Monthly Letter – November 2022

A Cord Of Three Strands

Dear Friends,

Someone remarked to me the other day that it’s really hard when you find yourself constrained to leave your church. And it is. Really hard.

The person was speaking about a local church, but the point being made is just as true when applied to departure from your denomination. It’s hard. Really hard.

Hard emotionally. Hard financially. Hard practically. And hard, too, spiritually. Who are you now? And why are you here? And what will you now be about?

I’ve long since thought it would take a good 10 years for ourselves at Gilc to find our feet and get our bearings once we’d left the Church of Scotland: and here we are, coming close now to that 10-year mark. And beginning, I think, at last to get our bearings.

We’ve given a good deal of thought across these years to the whole key theme of ministry, not least as the Leadership Team has prayerfully sought to engage in careful ‘succession planning’: for to engage in such an exercise has obliged us to seek and gain some clarity about the context in which any future ministry will be exercised. Bit by bit that clarity has come: bit by bit we’ve found that our perspective’s been expanded by the Lord, and bit by bit we’ve recognized the ways in which the Lord has been developing a fuller understanding of what ‘ministry’ here will involve for us all as Christ’s church.

Jesus once famously declared of Himself that “He can do only what He sees His Father doing, because whatever the Father does the Son also does” (Jn.5.19): and that remains the paradigm for all His people too. What we do, how we minister, must ever be defined by what we see the Lord Himself at work among us doing.

And what we’ve come to see is that there isn’t just a single strand of ministry to which we’re called: instead, we’ve seen that three distinct and interwoven strands comprise the essence of the ministry to which the Lord directs us now. ‘A cord of three strands is not quickly broken,’ as the Scriptures make clear: and these three interwoven strands of ministry here are combined under God to ensure, I think, that our life and our service is given a strength and robustness which will serve us well going forward.

Let me say something about each of these three ‘strands’ of ministry in the hope that you’ll share at least something of the excitement (and trepidation!) which pulses through my heart.

And let me start by saying that the more I’ve had occasion to reflect on how these three different ‘strands’ are combined, the more I’ve been struck by how essentially and wonderfully ‘trinitarian’ they are – expressive, that is, of the ‘integrated ministry’ (if I may use such a phrase) of the living God Himself: the ‘interwoven’ ministries of Father, Son and Holy Spirit, distinct and yet inseparable, affirmed by us all as we close each service of worship – the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ: the love of the God (the Father): the fellowship of the Holy Spirit. That’s as good a way as any to describe, and indeed to understand, these three key strands of ministry to which we find ourselves now called.

Let me start with the love of God the Father. Like any other fellowship of Jesus’ church, we are inherently a family. We are the children of God because born again, brought into His family to rest secure in His Father’s love, to rejoice in His Father’s goodness.

He watches over each and every one of us. He knows our every need. He feels our every heartache, pain and grief. He cares for us, and comforts us, and counsels us. He anticipates our problems, He eliminates our fears. He is our Father in heaven.

But that love of our Father in heaven must be mediated to His children on earth; and there is, therefore, first of all, a significant and vital ministry within and among us all as a congregation of His people. A demanding and wide-ranging ministry, which both ministers to the very varied needs of each believer, and at the same time enables and empowers each believer to engage themselves in ministry. And, yes, the needs are many and varied, the circumstances straddling the spectrum of spiritual life.

Some are present, gathered together for worship, service and growth; some are absent, scattered in the providence of God to the corners of the earth in the service of His kingdom.

Some are Scottish born and bred; some are from the nations of the world, a range of different cultures from the compass points of earth.

Some are long-standing members, their years of faithful service in Christ’s church a challenge and a stirring inspiration to their ‘siblings’ in the faith; some are relative ‘newbies’, energetic, eager, and enthusiastic members, bringing a welcome freshness to our life.

Some are old, less able, less out, less clear in their minds than once they were – struggling now against the many different facets of frustration, and the dark, encircling gloom of isolation; some are young, facing the challenge of growing up in a puzzling, troubled world, whose values and outlook run counter now to so much of what the Scriptures teach. We have many of each, and many in-betweeners too.

And all of them family. All of them needing the knowledge-in-experience of the love of God the Father. All of them needing His pastoral care. His Word applied to their lives: His presence made real in their struggles and His comfort in their griefs: His arms around their shoulders to sustain them in their trials: His presence by their side.

That’s one key strand in the 3-fold ‘cord of ministry’ which we’re called upon to exercise. An important one. A primary one. A demanding one. But not the only one.

There’s the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ as well. You know what that means. At least Paul assumed the church at Corinth knew – “You know the grace of our Lord Jesus, that though He was rich, yet for your sake He became poor, so that you through His poverty might become rich” (2 Cor.8.9). The Light of the world stepped down into darkness, as the words of the song put it.

And so a second strand to the ministry we exercise involves us opening the door and stepping down those seven stone steps into the ‘darkness’ of the community at hand. The City Council has certainly seen the need for the ‘regeneration’ of Union Street: so do we – in an altogether deeper, more urgent, and far more significant sense.

As the only church which now fronts onto Aberdeen’s major thoroughfare, we’ve recognized a God-given, sizeable responsibility to demonstrate and illustrate precisely that grace of the Lord Jesus Christ within the community where we’re set. For in the past five years we’ve been very clear that the Lord not only gave us the building we have, but deliberately set us right here.

Location, location, location. It matters. Our location here is neither random nor irrelevant. And the boarded-up shops down the length of the street, combined with the large-scale influx of employees into the vast and high-rise office blocks on our doorstep, first prompted us to gather together a working group; and then, on the back of their helpful report, to resolve that one way or another we would find the ways to have our doors more regularly open and our life as Jesus’ people far more readily accessible.

He stepped out: so we must too. He stepped down: so we must too. The ‘ancient doors’ of Psalm 24 have been opened by our risen Lord, and ‘from earth’s wide bounds, from ocean’s farthest coast’ there streams in now a ‘countless host’: that’s what the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ entails. And though they may not be exactly ‘gates of pearl’, our own ancient, wooden doors must be opened, too!

Quite how that’s going to be done, quite what that’s going to entail, quite where that’s going to conclude – well, those are matters we’re looking to Him to make clear. But we know how the thing always works: we go, He gives. In that order. We take the step, He shows the way. So we are now committed to that, committed to opening our doors on a much more regular basis.

He did. He does. We must too.

And that’s a whole, huge other sphere of ministry, as well. Demanding, challenging, stretching. Stretching the meagre resources we have, far beyond what we’d view as their obvious breaking point. Where will we find all the people? How will we fund such a venture? What will it mean for the building? But, as I say, we know the score. We go, He gives. That’s the way grace works.

Then, finally, too, there’s a third important strand of leadership and service which we recognize the Lord has called us now to weave into this cord of gospel ministry – what we might well describe as the fellowship of the Holy Spirit.

We tend – because we repeat the words most regularly in the context of our services of worship – we tend to assume that the phrase refers to the bonds of love we enjoy within our own church life at Gilcomston. But that’s not the reality at all. The communion of the Spirit extends to the whole body of Christ: and we’ve come to see the significant role we’re called upon here to exercise in cultivating just that ‘fellowship of the Spirit’ among the leaders and the churches, throughout ‘greater’ Aberdeen, who share our Spirit-given, Bible-based convictions. The fellowship of the Holy Spirit.

For the Holy Spirit of God is the great divine executive of unity: indeed, there’s a sense in which we might even say that unity is His calling card, the trademark of His every work. Thus, Paul referred to the unity of the Spirit (Eph.4.3), not as if that unity is one among a range of different ways in which His powers are applied, but rather as the character inherent in everything He does.

And He calls us into that work, as an integral part of the ministry here at Gilcomston. Partly because of geography, partly because of our history, partly because of our theology, we find ourselves given a primary role in fostering the perspective of a great collaborative enterprise in pursuit of gospel ministry. The development of the Ministry Training Academy (MTA) is a case in point: a partnership, unthinkable apart from the sovereign work of the Holy Spirit of God – a partnership, of fellowships as well as of pastors, combining together to prioritise the training of the next generation of leaders.

The similarities here with what happened in America three centuries ago is more than a little striking, and underlines the huge significance of this whole third strand of ministry. For in the immediate aftermath of the so-called ‘Great Awakening’ there was a great, concerted push towards establishing the colleges which would be needed if a rising generation of fresh leaders in Christ’s church was to be taught and trained and thoroughly equipped to glorify the Lord in the years that lay ahead.

It is remarkable, historians note, that despite the other demands on their time and energies, these pastors in the 1750s ‘did not neglect the establishment of schools. They remained as committed as their forbears to the need to train the next generation.’ How strikingly similar, don’t you think, to the convictions and burdens which have issued in our own present-day MTA.

And how strikingly similar, too, was the degree to which denominational differences were well and truly buried. John Witherspoon, a native Scot from Paisley and one of the early Principals of what would become Princeton, regularly stressed to his students that when the church prospers her leaders ‘flourish in clusters’, each helping one another. That’s what was happening back then. Iain Murray observed of these men that ‘their evangelical catholicity was far more prominent than their churchmanship. .. Something greater (than their own denominational cause) was in view, namely the need to transmit to posterity the kind of preaching of the gospel that had returned with the Great Awakening.’

Exactly. And here, today, in Aberdeen, just as it was back there and then. That should be sending goosebumps down your spine! The fellowship of the Holy Spirit in pursuit of the glory of Christ. The living God at work. And another significant strand of gospel ministry; demanding, stretching, crucial.

That’s the backdrop to all that Christ’s future for us here will hold. A cord of three great ministry strands: the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit. A work of God is going on in significant, challenging days! May we rise to the challenge and embrace His future eagerly.

Yours with real expectancy in Christ,

Jeremy Middleton