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EFAC Australia

After almost 30 years as Senior Minister of St Thomas’ North Sydney, Simon Manchester reflects back on the vital importance of a ministry characterised by grace rather than frustration at stubborn sheep.

I have often said publicly that I was rescued by a friend from a joyless ministry. He had the courage to tell me that though grace drove my evangelism it did not drive my ministry. I thought his comment was nonsense at first, but he was right.

My message, to put it crassly, was “to the lost there is grace…. to the found ‘lift your game’.” The only way you can do that kind of ministry is in short bursts-five years will drive people to submission or rebellion, then you move on to the next place.

Having said that, I notice preaching grace often does not get all the cooperation from a congregation that a pastor would like. You can preach the loveliness of Christ and the privilege of believing, and still find that people are frustratingly inconsistent. What is going on? We lift the burdens off their backs and give them all the freedom of the gospel and it just does not turn our people into cooperative members of our pastoral cause.

It is here that we so easily go back to the law to get things done. After all what is left to do if the gospel is not doing it? Have we not all noticed that the “searching application” (also known as cutting to the bone of congregational non-cooperation) has a strange power that people often feel? Are there not a few parishioners who love and encourage a good whack every now and again? Can we lurch like that from gospel to law?

Whatever may be said for a sermon with proper reproof or correction (and there is a time for this) the big question is, what is driving the ministry? If you think this is irrelevant simply ask yourself what your people consider to be the driving message of your ministry. Once a term I meet with the Sunday School teachers (God bless them) to talk through what gospel ministry to children – not moralising – looks like. When I meet with the youth leaders (could there be a finer group?) it is to keep them in the love of Christ. We want the young people of the church to go home from their group saying, “How great is Jesus!”.

So it is with our people. The pastor-teacher needs to take great care that the congregation hears the sufficiency of Christ for salvation and service all the time. As Paul infuses his letters with sentences like “the one who calls you is faithful and he will do it” so we must allow this grace to infuse our ministry also. Too often I hear sermons where the preacher loses the roots of the gospel and calls for the fruits. We not only need to show people what righteous living looks like but where it comes from.

The “strange power” of reproof that I mentioned above is a temporary and surface power. The real power is gospel deep and gospel strong. You may be called to abandon the happy side of the faith for the sad side of correction but it should never be cut off from Jesus Christ. People who hear us should leave saying, “what I am called to do he will enable me to do”.

Nothing else will give your people joy in their fellowship with each other. If you lay a big burden on your burdened people with no good news of his power at work then they will begin to wonder if the bar of performance is too high and there is little to share.

Nothing else will give your people joy in their witness through the week. Do you want to see your people overflow with the desire to see people saved? Do not send them out with a miserable message. Send them out with a proper sense of privilege which causes them to say to themselves “there is hope for me” and to think for their friends “you need to get this”. I’m reminded of the young man who refused to become a Christian because he refused to be an annoying witness. Finally, a shrewd old saint told him that he should forget about witnessing and just become a Christian. The young man believes in Christ and runs outside yelling “I’m a Christian and I don’t have to tell anybody!”.

I am not suggesting a “positive” gospel. I am not suggesting a “half” gospel. I am simply urging a present gospel not an absent gospel. You may say this is obvious, but I have noticed that in a day of harder ministry, people are being given either nothing to rejoice in (because it’s so predictably bland) or something to struggle in (because it is so frustrating for the preacher).

Are you teaching on David and Goliath? Let your people leave with joy in a greater David. Are you teaching on Jonah? Let your people leave with gratitude for a compassionate Saviour. Are you teaching the Sermon on the Mount? Let your people leave with gratitude for a new life through the One who died. Are you teaching the Epistles? Let your people leave with the same love that the author wrote with.

And if you think that such a gospel-driven ministry is all too soft and all too ineffective ask yourself whether in those times where the condition of your soul felt dead and hopeless you were grateful for another guilty feeling – or the realisation that the love of Jesus was deeper, wider, longer and higher than you’d felt possible. Then pass on to others what really works.

“To him who is able to do more than we ask or imagine” – this is the fuel for the work.

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