Monthly Letter – April 2019

Dear Friends

Growth is integral to what we’re about. Numerical growth; and spiritual growth.

We’re up for growth. And down on our knees for growth as well: we’re with our friend Jabez, who was down on his knees, beseeching the God of Israel – “Oh that You would bless me and enlarge my territory!” (1 Chron.4.10).

We’re given every encouragement in the Bible to harbour such aspirations, to be eager for this sort of growth. Right from the start, after all, the early church knew some astonishing growth (numerical and spiritual); and they seemed to take it all entirely in their stride.

They experienced it. They expected it. They exhorted it. And they explained it all by reference simply to God.

Growth – even the sort of phenomenal growth which the early church knew – growth like that was not some random fluke, some chance and timely concurrence of a range of significant influences.

Growth, they could see – growth was bound up with who God is and what He does.

God makes things grow. The first disciples had seen such growth, seen God at work, first-hand. They’d watched how Jesus grew food for the thousands from a young lad’s simple packed lunch. They’d seen how Jesus, in the first of His ‘signs’, had grown wine by the gallon out of that which had started as water. They’d seen, that is – they’d seen first hand both numerical growth in the feeding of the 5,000, and ‘spiritual’ growth in the stunning transformation of water into wine. Growth in the sense of multiplication, and growth in the sense of transformation. Both effected by the Lord.

God makes things grow. Not in any merely ‘occasional’ way, in the sense that if there does just happen to be some growth, then we’re to give the Lord the credit. But rather in a much more ‘intentional’ or even ‘essential’ way – as in, that’s just who He is and what He always does: He makes things grow.

And just try stopping Him! It’s there from the start of the Bible in the account of God’s creation. An ‘expanding universe’ is, therefore, no more than what you’d have come to expect once you sussed out who God is and what He does and how the very essence of His great creative genius is – He makes things grow.

Growth is never a fluke: but it isn’t magic either. There isn’t any secret, snap-your-fingers, ‘abracadabra’ formula whereby you pray the right prayer and .. boom! .. growth is magically pulled like a rabbit from your ecclesiastical headware. Growth involves hard work. Careful planning, faithful pastoring, anointed preaching.

As a body of leaders we’ve been working at this. We recognize that good leadership will mean, and issue in, real growth. We understand the challenge of that.

We understand that that’s what leaders are there for in God’s church. Their role is to ‘present everyone fully mature in Christ’ (Col.1.28): growth is what they work for in the life of the church of God – that ‘transformation’ growth whereby we each are growing in maturity: and, in many ways as a result of that, ‘multiplication’ growth as well.

Such growth, as I say, is neither a fluke nor the wave of a magic wand. It’s something we have to work at, a skill we have to develop. The skill of a ‘shepherd leader’. For that is the commonest term the Bible has used to describe the sort of leadership required in securing this growth in Christ’s church. Shepherd.

And as often as not it’s a verb. It’s a task which the leaders fulfill, not a title they choose to adopt. They are to shepherd the flock of God: feeding, shielding, guiding, restoring. And it is with this pastoral leadership (recognizing, of course, that it is always God Himself who makes things grow) – it is with this pastoral leadership that the true health, and thereby the real growth, of the people of God always begins.

It’s this, therefore, at which we’ve been working. We aspire in all things to excellence; and this significant area of our fellowship’s life is no exception. We aim, by God’s grace and for God’s glory, to afford the very highest calibre of pastoral leadership. And that involves both organizing our leadership aright and exercising this ministry well.

Our starting point, in terms of the first of these concerns at least, has been to work from a set of what we deem to be basic, self-evident truths.

We will build on all that’s good. There’s much that is pastorally good in our congregation’s life: and we have no desire or intention to ditch the lot and start from scratch. Rather we’re glad to recognize those features in the ‘structures’ of the church which serve us well, and use them as the basis for development.

So there are, for instance, many long-standing pastoral relationships which elders here have formed across the years with individuals: we want to build on, rather than to bury, such relationships, since in all such pastoral relationships the groundwork has already all been done.

Similarly, we’re very aware of the hugely important ministry of pastoral care which day by day is exercised throughout our congregation’s life. Some have long since been involved in this in a ‘formal’ sort of way, assisting as designated ‘Carers’ the elders in the various ‘pastoral care groups’ there have been: and many another, more informally, but no less significantly, are involved in affording such pastoral care to a range of different people in the life of the fellowship here. Again, far from dispensing with such a fruitful ministry, we want rather to build it into the fabric of the whole broad pastoral ministry exercised here.

Over the past three or four years as well the Community Groups have provided an important pastoral context where those involved have found support, encouragement and help as they’ve sought to learn together from God’s Word. Here, too, we see so much that is good, and are keen, thus, that these groups should be an integral part of our overall pastoral work.

Every Christian needs to be pastored. Including those who are pastors. The sheep and shepherd imagery runs right the way through the Scriptures: and that for a whole load of reasons, not the least of which is that we, like sheep, have a singular tendency to stray from the path, to lose our first love, to drift from our early commitment, to flee in the face of life’s trials, and to fall for the wiles of the devil.

We all of us need to be pastored. We all of us need the good Shepherd; and the One who is the Shepherd of the multitude too numerous to number appoints in every fellowship a group of pastoral leaders who are called by Him to shepherd well His flock.

We all of us have need of this demanding pastoral ministry, through whom we’ll be encouraged, challenged, comforted, restored; through whom we will be helped in all the ups and downs of life to grow to that maturity of faith of which I spoke, and to grow into the ministry of Christ whereby the lost are found, the blind begin to see, and countless men and women find the freedom and the fullness which they’ve sought, in Jesus Christ.

We take it as a given, therefore, that every member of the body of Christ’s local church (however loosely a person’s being a ‘member’ is defined) needs and will benefit from a designated pastor.

Every elder is a pastor. It may seem strange to make such an obvious point, but it’s a point which requires to be made. There is no other sort of elder which the Bible ever speaks about. Sometimes referred to as ‘elders’ (in terms of their spiritual maturity), and sometimes referred to as ‘overseers’ (in terms of their pastoral ministry), the calling of the local pastoral leadership is always and emphatically to ‘shepherd’, or pastor, the flock of God.

We have some 28 elders here now: and each, by definition, is a pastor. That is their calling. That should be their gifting. And that will be their primary, Christ-embodying ministry. Some may be out of the country: some may be now quite infirm. But the rest … well, they are pastors, those who at the last must give account to God for the careful cultivation of that growth which is God’s alone to give.

On the back of these three foundational premises we’re proposing that our pastoral leadership here will be exercised now in this way.

Each elder will have a number of designated individuals, for whom he’ll have that pastoral responsibility under God. Wherever a pastoral tie already exists we will aim, as I say, to retain it. And whereas in a bygone generation the allocation to an elder was done on a primarily geographical basis, our intent now is that the primary factor involved should be essentially relational.

Each member of our fellowship will also, thus, have a designated elder. We believe it’s important that each of us knows who our pastoral elder is (and that we’re each of us comfortable, too, with the pastoral elder suggested: we have given some careful thought in each case as to who that elder should be, but there’ll certainly be the chance to share any reservations you may have about the elder we suggest and to find someone more appropriate). And it’s just as important, of course, that each and every elder knows the individuals entrusted to his charge.

We envisage, of course, an inherent flexibility, recognizing that a given individual may well often gravitate to a number of different elders, and may choose, indeed, to confide in and seek out the help and support of those who are not elders as such themselves.

But the calling and thus the concern of such pastoral leadership is always to strive and ‘strenuously contend’ (Col.1.29) in the strength of the Lord to the end that we present each and every person ‘fully mature in Christ’. This sort of pattern, we’re persuaded, is how such an end’s best secured. Each elder with a designated group of individuals and the charge to “go, shepherd the flock of God”: and each individual with a designated pastor whose solemn charge under God is to “keep watch over you as those who must give an account” (Heb.13.17).

God makes things grow. We therefore both anticipate such growth and seek as best we know how to facilitate such growth. And all the while we’re crying out to God like Jabez of old, “Oh that You would bless us and enlarge our territory!”

Yours in the service of the Chief Shepherd Himself,

Jeremy Middleton