Why do we assume when it comes to churches that size determines health? Why assume that a church of 300 must be doing well, while a church of 30 must be unhealthy and in need of revitalising? It could be possible that a large church of 300-500 people is really spiritually unhealthy and in need of serious revitalisation, while the 30-strong church is actually spiritually vital. (For American or African readers, if 300 seems small, please understand that that is quite large by UK standards.) To assess whether your church needs revitalising, here are six suggested measures of bad church health.
- Poor prayer life. Do all the Christians in your church pray together? There is a world of difference between a ‘prayer meeting’ (routine, dull, predictable, driven by habit, unimaginative, happening because it ought to) and a ‘prayer gathering’ (motivated by a real urge to pray about something, led with good preparation, filled with heartfelt prayer, praying for things that have not been prayed for before, going beyond habit in order to cast ourselves upon God, a gathering that happens because it simply has to – the Christians felt they had to be there). If your church meets to pray because of habit rather than because of a heart-felt desire, then the prayer life of the church really needs revitalising. More than that, are you modelling public prayer as an example of the kind of prayers people should be praying alone at home? The way the church prays in public will shape the way people learn to pray in private. The larger the church, the harder it gets to pray for people in public. If someone is ill and awaiting test results after a scan, it is hard to reveal that in front of 300 people, some of whom won’t know who you are talking about. The larger a church grows, the less it remains a fellowship (a strong argument for church-planting) and the more easily it can drift into a life together less and less bound together in prayer.
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I was a young minister once! Up to the age of 50 you’re allowed to think that maybe you still are. But then I have to realise that Margaret Thatcher resigned as PM while I was in college, Scotland didn’t get a Parliament for another eight years after I left Scotland and was ordained, and I am firmly in the second half on ministry, hoping still to score a few goals. So, as I have watched an encouraging batch of young men enter ministry this autumn, several of whom I have followed through training, here are fifteen tips for starting well that I’ve picked up along the way.
- Preach within your range. The Bible is like a mountain range, and some peaks are a lot higher than others, so don’t set out to preach beyond your capabilities. We grow into the task of preaching, so don’t set out to preach through revelation as your first series, or John 14-17 or 2 Cor. 10-13. (I tried the latter, and am still scarred by the experience.) Preach what your congregation needs to hear most, and what you can make clear and apply well. Your preaching will reach first class standard after about five years, and test match standard….maybe! meantime, know your limits. John Chapman says ‘Preaching’s not that hard. It’s just the first forty years that’s the worst!’ After twenty four years I am starting to appreciate that quip more and more.
- Make a preaching plan for your first few years that takes you to a different genre of Scripture in each ‘term’ of the year. I watched my pastor in Abingdon, Simon Hutton, do this in his early years in Abingdon, and it is a great plan (which had never occurred to me). So we had Exodus 1-15, Colossians, some of Mark, Job (the best early series), Amos and Micah, and so on. As he tackled each series, so he became used to handling that Scripture genre ready for whenever he handled a similar book in future. See your early years in preaching as developing your skills gradually.
- If you are a sole pastor, and preach both ends of the day on a Sunday, don’t do a mega series both ends of the day. The real challenge of such ministry is staying fresh at both ends of the day, and not letting one sermon become the poor relation, and typically it is the evening sermon that suffers. Sometimes it is good to do a doctrinal or evangelistic series in the morning that doesn’t tax all your prep time, leaving you free to work hard at an evening series in OT narrative, or a closer exposition of a NT letter. When you want to put your main effort into the morning series, preach from well within your range in your evening series.
Continue reading “Fifteen tips for starting out in ministry”