. And this work is advanced by a humble proclamation, and a lifestyle that is marked by self-less, loving, service.

Depending on how it is described–spending all day, for 3 days, in a church building listening to sermons and singing alongside 800+ pastors may not seem like the most exciting way to spend half of a week. What I hope I’ve conveyed, however, is that aspiring to make Jesus Christ the main thing, along with 800+ other people, gives a sweet foretaste of heaven’s paradise.

In one sense, Nassau, Bahamas, is already a paradise. But I want to be a part of that which makes Nassau, Bahamas, like paradise in the biblical sense.

Friend, whatever your context, help transform where you are into what will feel for others as a preview of heavenly paradise.

Your Online Persona

Persona. The role that one assumes or displays in public or society; one’s public image or personality, as distinguished from the inner self.

To varying degrees, every person I have ever met conveys a persona. Social networks serve to magnify this reality. We present ourselves to others, not falsely, but selectively. Our persona is not usually marked by adding things which aren’t there, but by omitting things which are there.

Example: My wife snaps a bunch of photos during our family outing and is about to post them on facebook. I notice a pic of me with my mouth full of food–I look awful, and so I plead with my wife to leave the picture out. Perhaps there is another pic where I look a bit grumpy; I ask her to leave that one out too. Why? Because I don’t want to present myself to others as a grumpy guy who eats too much–that’s not the persona I want to convey.

The same goes for our Twitter/Facebook status.  I could write: “Today was miserable. Conflict at work. Confusion at home.” But I don’t. I’m not comfortable conveying a negative persona. Instead I write something much more benign like, “Don’t rub your eyes after eating hot chicken wings. Looking forward to hockey playoffs.

I think we all get that the persona we present to the world online is a bit sanitized. It’s the unwritten rule of tweeting, facebooking, and blogging to leave some of the ugly stuff out. If we’re experiencing a personal meltdown, that’s not something we’re going to share with our online community. As a result, what we’re left presenting is our online persona.

For those of us who are pastors, we tend to create a similar persona for the congregations we serve. We don’t tweet about the blow up at the annual general meeting. Nor do we post about record lows in Sunday attendance. We’re not going to blog about the conflict within the Board of Managers. Why? Because we’re dishonest? No. Because we have a certain persona we want to convey. We have an image in mind of what we want our congregation to look like, and we want to keep that in tact.

What got me thinking about this was a post from a well respected pastor, Perry Noble. Perry, like many of us, utilizes Twitter to keep people informed about what is going on in his congregation. Perry strikes me as a very upbeat, energetic, and positive guy–things I aspire to! But I gather that some of his 33,000+ Twitter followers were growing weary of hearing about all of the “epic” things going on where Perry pastors. In reply, Perry posted on his blog today, “I’m Sorry Your Church Is So Normal” (I’ll let you read it for yourself).

It’s possible that some of these critical Twitter followers are simply colleagues who are jealous of the amazing growth and progress that Perry is experiencing within his congregation. But it’s also possible, that some of the criticism of Perry is a genuine appeal for a less sanitized persona. Perhaps, the criticism comes from individuals who feel that they are only receiving half of the story.

I am taking the possibility of the latter to heart. I’m not sure that any of us are capable of altogether dropping our online persona, but I do think we might be able to offer a more balanced one.

I do experience personal and professional challenges. And while it is not always appropriate or helpful to share those challenges online, I am mindful that only reporting the “wins” isn’t appropriate either.

The question isn’t then, whether or not we have an online persona. The question is “How close is the persona to the real thing?” How authentic is our online persona?

I have some work to do on this. I want to close the gap.

I went wading through Proverbs today looking for some help and inspiration. You won’t find the word “authentic” in the Book of Proverbs, but honesty is a steady theme there. My favourite find? Proverbs 24:26: “An honest answer is like a kiss on the lips.”

Consider yourself kissed.