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.

Jesus Forsaken For Us

On Maundy Thursday I was interviewed on JCN’s “The Platform” by Wendell Jones and Godfrey Eneas. I was asked to explain why Jesus exclaimed “My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?” while hanging on the cross. The video above provides part of my answer. The audio below is a more comprehensive answer from my Good Friday message, delivered at St. Andrew’s Kirk, “God Forsaken For Our Sake”.

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Dirt, Spit, & The Gospel

If we’re honest, we’ll likely confess that what Jesus does to the man born blind is actually quite disgusting.

John reports that Jesus mixes some dirt with His saliva and rubs it on the blind man’s eyes (John 9:6).

Sheer curiosity makes me wonder what the blind man’s initial response to this sensation was. I don’t think we should imagine the man immediately saying, “Oh, I get it, spit and dirt on my face—you’re going to heal my blindness!”

I wonder if the man’s initial response was one of disgust. I wonder if Jesus offended him. I wonder if the man’s initial response was one of doubt and scepticism.

Whatever the man’s initial response was, it eventually gave way to obedience. Jesus instructs the man, “Go and wash in the Pool of Siloam” (John 9:7). The man born blind complies. John says that the man went and washed and came way seeing.

I think there is an obvious analogy to the Gospel here.

The apostle Paul explains to the Corinthians that to some people the Gospel is foolishness, and to others it is offensive.

The Gospel describes how God takes on human flesh, lives a perfect life, and yet is arrested as a criminal and is executed upon a Roman cross. The Gospel tells us that by trusting in this God-man, and in His death, we gain salvation.

To some that sounds about as plausible as healing a blind man with dirt and spit.

Some hear the Gospel and are sceptical… “This sounds too easy—this sounds too good to be true.” Some hear the Gospel and are bothered by it. They are bothered by all the talk of sin and judgment. They are bothered by the notion that salvation is only possible by trusting in the gruesome death of Jesus. But, thankfully, some hear the Gospel message and believe it and, as a result, come away seeing.

It is a huge deal for a man born blind to be able to see. So we’re likely not surprised to see this miracle become “the talk of the town”. And we’re probably not surprised to read that the religious leaders of the day wanted to investigate this miracle. The Pharisees ask the man how he had received his sight. I love the simplicity of the man’s reply: “He put mud on my eyes, I washed, and now I see” (John 9:15).

Again, this is an excellent analogy for how salvation comes:

God does something (He initiates healing / Regeneration)
We do something (We believe in the Gospel / Faith)
And then we see

The healing of a man born blind is massively significant. And yet, this healing is not the main point. This healing demonstrates the will and the power of God to heal spiritual blindness. It is fitting then that Jesus and this man meet up again in verse 35.

35  Jesus heard that they had thrown him out, and when he found him, he said, “Do you believe in the Son of Man?” 36 “Who is he, sir?” the man asked. “Tell me so that I may believe in him.” 37 Jesus said, “You have now seen him; in fact, he is the one speaking with you.” 38 Then the man said, “Lord, I believe,” and he worshiped him.

The man who was healed of his physical blindness now gets healing for his spiritual blindness.

At first identification, the man born blind refers to his healer as “the man they call Jesus” (John 9:11). During their second encounter, however, the man confesses “Lord, I believe” and proceeds to worship Jesus.

Permit me to draw out one final aspect from this analogy of sight. Though the man’s sight was perfectly restored, there would have been many things he would have been incapable of identifying. The man would need help comprehending what he was now seeing. He would need someone to help him to identify landmarks and the various species of animals, insects, and birds. He could see, but the work of discovery still lay ahead.

Friends, if the Lord has healed your spiritual blindness, remember that the work of spiritual discovery remains.

Perhaps there are some who share my experience of reading the Bible before becoming a Christian and then reading it again after receiving Christ. I recall reading many passages after becoming a Christian and asking myself: “How did I not see that the first time?”

The answer: I was blind. I needed a cure for my spiritual blindness before I could see what the Bible was saying.

Now, it’s also possible that you don’t regard yourself as a seeing person, but rather you regard yourself as someone looking to learn more about Jesus and His claims. It’s possible that you are cognizant of your impaired vision and you are seeking healing. And maybe the Gospel looks like the intellectual equivalent to putting mud on your eyes….

But I want to encourage you: This is how Jesus heals. God uses humble means and a simple message to initiate healing. What is left is for us to wash the mud off of our eyes—what is left is for us to believe this Gospel.

Once we place our trust in Jesus, we will be able to confess with the man born blind, “I was blind, but now I see.” (John 9:25). And with new vision, the privilege of discovery awaits.

I don’t imagine that this healed man continued to beg for alms at the Temple gates. I don’t imagine that he went home and sat around his living room all day. I imagine this man became engrossed in discovering what he had missed seeing all of these years.

Similarly, if we are “seeing people” in the spiritual sense, we ought to be seeking to discover the beauty of Christ that we were previously missing. And so my challenge to you is to dig into the Scriptures with a view to discovering all that God is for us in Jesus.

If I were to generalize I would say to you that those who go to the Scriptures with impaired vision see religion, and those who go to the Scriptures with restored sight see a relationship.

Let’s engage in that relationship. Let’s go to Jesus. Let’s worship Him.

Getting The Message Out

Below is the sermon audio & the sermon notes of Bryn MacPhail. “Look, The Lamb Of God”, based on John 1:19-34, was preached at St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Kirk on January 16, 2011.

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In ancient days, before there was facebook, email, or text messaging, there were heralds.

Traveling dignitaries sent heralds ahead of them to announce their coming and to prepare the way for their visit.

John the Baptist was such a person—appointed by God to prepare the way for the King of Israel.

My understanding is that a herald typically traveled with such an impressive caravan, and was adorned in such extravagant apparel, that when they descended upon a town they were often mistakenly thought to be the king.

John the Baptist found himself in a similar situation in that the religious leaders of the day wondered whether he might be the Messiah foretold long ago by the prophets.

It is curious that such an inquiry would be made given that there was nothing outwardly attractive about John the Baptist.

John did not dress in robes of silk, but rather, Mark’s Gospel tells us that he “was clothed with camel’s hair” (Mk. 1:6). John the Baptist, who was crudely dressed, also had an unusual diet, consisting of “locusts and wild honey” (Mk. 1:7).

What was it then? What prompted the religious leaders to seek John out and to ask him if he was ‘the Christ’? Was it John’s ability to endear himself to people?

Certainly not! Do you remember John’s sermon introduction, recorded by Luke? John the Baptist begins his sermon with the words, “You brood of vipers, who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” (Lk. 3:7).

John’s clothing was crude, his diet was strange, and his message was harsh . . . and yet, there was something about this man that caused others to wonder if he might be the promised king of the Jews.

Responding to the inquiry, John the Baptist demonstrates for our edification a number of things.

1) First, in John the Baptist, we see the marks of a faithful messenger of God.
2) Secondly, we hear from John the marks of the central message from God.
3) And thirdly, as we survey John the Baptist’s ministry approach elsewhere, we note the urgency of making the central message known.

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Understand The Gospel

On April 11, I began a message series at St. Giles Kingsway and The Well entitled, “Parting Words From Your Pastor”. In that I will be transitioning to St. Andrew’s Kirk in Nassau, Bahamas at the beginning of June, I wanted to leave my congregation here with what I regard to be the 5 messages most vital to their spiritual wellbeing.

Message number one is, “Understand The Gospel”.

I understand that much more is required than simply understanding the Gospel. We must also believe the Gospel, we need to be living out the Gospel, and we need to be passing the Gospel message on.

My thinking behind this particular emphasis is that if we have a thorough understanding of the Gospel there will inevitably be an overflow where we will have a growing inclination to live out the Gospel and to share the Gospel with others.

So where in Scripture do we turn to, if we want to understand the Gospel? My conviction is that studying a single passage of Scripture will not exhaust the depths of the glorious Gospel message. There is the sense in which every book of the Bible has a part to play in the Gospel orchestra. But if we have to choose one passage, where might we go? John 3:16 is undoubtedly the most popular summary verse for the Gospel. The Book of Romans is widely regarded as providing the most thorough treatment of the Gospel within a particular book. Looking for something shorter, however, I chose Ephesians 2 to provide the basis for my message, “Understand the Gospel”.

Within my message (the audio is available below) I outline what I discern to be the key components of the Gospel message. Rather than reproduce that outline here, I think it might be helpful instead to elaborate further on why I think understanding the Gospel is so vital for the follower of Christ.

If someone were to assert that believing the Gospel is more important than merely understanding the Gospel, there is a sense in which I would agree with them. 19th Century theologian, Charles Spurgeon, using the analogy of a starving man, notes that a hungry man does not wait until he understands the composition of his food before he eats. A starving man, once he discerns that the food before him will satisfy his hunger and not harm him, immediately indulges.

If the Gospel has the capacity to save and satisfy our souls apart from our fully comprehending it, why fuss over the fine theological details?

Staying with the analogy of food, my answer is that once we have tasted the Gospel our status changes. Having been fed by the Gospel, we take on a new responsibility to feed others with the message we have received (see 2Timothy 4:1-5). When we were starving we may not have needed to know the composition of the food that satisfied our hunger, but as a servant of Christ we do need to be able to recognize the authentic Gospel dish as it sits among a plethora of imitation dishes.

Thankfully, we’re not called to cook up this message. The Gospel has been perfectly prepared and is sufficiently conveyed within the Scriptures. Our task is simply to deliver what has already been prepared without making a mess on the way to the table.

Of course, serving the Gospel is far more important than serving a meal. But this is all the more reason to increase our familiarity with this soul transforming message.

If you have been fed by the Gospel message, I want to encourage you: Understand the Gospel so that you will be able to feed others.

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