By all accounts I am a stereotypical, standard, plain vanilla, suburban church pastor. And that’s pretty much what the ministry is like at our church: there is absolutely nothing hip or cutting-edge about us. We’re not a funky inner-city church plant. We don’t meet in a disused theatre.
We’re not close to any major tourist attraction. We haven’t started several networked extension services. We’re just a normal, suburban church. It is true that people say two of our pastors look like movie stars—but they mean Ben Stiller and Jack Black, so I’m not sure that really helps us in the attractional ministry stakes. (Having said that, they’re both better pastors than I am, so it is very handy to have them around.)
All the same, I think it’s instructive to reflect on how gospel-centred DNA drives the ministry practice in stereotypical vanilla suburban churches like mine—and quite possibly like yours.
Paul’s address to the Ephesian elders in Acts 20 suggests to me that the job of the pastor is threefold:
1. They must tell people they have to turn to God in repentance and put their faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. Paul declared the saving power of Jesus Christ to everyone:
I did not shrink from declaring to you anything that was profitable, and teaching you in public and from house to house, testifying both to Jews and to Greeks of repentance toward God and of faith in our Lord Jesus Christ. (Acts 20:20-21)
2. They must feed the sheep—that is, the flock of those who do put their faith in Jesus. Paul’s example was one of pouring himself out for the people he cared about, because Jesus cared for them:
Therefore I testify to you this day that I am innocent of the blood of all, for I did not shrink from declaring to you the whole counsel of God. Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood. (Acts 20:26-28)
3. They must protect the sheep by guarding the spiritual life of that flock. Paul knew that after his departure false teachers would arise to threaten the flock, so he charged the elders with their care:
I know that after my departure fierce wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; and from among your own selves will arise men speaking twisted things, to draw away the disciples after them. Therefore be alert, remembering that for three years I did not cease night or day to admonish every one with tears. (Acts 20:29-31)
This final speech of Paul to the Ephesians suggests to us that we do those things in the strength of God by means of the word of his grace: “And now I commend you to God and to the word of his grace, which is able to build you up and to give you the inheritance among all those who are sanctified” (Acts 20:32).
What does that translate to in practice at our church, St Mark’s? Nothing very revolutionary.
Acts reminds us that it’s God’s church we serve in, and our service is nothing if he doesn’t act. We pray in structured and unstructured ways, in large and small groups. We start the year with a prayer breakfast, and have a prayer meeting every month. The full-time staff pray together each Monday for specific prayer points collected on communication cards at church on Sundays, and the whole staff team pray together each Wednesday. We invest time in teaching people to lead prayers in church, to ensure as best we can that our Sunday prayers are not perfunctory. Finally, we have an email version of the old fashioned prayer chain, which we use, and it works.
We prioritize evangelism
Paul did not shrink from declaring the gospel and we don’t want to either. We prioritize evangelism by structuring it in. We have two programs of parish visitation each year, where the congregation gets out in the neighbourhood, knocking on doors.
The evangelism course Christianity Explained runs ‘formally’ three to four times a year—well, it’s in the church calendar that often. What usually happens in practice is that the offer of the ‘formal’ class inevitably leads to opportunities to go through the sessions ‘informally’ in a one-to-one or one-to-two setting. We specifically and personally invite people to do it, and encourage our people to invite a non-Christian friend to do the course with them.
We do pray each week for the work of the gospel around the world and our link mission partners, but in all honesty we need to get better at supporting them.
We talk about people
We are told to pay attention to all the flock. Ministry is about the conversion and growth of people, not programs or structures. In light of that, the full-time staff go through the congregational rolls each Monday afternoon, talking about how people are going, where there might be things to be actioned, and what conversations need to be had. Then we pray about the things people have asked us to pray about.
When we are planning how we as a church and individually will be engaged in evangelism, we think about who the specific people are that we want to invite, and factor them into the planning. We try to build or shape our ministries as a church around appropriately gifted people, and equip them as best we can for those roles.
We invest in Bible teaching
The Word is what we must feed the sheep. Our preachers give one another regular and specific feedback. In particular, we give extensive feedback to student pastors. We also invest heavily in training our small group leaders (we call them ‘growth group’ leaders), aiming to put resources into their hands that help them minister to others, such as GoThereFor.com.
Each week at church there is a question time, to ensure that people have an opportunity to clarify and to further apply God’s word to specific situations. It also helps ensure that we preachers don’t get to skate over any tricky bits. We invest in Bible teaching, but we also guard it carefully—we don’t let weak preachers into the pulpit unless there is a whopping great (metaphorical) L plate around their neck because it is part of their training.
We hold people accountable to what the Bible teaches
The church is the flock of a holy God and so must hunger for holiness. We encourage our people to see all of what the Bible teaches as the good and true gift of a gracious God. We don’t leave out the ‘hard bits’ or ‘the culturally dissonant bits’, and we don’t soften them. When people are living inconsistently with what the Bible teaches we call people out on it, because God’s way is best. As part of that we don’t just speak the positive bits of the message: we also warn people of spiritual dangers. We don’t just tell them what is true, but also what is false.
We admit our mistakes and apologize for them
When other people hold us accountable to what the Bible teaches, we admit we were wrong and apologize. We do this because Christ is the only good shepherd, and we are frequently very mediocre under-shepherds.
I’d be very surprised if there was much that was news to any other pastor. None of it is very unique or special. There is nothing in what I’ve written above that looks like a silver bullet or a game-changing idea. That’s because we’ve become firmly convicted that the gospel is the silver bullet. The gospel is the game changer.
And so we tend to be very disinterested in the latest program, resource, methodology, strategy, or guru. We’re much more interested in the gospel as the source of our preaching, ministry, lives, and relationships.
The apostle Peter makes it clear that “His divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us to his own glory and excellence” (2 Pet 1:3). We have what we need to do ministry effectively in the glorious gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ. What we should therefore do is act like that’s true, and not look for the silver bullet elsewhere—God has already given it to us.