I recently had someone come to see me who was struggling in their church. In all honesty it would have been hard to be more depressed by what they had to say. I had very little sympathy with their complaints and said if they wanted affirmation I was the wrong man to come to, but in response to them I give you 6 ways to discourage your minister in the New Year:
1. Be there irregularly and be unreliable – Maybe attend 2 out of 4 services, sometimes 3 out of 4, but make sure it’s irregular. Nothing depresses ministers like people not being in church. The other thing to do is, when you’re asked about it, be defensive, clearly show to the person who’s asking that you’re ok and it’s no big deal; the church should be grateful you are there at all. If you’re asked to do something, or are on a rota, try to pull out as late as possible or even just not show up.
2. Grumble, moan and complain – This is an obvious one but when you speak to people about church make them aware how unhappy you are, how unfriendly folk are, how the church isn’t focussed on you and people like you, that you don’t get much out of the preaching, songs are not good, nobody cares and throw in ‘It’s not just me that feels like this’. Compare and contrast with other churches who do things better, preferably bigger churches that have more resources.
3. Focus on minutiae of church life – Chairs, coffee, timings of meeting, musicians, rotas, publicity.
4. Speak to others in the congregation but not the leadership – This way word gets back to the leadership through others, ‘Some people are saying…..’ ordinarily this is normally one person but nobody likes to name names so will couch it in the plural.
5. When you come to church try to arrive late and leave as soon as possible – It’s really difficult to catch folk who come late and leave immediately after the service. By doing this you’re not giving people the opportunity to speak into your life but it does allow you to use the ‘No one really speaks to me’ line.
6. Take things personally – If there’s an invitation that you didn’t get, a notice that was given that was poorly worded, an email that didn’t mention you, a thanks that was given by someone in church leadership that overlooked you, a joke that you didn’t appreciate, someone who didn’t get to speak to you on a particular Sunday – make sure you take these as a personal slight and hold on to it.
On the positive side of this have a watch of Ligon Duncan – How to encourage your Pastor
Stuart Cashman sent me this yesterday and I thought it made some valid points. Stuart is my colleague in IPC and the Minister of Immanuel, Brentford
Say not, “Why were the former days better than these?”
For it is not from wisdom that you ask this. (ESV)
“Christmas is our biggest evangelistic opportunity of they year…”
That is the line I’ve heard all my adult life. It is the line I’ve used with my congregations in the three churches in which I have served over the last 15 years in paid ministry.
However, it is a line I no longer believe. I’ve finally decided I need to point out what I suspect we all really know in our heart of hearts: Christmas is not our biggest evangelistic opportunity of the year in 21st Century London, nor probably in most of the UK.
And in case anybody accuses me of doing what the Preacher tells us not to do in Ecclesiastes 7:10, I also want to say this is not necessarily a bad thing. Rather it should be a call to us to get back to our theology and live it out fully.
I should also preface all this by saying that is is entirely anecdotal and subjective. I have done no qualitative research on this at all!
Here are some of the problems with thinking Christmas is our biggest evangelistic opportunity.
- Getting someone to a carol service is not the same as communicating the gospel with them meaningfully.
Even when people did want to come to carol services, they came for all sorts of reasons. Often these were a mixture of nostalgia (“It makes me feel all Christmassy”), tradition, (“I always did this a child, and we always had pigs in blankets with our turkey”), love of music and aesthetics (“That was a wonderful carol concert!” – a line I heard every year after the beautiful carol services we put on in a previous church served in), or simply to be sociable and have an evening with friends.
Whatever their reasons, they weren’t really in a position or mood to hear a message about sin and redemption. They were really only ever likely to want to tune in to a “feel good” message no matter how hard we tried to preach the gospel.
My evidence for this is how few people I know of signed up for Christianity Explored courses and such like over the years after carol services. Of course, there were exceptions, but I’ll come to those later.
2. A Carol Service is just one of variety of “Christmas Experiences” on offer, and it now feels a lot less Christmassy to most people than having an Egg Nog Latte or going to Santa’s Grotto.
In London at least, by the time Halloween is out of the way and November starts, shops are full of Christmas stuff, coffee shops are selling their seasonal drinks, and people are booking all their “Christmassy” experiences. They’ll take their kids to Santa’s Grotto, Lapland (near Ascott, not near Helsinki), ensure they are ready for the school Christmas shows, or music group concerts. Other adults are looking for the best Christmas markets, diaries are being filled with Christmas parties, for work, for the Tennis Club etc, then there’s all the shopping to do, the relatives who drop in at short notice….. the list is nearly endless.
In the midst of all the “festive fun”, the music, the lights, the tastes and smells, an invitation to a carol service is just one of a hundred “Christmassy” offers out there. In a competitive market, it only has an appeal for certain folks. And even then, its not as much of an appeal as it was even five years ago.
My evidence for this is the number of people we invited who said they’d come but then didn’t. It wasn’t malicious on their part. It was just other things came up, and at the end of the day a carol service just wasn’t as important to them as seeing the reindeer or the Christmas lights in town, or whatever it was. Which leads on to my next point…
3. Fewer and fewer people in the UK have a tradition or background of going to church at Christmas.
I’ve known this for ages of course, but it came home to me afresh this year. I heard two young men (aged 18 & 24) having a discussion. One asked the other, “Do you go to church at Christmas?” to which the older one replied with some shock, “No! Why?” His incredulity was not because he is a staunch atheist deeply opposed to Christianity. Rather, it was as if he didn’t understand the whole nature of question. It would have made just as much sense if the younger man had asked him, “Do you go fly fishing at Christmas?” “No! I never go fly fishing, so why would I do it at Christmas???!!!”
We need to face the facts that for an increasing majority in this country, especially the younger generation, Jesus Christ has as much to do with Christmas as fly fishing or sun bathing or …. (pick your own random activity). So why would someone suddenly go to church when they don’t go at any other time of year?
I have reached the ripe old age of 45. When I was a child in the Scottish Borders, most people would go to church or a school carol service each year. That is simply no longer the case, nor has it been I suspect for most people in the UK under the age of about 25 (I have not statistical evidence for this so I maybe wrong!). I fear that with our Carol services and Christmas outreach we are ready to reach the culture as it was 10+ years ago, not today.
So am I falling in to the trap Ecclesiastes warns us against, lamenting the past and sliding into doom and gloom? No! I’m reminding myself to come back to what we truly believe the bible teaches about God, the gospel and our universal human need.
- The Universal Human Need
The surge in popularity of the Christmas Jumper, strangely, points to this. What is the point of a Christmas jumper? Isn’t it to make people laugh (and maybe provide a bit of warmth)? In the midst of the darkness of the world and this time of year, there is a need for people to party. Recently, an Irish priest called for Christians to find a new word for “Christmas” because Christmas has been “hijacked”. He went on to add, “But non-believers deserve and need their celebration too, it’s an essential human dynamic and we all need that in the toughness of life.”
While I don’t agree with him about finding another word for Christmas, he is right to observe everyone needs a time to celebrate.
But isn’t that exactly what as Christians we should be doing? We have something to celebrate! To us, a Child is born, to us a son is given and the government will be on his shoulders, and of the increase of his government and of peace there shall be no end. The zeal of the Lord of hosts will accomplish this.”
In the way we celebrate Christmas we need to show – as churches, in our families and as individuals – that we have something bigger and better to celebrate than mere escapism.
2. The Gospel
The gospel is still true.
Jesus Christ, the eternal Son of God became a tiny human infant, born in poverty with a trough for a crib. He was a refugee as an infant before, growing up in an occupied territory in the Middle East. Having made the universe in the beginning, he ended up making tables for a living; having had a throne in heaven, he had no where to lay his head on earth; having been worshipped by angels he was rejected by his own people and betrayed by his friends; having raised the dead he willingly succumbed to death himself. On the third day, God the Father raised him to life again and set him as the God-man on the throne of heaven. There to this day, he prays for his people, rules over all things for the sake of his Church, extends his rule as the gospel goes into the world, and waits until all his enemies are a footstool for his feet.
He did all this to redeem for himself rebels and sinners, to make them his perfect bride, and to establish a whole new creation for all who will believe in Him and bow to him. So as his people, we are to long for his return in glory and live as those who expect it by proclaiming this message and living lives shaped by it.
This is the only message that connects with our deep, universal, human need. However popular or unpopular carol services are, this is the message that we need to communicate with our words and show we believe by our lives and worship together as churches.
Therefore, evangelism is not a once year foray into the world to invite people into our carol services. Rather it is a daily investment in our communities, our workplaces, and our neighbours, out of love for them and love for Christ.
As Paul told the church in Colossi (Colossians 4:2, 5-6)
Continue steadfastly in prayer, being watchful in it with thanksgiving. … Walk in wisdom toward outsiders, making the best use of the time. Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you ought to answer each person. (ESV)
One of the things that encouraged me this Christmas is that the guests who did come to our carol service were, by and large, people who previously had some contact with the church. One had come to a parenting seminar. Others had come to a summer barbecue. It struck me it is th faithful “walking in wisdom towards outsiders” the other 364 days of the year that meant some were willing to come to a carol service. Now we need to let our “speech be gracious, seasoned with salt” so we can carry on those conversations.
When I think about people who have signed up for Christianity Explored courses after carol serves over the years, it is because they had meaningful relationships with Christians who lived wise lives before them (usually at work).
As I think back to carol services past, we invested huge amounts of time and energy in them as if somehow we actually thought people would respond to the gospel because our music was so good, our preaching so engaging, our mulled wine so tasty, that people would fall down on their knees and cry, “Surely God is in this place!”
Alas, it never happened like that.
However, if we remembered that no one comes to Christ like that, we shouldn’t have been surprised! What does it take for anyone to come to Christ? 2 Corinthians 4:4–6
[T]he god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God. For what we proclaim is not ourselves [with our wonderful music, our eloquent preaching, or our fantastic Christmas hospitality], but Jesus Christ as Lord, with ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake. For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.
All we need is a miracle, which is what we all needed to believe in the first place. So lets pray on for that miracle and remember we are co-workers with God as he builds his church.
So am I saying we should give up on Christmas? No, not all! I loved our carol service. Members of our church worked hard to decorate the school hall so it looked beautiful (really!). The musicians did a fantastic job, the folks providing the food produced 5 different types of soup, loads of bread, tables laden with mince pies, stollen, Christmas cake and all sorts of other goodies (gluten-free and ‘normal’), mulled wine (alcoholic and non-alcoholic), and I preached as clearly and winsomely as I could. And I can guarantee that all the people the Lord wanted there were there, and his word will not return to him void but will have achieved the purposes for which he sent it out.
We billed the service as a “celebration or lessons and carols” and we began with a call to worship, because after all, our carol service is not a concert to entertain our guests, it is a service of worship to glory and please our God. Our guests are very welcome, as they are every week, but they are not the primary audience, merely onlookers. I believe God was glorified through it, and that was the intention for course.
I hope next year we’ll do pretty much the same. I also hope and pray that in the meantime in 2018 we will “walk in wisdom” before our neighbours and colleagues as we wait for the appearing of our Lord and Saviour. This should mean investing in their lives, loving them so much we share with him not only the gospel of God (and invitations to events) but our very selves (1 Thess. 2:8)
May he, in his grace, build his kingdom even though us, and not just at Christmas but from January to November as well. Christmas may not be what is used to be, but if the causes us to reflect and faithfully live out the gospel for the rest of the year, that is not bad thing.
Alun Ebenezer was my best man, he’s the Headmaster of Fulham Boys School and author of a couple of really helpful books from EP – ‘Revelation‘ and ‘And they crucified Him’. Alun has a great gift for being able to take the complex and profound doctrines of Scripture and make them accessible and fresh. He’s written a piece for Evangelical Magazine on the Childhood of Jesus – “Like us Jesus had to grow up”. The Evangelical Magazine have had to edit it but it’s really worth reading it in full hence me putting it on here……
Like us Jesus had to grow up
Someone who knows
Growing up in today’s world is hard. It’s a time of big changes. Hormones kick in and there’s the strain of having to contend with social media, peer pressure, the need to be cool, exam stress, insecurity and society’s relentless demand to be successful. It can all seem a bit much and young people can feel that no one knows, as Amy McDonald sung, ‘a single thing about the youth of today’.
But there is someone who knows; knows exactly what is to grow up in this fallen, broken world. The Son of God who thought it not robbery to be equal with God (Philippians 2.6), 2000 years ago humbled himself, made himself of no reputation (Philippians 2.7, 8), became flesh and dwelt among us (John 1.14). For 33 years he learned what it is like to be you and me; to be a baby, a toddler, a child and an adolescent.
Even though nearly all of the first 30 years of Jesus’ life are hidden, from what we know of the geography, history, culture and religion of Israel at that time, as well as the glimpses we get from the biblical accounts, we can build a picture of what it would have been like for Jesus growing up.
Your postcode doesn’t matter
He grew up in a place called Nazareth, an isolated town of about 1500 people in Galilee. It was made up of the middle-upper peasant class and a place renowned for its roughness, wildness and wickedness (John 1.46; Luke 4.29).
He was the eldest of at least 7, probably lived near his grandparents and cousins (Mark 6.4) and had friends, neighbours and acquaintances all around. His home life would have been simple and it would appear the family were close and devout (Luke 2.41). He would have spoken Aramaic and probably had a distinctive accent (Matthew 26.73; Acts 2.7). He learnt a trade from his father who was a carpenter and spent his time doing building and repair work around Nazareth.
Maybe you are from a deprived background, have got it tough. Don’t feel ashamed of it or hide it or use it as any kind of excuse. Jesus was a working class boy who grew up in a working class area surrounded by working class people. As a church we need to ensure we are no respecters of persons (Acts 10.34). Christianity isn’t just for the middle classes, university students and professionals.
Obedience and duty
At the age of 12, on his first trip to Jerusalem for the Passover, Jesus’ parents lost him for three days. At such an important festival time there would have been several famous Jewish teachers at the feast, and when his frantic parents eventually found him he was among these teachers who were all amazed at his understanding and answers. Having just shown them and others his brilliance you might think that Jesus would now spend the rest of his education in preparation for his public ministry by studying under the teachers at the Temple in Jerusalem, the centre of Jewish religion and politics. He could have had access to its history, law courts, libraries and the leaders who lived there. But he doesn’t. Despite his parents no longer being able to understand him, he returns submissively to Nazareth with them (Luke 2.50, 51)
Furthermore, the reason he delayed his entry into public life was possibly because his father died when he was young. As the oldest in the family he took over his father’s responsibilities until the next brother, James, was sufficiently mature to take over. Jesus obeyed his parents and did his duty.
He was subject to his parents when they were imperfect and he was perfect (Luke 2.51). We should definitely do the same. In our culture it is almost a given that teenagers rebel. But none of us have the right to break the fifth commandment no matter what our friends or hormones tell us. Independence, thinking for yourself, trying and failing are all part of growing up. However, stubbornness, rebellion and disobedience are not. Honouring our parents is not an option just for those who like mam and dad. We don’t just listen to them when it suits us or when we agree with what they say. Unless parents command what God forbids (Acts 5.29) we should obey them.
This respect for our parents should also extend to older people and those in positions of authority (1 Peter 5.5). In our day and age we seldom think, ‘this person is older and probably has something to teach me’ but rather ‘this person is older and out of date’. We should not think our generation knows it all.
The Bible says he increased in strength and stature (Luke 2.52). Lots of the images of Jesus depict him as weak, pale and anaemic but these are wrong. He must have grown into a strong commanding figure. He was a useful assistant to Joseph in the carpenter’s shop and must have had a lot of energy and resilience that enabled him later on in life to travel on foot for long journeys, and preach for hours, while having no home to retire to at the end of the day for rest and seclusion. He was in constant demand but kept giving of himself (Mark 10.46; John 12.1-2 cf. 12.12). He got up very early to pray and then did a busy day’s work (Mark1.35; Luke 4.42). He endured 40 days in the wilderness with all its strain and stress and had the ability to go without food when his work required (John 4.31). He must have been strong and healthy to endure the sufferings and agonies of his final night and day.
All this points to the fact that he must have had a right attitude to his own body, and that wholesome Biblical attitude must be ours too. As a Christian our bodies are the temple of the Holy Spirit which means he takes up residence in them. While we shouldn’t idolize our bodies, it is important we look after them. We should eat well, keep fit, play sport, get plenty of fresh air and not abuse our bodies with alcohol, nicotine or drugs.
The Lord Jesus didn’t have all the answers as a baby and just waited 30 years before starting his ministry. He developed like any other normal child.
Jesus’ education would have begun with his mother in the home. Through the mezuzah attached to the doorpost, the weekly Sabbath meal and the festivals throughout the Jewish year, he would have learned about the history of his family, his tribe, his people, his nation and his God.
He observed life and saw first-hand the joys, sorrows, wants and sufferings of the busy multitude. He saw sin, iniquity, self-indulgence and hypocrisy and was grieved, shocked and eager to remedy it. It would seem from the vividness of his parables that what he saw and heard and experienced growing up he brought into his teaching – the beauty of the lilies, birds, the work of shepherds, the habit of the fox, marriage customs, playing in the market, funeral rites, tax collectors; maybe the illustration of the lamp brought in to be put under a bed catch a glimpse of his Nazareth home at night.
Studying, being interested and learning about culture and people and the world are important. Instead of spending all our time watching reality TV shows, playing on game consoles, being on social media with ear phones constantly plugged into our heads, we need to have a good knowledge of history and geography; an appreciation of the arts, literature and music; be bi-lingual, numerate and literate; try to understand technology and science and how things work; understand what people believe and why they act in the way they do, be able to question these beliefs critically, including society’s values and culture, and know how to do that in the right way. As well as growing in wisdom and stature, Jesus grew in favour with God and man (Luke 2.52). As we contend and stand up for our faith, we should do so as winsomely as we know how.
Most important of all
Jesus learned to read (Luke 4.16-17) and write (John 8.6) and from the age of 5 would have been taught the Torah at the synagogue as well as from his father. As he sat on the floor with the other boys in the synagogue or school house, the chazzan or officer of the synagogue, taught him the law. He would have started with Leviticus, moved to other parts of the Pentateuch and then onto the prophets. The attendant who handed him the scroll in Luke 4.17 might very well have been the one who had taught him to read. It was as he read the scriptures in Hebrew (Matthew 5.18; Luke 16.17) and grew in knowledge and understanding of them he learned about himself and realised the types and shadows he read about were pointing towards him. As he grew up fully human it also dawned on him more and more that he was the Son of God, the Saviour of the world.
He had came into this world to do a job; a job only he could do and one that would absorb him completely (Luke 2.49). This perfect child grew up into a perfect man, was nailed to a Roman cross on a rubbish tip just outside the city walls of Jerusalem. He became our substitute, taking upon himself all our guilt and sin, turned away the wrath of a holy God and shed his blood that the vilest offender who trusts him can know forgiveness, peace with God and the hope of Heaven.
As we grow and try to navigate our way through this world, like the Lord Jesus Christ we should learn the scriptures and pray. It will teach us about God, ourselves, sin, the judgement to come, heaven and hell, our need to be saved and through mixing it with faith, come to know and trust the only one who can save us: the perfect boy who grew in wisdom and stature, the Lord Jesus Christ. If we make the Word of God our rule in belief and practice then no matter what we face in life, with all its difficulties and challenges, the favour of God will be upon us, working all things for our good.
Go to him
So far more than just looking to the Lord Jesus as our example, we can go to him for salvation and help. He now represents us before God as our great high priest and does it as one of us. The one who is sat down next to God remembers what it was like when his body changed, when he obeyed his parents in that modest home, had siblings, played on the streets of that rough northern Israeli town. Jesus Christ is in Heaven but as I pray to him from my bedroom or work or in Church or wherever, he remembers exactly what it is like to be me and pleads my cause before God.
Maybe you are in a mess, feel no one understands you and have no one to turn to. Perhaps you have to face and go through things that are overwhelming. There’s a real man in Heaven who was once a baby, a toddler, a boy, an adolescent, a man, who knows you and invites you today to cast all your care upon him because he cares for you. Go to him with your heavy burdens and he will give you rest. Moreover, Jesus Christ lived his life in the power of the Holy Spirit and God has promised to give that same Spirit to all of us who ask him (Luke 11.13). Go to him today and then keep going to him. You will find mercy for past failures and grace to help you (Hebrews 4.16).