Well, January finished with multiple colds and sleepless nights in our household, so this series has spilled over. My last post reflected on university. This post reflects on a year where my understanding was corrected in one really important way – when for the first time I really saw that Christian ministry was about people.
Put like that it sounds really pretty obvious, but somehow I had effectively ended up believing that it was about information, and getting information into people’s heads. So I organised my time so that I would be involved in lots of different ways of getting information about the gospel into people’s heads. I worked 9-5, but managed to fill Tuesday-Friday nights (and often Saturday too) with various different groups (20-30s at church, Crusaders (youth group), international student ministry, and Crusaders again).
It wasn’t that I didn’t have a concern for these people, and I think especially at Crusaders I did have a real involvement in lives, but subconsciously my attitude was: these people need better understanding, and if I teach truth really well they will get it. Therefore to be most effective I need to be teaching most truth. No one had ever said this to me specifically, but it was what I had absorbed – probably due to the complex mixture of things I was taught and things I observed in others all filtered through my particular personality.
Did I mention I’m also an off the scale introvert? Funnily enough by the end of the year I was exhausted and knew something had to give. I gave up the international student work, and due to fortuitous circumstances had one less meeting from my other two commitments. But it was still a scaling back with the aim of getting more information into people. At the end of that year I gave up my job, and did a course for the following year all about teaching the bible. I got involved in a great church, and met some wonderful people, but still it was all primarily – in my head – about teaching information.
After a while of worrying about what next I ended up working for a church for a year, and it was here I made my great discovery. It began with real puzzlement. The vicar of the church said that his favourite book of the bible was 1 Thessalonians. I was confused. Surely he meant Ephesians. Or at least Romans. 1 Thessalonians doesn’t have the same lofty meaty soaring theology. It’s just a brief practical note, with a useful bit at the end about Jesus return (I thought).
Then I got involved in the church. I sat in on staff meetings praying through the church address book. I watched as the Curate led an enthusiastic group of retired folk through a manuscript bible study in Titus and a theology course – all the while loving them, and being loved by them. I watched the youth work team running groups for teenagers from the local council estate. I saw the associate vicar take people though Christianity Explored, and train others in leadership, all the while coping with two small girls – I always wondered why he always seemed tired – I know now! Every other week I prepared a session in Christian basics for two 14 year old boys at the local comprehensive – the other weeks were led by a retired teacher who had been at the school before – coming back in each week for the Christian group at the school.
In the midst of that the penny dropped with regard to 1 Thessalonians. It was about Paul and his love for the church, the church he founded, the church he loved and cared for, that would be his glory and crown on the day of Christ Jesus. The church most fundamentally that he had shared the gospel of God and his life with – in fact that Paul and his team had shared their lives with. That is what I learnt that year. Christian ministry is done by teams of people sharing their lives with others. The gospel has to be both taught and lived. Timothy, after all, is told to watch his life and doctrine closely.
So when I moved back to my home town I moved churches to a smaller church where I could know people more easily. I found myself both wonderfully taught and wonderfully cared for – especially as it was impossible to get out of the door without being collared (in the nicest possible way) by the pastor. As I became involved in Crusaders once more, it was with a new determination to love and care for the small group I co-led – to build relationships and pray for them – and yet also a new freedom to be myself rather than worrying about my lack of “coolness”.
There wasn’t an obvious hymn to choose for this stage of life and learning – but I think this one by William Cowper has a rare attention to the congregation of Christians – it was apparently written for a meeting John Newton was preaching at in Kettering.
Jesus, where’er Thy people meet,
There they behold Thy mercy seat;
Where’er they seek Thee Thou art found,
And every place is hallowed ground.
For Thou, within no walls confined,
Inhabitest the humble mind;
Such ever bring Thee, where they come,
And, going, take Thee to their home.
Dear Shepherd of Thy chosen few,
Thy former mercies here renew;
Here, to our waiting hearts, proclaim
The sweetness of Thy saving Name.
Here may we prove the power of prayer
To strengthen faith and sweeten care;
To teach our faint desires to rise,
And bring all Heav’n before our eyes.
Behold at Thy commanding word,
We stretch the curtain and the cord;
Come Thou, and fill this wider space,
And bless us with a large increase.
Lord, we are few, but Thou art near;
Nor short Thine arm, nor deaf Thine ear;
O rend the heavens, come quickly down,
And make a thousand hearts Thine own!