The sins of ministry: Lust

Jesus had some strong words to say about lust: “everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart…. If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to be thrown into hell” (Matt 6.28-29).

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The sins of ministry: Covetousness

Courtesy of American Express, Mastercard and Visa covetousness is now made easy. In the words of one advertising slogan, credit cards ‘take the waiting out of wanting’. But the reality, of course, is that credit cards often make life more complicated than fulfilling. Even Bertrand Russell, who was far from being a believer, once remarked: “It is preoccupation with possessions more than anything else that prevents men from living nobly and free”. Or as Jesus said: “Take care! Protect yourself against the least bit of greed. Life is not defined by what you have, even when you have a lot”.

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The sins of ministry: Envy

Ever since the time of Cain and Abel envy has been with us. To paraphrase the words of the Apostle Peter, ‘The green-eyed monster of jealousy constantly prowls around, looking for some Christian to devour’ (see 1 Pet 5.8). 

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The sins of ministry: Pride

Traditionally pride has been considered the basic form of sin. According to Theophylact, an 11th century theologian, pride is “the citadel and summit of all evils”. In his essay ‘The Great Sin’ CS Lewis argued that: Unchastity, anger, greed, drunkenness, and all that, are mere fleabites in comparison: it is through Pride that the devil became the devil; Pride leads to every other vice: it is the complete anti-God state of mind.

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Let's value senior adults

Let’s recognise that senior adults have as much worth as people at any other stage of life. Julia Neuberger, the liberal Jewish rabbi and a member of the House of Lords, drew up a thought-provoking manifesto of ageing entitled ‘Not Dead Yet’.

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Keeping and not just attracting

The challenge all churches face is not just to attract worshippers, but to keep worshippers. How do we keep, and not just attract, visitors? Clearly people need to be welcomed – and to feel welcome. As Rick Warren has said: “Long before the pastor preaches, the visitor is deciding whether to come back. They are asking themselves, ‘Do I feel welcome here?’”. But is a welcoming spirit sufficient to encourage people to return?

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The compassionate pastor

Compassion, it has been said, is “the cardinal virtue of the Christian pastoral tradition”.   Christian pastors by definition are compassionate people – and rightly so because we follow Jesus, the compassionate pastor by excellence.

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My Experience of Easter in Lebanon

Some might wonder whether an eight-day visit to Lebanon provides sufficient basis for reflection. However, this was actually my third visit to Lebanon – on the two previous visits each time I had spent two weeks teaching at the Arab Baptist Theological Seminary in Beirut (see abtslebanon.org), and seeing something of church life too. Furthermore, some time ago Central Baptist Church, Chelmsford (the church of which I was the senior minister) entered into a partnership agreement with Hadath Baptist Church in Beirut (see hadathbaptistchurch.org) which helped broaden my horizon of what God is doing in Lebanon.

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Lebanon Impressions

After a recent eight day visit to Lebanon the following impressions and reflections come to mind:- LEBANON IS A POWDER KEG, ready to blow up at any time. Checkpoints are everywhere, and soldiers with guns abound. We saw politicians walking around with their bodyguards – for them assassination is a very real threat. Parts of Lebanon remain no-go areas for tourists. However, precisely because of the soldiers on the streets, the Lebanese for the most part feel secure.

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Soft-hearted Pilgrims

Just this week I finished reading Walking Home From Mongolia: Ten Million Steps Through China From the Gobi Desert to the South China Sea (Hodder & Stoughton, London 2013. 298pp: £13.99 ISBN 978-1-444-74528-3) by Rob Lilwall. It tells the story of how the author and his cameraman Leon walked some 3000 miles across China - partly because they were raising funds for a children’s charity, and partly because they love adventure. It is an extraordinary tale – full of amusement and interest.

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Retirement Wishes

For the last four weeks the dining room table has been full of retirement cards. But now is the time to put the cards away.  Some of the cards were banal: ‘Gardening, walking, visiting friends, travel, reading, going to the movies… you’ll wonder how you ever found time to work!’; or ‘Wishing you time to just relax [a split infinitive!] and enjoy the things you love most’; or ‘You’ve retired… now you’ll have that Friday feeling every day!’ (Do ministers ever have a Friday feeling?).

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Tough Times Demand Easter Faith

In this season of Easter let’s remind ourselves that faith in the God of resurrection impacts not just the future, but also the present. Easter faith is about believing that God can make all the difference to the here and now.

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Forgiveness Beyond Measure

The first ‘word’ of the seven so-called ‘words’ of Jesus from the cross is the most extraordinary: “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23.34a). In the context of so much pain this cry for forgiveness is truly amazing, Just imagine the agony of the crushed bone, the ripped sinew, the hands nailed to the cross. Imagine too the sense of rejection as also the utter injustice of the situation. Accusation, condemnation, recrimination, all would have been in order. Instead Jesus prays for forgiveness.

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Why are so many ministers fat?

In the week that Dame Sally Davies, the Chief Medical Officer in Britain, declared that obesity is now so common that society is ‘normalising being overweight’, I attended a ministers’ meeting where two-thirds of those present were grossly overweight. I was shocked – and at the risk of alienating a good number of friends decided to write a blog on obesity.

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Truth through Personality

‘Truth through personality’. What a wonderful definition of preaching! Preaching is not just the communication of truth – it is the communication of truth through personality. This great definition was coined by Phillips Brooks (1835 – 1893) who exercised a powerful ministry as rector of the Church of the Holy Trinity in Boston, Massachusetts – and who wrote the berautiful Christmas carol, ‘O Little town of Bethlehem’. In 1871, at the age of 42, Brooks delivered the Lyman Beecher Lectures in Preaching at Yale, and it was in those lectures that Brooks offered his now famous definition of preaching as the ‘communication of truth through personality’.

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The joyful tyranny of preaching

When I was wrestling with my call to ministry, it was first and foremost a call to preach. Like Jeremiah, I felt I had to share God’s word with others: “If I say, ‘I will not mention him or speak any more in his name’, then within me there is something like a burning fire shut up in my bones; I am weary with holding it in, and I cannot” (Jer 20.9). Like Paul, I felt “an obligation” to preach had been laid upon me: “woe to me if I do not proclaim the gospel!” (1 Cor 9.16).

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MT celebrates its 20th anniversary

Twenty years ago, on Monday 21 March 1994 the Richard Baxter Institute of Ministry was launched. We put on a celebratory buffet lunch in the premises of the Free Church Federal Council in Tavistock Square – and then walked across to Dr Williams’ Library, where we took down a portrait of Richard Baxter for a formal photo shoot.

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Missionary leadership is vital

This week I was asked by BBC Essex to reflect on my 21 years of ministry at Central Baptist Church, Chelmsford. In preparation for the interview, I wrote the following:-

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Thank God for deacons!

Last week I chaired my last ever deacons’ meeting. It was a very happy occasion – not least because, to my surprise, after the opening worship, drinks (Bucks Fizz and Shloer) and nibbles were served to celebrate the occasion! Furthermore, although this was the last formal meeting, it will not be the last time I meet with my deacons – for before I step down from leading the church here, they will be taking Caroline and myself out for dinner. So no wonder I am grateful to God for deacons!

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A great way to deal with the nuts and bolts of church life

This week for the last time I shall attend a meeting of the PSM – for soon I shall be stepping down from full-time stipendiary ministry. In some ways I shall not be sorry to give up my membership of the PSM. It has not been the most inspiring of bodies. And yet, it has proved extraordinarily helpful in dealing with the nuts and bolts of church life. Let me explain.

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The College of Baptist Ministers is about to be launched!

I am excited, for the College of Baptist Ministers is about to be launched! After months of preparation and consultation the dream is about to become reality! Over the coming two years there will be a series of nation-wide launches – not just in England, but in Wales and Scotland too.

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All the Trumpets

Today I went up to my old Cambridge college – Jesus College – to attend a memorial service for Cameron Wilson. Cameron Wilson rose to become President of Jesus College, but when I first knew him in 1963 he was three years ahead of me, doing a PhD in Moliere. We had three things in common: I too was a modern linguist at Cambridge; both of us were members of the Robert Hall Society, the then Cambridge University Baptist student society, and both of us were members of Jesus College. We became friends, and in the first year often ate out together. If the truth be told, once I left Cambridge we had little to do with one another. Nonetheless, when the College announced they were holding a memorial service, I felt I should attend – a decision confirmed for me when, Charlotte (my daughter-in-law), who also did Modern Languages at Jesus, decided to accompany me.

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The challenge of weeding out my books

From childhood I have loved reading and loved books. And so too has my wife, Caroline. As a result over the years we have amassed not just hundreds of books, but thousands of books. In almost every room of our house books are to be found – we even have books in the utility room and the kitchen. Somewhat unusually we have two studies at home – Caroline has her study-office with a large area of book-shelving on two sides of the walls. And at the top of the house I have my ‘library’ with floor-to-ceiling shelving lining all the walls. In addition we both have offices at work – Caroline has only two book-cases in her coroner’s office, but I have floor-to-ceiling shelving on three walls of what is a large minister’s office.

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Little things that make the church attractive

In a previous blog I have written of what attracts people to a church. In researching that blog I came across a web-article by American preacher David W. Miller of The Church at Rocky Peak entitled ‘ Little things that make the church attractive’. In it he put proposed nine ‘small changes; which could make a ‘big difference. It inspired me to write another blog, this time relating to such matters as related to room temperature, lighting, sound, seating, style, sermon length, sermon tone, atmosphere and treatment of visitors.

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An attractive church

What attracts people to church? What are the key factors? Three American surveys I have come across give a variety of reasons for what makes people keep coming to church.

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50 lessons in life

Some years ago, when I was celebrating the 25th anniversary of my ordination to Christian ministry I made a list of ‘25‘lessons in life’ I had learnt. On the 40th anniversary of my ordination I updated them to ‘40 lessons on life’. Now as I contemplate retiring from stipendiary ministry, I thought I would update them to ‘50 lessons in life’.

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Tithing - and beyond

Although tithing is mentioned in many places in the Old Testament, the passage that is most often quoted by preachers is found in Malachi 3.10. There God says through his servant Malachi: “Bring the full amount of your tithes to the Temple, so that there will be plenty of food there. Put me to the test and you will see that I will open the windows of heaven and pour out on you in abundance all kinds of good things”

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Guidelines for newcomers

Last month I was present at a very lively and enthusiastic Sunday morning service in Beirut. The church was packed with young families, many of whom were refugees from Syria. Most of these refugees were Muslim – as was indicated by the dress of many of the women. Attracted by the love and care shown by the church, they had come to see what the Christian faith was all about.

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The real meaning of Christmas is lost on today’s children

‘Real meaning of Christmas lost on today's children as nearly quarter believe 25th December is Simon Cowell's birthday’. So read a Daily Mail headline a couple of years ago. A survey of 1,000 school children aged between five and seven years old revealed that 36 per cent didn’t know whose birthday we celebrate on December 25 - with over one in five believing the festivities were in aid of Simon Cowell's birthday!

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True Friendship

There are friendships and friendships. With this in mind we began our 2014 Christmas letter with these words: “‘There comes a point in your life when you realise who really matters, who never did, and who always will’. How true that is. Sadly over the years there have been friends who have come and gone. However, we are grateful for your friendship, and it precisely because we value this friendship that Christmas letters are important to us. For all their faults, Christmas letters enable us to keep in touch.” Friendship is there for the long haul.

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Greet one another with a holy kiss

The origins of kissing are uncertain. Some argue that it is simply instinctive; others that it originates from so-called ‘kiss feeding’ when mothers feed their infants by passing chewed food to their babies’ mouths. F.Scott Fitzgerald reckoned the kiss originated when the first male reptile licked the first female, reminding her that she was as succulent as the small reptile he had for dinner the night before!

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AGM's don't have to be boring

Last night we had a great AGM – we had done all the ‘business’, if business be the word, by 9.15pm, and were then ready enjoy the company of one another over a glass of sparkling grape juice.

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Faithful unto death

In a Baptist context baptismal services are normally wonderfully exciting occasions. But when I was at Cambridge as a student, I found baptismal services incredibly sobering occasions. For the church I attended had the custom that as each baptismal candidate was baptised we sang some words of the Risen Christ to the church at Smyrna (Izmir): “Be thou faithful unto death and I will give thee a crown of life” (Rev 2.10). Sung to a haunting tune from Mendelssohn’s Elijah (Number 305 in The Baptist Hymn Book of 1962), this baptismal sentence has become unforgettable for me.

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Light to the World

If the local paper is to be believed, most people in Chelmsford do not approve of the Council’s recent decision to turn off the street lights at midnight. I am not convinced. Having lived two years of my life in Central Africa where there were no street lights, it is not an issue for me. There if you needed to go out, you took a torch or lamp with you. The other evening I returned home late, and as we drove into Chelmsford all the lights went out – it was different, certainly, but not a frightening experience. Yes, I appreciate that late-night revellers in the city’s night-clubs would prefer to have the lights on – but I do not see why for the sake of a small minority the rest of us , at a time of real austerity, should pay to keep the lights on. As my elderly mother reminded me, people of her generation had to live with the black-out year upon year. Maybe there might be room for some compromise, so that the lights are switched off at 1 pm rather than midnight itself. But there comes a point when it is right to save money – and use the money saved for the good of the community as a whole.

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Christian leaders are accountable to Christ alone

One of the oddities of ministerial life is that although as far as the Inland Revenue is concerned we ministers are employees of the church, in the eyes of the law we are in fact self-employed. The result is that no minister can sue the church for unfair dismissal, however unfair the circumstances may be – indeed, in a House of Lords ruling, if ministers wish to take issue with anybody, then they should take issue with God. For God is ultimately our employer.

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Some day the silver cord will break

The other day when I visited my 92 year-old mother we talked about one of the hymns she would like to be sung at her funeral. It’s a hymn by Fanny Crosby (1820-1915) a blind American Methodist poet, who wrote some 8000 (yes, eight thousand!) hymns and songs. Most of these songs have long been forgotten – but not all. ‘Blessed assurance, Jesus is mine’ was written by Fanny Crosby; so also, ‘To God be the glory great things he has done’; and, so too my mother’s funeral hymn, ‘Some day the silver cord will break’. The hymn is found in no modern hymnbook – like many other songs she wrote, it is no doubt dismissed as ‘mawkish or too sentimental’. And yet, as my mother began to sing the lines, and as I later read it, I found it profoundly moving.

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It's God's church

Next March I will have completed 21 years as the senior minister of Central Baptist Church, Chelmsford. Needless to say, over these 21 years I have developed a very close bond with my church. For 21 years I have given myself to my people. It’s been hard graft. It’s been tough – not least in the opening years of my ministry. True, it has also been exceedingly rewarding. Indeed at times I almost feel guilty at the way in which God has blessed. Even just this past Sunday people have been exceedingly kind to me.

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Money Talk

Preaching about money – and in particular preaching about giving money to the church – is more risky than walking through a minefield. In my experience, there is no issues on which people are more sensitive. No wonder, then, most ministers rarely talk about giving – they just don’t want to receive the flak!

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Be Bold, Go Blue

My blog this week takes the form of an appeal for sponsorship which I have out to many of my friends. If you have already responded to this appeal, then thank-you; but if not, I would love your support. So far (including Gift Aid Donations) I have received just over £1,575. My target is £5,000 – and ideally I need the money by the weekend of Saturday 12/Sunday 13 (although money received later, would always be acceptable!)

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Developing relationships among leaders

This coming weekend I am going away with my fellow leaders. There will be quite a number of us: for in addition to my 12 deacons and my three ministerial colleagues, there will also be our part-time children’s and families worker and our part-time seniors outreach worker, together with our church administration manager. Throw in our speaker for the weekend, and add in me, and there will be 20 of us. By most standards that is far too large for a group that seeks to major on relationships – and yet that is precisely what we shall be seeking to do.

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Families can be a real blessing

“Children are a gift from the Lord”, wrote the Psalmist, “they are a real blessing. The sons a man has when he is young are like arrows in a soldier’s hand. Happy is the man who has many such arrows” (Psalm 127.3-5). The Psalmist clearly believed that the more children the merrier! Some of us might have our doubts.

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Branding a "College of Baptist Ministers"

Organisations – religious and secular – seem to be increasingly in the business of rebranding. Just in the last month the Baptist Union of Great Britain has created a new website with the heading ‘Baptists Together’. The Christian Counselling agency ‘WHCM Counselling’ (an offshoot of the West Ham Central Mission)has changed its name to ‘Renew Counselling’, with the strap line ‘rebuilding lives – restoring relationships’. And now the College of Baptist Ministers, of which I am the chairman, is considering re-branding itself even before it has launched!

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Can children worship God?

Many churches assume that children are not really able to worship God.  So when we want to involve children in a service, we dumb down the worship in the hope that children might somehow ‘connect’.    In particular, we seek to make worship ‘fun’ – we play silly games and sing silly songs.

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Nailing one's colours to the mast

Over the years I have often referred to baptism as the occasion when we nail our colours to the mast. I cite Paul’s words to Timothy which clearly allude to baptism: Fight the good fight of the faith; take hold of the eternal life, to which you were called and for which you made the good confession in the presence of many witnesses. (1 Timothy 6.12) ‘Baptism’, I say, ‘is the occasion when we declare that Jesus is Lord – Lord not just of the world, not just of the church, but also of my life. It is the time when we declare before all the world their love for Jesus and their desire to serve him. It is the time when we nail our colours to the mast’.

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Creating ordination and commissioning prayers

Ordination prayers Over the years I have had the privilege of ordaining a good number of men and women into Christian ministry.   However, it is important to note that in a Baptist context, ordination is never the task of one person.  Rather, when we come to lay hands upon the ordinand, the presiding minister involves others in the praying.

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Saying Grace

Normally when I say grace before a meal at home, I am short and to the point: “Thank you Lord for this good food. Amen!”. If we have guests round for a meal, then the grace may be a little longer, but not much – “Thank you Lord for good friends and for good food, Amen!”. But there are special occasions when it may be right for grace to be longer.

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Christian endings to a letter

What’s the best way of ending a letter to a Christian friend? I confess that my standard greeting is the simple ‘with all good wishes’. True, in certain circumstances I alter the greeting. ‘Will all good wishes’, for instance, does not sound right in a letter to somebody who has lost a loved one – on those occasions I normally end ‘warmly yours’.

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Let's be grateful

Paul was the ultimate grateful person. No one within the pages of the New Testament was more grateful than Paul. Indeed, Paul mentions the subject of thanksgiving more frequently per page than any other Hellenistic author, pagan or Christian. Of all his contemporaries, Paul was the most grateful.

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Promoting well-being in ministry

Ministry can be an incredibly lonely experience. Unlike other professionals, for the most part ministers do not work together in teams. They are on their own. True, they are part of a local church, but few if any of the lay leaders of that local church have any idea of what is involved in the day-to-day ministry of their pastor. In such a context ministers need supportive relationships which will promote well-being in ministry. In the words of Scripture, ministers need to find ways and means of ‘provoking’ (NRSV) or ‘spurring’ one another on to love and good deeds (Hebs 10.24).

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Brothers - and sisters - we are professionals

John Piper is a distinguished American pastor, who served for more than thirty years as pastor of Bethlehem Baptist Church in the Twin Cities of Minnesota. A prolific writer, his book Brothers, We Are Not Professionals (B & H Publishing Group, Nashville, Tennessee 2013) has recently been re-published in an updated and expanded edition. It has been accompanied by rave reviews – according to Preaching Magazine it is one of the '10 best books every preacher should read'. I beg to disagree. It is a misguided and prejudiced rant!

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A Call to Excellence

Excellence: ‘the quality of being outstanding or extremely good’ (Oxford Online Dictionary) Society applauds excellence. Businesses present awards for excellence to encourage the pursuit of excellence amongst its employees. Universities proudly set up centres of excellence. Porsche markets its cards through its magazine, Excellence. Excellence is a quality to be admired and to be striven after.

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Time for a Spiritual Check-up

I’m told that if we want to ensure that we keep fit and well, then ideally we should make an appointment with the doctor once a year to undergo a physical check-up. What is ideal in the world of physical health is also true in the world of spiritual health. If we want to ensure that we keep spiritually fit and well, then we need to undergo an annual spiritual check-up. Ideally a spiritual check-up is best undergone with a ‘soul-friend’ – for it is easy to deceive ourselves and not to see ourselves as we really are. However, it is also possible to engage in a ‘DIY’ check; up. But whether we do it by ourselves or whether we enlist the help of a Christian friend, the important thing is that we do it.

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Let's welcome diversity

The Spirit creates diversity! That is the thrust of Paul’s teaching on the body of Christ. He writes: Christ is like a single body, which has many parts; it is still one body, even though it is made up of different parts. In the same way, all of us, whether Jews or Gentiles, whether slaves or free, have been baptized into the one body by the same Spirit...(1 Cor 12.12-13)

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How large should teams be?

In his book Building Small Groups, the Australian church consultant John Mallison argues that twelve is the upper limit for a small group in which members are able to participate meaningfully.  Beyond that number, he says that the group tends to be dominated by a few  aggressive members.

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Called for Life

With retirement looming – for on 14 March 2014 I will be celebrating my 70th birthday – I thought I would read a book on retirement. The book in question was Called For Life: Finding Meaning in Retirement (Alban Institute, Herndon, Virginia 2008), and was written with ministers in mind by a retired American pastor, Paul C. Clayton.

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Thank God for a church that can express disagreement positively

A few Sundays ago in the context of an evening service I presented a paper (rather than ‘preached a sermon’) on ‘What does it mean to be an inclusive church? Are gays welcome at Central Baptist Church?’. In that presentation I looked at a number of options, but did not come to a formal conclusion. The other Wednesday evening some 95 people turned out to talk through the issue. Technically it was not a ‘church meeting’, but a ‘church night’ – not only was the meeting open to all, but from the outset we were clear that this was a meeting where no policy would be formally decided.

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Let's eat together

Every term in our church we have a Hospitality Sunday – and the good news is that more and more people are getting involved. Many people are opening their homes – and many others are enjoying the experience of visiting somebody else’s home. Hospitality Sundays are great occasions. They are an opportunity to get to know others outside the immediate context of church.

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God save our gracious Queen

I vividly remember the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II on 2nd June 1953 – if my maths is correct, I was nine years old. At the time my parents did not have a television – so we spent the day in the home of my mother’s cleaner, watching her television. And what an exciting day it was! There were thousands of soldiers, sailors, and airmen from every Commonwealth country marching through the streets, with military band after military band playing stirring music. Carriages galore took the dignitaries to and from Westminster Abbey – including the Queen of Tonga who insisted on sitting in an open carriage, in spite of the rain.

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How do you say grace at dinner?

Last night I was onto my second glass of champagne at a pre-dinner reception when I was asked to say grace at dinner. The dinner itself was a formal affair – black tie and all that – and was being held in what had once been a stately home. It was the annual dinner of the Coroners Society of South East England, and I was there in my role as a’ tag-on’ – supporting Caroline in her role as HM Coroner for Essex. I guess that there were about 25 of us, all seated around one magnificent table.

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Welcome New York style

Caroline and Susannah have just returned from a mother-daughter weekend-away in New York. They had a great time. They walked and walked – so much so that the first thing Caroline had to do on her return was to take her shoes to be repaired. They visited museums and art galleries, went up the Empire State Building, took a ferry to Staten Island… and went to church!

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Should ministers always be accessible?

Traditionally most ministers take off the week after Easter – and understandably so after the busy build-up to Easter Sunday. But this year I drew the short-straw, with the result that I had to hold the fort, while my three other ministerial colleagues went on holiday. So in this traditional holiday period I found myself working – and as a result sending e-mails.

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Is there an optimum length of ministry?

In the late 1970s, with the help of Alan Wilkinson, I conducted a detailed questionnaire survey of over 350 Baptist churches in England. At the time I was testing out some of the assumptions of Peter Wagner, at the time one of America’s leading church growth consultants.

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Ministers' resistance against professionalism puzzles me

The other day I was with four other ministers when one of them raised the issue of professionalization in ministry. To my utter amazement two of the ministers almost hit the roof as they vehemently decried such a concept. For them the idea of being a professional was anathema.

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Changing patterns of church attendance puzzle me

In my submission for my recent appraisal I wrote: Strangely, although we continue to grow as a church, our Sunday morning attendances do not reflect this growth – in spite of all the effort I give to preparation, and in spite of all the encouragement I give to people to make Sunday worship a weekly priority. Although I cannot prove the case, I tend to think that we are seeing a further sociological shift, in which people are re-defining regularity in church attendance. Many people come to church on a regular basis every other week, every third week, even every fourth week. I find it significant that our Sunday morning ‘Light Factory’ leaders will not begin to chase up children until they have been absent for four Sundays!

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Appraisals are to be Enjoyed!

I am looking forward to Monday evening 15 April, when for the twentieth year running I shall undergo my annual appraisal as senior minister of Central Baptist Church! Yes, it will no doubt be a challenging and searching experience, but it – God willing! – also be a good experience. As I have written in a document entitled ‘Preparing for appraisal at Central Baptist Church, Chelmsford’: “Annual appraisal is intended to be a positive and encouraging process. It gives those appraising you an opportunity to express appreciation for your ministry over the past year. If there is criticism, then it is always constructive criticism with the well-being of the individual as well as the well-being of the organisation in mind”.

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Let's Gather Round the Ball and Pray Together

I confess that that there are times when I find it difficult to pray on my own – but I have never found it difficult praying with others. Perhaps this is because around the age of seven or eight (I can’t remind the precise time) I began to go to a mid-week devotional meeting called ‘Junior Christian Endeavour’ and there we had what was called ‘chain’ prayer. We sat in a circle and one by one we went around the circle and prayed. Nobody was allowed not to pray – we all had to pray – and what is more, there were no silences in-between – we immediately followed each other on. From this distance of time I can no longer judge the quality – let alone the effectiveness – of those prayers; but one thing for sure, those meetings gave us all confidence to pray.

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The stone was rolled away

It was the custom of the citizens of Jerusalem to bury their dead outside the city walls – and to this day ancient rock-cut tombs surround the walls of Jerusalem on all three sides (but not on the west, from where the prevailing winds blew!). These tombs were normally intended to hold a number of bodies and often had a series of burial chambers leading off the main antechamber. Sometimes the bodies were buried in tunnels cut in a ‘pigeon-hole’ arrangements, two metres or more deep into the rock, and about 60 cm wide and high. At other times the bodies were laid in semicircular niches formed by cutting away the side walls of the tomb to a depth of up to a metre and about 75 cms up from the ground level. The niche was cut to leave either a flat shelf or a trough on which a body could be placed. There were also ‘bench’ tombs, where the body was laid on a bench that ran around the three sides of the tomb.

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Some churches need to treat their minister faily

“I’m brassed off with the church. I feel like resigning and walking away from them all” – these were the words of a fellow minister, absolutely fed up with his church.

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Birthdays are more than a time to celebrate

Next week is my birthday – and I am looking forward to it. I love birthdays and the surprises that so often go with birthdays. I love the cards people send me – and even more I love the phone calls from my grandchildren. No doubt some would not class my birthday next week as ‘special’ – it does not, for instance, end with an ‘0’ – nonetheless for me it will be special. I love every excuse to pop open a bottle of champagne and celebrate the gift of another year.

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Close friendships

With civil partnerships and gay marriage making the headlines, the common assumption seems to be that same sex friendships are always erotic. What utter nonsense! My mind goes to the friendship between Jonathan and David. They became the closest of friends –and yet there was nothing sexual about their relationships. They were just the best of friends, who loved one another, were committed to one another, and as a result gained strength from one another for all the ups and downs of life.

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Visiting newcomers is a delight

One of the great privileges of being the pastor of Central Baptist Church, Chelmsford, is that almost every Sunday we have visitors. Last Sunday, for instance, was a typical Sunday – to my knowledge we had five visitors. Of these five, one couple was visiting from Kent – the other three were trying us out. Two were Africans, one a Nigerian mature student at the local university, and the other a middle-aged Ghanaian woman who had just separated from her husband. Interestingly, the Ghanaian woman had worshipped with us three times in 2006 and as a result expected me to remember her! We also had an English single mother in her 30s – she and her ten year old daughter were brought along by a friend. Whereas the two Africans were clearly Christians, the English woman appears to be searching for faith. I encourage all visitors to fill in a welcome card – there they give such details as their name and address. They are also asked to tick if they would like more information about Bible study groups or Alpha courses; or if they would like a visit from the church.

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Emails are to be answered promptly!

Ministers can be appalling correspondents. Experience has taught me that as a rule of thumb at least 25% of ministers fail to answer their emails. Recently I e-mailed 68 ministers with an invitation to lunch six weeks from them. Three weeks later, having received only 26 replies, I sent out a further email reminding them of my invitation. Most then replied – but 16 never got round to it. Or, to give another example, every other month I email a small group ministers reminding them of a ministers fellowship meeting I host: of the twelve, four will always turn up; two will do their best to turn up, but if not, they will normally send an email of apology; of the other four, one will turn up every other year, while the other three never turn up and never acknowledge my email!

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Countdown To Easter

This year I thought I would do something in Lent for my seven grandchildren. I began with the intention of sending 40 post-cards depicting the life of Jesus. What I had in mind was a ‘countdown’ to Easter. A year or so back, when we were going on holiday together, I did a countdown to the holiday – it was part of building excitement; and I thought I could do something similar building up the excitement to Easter. I guess the nearest parallel would be an Advent calendar, which builds up to Christmas. So I surfed the net for pictures, but after two hours I could find nothing – I could find pictures of the baby Jesus, I could find pictures depicting the stations of the Cross, but nothing which remotely gave an overview of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. I would have been happy with 40 different pictures of Jesus, indeed with anything to do with Jesus, but I found nothing.

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Does a minister need a health check?

My first and last health check as a minister took place over forty years ago – just before I went overseas with the Baptist Missionary Society to serve in the Congo. Since then, I have never been asked for a health check. Neither my first church in Altrincham, nor the Baptist college of which I was principal, nor my present church, appointed me ‘subject to a health check’. They took it for granted that I was in good health – and would remain in good health. Were they right – or were they wrong?

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We are born to believe in God

 Underneath the headline ‘We are born to believe in God’ there was an article in The Sunday Times which began:: “Atheism really may be fighting against nature: humans have been hardwired by evolution to believe in God, scientists have suggested. The idea has emerged from studies of the way children’s brains develop… The findings challenge campaigners against organized religion, such as Richard Dawkins, author of The God Delusion. He has long argued that religious beliefs result from poor education and childhood ‘indoctrination’”.

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Housing for a Minister

When I step down from leading the church here in Chelmsford, the likelihood is that my successor will need to be provided with a manse. Although some Baptist ministers own their own home, the vast majority do not.

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Prayer Posture

To my surprise and delight this Christmas I was given a beautiful Victorian ‘prie-dieu’. ‘What’s a prie-dieu?’, you may ask. It is a piece of furniture for use during prayer – indeed, the term ‘prieu dieu’ was originally an 18th century French word, and literally means ‘pray God’. It consists of a low kneeling surface (mine is comfortably upholstered) and a narrow upright front with a rest for the elbows or for books. It is a great aid to sustained prayer. Not that you have to kneel to pray. When I am in my church office, I normally pray at my desk. At other times I might pray as I walk. There is no one correct way to pray.

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Compliments and Encouragements

At our staff Christmas lunch ‘Secret Santa’ gave me a collection of 365 ‘pick-me-ups’ to help me have ‘a really great day’. So, on January 1st, I decided to give this ‘Compliment A Day’ a try.

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Does God always give his beloved sleep?

Normally when my head hits the pillow, I fall fast asleep. And for that I am grateful. However, sleep doesn’t just happen. Before I go to bed I have a ritual of doing the Times crossword. No it’s not the cryptic crossword – it’s what my wife calls the ‘Mickey Mouse’ crossword. Whatever, it takes my focus away from the strains and stresses of the day. It helps me to relax after a day listening to problems of one kind or another.

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Four Wise Steps

In Chester Cathedral there is an old clock with the following inscription: When as a child I laughed and wept, time crept When as a youth I dreamed and talked, time walked When I became a full grown man, time ran And later as I older grew, time flew Soon I shall find while travelling on, time gone Will Christ have saved my soul by then?

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The Word became flesh

The other day I had to have a tooth out – but thank God, before the dentist yanked it out, he gave me a couple of injections to dull the pain. But even then, I was not relaxed – to my great embarrassment, immediately after the pain-killing injections I was shaking uncontrollably. For reasons which are beyond my control, I appear to have the lowest of pain thresholds. If there was a way to harness the nervous energy that I expend in the dentist’s chair, then all of Chelmsford could be lit by that energy. How I would have coped in a previous era, when there were no pain-killers, I dread to think

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My friend John has died

Last week my friend John died – and tomorrow I shall be going to his funeral in Gloucestershire. Alas the last time I saw John was several years ago. One of the great drawbacks of being a minister is that one never has weekends to visit friends. But John and his wife Ruth were great friends to us when I began my ministry in Altrincham my ministry there many years ago.

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100 millionth Bible printed in China

I have just returned from a visit to China, where I was teaching at the Wuhan Seminary in the Central Chinese province of Hubei. There to my amazement I read the following article in the English language newspaper China Daily, dated Friday 11 November 2012:

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Last Words

As Marie Antoinette, the wife of King Louis XVI of France, approached the guillotine, she accidentally stepped on the foot of her executioner. Consequently her last words recorded for posterity were: “Pardonnez-moi, Monsieur”

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The Bath Hole Phenomenon

For part of my time as a student I lived in college ‘digs’. In those days students didn’t enjoy ensuite facilities – rather we had bedroom-cum-study, and shared a bathroom. Our landlady did not encourage daily use of the bath – rather baths had to be a weekly observance! So on a Saturday night I would sit in the bath, and forgetting my landlady’s desire for economy, I would fill the bath to the brim. What a luxury!

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Grandparents have an important role to play

Growing older has its compensations – not least if it involves having grandchildren! Certainly one of the most rewarding developments in our lives is that Caroline and I are grand-parents. Yes, we are the proud grandparents of Jemima and Raphael, Felix and Clara, and most recently of David and his step-sister Sophie and his step-brother Theo. To our delight four of our grandchildren live in East London, less than an hour’s drive away when the traffic is flowing, so we see a good deal of Jemima and Raphael, and of Felix and Clara. Sadly David, Sophie and Theo live in Vancouver, a long flight away. Nonetheless in the last sixteen months we have seen them twice – last year we went to Vancouver, and this May they came over here. And now, this November, Caroline is off to Vancouver to visit them again.

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Why Alpha?

The autumn has come and yet again we have embarked upon another Alpha course – if my records are correct, then this must be the 30th such course in which I have been involved. Last Monday some ten ‘punters’ turned up – not as many we have sometimes had, but nonetheless a welcome number. Of the ten, three appear to be Christians who have brought along their partners. The remaining seven are searching for ‘the meaning of life’.

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What do we expect of our minister?

Every autumn our leadership team goes for a weekend away to Pleshey, a beautiful Essex village, which still retains its medieval shape. There the Anglican Diocese of Chelmsford has its retreat house – fittingly known as ‘a house of prayer’. With March 2014 as the date for when I will step down as senior minister here, the leadership team thought it would be useful to begin to prepare for the ‘transition’. As part of this preparation the fourteen people present were given a list of 23 roles or abilities for ministry prepared by the Baptist Union, and asked to score each role or ability on a scale of 1 -5.

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A Good Send Off

Expectations at death vary enormously. I have just had dealings with a very ‘loud’ non-church family whose loved one had died. I say ‘loved one’, but that was something of an over-statement. They guy concerned had seen little of his family – with just occasional contact with his mother, his brothers and sisters, and indeed his children of a previous marriage. And yet the family were united in their conviction that they wanted to give him ‘a good send off’. For them ‘a good send off’ involved playing heavy metal at the funeral and then a lively wake.

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Remember Jesus - a meditation for leaders

A friend of mine was telling me about a visit to another church. The sermon was interesting, but not uplifting. The preacher was not expounding Scripture, but rather reviewing a book he had read recently. ‘But then’, my friend said, ‘with the sermon over, we went into communion. And oh how meaningful the service then became – for we remembered Jesus’.

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What is Competency?

A minister-friend of mine has recently gone through a sticky patch. Some of his church members accused him of being ‘incompetent’. The matter was referred to denominational ‘powers that be’, and ultimately, thank God, they found in his favour. So he continues in ministry.

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Living Together

In February 2006, after having conducted 16 weddings in two years (which is a lot for a Baptist church, where generally we only marry our own people) I wrote an article in which I stated: As I reflect upon these ‘statistics’, what surprises me most is how relatively few had been living together. Years ago, I used to make it condition that I would only marry couples who were living together, if in the period remaining before their marriage they were to live apart, as ‘a sign that they were prepared to take God seriously’. I no longer make that stipulation. Instead, I tell the couple that I do not approve of their living arrangements – but that I am happy to regularise their situation by marrying them.

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Visiting a grave

The other Friday Caroline and I had been invited to attend a Ruby Wedding party which took place in a Welsh rugby club in a remote valley north of Swansea. That in itself was an experience, but that is not the point of this blog. On the way we stopped off at Porthcawl, a delightful Welsh sea-side town, where Caroline had been born, and where her parents are buried. During our short visit we went to the graveyard. Equipped with secateurs and a trowel, we were able to tidy the grave, and on the grave we placed some flowers.

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Celebrating a Sapphire Wedding

45 years ago – on 26 August 1967 to be precise – Caroline and I were married in Chester Street Baptist Church, Wrexham. On that beautiful sunny day we dressed up for the occasion – Caroline was magnificent in her flowing bridal dress, while I wore tails and a top hat! The chapel was packed with friends and family. The local Baptist pastor took the service. One of our fellow students at Cambridge played the organ. My father preached the sermon – his text was from John 2.4: “Do whatever he tells you”, words spoken by Mary at the wedding of Cana with Jesus in mind! Afterwards a magnificent lunch in a local hotel – and then before the afternoon was over we were off on our honeymoon.

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Rites of Passage - Turning 50

The traditional church rites of passage deal with birth, marriage and death. However, there are other events in life which deserve marking too – not least special anniversaries and birthdays. Recently I was asked to conduct a service for one of our African members turning 50. The service didn’t take place in church – but rather in the local Shire Hall, where the family had put on a party to mark the special occasion. What is more, the party began with the service. I confess that I found myself challenged by this open display of Christian faith. I love parties – but I have never begun a party with a service. Our African brothers and sisters shame us in the natural way in which they link faith with festivity.

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Rites of Passage - from Intern to Minister in Training

Two years ago we appointed a young man, Matt Rowe as our ‘intern’ for students and young adults with a view to testing his call to Baptist ministry. For his ‘commissioning’ service then I developed the following form words:-

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Signatures & Image

As an authorised person for the registration of marriages in my church, I am responsible for copying the entries in the marriage register and then sending them on to the registrar. At best, this is a tiresome business: I will already have written out entries in the two marriage registers as also written the wedding certificate. However, it is often a difficult business, because time and again the signatures of the witnesses can be difficult to decipher. Indeed, at a recent wedding all the signatures – both of the happy couple and of their two witnesses – were impossible to read. Fortunately, it doesn’t matter is the signatures of the bride and groom are illegible, because I will have already written out their names in the register; but if at the time of the wedding I can’t read the names of the witnesses, then in the margin of the registers I write out in pencil their names, so that when I later come to copy the names, I know what I am writing. And for my pains, I eventually receive the derisory sum of £2 per entry from the local Superintendent Registrar!

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How Long Should Sermons Be?

Ezra read from the Book of the Law “from early morning to midday” (Neh 8.3); while Paul at Troas “continued speaking until midnight” (Acts 20.7 and then after a brief interruption by Eutychus, who in every sense of the word dropped off to sleep, Paul continued until day-break. But how much of a guide should Ezra and Paul be today?

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Prayer Lists

William Sangster, the great Methodist preacher of a generation or two ago, in his book Teach Me To Pray, encouraged his readers to devote a minimum of 10 minutes a morning to prayer. He suggested that those two minutes should be divided up into seven sections: adoration, thanksgiving, dedication, guidance, intercession and petition.

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Holiday

Years ago one of the great perks of ministry was the holidays. In those days many people were lucky to have two weeks off a year – whereas ministers had four weeks off. Indeed, many ministers would take off the whole of August – how lucky they were!

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Worship - a Duty

At a recent leadership team meeting I presented the deacons with a series of goals which I thought we should adopt. One such goal related to worship. There I stated: “At a time when the combined Sunday worship attendance rarely exceeds our membership, we need to work for the day when Sunday attendance never falls below 365! In communicating the vision, we need to begin by speaking of Sunday worship as part of the very essence of Christian discipleship – worship is not just a delight, but also a duty. In the words of my sabbatical dream, our prime goal is to ensure that ‘Sunday is a day not to be missed’”

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Jesus our Hero

The older I get, the more difficult I find it not to be cynical about other people. I would imagine that my experience is not untypical of many. When we are young, we tend to look up to others - initially it is our parents, then perhaps our teachers at school, or perhaps a BB captain or Sunday School teacher or even a minister at church, and may be later still a politician or a leader of industry. But as we grow older, we discover that all these men and women whom we have idolised have feet of clay. There seems to be a skeleton in everybody's closet. Or if not a skeleton, then we discover that they are beset with all kinds of warts or foibles. An American author, Ambrose Bierce, once said: "A saint" is "a dead sinner revised and edited". How true that is. Even the greatest have feet of clay.

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Weddings Need Not Be Expensive

Weddings are becoming increasingly expensive. A little while ago I Googled and discovered that the cost of the average UK wedding is now over £20,000. The most expensive item is the wedding reception – averages £7,724 The honeymoon costs £3,220 The engagement ring costs £1,400 – while the two wedding rings cost a further £900 The wedding dress + shoes comes to £1,927 The bride’s honeymoon wardrobe costs another £352 By contrast the groom’s wedding suit averages £165 Photos & video come to £1,239 Wedding flowers £381 Cars £308 Wedding stationary £138

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Why Get Married in Church

Just at the moment, life seems to consist of weddings. Last Saturday I had a wedding, this Saturday I have a wedding, and the following Saturday I have a wedding. And they all involve couples who belong to our church. It’s a great pleasure to be involved in these three weddings.. Whenever couples come to me to ask to be married in church, I always ask them: Why do you want to be married in church? What’s special about a church wedding?

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Keeping Fit

The Olympics are coming. Indeed, this Friday (6 July) the Olympic torch comes to Chelmsford, and there is much excitement. Were the Apostle Paul to have been a Chelmsfordian, he too would have shared in the excitement. For he was fascinated by sport: within his letters there are some fifty sporting references. Not that Paul himself was a great sportsman. We know from his letters that he had pretty poor eyesight (see Gal 6.11); and tradition tells us that he was bowlegged and hunchbacked. Physically he was far from being ideal sporting material. Nonetheless had he been alive today he would have subscribed to Sky Sport!

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Preaching for a Verdict

I have just finished preparing a sermon. If the truth be told, I thought I had prepared it yesterday. I had worked hard on what had been a difficult text, and I thought I had made a pretty good ‘fist’ of expounding it and applying it to the world of today. It was all written out – five sides of A4 – and ready for preaching. Or so I thought. But then I had another look at it – and realised that there was still work to do. My first draft, dare I say it, was without doubt interesting and stimulating; indeed, if I may be even more immodest, it would have come over as a fresh and original approach to a well-known Scripture passage. And yet as I reflected on how I might frame my prayer of response, I suddenly realised it lacked bite, it lacked challenge. The fact is that preaching is not about God and about twenty minutes. Every sermon should have a definite purpose in mind. Preachers, like barristers, should be seeking a verdict.

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Singing the National Anthem

On the Sunday morning of the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee Weekend I got the congregation to sing the National Anthem. My family were aghast. How dare I as a Baptist minister encourage my church to sing ‘God save our gracious Queen’. We are Nonconformists! The Queen may be head of the Church of England, but she is certainly not head of any Baptist church! Indeed, as Baptists we supported Oliver Cromwell – as also the French Revolution and the American Revolution. In choosing to sing the National Anthem, I was betraying my roots.

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The Preacher's Challenge

Every time I sit at my desk, I am challenged by a text displayed on a wooden stand which I brought for myself on one of my trips to the USA - “Study to shew thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth” (2 Tim 2.15). Not surprisingly for an American piece of religious bric-a-brac, the text is taken from the Authorized Version. As modern versions of the Bible make clear, the Authorised Version is at this point a little misleading. For Paul’s immediate concern was not for Timothy to devote himself to study, but rather to devote his energies to “laying out the truth plain and simple” (Eugene Peterson).

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A birthday Tribute to my Mother

The American poet Robert Frost once said: “A diplomat is a man who always remembers a woman’s birthday, but never remembers her age”.  That may be true – but there are exceptions to this generalisation.  Today is one of those days.  Today we rightly celebrate the 90th birthday of my mother, Ruth Beasley-Murray.  And what a celebration it is.  I am sure you must be quite moved by the presence of so many family members and other friends – a sign that you are loved by many.

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Drawing in the Net

When it comes to preaching, I happily preach about the difference that Jesus makes to life, but I find it difficult to ‘draw in the net. When I preach the Gospel, I ‘preach for a verdict’, but I leave it to individuals to decide how to respond. I appeal to people’s hearts and minds, but I do not feel comfortable with making an ‘altar call’.

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Celebrating Pentecost

After Christmas and Easter, Pentecost is the third great Christian festival of the Christian year. Yet of these three great festivals, Pentecost is the Cinderella. Crowds flock to the churches at Christmas and Easter, but if Pentecost coincides with a Bank Holiday weekend, even the minister might be away.

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Leadership At Antioch

To my amazement, this year nobody in our church felt free to accept nomination as a deacon. As a result, there will be no deacons’ election, and instead of having twelve deacons, we are now down to seven. It was in that context that, in the course of following the daily lectionary, I read Acts 13.1-3 – the passage where Luke describes the setting apart of Paul and Barnabas for missionary service. It is a passage that I had read many times before, but as is so often the case, in a new setting Luke’s account took on fresh meaning.

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Thank God for Deacons

Baptist deacons have sometimes had a bad press. Gerald Coates, the founder of the Pioneer group of churches, once caricatured the life of many a Baptist church when he wrote: ‘Resist the devil and he will flee from you – resist the deacons and they will fly at you’. Or as one pastor remarked: ‘Deacons can make even Herod look compassionate’.

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Electing Deacons

Here at Central Baptist Church, Chelmsford, we are in the process of a deacons’ election. Deacons in our context are the church’s lay leaders: together with the ministers they form the church’s leadership team.

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The Stress of Returning to Work

As I write, I am preparing for a week’s holiday by organising my work-load on my return. Because I am returning late on a Thursday night, I’ve had to prepare my sermon for the following Sunday. I have already written the front cover for that Sunday’s Update. I’ve drafted the beginnings of an agenda for the Ministry Team meeting on the Monday. And here I am writing the next blog for my return. I find it quite stressful preparing to go on holiday – but I gather that I am not alone. According to one survey, 44% of the respondents said that they spend the week before going away on a two-week holiday preparing for their return; while another 18% said that they spend more than two weeks before their holiday preparing for their return.

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Dedicating Children

This coming Sunday we shall be giving a special welcome to two families who will be bringing children for me to ‘dedicate’. Or at least that’s the term we Baptists traditionally have used. Ernest Payne and Stephen Winward in their classic Orders and Prayers for Church Worship (1960) listed ‘The Dedication of Children’ as one of the ‘Ordinances of the Church’. Similarly the next Baptist worship manual, Praise God (1980) complied by Alec Gilmore, Edward Smalley, and Michael Walker, called it ‘Infant Presentation’ – to my mind a much more old-fashioned term. Patterns and Prayers for Christian Worship (1991) compiled by Bernard Green and others used the term ‘Infant Presentation’, while the latest Baptist worship manual, Gathering for Worship: Patterns and Prayers for the Community of Disciples (2005) edited by Christopher Ellis and Myra Blyth, speaks of ‘Presenting, Blessing and Dedicating’. I sometimes speak of the service being one of ‘thanksgiving, promise-making and blessing’ – but that is a real mouthful. In my book, Faith and Festivity (1991), with tongue-in-cheek I used the term, ‘The dummy run’!

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There is Evidence for the Resurrection

Over the years, when preaching on the resurrection, I have often quoted Lord Darling, a former Lord Chief Justice of England, who declared: “We, as Christians, are asked to take a very great deal on trust: the teachings, for example, and the miracles of Jesus. If we had to take all on trust, I, for one, should be skeptical. The crux of the problem of whether Jesus was or was not what he proclaimed himself to be, must surely depend on the truth or otherwise of the resurrection. On that greatest point we are not merely asked to have faith. In its favour as a living truth there exists such overwhelming evidence, positive and negative, factual and circumstantial, that no intelligent jury in the world could fail to bring in the verdict that the resurrection story is true”.

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Why I am a Christian

I am a Christian because I believe that God raised Jesus from the dead. Over the years I have had many occasions to study the New Testament documents. As a PhD student I devoted three years of my life examining the implications of the resurrection of Jesus for the early church. Since then I have taught New Testament in an African university, I have been principal of a theological college, and I have pastored two churches. After using a sabbatical to further study of the resurrection, I went on to publish a book for preachers on The Message of the Resurrection. Today I am more convinced than ever I have been that God raised Jesus from the dead, and that in so doing Jesus broke down death’s defences for all who believe.

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Jesus Suffered Unimaginable Pain - For Us!

It is all too easy to jump from Palm Sunday with its story of Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem to Easter Day, with Jesus triumphant over the power of sin and death, without taking in the slow horror of Holy Week. Alas, most Baptist-Christians fail to observe Holy Week, and as a result are surely weaker in their devotion to the crucified Saviour. We need to spend time focussing on the pain Jesus endured: the pain of hate, the pain of misunderstanding, the pain of rejection, the pain isolation, let alone the pain of crucifixion. Jesus certainly ‘suffered’ for us (1 Peter 3.18).

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Jesus in Pain

“Christ died for sins once and for all, a good man on behalf of sinners, in order to lead you to God” – so reads the Good News Bible’s version of 1 Peter 3.18; and so too the New International Version. But is this a correct translation? According to the New Revised Standard Version and the Revised English Bible, Peter actually wrote: “Christ suffered for sins”. The fact is that the Greek manuscripts on which our English translations are based, themselves vary at this point: some read “he died” (apethanen) and others “he suffered” (epathen). At the end of the day, the difference in translation scarcely matters. One thing for certain, when Christ died, he suffered.

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Mothering Sunday or Mother's Day?

In my diary the fourth Sunday of Lent (this year Sunday 18 March 2012) is marked as ‘Mothering Sunday’. On the church calendar that Sunday is marked as ‘Mother’s Day’. Are Mothering Sunday and Mother’s Day simply synonyms for the same day? As far as the card shops are concerned, they are one and the same day; but in origin they are very different.

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Encourage Your Minister

In Double Cream (Monarch 1988), an anthology of Christian witticism collected by Stephen Gaukroger and Nick Mercer, there is a wonderful piece on the results of encouraging one’s minister:- It may be that you don’t like your church’s minister. Well here is a tested prescription by which you can get rid of him (or her) Look at him straight in the eye when he’s preaching, and maybe say ‘Amen’ occasionally. He’ll preach himself to death in a short time Start paying him whatever he’s worth. Having been on starvation wages for years, he’ll promptly eat himself to death Shake hands with him and tell him he’s doing a good job. He’ll work himself to death Rededicate your own life to God and ask the minister to give you some church work to do. If all else fails, this one is certain to succeed: get your congregation to unite in prayer for him. Her’ll soon be so effective that some larger church will take him off your hands.

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Hospitality versus Entertaining

In the Pastorals, ‘hospitality’ is a key qualification for pastoral office: Paul tells Timothy (1 Tim 3.2) that a ‘bishop’ (NRSV) or ‘church leader’ (GNB) must be ‘hospitable’ (NRSV); ‘he must welcome strangers to his home’ (GNB). Similarly Paul tells Titus (Titus 1.8) that an elder must be ‘hospitable’.

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Let's Mark Lent

The English word ‘Lent’ means ‘Spring’. But Lent is not primarily a spring festival, but rather a pre-Easter period of spiritual discipline. The observance of Lent was first undertaken by candidates for baptism on Easter Day – the period of their instruction being spread over six weeks. Today, however, Lent has become the time when Christians in general are encouraged to prepare themselves to celebrate the events of Good Friday and Easter Day.

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An Inviting Church

This week I came across two American studies on inviting people to church According to the first study: Three out of four people attend a church for the first time because they were invited. Yet less than half of church members say they have invited someone in the last year (Lewis Center for Church Leadership). According to the second: “If every member of the congregation invited three people to worship during the course of the year and only one of those people actually stayed, it would double the worship attendance.  One of the reasons people do not visit our congregations more often is simply because no on ever invites them” (Tim Dolan, Congregations 2011).

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A Welcoming Church

“I was a stranger and you welcomed me” (Matt 25.35). These words of Jesus found in the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats should be imprinted on the hearts and minds of every Christian. If we claim to be followers of Jesus, then we must be people who welcome the stranger. But do we welcome the stranger? Every church likes to think of itself as friendly and welcoming to visitors – and yet the reality is often otherwise. We can be so busy greeting one another, that we fail to spot the newcomer.

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Names Are Important

“There is no sound so sweet as the sound of one’s own name”, said William Shakespeare. And he’s right. People love to hear their name – it makes them feel wanted, needed, valued. I love the thought that Jesus knows me by name. For Jesus, likening himself to a shepherd, declared that the good shepherd, "calls his own sheep by name" (John 10.3). It doesn't matter how many billions of people there may be inhabiting this planet, Jesus knows me by name.

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Taking Time Off

I hate being unwell – it is just such a waste of time! My last bout of wrestling with a cold, cough and throat infection has been so frustrating. There I was the other Sunday morning, coughing and spluttering my way through my sermon; and even then I failed to finish the course, because I had to ask one of my colleagues to preside at the Lord’s Supper while I went off home. The following week proved a ‘wash-out’; I tried to put in an hour or so each day, but exhausted myself in the process. Most of that week I rested and moped around as I tried to get better again.

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Belief in God

Here in the UK fewer and fewer people seem to believe in God. According to the 2011 British Social Attitudes survey, only 54% of people believe in God. But how true are these statistics? For according to the 2010 Office for National Statistics 71% of people still called themselves Christian in 2010, which in turn was marginally down from the 72% in the 2001 Population Census. Surely one might argue anybody who claims to be a Christian must believe in God? But apparently not. It would appear that people can be ‘cultural’ Christians without a personal faith in God.

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Winning the Lottery

According to an article in The Sunday Times, asked what they would do if they won £101 million on the lottery, 74% of Britons said they would give up their jobs, while 20% claimed that they would continue working. 2% would give none of their winnings to friends and family; 34% would give them up to £10 million; 19% between £10 million and £20 million, while 30% would give more than £20 million. The average amount people would immediately spend on themselves is £2.4 million; they would also give £11 million to charity and invest £37 million.

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Impressive Churches

I was staggered. There in the ‘Situations Vacant’ column was an advertisement for an organist: ‘Organist required for an impressive Baptist church in South London’. ‘Wow!, I thought, ‘What a claim to make – an “impressive” church’. What is an impressive church?

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Change is the Law of Life

Whatever else the New Year holds, it will mean change. “Change”, said John F. Kennedy, “is the law of life. And those who look to the past or present are certain to miss the future”. If the truth be told, Christians often find this business of change difficult. We would like the church to remain the same. Some years ago one of our older members said to me: I've sat in this same seat for a third of a century, so why should I change and sit elsewhere?

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Christmas Fantasy

The dictionary defines fancy as "Delusion, unfounded belief; faculty of calling up things not present, of inventing imagery"; fantastic is defined as "extravagantly fanciful"; while fantasy is a "fantastical design; whimsical speculation". Is the Christmas story in the same category – is the Christmas story a fantasy?

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Inviting Friends to Christmas Services

According to some research undertaken by the Campaign for Real Christmas almost ten years, many church members shy away from inviting friends to attend a carol service for fear of losing their friends.

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Christmas Cards

I could not believe it! This morning I discovered that my wife had bought what are essentially secular Christmas cards. True, they are beautiful cards – bought from the Royal Academy no less. But they depict holly, and not Jesus. There is nothing about the Christmas story.

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Preaching From a Full Text

This week I received an e-mail from my friend Chris Skilton: I have never preached from a full text nor write one. I’m a few pages of notes person and find it very hard indeed to speak from a full script”. By contrast, today I always preach from a full manuscript. I used to preach from notes – but no longer. Who is right?

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Ministry Stages

When I was a young minister in my late 20s if a meeting at church finished by 9.30 pm, then I'd go out visiting. I reckoned that I could always knock on the door of most people up until 10 pm – with my leaders I believed that I would be welcomed up until 10.30 pm! Now 40 years later, if a meeting ends at 9.30 pm I am delighted to be able to go back home and read the paper!

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I am Excited About

At our last leadership team weekend away our speaker was Terry Calkin, the pastor of a Green Lane Christian Centre, an independent mega-church in Auckland, New Zealand, which over the years has grown from a small group into a fellowship of over two thousand members. Terry told how he had build his church on ‘four principles of leadership’: viz. vision, passion, character, and gifting. In particular he focussed on vision: vision, he said, gives direction to passion, and passion stops gifting from day- dreaming. He went on: ‘Vision needs to be-stated every Sunday. Tell the church what God has been doing in the past week. Allow your church to be permeated by the contagion of excitement’.

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Necessities for Ministry

The four irreducible necessities of life are water, shelter, oxygen and food. However, life would be pretty limited if that was all we had!

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The Reverend

‘The Reverend’ is the style most often used as a prefix to the names of Christian ministers. It is for instance to be found on my business card – ‘Rev Dr Paul Beasley-Murray’. I confess that it is not a prefix I happily use – for ‘the Reverend’ literally means ‘one to be respected’ or ‘one who must be respected’.

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Should We Keep Services Shorter?

According to Jonathan Gledhill, the Anglican Bishop of Lichfield, church services have become too long; he recommends that clergy should aim to keep the time of worship to no more than 50 minutes. The bishop’s concern is to make the occasional worshipper feel more welcome. He said: You have got to be quite tough to come to some of our services if you are not a regular attender. We’re praying for longer and we’re singing for longer and the idea of spending two hours dedicated to worship is not very appealing in today’s society.

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A Place to Belong

Over the years I have experimented with a variety of ‘strap lines’ for the church. At one stage, for instance, stated on church publicity, ‘Central Baptist Church – going Christ’s way and making disciples’. Perhaps for church people this constant reminder of our mission statement was helpful – but frankly it must have meant very little to people outside the church.

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Experimenting With Church Matters

According to the Oxford Compact English Dictionary, an experiment is ‘a course of action tentatively adopted without being sure of the outcome’. This sums up my foray today into the world of blogging. I have no idea where this exercise in reflective writing will lead. But in the words of WG Gilbert, ‘faint heart never won fair lady’. We get nowhere in life without attempting to push out the boat.

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Are you looking for resources to transform the life of your Church? If so, this website could be what you are looking for.

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Who’s Paul Beasley-Murray?

Paul is the chairman of Ministry Today, as also the College of Baptist Ministers, and from 1993 – 2014 was Senior Minister of Central Baptist Church, Chelmsford. He can be contacted at paul@paulbeasleymurray.com.

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