Should I Stay or Should I Go?

All gospel ministers have had or will have to make a decision about where they will serve the Lord and his Church. They all face it at the beginning of their ministry when they take up their first charge and, while serving in one congregation, may have to consider invitations from another. How does one decide where to go or, if serving a congregation, whether one should stay or go?

Having recently read Allan Harman’s tantalising biography of Matthew Henry (here) I thought Matthew Henry’s experience might be helpful to some who are wrestling with these decisions. Matthew Henry served a congregation in the country, Chester, for 25 years before taking up a charge in northeast London, in Hackney. Our situations will not correspond precisely with his yet reading about some of the thoughts and actions that led to his decision to leave Chester might well help our decision making process.

  • Leaving one congregation for another is permissible. Occasionally when a minister is inducted into a congregation the new relationship is compared to a marriage. Coupling that with the knowledge that God hates divorce would seriously discourage any conscientious minister from considering another charge. Though using marriage language Henry saw it differently. “Though I think ministers married to their ministry, yet I cannot see any scripture ground to think they are married to their people.”
  • Ministers have no direct knowledge of God’s plan. Though some ministers are convinced that God specifically tells them where they should serve, Henry thought he had no direct insight into God’s plans. He prayed “that God would guide me with his eye, and lead me in a plain path”, even offering up “many prayers to God for direction”. On the morning of his decision he confessed to, “[h]aving this morning, (as often, very often before) begged of God to give me wisdom, sincerity, and humility, and to direct my thoughts and counsels. . .”. Despite wrestling with God he writes, “Had we an oracle to consult I could refer to the divine determination with so great an indifferency, that if it were referred to me, I would refer it back to God again.”
  • Affections should yield to judgement. Matthew Henry’s love for the congregation in Chester was evident. Before his actual change to Hackney he had received numerous invitations to minister elsewhere. He systematically rejected these solicitations “because he loved the people of Chester too well to leave them”. After an attempt by a congregation in Manchester to have him as their minister he wrote, “I cannot think of leaving Chester till Chester leaves me”. Even after he decided to move he writes: “and as to my affections, though they are very strong towards Chester, yet I think they ought to be overruled by my judgement”. Matthew Henry shows that it is possible to leave a congregation while still loving it deeply.
  • Write it down. Thirteen years before he went to Hackney he had declined their invitation to come and in the ensuing years had likewise refused requests to go elsewhere. When he finally acquiesced, he put down on paper his reasons for accepting the invite and mentions that earlier he had written down his reasons for continuing at Chester. He did this for his own benefit so that in the future he could review his grounds for leaving and assure himself that he had not made a rash decision. The discipline of putting pen to paper can help crystallise our thinking about such an important decision.
  • Watch providence. Though our reading of God’s ways cannot be infallible, Matthew Henry acknowledges that it figured in his decision. He mentions the many calls he had to leave Chester and, particularly, the many he had to Hackney though he had never, directly or indirectly, sought them. In fact, he writes that he discouraged Churches from calling him. He also cites that in the postal delivery the day he was intending to send his final refusal of the call, “Providence so ordered it” that he received a letter signed by many London ministers urging him to accept the call. This letter softened his resistance and led him to offer to serve the Hackney church for a six month trial. Though he assumed they would not agree to such a suspenseful suggestion, in the surprising providence of the Lord, they actually did. Hackney’s unanimous and “very pressing and importunate” invitation to Matthew Henry along with the fact that they were willing to wait so long for his decision was taken as an indication that he should accept their call. Providence, though not determinative, is helpful.
  • Consult widely. Matthew Henry received much unsolicited counsel but he also asked for the advice of many ministers. He presented the situation and they considered it and gave their advice. He mentions that none advised him to stay in Chester and many encouraged him to move to London. He indicates that his congregation at Chester, while obviously not expected to consent to his going, were pleased to leave the decision up to him, to follow his own conscience and affection. However, one of his biographers (J. B. Williams, The Lives of Philip and Matthew Henry, Banner of Truth, 1974), remarks that after he intimated his decision to leave, Henry had to endure the anger and incivility of some. Other Christians gave their input and he suggests that his wife also urged him to go. There is wisdom in appealing for the counsel of others who might be able to survey the situation more objectively.
  • Evaluate usefulness. It is clear that Matthew Henry’s concern was to be as useful to the cause of Christ as he could be. This required both an evaluation of his present usefulness in Chester and an attempt to gauge future usefulness in Hackney. Regarding his work in Chester he came to the tentative conclusion that his work had been in a great measure completed. He determined this because of some of the discouragements he had there in the ministry, including many long-time members having left the Church and very few being added to it. Matthew Henry thought that his ministry to his people in Chester might have lost its edge because they had heard him so long and so often. He assessed that his first seven years of ministry there had been the most effective and hoped that another minister, fresh to the people, might do even more good. He also admitted that though he had often preached in the country in places outwith Chester, his weakened health, exacerbated by riding long journeys, would confine his sphere of labour to his own congregation. On the other hand, he was assured that there would be increasing opportunity for usefulness in London. Though the congregation at Hackney was smaller than at Chester, in the metropolis there were more places to preach in and more hearers. He admits that this was “the main inducement” to move to London. What’s more, he was hopeful that because he was a fresh voice to the people in London, his “ministry may, by the blessing of God, be more useful now to those to whom they are new, than to those who have been long used to them, and so constantly.” It is should be mentioned that when he reflected on his usefulness he thought beyond his pulpit ministry. Being closer to the press would benefit his writing ministry, including his Expositions on the Bible. He was persuaded that the increased opportunity for further study and conversation with other learned men that London offered would improve his ministry. It is worth nothing that while Matthew Henry was not adverse to admitting his ministry might be useful, and though he was evidently sought after, he clearly considered himself inadequate and unable to meet people’s expectations.
  • Pray against pride. When he received a call to one congregation he writes, “I begged of God to keep me from being lifted up with pride by it.” It is a temptation to think more highly of ourselves than we ought when others are clamouring for our ministry, particularly when the appreciation of those you are currently ministering to is not as vocal. He wisely notes that pride can equally arise from refusing invitations to move since “[I]t has been looked on as the honour of ministers to continue in the same place, nothwithstanding temptations to remove”.

Discerning whether he should stay or go was an unpleasant and continually perplexing experience for Matthew Henry. In addition to the distractions of well-meaning invitations (J B Williams even questions whether calling a settled pastor, living happily among his own people, and not known even to be thinking of moving, can be reconciled to the command to love one’s neighbour) he also endured harsh criticism, including one anonymous enemy who did not wish him to “go to London, for he would do there more mischief than at Chester”. At one point he acknowledged that he brought some of this upon himself by visiting with the Church in London and “then I laid myself open to the temptation by increasing my acquaintance in the city”. Nor does it seem that making the decision to go to Hackney relieved his mental distress. Though he was prayerful and, as far as he knew himself, willing to go wherever the Lord would have him, and though he trusted he had a clear conscience, he writes: “Wherein I have done amiss, the Lord forgive me for Jesus’ sake, and make this change concerning the congregation to work for good to it”.

As it turned out, Matthew Henry did not have a long ministry in Hackney, dying 2 years later. When he accepted the call to Hackney he promised the congregation in Chester that he would return annually to preach to them. His last Lord’s day was spent in his former congregation in Chester. On his way back to London he took ill and died.

Tuesday Toolbox

A round up of some links this Tuesday:

 

Preacher School #6: Open the Windows! Thoughts on Illustrations.

Some preachers are offended when they think the only parts of their sermon that are remembered are their illustrations. But this should serve as a great compliment if those stories did what all good illustrations should do.

The purpose of an illustration is to clarify and help explain the truth of the text.  Illustrations are like an LED flashlight into a dark corner of your attic – you knew something was there but now you see it. They function like oil on the stiff gears of your push-mower – helping the listener to move smoothly through a text. They are windows that let in the light of meaning and the fresh air of understanding. They are like outlooks along the sermonic highway that allow the listener to pause and consider and enjoy the ground he has already travelled.

In that sense, the best illustrations (whether similes or stories or something else) will be so tied to the text that one will not be able to recall them without recalling the Truth they illuminate.

This means illustrations are not time-fillers, or a tool to “warm up the crowd.” Nor are they a means to draw attention to the world or the preacher! Instead they “colourize” the text and add flavours and layers that build the listener’s understanding and deepen his experience of the truth. Good illustrations are remembered because they are felt, they engage more of our senses than pure lecture. And if you illustrate Truth, then people are actually remembering Truth in the form of your illustration.

Jesus the Master Story-Teller

Jesus barely spoke without illustration. Our Lord was quick to engage all the aspects common to that culture. Consider just a quick glance through Mark 1-11:

  • Weddings and fasting 2:19
  • Patch on clothes 2:20
  • Wineskins 2:21
  • David and Abiathar 2:25
  • Naming people (like the Boanerges) 3:17
  • Civil war 3:25
  • Robbing a strong man 3:27
  • Family relations 3:35
  • Sower 4:1 (including soil types, growth patterns, weeds, etc)
  • Lamp under basket 4:21
  • Scatter seed then harvest grain 4:29
  • Mustard seed 4:30
  • Calms storm 4:39 (and all of His miracles!)
  • Hypocritical pot washing of Pharisees 7:1
  • Consumption and digestion (including excretion!) 7:14
  • Dogs eating under table 7:24
  • Leaven’s corrupting influence 8:14
  • Carry a cross 8:34
  • Servants and children 9:33
  • Amputation 9:43
  • Camels and eye of needle 10:24

Notice that Jesus left many of the conclusions to his stories unspoken. He expected the listener to work it out in his mind. His allusions always helped to make clear the main point he was getting across. He also spoke from a wide variety of experiences and vantage points, thus drawing in all types of listeners.

Jesus’ Prioritization of Story

Chronologically, he often told the story first, then followed it with an explanation and/or expected behavioral change/response. Think of the Four Soils or this event from Luke 14:7-11:

 Story –

Now he told a parable to those who were invited, when he noticed how they chose the places of honor, saying to them, “When you are invited by someone to a wedding feast, do not sit down in a place of honor, lest someone more distinguished than you be invited by him, and he who invited you both will come and say to you, ‘Give your place to this person,’ and then you will begin with shame to take the lowest place. But when you are invited, go and sit in the lowest place, so that when your host comes he may say to you, ‘Friend, move up higher.’ Then you will be honored in the presence of all who sit at table with you.

Explanation / Moral reform –

For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.”

Consider how more of Jesus’ stories and parables are recorded than his actual didactic teaching. People remembered the stories and what they intended to communicate.  Also consider that there has never been a better preacher than Jesus.

Where to Find Illustrations

The best illustrations are from your own experiences, observations and reading.

Personal Experience –

“Trust , again, is selected as the instrument of salvation because it has wonderful power over the heart of God. Marvelous is the influence of trust . I have aforetime illustrated this to you by the power which faith has over us, mortal men. I will venture to tell you an old story, which you have heard from me before. I cannot recollect anything better, and you must bear with a repetition. I once lived where my neighbour’s garden was only divided from me by a very imperfect hedge. He kept a dog, and his dog was a shockingly bad gardener, and did not improve my beds. So one evening, while I walked alone, I saw this dog doing mischief, and being a long way off I threw a stick at him, with some earnest advice as to his going home. This dog, instead of going home, picked up my stick and came to me with it in his mouth, wagging his tail. He dropped the stick at my feet, and looked up to me most kindly. What could I do but pat him and call him a good dog, and regret that I had ever spoken roughly to him? Why, it brings tears into my eyes as I talk about it! The dog mastered me by his trust in me. The illustration is to the point. If thou wilt trust God as that dog trusted me, thou wilt overcome. God will be held by thy trust in such a way that He could not smite thee, but must accept thee for Jesus’ sake. If thou dost trust Him, thou hast the key of His heart, the key of His house, the key of His heaven. If thou canst trust thy God in Jesus Christ, thou hast become a son of God. I see a philosophy in the choice of faith: do you not?[1]

A good rule here to guard your humility and help your sheep is to make sure that 90% of your stories about your own life highlight your failings or in some way expose your frailty.

Observations –

What does nature teach you? David compared the HSD of God to height of the heavens. Look at the flowers in summer, so beautiful, but soon to disappear under the weight of snow. Why do stars twinkle? How far away is our moon? Why do certain people act certain ways? Learn to ask questions of everything that is happening around you and then try to relate it to some Biblical idea. This is a rather fun exercise at any time!

Reading –

There are plenteous illustrations found in books. Mark them as you read them. Leave markings in the margins or front cover to identify them later on. Don’t read the news only to fill your brain with triviality, learn to look for stories that display what the Bible teaches.

Variety in Illustration

Illustrations may be long or short, at best they will be varied through the sermon.

  • Long – see dog story
  • Short – simile and such (as quick as a rabbit, deeper than the ocean, yelled like an angry auctioneer, etc)

We must also avoid illustrating from the same old area of personal interest. I could illustrate almost anything from the Toronto Maple Leafs, but this would get very old very fast. This requires us to be constantly learning about new things. Read the news. Check out books from the library on topics you have no interest in. Read fiction. Try to learn about people’s jobs when you are out and about. Listen to their life stories. Ask old people to tell you about their lives. Journal your life.

Suitability

The best way to know if your illustrations work is to try them in advance on someone. Talk it out in fellowship with a brother and see if it helps him to understand. What good is a window that does not open? It does not let in the air! What good is a window if it is cracked? It distorts the view!

Work hard at your illustrations to ensure they accomplish what they set out to do; build clean windows.

Some Pitfalls to Avoid in Illustrating

  • Liking an illustration and using it even though it does not fit the text thus making the text say something it does not.
  • Repeating the same old “ringer”
  • Exaggerating to make the story better than reality
  • Spending more time illustrating than actually explaining the text
  • Telling a story that has no specific connection to the text
  • Assuming parts of the illustration are commonly understood and thus leaving out the key to the whole thing
  • Not doing enough or having too many
  • Speaking with authority about something you do not understand – FACT CHECK!
  • Speaking in the first person about something that did not happen to you – that is called lying, not illustrating.

 

Tim Keller’s Five Questions To Ask Any Bible Passage

It can be hard work to unearth the original meaning of a text. Sometimes it is even harder to discern the contemporary application.

Tim Keller offers us a little help. Here are five questions Tim Keller uses to help think through how the text applies today:

1. How can I praise him?

2. How can I confess my sins on the basis of this text?

3. If this is really true, what wrong behavior, what harmful emotions or false attitudes result in me when I forget this? Every problem is because you have forgotten something. What problems are you facing?

4. What should I be aspiring to on the basis of this text?

5. Why are you telling me this today?

HT: David Cooke

Tuesday Toolbox

Some highlights from around the web this Tuesday:

“Observing preachers through the years, I am convinced this is the secret “genius,” so to speak, of great preaching.  A man of authentic humaneness, goodness, Jesus-like-ness, might not be a doctoral-level exegete, he might not be rhetorically sophisticated, but that man’s preaching will be compelling because he is compelling.  Something is flowing out of him, something of Jesus himself.  The preacher’s good heart, his core being, is well stocked with insights into and personal experiences of the living Christ. “

  • An interesting interview with the man behind Monergism. Pray for this brother and the excellent work he is doing for the kingdom.

A “Great Commission” Composition

I am preaching through the book of Acts right now.  The text of Luke’s account of the early church is stunning — when I am able to read it with fresh eyes.  Jesus ascends.  The Spirit descends.  Timid disciples become empowered ambassadors for Christ and His gospel.  It is an exciting read.

This week my preparation is easier, because I am preaching someone else’s sermon.

“What??  Plagiarist!  Someone notify Colin!”

Just a moment, Internet.  In this case, I am happy to preach another man’s sermon.  Acts Chapter 2 records Peter’s sermon at Pentecost, and it is a preacher’s dream text.  I get to read Peter’s points, and preach them.

Here’s what strikes me:  As I studied Peter’s sermon (and Luke’s commentary on the events surrounding it), I heard echoes from Christ’s commission to his disciples, as recorded by Matthew:

  •  And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make    disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you  always, to the end of the age. (Matthew 28:18-20) 

Peter’s first sermon was a magnificent application of this command to “make disciples.”  Here’s just a few snippets:

“… make disciples”
After the sermon is complete, we see that Peter had larger aims than just “stating his case” or just explaining the signs and wonders announcing the Spirit’s arrival.  Upon hearing his message, his hearers were “cut to the heart” and asked what they must do to be saved.  In 2:38, Peter says, “Repent and be baptized …”  A person becomes a disciple of Christ by first recognizing their fundamental need for the redemption that only Christ can provide.  But then 2:40 tell us, “and with many more words he bore witness and continued to exhort them.”  Peter was not out to get names on a “decision card.”  He was making disciples of Jesus.  So, the only people who were baptized were “those who received his word” (2:41).   The purpose of this article is not to debate infant/credo baptism.  The purpose is just to show that Peter knew his commission was to make “disciples” by “baptizing them” and “teaching them.”

“… of all nations”
I just find it interesting that 2:5 describes the crowd gathering around the disciples at Pentecost as “devout men from every nation under heaven.”  The disciples would soon go to the “ends of the earth” but for now, the ends of the earth had come to Jerusalem.  The text tells us that these were Jews from every nation.  But the gospel would soon go forth to both Jews and Gentiles.  Peter refers to this when He tells his Jewish brothers, “For the promise is for you and for your children and for all who are far off, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself” (2:39).

“… in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit”
It is easy to think that Pentecost was all about the Holy Spirit.  Certainly, the central issue in the early part of Chapter 2 is that Jesus’ promise came true.  The Spirit of God had come to empower the disciples to “be [His] witnesses” (1:8).  But Peter’s sermon is thoroughly trinitarian.  A rundown of the stats:  Peter references God (the Father) in verses 16, 17, 23, 24, 30, 32, 33, 36, and 39.  He refers to Jesus (the Son) in verses 22, 23, 31, 32, 36, and 38.  He mentions the Spirit (The Holy Spirit) in verses 17, 18, 33 and 38.

Interestingly, when Peter calls them to be baptized, he seems to use the name of Jesus exclusively: “Repent and be baptized, every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ” (2:38).  However, context shows that The Father and The Holy Spirit are nearby in Peter’s teaching.  The “name of Jesus” is prefaced in verse 36 with the truth that God (the Father) had made him “both Lord and Christ, this Jesus whom you crucified.”  And Peter tells the candidates for baptism that when they are baptized in the name of Jesus, they would “receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” (2:38b).

I’m not saying that his sermon was a treatise on the Trinity.  But when Peter lays out a full presentation of the gospel of Christ, he is Spirit-led to call on the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, in accordance with the commission he received.

So much more
To be sure, there is a lot going on in Peter’s Pentecost sermon.  He draws on prophecy, coming judgment, and predestination as he proclaims the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.  In Peter’s proclamation, it is beautiful to hear echoes of the Lord’s commission.  This is not the Peter who boasted in his own faithfulness.  This is a newly empowered preacher who shines the light on God, in all of His trinitarian, redemptive glory.

Tuesday Toolbox

It’s Tuesday. Lord, show us glorious treasures in your Word.

Some bits and pieces for you all:

  • Charlie Skrine offers his thoughts on “celebrity pastors.”
  • Philip Ryken will be the keynote speaker at the upcoming 2012 Preaching Conference at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia (October 23 and 24). His topic will be “Applying Old Testament Narratives.”  The conference will be live streamed on WETN, Wheaton College’s FM radio station wetn.org.
  • Would you make the cut on John Wesley’s preaching team?