Sustained Ministry – a long-term walk
Richard Bewes, ordained in 1959, and Rector of All Souls, Langham Place for over 20 years, shares wisdom for persevering on the road of full-time gospel ministry.
Shortly before ordination I received a Bible from the man under whom I had found the Lord as a teenager. In the flyleaf was 2 Timothy 2:3 – "Endure hardship as a good soldier of Jesus Christ."
Perhaps Isaiah, too, had the ‘hardship' factor in mind at the close of his famous chapter 40. But then, would not a better climax have read, ‘They will walk and not faint, they will run and not grow weary, they will even soar on wings like eagles!' Walking.... Running.... yea, FLYING! But Isaiah has it in the reverse order. Perhaps the reason is that – although God's service has its soaring moments – it is in fact the steady way of life that keeps walking that is more important in the long-term. But how does one keep going?
It is those who wait ‘upon the LORD' who will maintain their strength. Take Paul alone! Basketed over the Damascus wall, elsewhere rejected, threatened, stoned, frustrated, flogged, hounded, arrested, tried, shipwrecked, and confined. Been there, done that! What held Paul – when man after man deserted him – was that he was an apostle; SENT as servant of Christ and of the churches!
It's the call to servanthood that holds us. It's more than simply setting out the chairs (though I was warned at college that I would be doing this all my life!) Servanthood bears the sense of personal accountability to the One who came among us specifically to put our interests above His own - and died doing so (Philippians 2:6,7). In Christian leadership we cannot achieve anything of lasting worth until our servanthood has been proved. The saints of God do not take long in spotting this. Once it's proved, then anything is possible!
Contrast the fakes who may soar like dazzling rockets into the ecclesiastical firmament – hailed perhaps for a limited period, but still ‘shepherds who feed only themselves.... wandering stars' (Jude 12,13). They come... and then go.
My long-term next-door neighbour John Stott set up for his own benefit an Accountability Group of Elders (AGE). I chaired it for some years. Dr Stott was not content to carry out his world ministry without – as a servant – submitting hopes, plans and fears to the judgment of others.
A servant is not a doormat. Jesus was the Servant of all; yet authority was stamped upon everything that He did. The Cross exhibited these two sides of His leadership. It is a daily closeness to Calvary, then, that builds true Christ-like servanthood.
‘They that hope/wait.... upon the Lord.' Somehow we are to stay learners for ever! Billy Graham was 69 when, one Sunday evening in London, he attended All Souls Church. David Turner, the lay reader was the preacher that evening – only too aware that his Bible passage was ‘Now concerning the Unmarried' – barely a suitable topic for a travelling grandfather! David need not have worried. Mr Graham sat taking notes throughout. When he ran out of paper, he nudged his wife for more. Three days later he asked for the recording of the sermon. Weeks later – from California – we were asked whether there were any more recordings from the lay reader!
It was a lesson for us all. There are some spiritual practitioners who reach their ceiling by their mid-twenties. They are too self-engrossed to listen to anybody. Their service and their speaking never improve; their ministry fossilises – and they never even know it. We can offset this deadly trend by agreeing with others upon a time and place for the study of the Scriptures, mutual prayer and the sharing of useful book reviews, news and confidences. Trust then builds up – until we can sharpen and even correct one another without resentment.
My preaching colleague, Paul Blackham once came up, during the coffee break between our two London morning services. I had just preached, and was about to deliver the same message again. "Richard," said Paul, "During your final remarks you made a mistake in your Bible interpretation!" "Oh!" I said. "What was my mistake?"
Paul told me. "But listen,"" he added. "During the final blessing I wrote out a new ending for you. Here it is!" And he handed me a piece of scribbled paper. I was thankful to use it. But it was because we were part of a mutually trusting team that this kind of exchange was possible. There is nothing like it, friends - to be supportingly trustful of one another, in a little hermeneutical community!
The regular prayer should be, ‘Make me hungry!' This is utterly vital. A hungry minister unquestionably makes for a hungry congregation.
"Waiting upon the Lord...." Attentiveness marks the servant of God. The Lord tells Ezekiel, "Son of man, I have made you a watchman for the house of Israel." Habakkuk declared, ""I will stand at my watch and station myself on the ramparts." Micah exclaimed, "I watch in hope for the Lord, I wait for God my Saviour." "Watch out, said Jesus, "that no one deceives you." Paul urges us to be "alert and self-controlled." "Watch out," warns John, "that you do not lose what you have worked for." "Be on your guard,' urges Peter.
Watching – for oneself, one's family, the fellowship, all society - and for the Kingdom's interests; it's done, first, through regular attention to Scripture; also to history in general, and Christian history in particular. Some strange new deviant ‘fad' will surface in church life – and the vigilant will be able to pinpoint a similar occurrence, perhaps from centuries earlier, for history has an uncanny way of repeating itself.
We must watch for one other. Sometimes church leaders have fallen into disgrace and are obliged to resign – perhaps through lack of vigilance – either by them, or for them; they tend to have been ‘loners,' often out of sight even to their closest.
Careful vigilance is maintained throughout the Billy Graham organisation, from top to bottom. I was once being interviewed for radio in North Carolina by a BG woman staff member. With us inside the closed-off studio – sitting by the wall – was another member of staff, contributing apparently nothing. But his silent presence there was the quiet and independent guarantee that everything taking place was witnessed and monitored.
It's also steady intercessory prayer for others that makes for vigilance. We come across a name in the prayer list – and the thought arises, ‘I've not seen them for a while – I must make enquiries.'
And what of ourselves? It is after a spiritual ‘high' that we can be most open to attack. Look at Noah – the preacher of righteousness – found blind drunk. Or Elijah, unafraid of 950 false prophets – but now in headlong flight from wicked Jezebel. Take King David – having conquered Jerusalem – but then entering into adultery and murder.
It was my own missionary mother who told me years ago that the time to be on full alert is when returning home – energies waning – at the close of an exhilarating mission. It is at that point, she testified, that our defences are down, and the Devil strikes. Stay Vigilant!
Unless Isaiah's hearers did ‘wait upon the Lord,' they would indeed ‘faint.' In this life we shall never really be away from the power displays of the kingdom of darkness. As an African church leader once put it, ‘Sometimes you wish, of course, to say to God, "God, we know that you are in charge, but why don't you make it slightly more obvious!"'
Servants of Christ remember that His church is not a sideline activity or hobby of His; the Church is what God is all about! No wonder those early apostolic believers were so irradiated. Told unequivocally to stop preaching in Christ's Name (Acts 4:18-31), they turn to prayer – NOT to ask that the authorities relent – but that they, Christ's followers be given yet more boldness to preach! A gospel preacher should be able to stand – Bible open – before a collection of people, thinking inwardly, ‘In the next few minutes, somebody's life is going to be changed.'
It was this buoyancy that kept John Wesley on track. The last letter he ever wrote was on February 24th, 1791 – addressed to William Wilberforce – then in the direst throes of his campaign against slavery:
Unless God has raised you up for this very thing you will be worn out by the opposition of men and devils; but if God is with you who can be against you? O be not weary in well-doing. Go on, in the name of God and in the power of his might, till even American slavery, the vilest that ever saw the sun, shall vanish away before it.
Six days later, at the age of eighty-eight, John Wesley was gone. Just one among many who have shown us across the highroads of time how long-term ministry is kept going – till the very end.
[This post first appeared on the 9:38 blog in 2009. See more from Richard here.]