What did I mean when I said that through a recent course of study I had learned to read better?

Of course I could read before. So what changed? Mortimer Adler and Charles van Doren’s aptly-titled How to Read a Book explains there are four levels of reading.

The first is Elementary reading, which you have mastered if you can read this blog!

Second is Inspectional Reading to get a sense of what the book is about and how it sets out to get there. In my experience this means leafing through the contents, index, and reading the first and last chapters, with a skim of the conclusion of the major parts in between. Some authors even save you the bother by setting it all out in a long introduction! It is if you like, getting a feel for the lie of the land. (Much easier in my experience with a print book than a digital one).

The third level enables one to ‘come to terms’ with the book. That phrase has a specific meaning, which is to understand the author’s key phrases (the terms), and understand how they are used here (coming to terms). That enables one to define what problem the author is trying to solve, how the parts of the book come together, and whether the problems have in fact been solved. Which opens the way to criticism, for which the following rules are given:

Do not say you agree, or disagree, or suspend judgement until you can say, “I understand.”
Do not disagree disputatiously or contentiously
Present good reasons for the critical judgement you make.

If you can show wherein the author is uninformed, misinformed or illogical, then you can state why you disagree. If their analysis or account is incomplete then you can explain why you suspend judgement

The fourth level of reading is Syntopical reading, which is to bring several authors together as they speak on a certain discussion. If you’re with me so far, you might recognise this as the skill that essay subjects aim to develop – to see what different authors say about a similar question, and to let them speak in their terms.

So what did I learn through the DMin? I learned that by growing in the Third and Fourth stages of reading, I could read better and quicker. Speed was important because of the need to get the reading done in the midst of a busy ministry. Quality mattered because this is a serious course with a credible doctoral dissertation as the desired end-product. I found that for too long I had read every word of every page and lost sight of the author’s main arguments. In other words, I used to read non-fiction in the same way I still read fiction – from start to finish.

It’s a legacy of my undergraduates studies which were in natural science. Chemistry is not an essay subject: the merits or otherwise of a reaction aren’t settled by argument on paper, they are settled in lab by experiment. And text books are dense texts filled with formulae that do not respond well to skim-reading. My first studies required me to read closely but I never needed to read intelligently. Somehow I stumbled through theological studies without really mastering the latter either. Thankfully the DMin helped me gain my feet in Learning How to Read a Book. I wish I had discovered that book twenty years ago.

Why I did a DMin


For the past four years I have followed a course of study called a DMin (Doctor of Ministry) at Covenant Theological Seminary (CTS) in St Louis Missouri (USA). The DMin was designed for ministers to receive further training in mid-ministry.

Following a degree course is a formal course of study. Advantages are that this gives us permission to study in the midst of conflicting priorities.

Another option would be non-formal study, which is organised but not institutional. One example would be the cell group that meets three times a year to read and discuss a book; or the preaching clubs and escuelitas that are the backbone of Langham Preaching‘s growth world-wide.

Informal study describes the lifelong process of continuing education. As I suggested in my post on Sabbaticals, all of us should be growing in knowledge all of the time: the reality is that some of us with tender consciences are easily kept from what feels like ‘me-time’ in the face of others’ needs.

The format of the course was three taught years consisting of a cycle of reading (c. 16 books), residency (2 weeks in St Louis), and reports (of 5,000 and 10,000 words respectively). The final year is devoted to the dissertation, for which there was excellent preparation and support.

My cohort are a wonderful bunch that it has been a privilege to get to know. Most of the others are Presbyterian (usually PCA), and between us we minister on four continents! Spending time with these men has been a joy.

I would summarise some of the benefits under the headings of learning better to read, to write, to listen and to speak. Maybe I’ll expand on this in a future post.

Meanwhile, here is a short video they made about us:


Plans, Plans…


Making plans should always be a tentative business. Proverbs warns us

Many are the plans in a man’s heart, but it is the LORD’S purpose that prevails.(Proverbs 19:21 NIV)

Nevertheless, it is useful to make some plans for my Sabbatical so that I at least know how to set out, even if I remain open about what the final destination will be.

I mentioned in a previous post that my aims for the Sabbatical are general rather than specific. I could sum my goals as Reading, Writing and Running


Although I read in the course of regular ministry, my choice of reading is constrained by what teaching I need to deliver, or what issues we are immediately facing a church. Sabbatical is a chance to read more broadly and I hope to do this by covering one or two works in each of biblical studies (Psalms, Matthew), history (Augustine), Leadership, Teaching (see below), and devotional works on prayer and preaching. I also hope to have more time to spend in personal Bible study.

The trouble with reading is that it does not look like you’re working very hard when doing it. The real action happens on the inside and it takes both time and a trained eye to see the results. Once I return, you will have both available to you!


I do not have a specific new writing project in mind. If something occurs to me, that is a sign that the sabbatical is working! But in the mean time I will spend a few days (hopefully not much longer) finishing the footnotes and formatting of my D Min dissertation, and converting the content into a booklet for Latimer Trust.

Writing also contrasts with reading in that it involves delivering content, and I will spend time in training settings. For the past ten or so years I have been involved with Langham Preaching‘s francophone team, and in connection with that I plan to brush up on adult education at a consultation in Ghana, then put it into practice with a seminar in Senegal. I also plan a visit to the Belgian Bible Institute in Brussels to see how they do it.


Running is in fact a shorthand because I’m not able to run, or jog at the moment. (What’s snn2515cc_441817athe difference between runners and joggers? Runners run because they love running; joggers do it because they love cake). Running stands for ‘self-care’, an important part of responsible and sustainable ministry.

I hope to be active, and also to try these new skills: baking (sponge cakes) and bicycle maintenance.

Watch this space!

What is a Sabbatical?



A sabbatical is a break from the usual responsibilities of work or ministry in order to spend concentrated and extended time on personal development. The name ‘Sabbatical’ implies that this happens once every seven years, but in the Church of England it’s much less frequent than that: this will be my first Sabbatical in 19 1/2 years of parish ministry, and the first in nine and a half years in Wembdon.

The purpose of taking a sabbatical is to become a better minister. So how does a break from routine work help me become better at parish ministry?

One way to think about it is to realise that Christian ministry is developed from three overlapping areas:

  • Knowledge, that is knowledge of the Bible and Christian Doctrine.
  • Skills, that is skills for ministry including leadership
  • Character, which includes gifts but focuses mainly on Christian character

In aiming for a sustainable ministry, we aim at supporting all three of these: whether you’re a Sunday School teacher, a Small group leader, a musician, or a Pastoral Team member, regular support means ensuring you are always growing in Knowledge, Skills and Character. These things are not optional.

A Sabbatical is an extended time to concentrate on one or more of these. That is why the formal name in this Diocese is Extended Ministerial Development Leave. Some ministers use a Sabbatical to focus on just one area: to gain a new skill, or visit churches facing a particular issue, or to research an area for a new book, or to seek out new experiences usually through travel. I plan to use the twelve or so weeks available to me to cover a little of all three. I will outline my plans in more detail in another post.

What will the church be doing while I am away? Carrying with the work! There are leadership and ministry teams in place, and we trust that will enable the church to aim much higher than for mere survival. There is no reason why the church should not thrive and grown because the Chief Minister, Jesus, has not gone on Sabbatical! Here are four themes we have identified for the first few months of the year, including the time of my sabbatical:

  1. Keep Sundays Special. We keep a focus on quality and consistency on Sundays. There may be times that we need to Keep Sundays Simple because we’re stretched: but at all times we want to Keep Sundays Good in terms of welcome and worship, teaching and fellowship.
  2. Build on the Build. The building project offers many potential challenges: apart from the difficulty of the build itself we face the possibility of adverse effects on the unity and energy of the project team; on the patience of the many groups having to change rooms or whatever; on relationships with contractors and neighbours; and on our focus on mission. These potential problems are all also God-given opportunities to build on so that the build becomes a time when we grow in prayerfully depending on God at each step. We ask him to help us to grow positive relationships with contractors, neighbours and others; to demonstrate the depth of love and patience with each other which is the fruit of the Spirit (see Galatians 5.22-23); and to make the building itself a wonderful platform for mission.
  3. Grow the family. The Lord seems to be bringing new people to us: let’s keep our desire to serve and to grow the church. As we pray for more to join us I hope we will work to welcome them in and see them flourish in serving the Lord among us.
  4. Permeate with Prayer: for Sundays, for the build, for growth. Every step of the way.


Abraham Tested – Genesis 22


Sunday’s sermon on Genesis 22 was not recorded because of an equipment malfunction. Here is the text of my sermon (or the script I was preaching from, to be more accurate).

God Tests Abraham (v1-2)

We have walked with Abraham for the past few weeks. We saw that he is a man with faith: Gd told him to get up and go to a new country, and he did; God promised Abraham a blessing, and he gave it; and God promised Abraham and Sarah a son – Isaac – and he was born (eventually). Abraham had faith.

Abraham also had flaws, so that his faith stumbled. He did the whole ‘sister act’ thing of pretending that his wife Sarah was in fact his sister, because he was afraid – for which read that he did not trust God to keep him alive.

Through all this, Abraham’s faith has been maturing, and this is the test that proves the maturity of his faith. We’re told straight away it’s a test:

  Some time later God tested Abraham.  (Genesis 22:1)

This is really important: it tells us that, whatever happens, God does not intend for Isaac to die. Abraham doesn’t know that – but the writer reassures us at the outset.

God tests Abraham to prove his maturity. Others test for destruction. It’s like the difference between the burglar and the householder testing the door. The burglar tests your doors and windows to see if they will fail, so that he can come in and destroy. The householder tests the windows and doors to confirm that they are indeed secure.

God’s test is for Abraham’s good: it is to prove the maturity of Abraham’s faith.

But the test is difficult – as I said, one of the most difficult verses to read in the whole Bible:

Then God said, “Take your son, your only son, Isaac, whom you love, and go to the region of Moriah. Sacrifice him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains I will tell you about.”  (Genesis 22:2)

God knows this is a painful thing he’s asking: that Abraham sacrifice the son he loves. We’re told repeatedly he is the son Abraham loves. Abraham is not made of wood: he loves his son dearly, and this is a huge ask. It asks questions of God’s character (we’ll come back to that in a moment).

Genesis does not hide the anguish: did you notice as we read the passage how the pace slows deliberately to ramp up the dramatic tension: there are preparations, there is a journey, there are questions. It takes an agonising eight verses to get to the point where he is about the slay his son. There’s no hiding the pain.

God’s request is painful for Abraham; and puzzling for us too, because we’ve endured nine long chapters even to get to the birth of Isaac. And Isaac is central to the fulfilment of God’s promises Why give a son and then take him away? It’s a painful and a puzzling command. What do we make of it?

This command puts into question God’s goodness.

I don’t know about you, but it seems frighteningly close to the scenes you see in films. In the Bourne films, Jason Bourne is being inducted as a secret agent, but he must pass his final test. In front of him is a man, bound and sat on a chair. Bourne must take a pistol and shoot the man in cold blood. That is his test. From this point he either moves on with the programme, or he is exited.

There are many variations on this: how is that different from what God asks of Abraham? Here are the ways it is different

God tests for success, not to trap.

When Jason Bourne kills the man, he is trapped. If he wants to exit the programme, he will face a murder charge. This is not a test but a trap, from which there is no way back. God’s test is different: he tests Abraham to prove his maturity. Remember the burglar wants to destroy, the householder wants to prove security. God tests only to confirm that Abraham is trusting him.

God never commands or commends human sacrifice.

God never commands human sacrifice in the Bible. In fact he explicitly forbids it. The only place where a father sacrificing his son is dealt with at all positively is here, and in the case of God the Father with Jesus Christ. God never commands human sacrifice. Whereas the CIA in Jason Bourne or the Mafia in the mobster stories are in the business of killing people. Unlike them, God is good.

God keeps some mystery for himself.

We will see that God tests Abraham, that Abraham trusts God, and that God provides. But this side of eternity, there will be some unanswered questions. But they aren’t about God’s goodness. They are are about God’s methods. We don’t really know, for example, why God chose to test Abraham in this way.

  • It may be that Isaac had become an idol: that Abraham loves God only because he gave him a son? We too may grow idols – God’s good blessings that we prize above God himself. And God may refine our faith by shaking or even taking from us what we hold dear because we’re holding it more dear than God himself. But there are no clues that this is what is happening here. It does not appear to be discipline. It is testing.
  • Isaac is Abraham’s only son as far as the Covenant is concerned. He has another son, Ishmael, who will be blessed: but the covenant promises will go forward through Isaac:

But God said to him, “Do not be so distressed about the boy [Ishmael] and your maidservant [Hagar]. Listen to whatever Sarah tells you, because it is through Isaac that your offspring will be reckoned.  (Genesis 21:12)

To give up Isaac also means giving up on the whole means of God fulfilling his purpose.

So it seems to me that the test is not a discipline for holding Isaac more precious than God: it is a test to show up the kind of faith that trusts God to do what he has promised, in his way. That is what God wants to reveal in Abraham. (Remember God tests to confirm what is there not to destroy).

=> That kind of test – even if it is not always as extreme – is part of the disciple’s life. Here are some possible scenarios

A case in point is the Parish Centre. It is central to our work as a church, reaching and serving this area. If it came to it, would you trust God to go forward without a Parish Centre, or would you walk away from God if he asked it of you? As it happens, God is answering our prayers very generously, but the question remains: would you still trust God if he let the Parish Centre fail?

Or on a broader canvas, we face significant challenges to staying both faithful to the Bible and remaining within the Church of England. Our position in the church and in the village are central to the work of reaching and serving the area. But if it came to a choice between the Bible and the Church of England, would we trust God to be good in what his Word teaches, or would we walk away from the Bible to keep the church at all costs?

On a smaller and more personal note: you have a gospel opportunity, maybe a friendship, or a colleague at work with whom you get on well. But if you are to take the next step in sharing your faith, there is a risk. If they reject you, then the friendship on which you depend for evangelism, is spoiled. Will you trust God enough to do what he says in his word even if it puts that relationship in jeopardy, or will you draw back from anything that might put it in question?

The fact is that we grow when our faith is tested. God tests us for our good. The present crunch point we’re facing in the parish centre has been a test of our faith more than a test of our pockets. It’s been good to reach the end of our resources, because that is when we really begin to lean on God’s resources. I hope that this opens a new chapter of greater and more prayerful dependence on the Lord in everything we attempt as a church.

So is God good? Yes. And why does he test? To reveal and confirm faith.

Crises that test faith and obedience to the uttermost are still part of the disciple’s lot (Duguid, 118)

Abraham Trusts God (v3-12)

Abraham’s faith is hinted at in a number of ways.

First (v3) he gets up early the next morning to start preparations. He does not dilly-dally! But neither is it a rash thing (such as you need in order to jump into a cold sea): the journey takes an agonising three days (v4). Then notice how even as he climbs the mountain he trusts God.

Second, he says to the servants:

“Stay here with the donkey while I and the boy go over there. We will worship and then we will come back to you.” (Genesis 22:5)

He is confident that – somehow – God would bring Isaac back.

Then when Isaac asks that question, “where is the lamb for the burnt offering?”  (Genesis 22:7) Abraham replies:

“God himself will provide the lamb for the burnt offering, my son.”  (Genesis 22:8)

There is lots that Abraham doesn’t know: but he still trusts God. It’s like Job who suffered much and puzzled and questioned, yet could say of God:

Though he slay me, yet will I hope in him; (Job 13:15)

Somehow Abraham trusted God that death would not be the end. Hebrews makes this comment on Abraham and Isaac:

Abraham reasoned that God could raise the dead, and figuratively speaking, he did receive Isaac back from death.  (Hebrews 11:19)

Faith is trusting God when you can’t see the way forward – but you believe that God can. That is saving faith – a faith that trusts God through even death. James point to Abraham as an example of saving faith:

Was not our ancestor Abraham considered righteous for what he did when he offered his son Isaac on the altar? You see that his faith and his actions were working together, and his faith was made complete by what he did.  (James 2:21–22)

His faith was ‘made complete’ in the sense that it was confirmed as mature.

The Loneliness of Faith

Faith is that it is something that in the end you and I need to do alone before God. Did you notice how Abraham becomes more and more alone: first he leaves his home, then he leaves his two servants behind, and then Isaac is silent, and only Abraham remains, with his son on the wood and the knife poised.

Abraham’s lonely journey up the mountain symbolises the lonely psychological journey of faith to the place of obedience and sacrifice (Waltke)

He is alone before God.

Faith and obedience are – in the end – decisions that you and I make alone before God. Think of your personal faith in Christ: your parents, or your spouse, or even your children, may have a Christian faith: but the decision to trust Christ with your life and your destiny is yours alone.

Think then of any other crisis you face, be it a test of one kind or another: your church, your family, your Christian friends can stand with you: but the decision to trust or not trust; the decision to give up or retain, is yours and yours alone – before God, of course.

God brings you to the point of crisis and decision because he wants you to trust him. Again if I may use the Parish Centre as an example, I do believe he has brought us to this point where we exhaust our own resources so we must trust him.

One of my favourite jokes and I have told a few times. Two ministers are discussing how best to pray. One thinks this, the other thinks that produces the best faith. The BT repair guy working in the background interrupts. ‘You’re both wrong. The best prayers I ever prayed were when I was hanging upside down from a telegraph pole’.

God tested Abraham so that he would trust God. God tests you and me for the same end: that you and I may trust him. And no-one else can do it for us.

The Lord Provides (v13-24)

Wonderfully, the Lord provides. It’s so dramatic – as Abraham is poised with a knife, the angel of Lord calls from heaven to stop:

“Do not lay a hand on the boy,” he said. “Do not do anything to him. Now I know that you fear God, because you have not withheld from me your son, your only son.”  (Genesis 22:12)

Abraham’s fear is not the abject fear of Jason Bourne or the prospective mobster, trapped into going forwards. This is a faith that recognises God’s goodness and his mystery: ‘Even though he slay me, yet will I hope in him’.

The story is told of Martin Luther reading this chapter with his family at family devotions, and his wife said, “I do not believe it. God would not have treated his son like that’. The Luther turned to her and said, “But Katie … he did.” (Davis, 141)

This is what I think Jesus had in mind in John when he said:

Your father Abraham rejoiced at the thought of seeing my day; he saw it and was glad.” (John 8:56)

Abraham caught a glimpse of how Jesus saves when he saw the ram that God provided as a substitute. Which helps us return to that opening question of whether God is good.

If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all—how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things?  (Romans 8:31–32)

In Abraham’s case, the ‘good things’ were a clear restatement of God’s promise:

The angel of the LORD called to Abraham from heaven a second time and said, “I swear by myself, declares the LORD, that because you have done this and have not withheld your son, your only son, I will surely bless you and make your descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and as the sand on the seashore. Your descendants will take possession of the cities of their enemies, and through your offspring all nations on earth will be blessed, because you have obeyed me.”  (Genesis 22:15–18)

The expression, ‘I will surely bless you’ is an intensive: the previous promise of blessing pales in comparison. When God tests Abraham it is not to trap him, but to lead him into greater blessing.

At the Lord’s Table we recall that Jesus died for sins, in our place. That is God’s way. The Christian faith is not about what you and I DO (that’s what I call religion). The Gospel is about what Jesus has DONE, primarily on the cross, as our substitute. That is how God works, and what we remember in Communion.

Those blessings and that salvation are appropriated by personal trust – that lonely walk or personal decision – to lean on his death alone and entirely. That, incidentally, is why Communion is rightly linked to the public profession of a personal saving faith in Jesus — whether in Confirmation, or Adult Baptism, or something similar. It’s an important stage – a test even – to confirm that yes indeed, you are trusting in Christ alone.

God Tested Abraham (and he will test us for our good too).

Abraham trusted God (and shows us how we trust Christ)

God provides a substitute. And the so the promise goes on.

The Promise goes on

We get a clue in the final verses about how the story will go forward. The question in our minds is, ‘OK so God will give Abraham countless descendants: so far Abraham has one descendant, Isaac. Where are the rest going to come from?

Well here’s the family tree for the extended family: it mentions mothers, and men, and just one daughter – a girl called Rebekah. Maybe we should be looking out for her?

Vision & Giving Review Sunday 13th March 2016


Matt 28.16-20 Vision & Giving Sunday

Introduction: “Question 37”

The most recent National Census (2011) Q37 asked, ‘At your workplace, what is the main activity of your employer?’ In other words, what is made at your place of work?

  • if you’re a parent, the answer might be, ‘A mess!’
  • if you’re in manufacturing, you’d say, ‘Widgets’ (or whatever)
  • if you’re a jaded teacher, it might be [in bored voice] ’We make progress towards nationally-determined Key Stage targets’.

How would you answer for the Church? Yes we make tea and coffee but is that our main business? Yes we make appeals for money, but is that our main business?

The main business of the Church is to make disciples. Making disciples means making – introducing people to Jesus Christ so that they may know him and follow him – and maturing – encouraging one another to live fruitfully and walk faithfully with Jesus Christ).

We know it’s the main business of the church because it’s what Jesus tells his disciples and us to be doing:

“All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” (Matt 28:18–20)

Making Disciples – Matthew 28.16-20

Let me very quickly draw out four themes from his command that explains how he wants us to go about it:

All Nations

Jesus commands us to make disciples of all nations. At this stage he’s speaking to Jewish disciples in Jerusalem. Jesus’ disciples are to take the news about Jesus to all nations, to Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria and to the ends of the earth. The good news is for all nations.

For some Christians, the command to go to all nations means leaving their home and working in another culture, so-called ‘missionaries’.

For everyone else, the command to go to all nations means welcoming all nations. That is our challenge: Bridgwater is only going to become more diverse. That is God bringing the mission field to us. It’s not a question of whether St George’s is to welcome and reach other nationalities, but how.


Baptism is how we mark the beginning of the Christian life. We baptise the children of believers on the basis that they will be brought up within the church, and in time will make their own faith public. Those who haven’t been baptised as children and then come to a personal faith in Christ are baptised as adults. Next month we hope to see 2 or 3 people being baptised in this way.

Baptisms are always accompanied by an explanation of the Christian faith, because Jesus’ command is to make Christian disciples. That is why we ask, either through questions, or by hearing a testimony, have you come to know God personally, and is He the God of the Bible, that is the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.

Making disciples, or evangelism, must mean talking about Jesus and what he has done. It is impossible to carry out God’s mission by staying silent. It’s not whether we will speak of Jesus, but how.


God wants his church to grow up as well as to grow numerically larger. Growing up means growing to maturity in Christ, and that comes by hearing and obeying Jesus’ teaching:

… and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. (Matthew 28:20)

If you want to grow to maturity, the first step is to ask God to give you a hunger for his word. Then pray for those whose duty and joy it is to help you hear it – preachers, Bible Study leaders, people who write your Bile notes. Then pray for grace to accept what God is saying to you.

Sometimes (often maybe) we’re not receptive to what God wants to say to us. We have selective spiritual hearing.

As a father I developed selective hearing when my infant children woke in the night. It’s been very helpful. A couple of weeks ago I stayed with some friends who are fostering a baby. Sam was up in the night a couple of times. Did he disturb me? No – and even if I had heard him, I would have ignored him. He’s not my baby!

Spiritually, we have times of being deaf. That is why God in his love and mercy gives us every circumstance as an opportunity to hear and to grow: when we enjoy good things from God’s hand, do we thank him for them, or say, ‘well done me?’; when we are at the end of our resources, do we dig deeper, or do we turn to God? When we struggle or suffer, or when we despair at the depth of our sin and coldness of heart, do we draw away from God or draw nearer?

Growing in maturity means facing every circumstance as a Christian. One of the most frustrating experiences for me as a pastor is to see Christians facing a challenge withdraw from Christian fellowship until they are sorted. It’s like saying, ‘I’ll go to the dentist when my toothache has abated’, or ‘I’ll go to school when I have learned to read’. It’s precisely when we’re stretched that we grow – if we turn to God’s word and hear what he says.

Therefore the diet of Sunday church as a priority, midweek groups and seminars, and then meeting with others either for one to one Bible reading, and prayer, or as a prayer triplet, are the basics of being equipped to grow to maturity.

I am with you always

Finally note Jesus’ promise that he is with me. We have seen this more clearly in our studies in the Upper Room (John 13-17, our current morning sermon series):

  • Jesus has returned to the Father, where he is an advocate for us. Whenever God looks at you and me, Jesus speaks up and says, “This person has come to me: I have died to cover their sin.” He is our advocate with the Father.
  • Jesus sends the Spirit who is Another Advocate, to speak to us: “Jesus has chosen you to bear fruit. You are adopted into God’s family by faith in Jesus. You have a new relationship: you really can call on God as your Father.”

Jesus is with us as we seek to go out to make disciples, and to speak of Jesus to a world that is often hostile (but sometimes open). Jesus is with us as we face life’s ups and downs, the circumstances God has allowed for our growth, maturity and progress in Christ. Jesus is with us as we battle to keep the priority of making disciples amid many competing calls. The business of the church is making disciples.

This may all seem familiar to you. Good! It’s meant to be a refresher because the mission of the church and the vision for our church hasn’t changed. This is a refresher. I would normally dig deeper still into the passage but I want to move on to some very practical implications of Jesus’ call. I have put a previous sermon on the journeyman preacher blog which says more about the passage.

I want to think about some practical implications of this mission.

A Task for the whole church

First is that Making Disciples is a task for the whole church. We are all involved and we all have a part to play. We have different gifts and play a different role in detail. But everyone’s role must contribute toward the goal of making disciples of Jesus Christ.

The Vine and the Trellis

One helpful tool for discerning how the parts of church life fit together is the idea of the Vine and the Trellis. We have also met this before. It’s an idea taken from gardening.

The point of gardening is to grow a harvest. The Vine is the basic work of Christian ministry: preaching the gospel in the power of the Spirit; seeing people changed and converted by God through his word and by his Spirit; and seeing them grow to maturity and service in Christ. That’s the vine that we are planting, growing and watering.

And just as a plant needs a trellis or framework (especially a vine), so the work of ministry has a structure that supports it: somewhere to meet, some Bibles to read, a programme so we know what we’re doing, some staff, and some finances to support them and so on. The trellis is everything that supports the vine of the ministry.

If the vine dies, the church dies. A Church with just trellis and no vine is a dead church. If the vine grows, the trellis can either support the vine (because it remembers that the main business of the church is making disciples), or it can stifle the vine (because it thinks the main business of the church something else).

A Task for the whole church

The vine and the trellis help us to see how everyone is involved in the ministry of the church.

Let me use Holiday Club as an example. The main purpose of the Holiday Club is to teach the children about Jesus: Who he is (his identity), What he came to do (his mission) and How he wants us to respond (his call).

The Vine work is the teaching ministry – the so-called ‘pastoral’ workers: telling the story through Bible reading, music, drama, questions, crafts, memory verses. It is backed up by the love and care we show. It is enabled by our prayers to God that he would open blind eyes. A Holiday Club without this work is not a Christian holiday club. It’s not mission.

The Trellis work is everything that supports the teaching ministry: food & drink; venue; administration; insurance; Tee-shirts, setting out crafts and tidying up crafts. These are practical tasks done in a godly way and to support the vine work.

It’s the same with the whole church. The Vine work is the ministry of the word; to make disciples of all our neighbours (to all nations) by introducing them to Jesus Christ (Baptising), maturing them (teaching them to obey), and doing it in cooperation with Jesus (I am with you). That is the Vine work. A Church without this priority is not a Christian church. It’s not doing God’s mission.

The Trellis work is everything that supports the teaching ministry: food & drink; venue; administration; insurance; Tee-shirts, setting out crafts and tidying up crafts. These are practical tasks done in a godly way and to support the vine work.

Which is why I want to think about finance and giving. It’s not the main purpose of the church (and sometimes we need to forgo opportunities to take a collection just to make the point that we’re more interested in people themselves than in their money). But it’s a trellis that supports the vine work. If you care about God’s mission, then you and I need to show that care by our financial and prayerful support.

In a moment I want to share with you some data about our Church’s finances, including the Parish Centre

It is good for believers to give

First I want to say something about the place of giving in the Christian life.

It is good for Christians to give. God loves a cheerful giver.

Remember this: Whoever sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and whoever sows generously will also reap generously. Each of you should give what you have decided in your heart to give, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver. And God is able to bless you abundantly, so that in all things at all times, having all that you need, you will abound in every good work. (2 Cor 9:6–8)

So it is good for believers to give according to their means.

It is good for givers to review their giving

It s also good for believers to review their giving. It is understood that committed disciples will give in a committed way:

Now about the collection for God’s people: Do what I told the Galatian churches to do. On the first day of every week, each one of you should set aside a sum of money in keeping with his income, saving it up, so that when I come no collections will have to be made.  (1 Cor 16:1–3)

Some of us will have an envelope or jam jar every week: others have a bank standing order every month but the principle is the same.

That is why we’re inviting everyone to review their giving and return a pledge form that gives an indication of your response. We’re doing it because it is good for believers to give (and to give regularly). And it is good for givers to review their giving.

Spiritual and Financial Health Check

I want to share with you some data about our Church’s finances, including the Parish Centre. Much of this is in the envelopes, and I have called it a Spiritual and Financial Health check because the two are intimately linked.

Note: the graphs are available in the members’ letter, available from Church. 

Planned Giving Increased in 2015 

Last year we saw that although the church has grown, the number of regular givers had stayed about the same. The good news is that the number of standing orders and other planned gifts (CAF, QCT etc) rose from 49 to 60. If we take account of households giving together, that probably equates to about 90 members. Thank you!

Our major cost is staffing. In growing churches, staff appointments lead church growth. Our assistant staff have mainly been trainees of one sort or another, and the peak was 3-4 years ago when we had a team of three besides me (the green line). Then a period of modest numerical growth followed.

By 2015 there was a complete reduction in staff until Todd joined us at the end of the year. With reduced staff numbers, we lost ground a little. We’re looking forward – under God of course – to changing the trend.

Because staff contribute to church growth (which God gives in the end), we needed to step out in faith to appoint Todd before the growth happened. That is the situation we’re in.

Cost of All Staff: Common Fund and Other Staff

Our main costs now are the Common Fund, and Todd’s salary and expenses.

Common Fund is directly related to the membership of the church. It pays for my stipend, housing and pension; the remainder (about £7,000) goes to the Diocese and the central Church of England.

The cost of Additional staff now pays only for Todd, but because he is full-time and fully trained, this is an increase on previous years.

This graph shows that there is still more ground to make up before we are fully funding Todd. Some of that gap is met by grants, the rest will come from our reserves until our income catches up. That is why, despite the good news from 2015, we still have further to go.

The Parish Centre

The project for the Parish Centre is to rebuild the three outside rooms: Coffee Shop, Youth and Community Room and the Brown Scout Hut. They have to be rebuilt.

Three years ago we had plans and planning permission for a project that would cost about £500,000 (in round figures). The funding would be from giving, grants and especially a major grant from Viridor Credits. We were very hopeful. About this time last year, we heard that the Viridor grant was refused.

How will the project go ahead? We can build only when the bottom line (money we have) and the top line (money we need) meet. The Funding Group have worked on raising the bottom line, the Building Group on lowering the top line.

A Task for the whole church

Remember that everything God allows is an opportunity to grow to maturity in Christ. I wonder if we were more reliant on Viridor than on God! The Viridor set-back is an opportunity for us to approach this project as a whole church. Which we thought we were doing.

How does a Christian church do a building project?

  • we pray. And having a big gap makes us pray earnestly
  • we work in the strength God provides. I confess that I spent too much of last year working in my own strength, and it was exhausting for me and probably for you. I think that is why it was only when we reached the end of our resources that the first chink of light began to shine.
  • we work as a team. This year it means that some will focus more on the project, and the rest of us have to set them free, and support them: either by filling in jobs around them, or accepting some things won’t be done.
  • we get it done in order to keep the focus on making disciples. In other words if the only thing we talk about for the next five years is the building project, this might cease to be a functioning Christian church. That is why the project needs to be done quickly.

The good news is that we have seen clear movement forwards:

  • We now have £242,000 in cash and grants.
  • We also have an option to use a cheaper system that might bring the price down to £350,000. That means the gap is down to £108,000 from £258,000. God can work any miracle, but £108,000 is the kind of miracle we can imagine!

I’m not asking for additional gifts to the Parish centre today: but I want you to know what is coming up, so that if there is a gift day it does not feel that it has been sprung on the church.

Paying for the Church’s staff is a regular expense which we need to fund by regular giving. Rebuilding the Parish Centre is a capital project, which we fund by a variety of means including one-off donations (ie from savings rather than from income). We are making good progress this year and there is likely to be a Gift Day later in the year. But that should not deter us from ensuring that our regular expenses, ie staff, are covered.

I hope that sets out the financial position. We have three main costs: Parish Centre, Common Fund, and Todd.

Two ways to give

I want to introduce two ways you can give to support the work of making disciples in Wembdon.

By giving to the PCC. This supports

  • General running costs, including Parish Centre
  • Common Fund (ie Ed plus central costs)
  • Todd (who is employed by the PCC).

Now you can also give through Wembdon Christian Ministry Trust. This is independent of the PCC and can only support biblical ministry. Everything given to the Trust will only go to ministry that is biblical. In our case, a grant from the Trust will only go to support Todd (at the moment).

So you can give to the PCC, or to the Trust, or both!

We would like everyone at St George’s to consider their response. If you want more information, speak to Sue Dempsey or to Terry or to me (but bear in mind I don’t who gives and in what amounts).

This trellis-work of giving is an indication of our financial health because it is good for believers to give and good for givers to review their giving. and we give to support the mission of the church which is to … make disciples.

Making Disciples – Matthew 28.16-20


This Sunday’s Sermon draws on Matthew 28.16-20, the so-called Great Commission. Because of the amount of practical application in that talk, there was not space to unpack the text as much as I would have liked. Below is the text of a sermon I preached on this passage which explains the passage a little more fully. 


Very few people enjoy filling in forms. It’s often tedious, and sometimes they ask questions that can’t be answered without saying, ‘it depends’ at some point.

For instance, in the most recent National Census (2011) Q37 asked, ‘At your workplace, what is the main activity of your employer?’ 

How did you answer for your place of work? ‘Making maps’, or ‘providing healthcare’, or ‘education’, ‘local government’. If you’re retired, your main employer may feel like your wife, in which case you may have put ‘her main activity is dreaming up jobs for me to do’. 🙂 

We clergy had fun with this question too. What is the main activity of our employer – which in our case is the local church?

  • Asking people for money?
  • Singing? Praying? Arguing? Dressing up?

The good news is that Jesus gives us the answer to this question, and it has been literally built in to this building since it was put up. Over the summer we have been working our way through the biblical texts behind each of the (stained-glass) windows in the nave. The window (by the door) reassures us that Jesus is with his church as we do what he commands: it reads, ‘I am with you always’. The quote is from the passage we had read, Matthew 28.16-20 (on p. 1001). He says

go and make disciples of all nations (Matthew 28:19)

The main activity of the church is to make disciples. If we had an assembly line, it’s disciples that roll along. Our business is to make disciples: that is your business and mine as the local church.

A disciple is a follower of Jesus Christ. The business of the church is both making disciples (introducing people to Jesus Christ so that they may know him and follow him), and maturing disciples (encouraging one another to live fruitfully and walk faithfully with Jesus Christ). Jesus tells us here that there are three key activities:

go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. (Matthew 28:19–20)

A literal translation of this verse would be ‘make disciples, going, baptising and teaching’. Making disciples is about going, baptising, and teaching.

1. Going. We make disciples by going.

We make disciples by going because takes one disciple to grow another disciple. Going means taking your Christian faith and putting it to work in the world. So the first step in disciple-making is to be an active disciple. That is going. That happened to the disciples themselves:

  • Andrew and Peter heard about Jesus while they were running a fishing business. They left their nets to follow him. Now the risen Jesus tells them to leave their nets again and ‘go’.
  • Matthew was working as a tax-collector when Jesus came by and offered him a fresh start. He left his crookery behind, and now he serves Jesus Christ. He is going

You might ask, ‘where’ do we go? We ‘go’ anywhere and everywhere.

  • anywhere that Jesus Christ makes a difference to how we live: At home, at work, at school and college, on the bus, in the train, in the local area. If you are living as a Christian and making a difference in your community, others can see what Christian discipleship looks like. As you keep trying, we pray that God will reveal your gifts and heart-passions. As you serve, you will grow.
  • Everywhere because there are no ‘no-go’ areas. Jesus says “go and make disciples of all nations” (v19). God calls some to serve him away from home, to pioneer in cultures that have no disciples to learn from until you come there.

In practice

Here is what it looks like at home and in the family. Christian parents, our responsibility is to help our children become disciples. We work in partnership with the local church, but the responsibility is ours first of all. Paul tells fathers to “bring [our children] up in the training and instruction of the Lord.”

And in order to make disciples, we need to be disciples. Your children will learn what discipleship means to you by watching what you do and don’t do, listening to what you say and don’t say. They can see you repent of wrong, and ask God to change your heart;

  • How living by God’s Spirit means that suffering, disappointment and hurt don’t have to break you;
  • They can see whether you organise your week around getting to church, or organise your church life around your week. In other words, when you ‘Go’, they watch and follow.

It’s the oxygen mask principle. In an aircraft, the safety briefing says, ‘first put on your own mask, then help others’. Parents, put on your spiritual mask, so that you can help your children.

It’s the same in the workplace. You spend a lot of time with your colleagues. They can see what Christian discipleship looks like by looking at you. When I looked at the lives of the Christians around me, I could see they were different and I wanted to know why. So you ‘go’ when you are living for Jesus Christ at work; or at college; or at university.

It’s true of the whole church congregation. Your discipleship is an encouragement to everyone else. That is one reason why coming to church is so important – it will help others as well as you. In that sense we are a family as we help each other, and as we help David and Ceri with Luna. Did you now that Godparents represent the church congregation in saying to every child in a Christian family: your parents are role models – and so are the other people in the church!

A promise and a warning

I don’t now about you, I find this daunting. And I need to look to Jesus’ promise at the end of verse 20:

And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age. (Matthew 28:20)

That is the promise printed on our window. When we go, we are not alone: Jesus himself is with us. The older Bible versions have it as ‘Lo! I am with you’. When we go, then Lo! He is with us. But as someone said (maybe Watchman Nee), there is also a warning: No Go – No Lo!

Make disciples by going.

2. Baptising so that Disciples belong

The second part of disciplemaking is baptising, which means belonging:

go and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, (Matthew 28:19))

If going is about following God, Baptism is about being joined to God and is inseparable from being joined to his people the church. Discipleship is never something we do alone. We saw that if we go, God is with us; the second part is that if we go, we are always with others – the church.

Baptism is the picture God gives of how when we turn from sin and trust in Jesus Christ, we are also joined to the church.

The end and the beginning

Baptism and discipleship feed off each other:

  • Baptism is the public mark of discipleship. Baptised believers are to live as believers: that is you are to ‘go’.
  • As you ‘go’ others see, learn, and come to Christ themselves.
  • The mark of their personal faith in Jesus Christ is their own baptism. And then they ‘go’. Baptism – discipleship – Baptism.

=> Parents and Godparents, every Baptism we see reminds us of our duties, to pray for our children and god-children, and to encourage them by example, by conversation, and by teaching.

=> X’s Baptism as a child is on the basis of her Christian family. It is vital that at a later date she makes a personal and public profession of her own faith in Christ.

Help along the way

Just as with going there are responsibilities and privileges. With Baptism comes the responsibility of taking part in the family of God; but there is also the privilege of getting help from the family of God. Here’s a video clip (rather grainy) which illustrates how the church family can help you in your discipleship:

Battle in Kruger Park (edited) (2 mins)

Why did the water Buffalo come back for the calf? Because it was in distress, yes. But surely because it was one of them!

In a similar way, we are there for each other. The Bible says that

Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour. Resist him, standing firm in the faith, (1 Peter 5:8–9)

We resist him together and our work as a church community is to help and restore one another. Baptism means ‘welcome to the herd!’

3. Teaching: Disciples grow by Learning

The third way disciples grow is by learning to obey Jesus’ teaching.

and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. (Matthew 28:20)

We need to be taught because we can’t guess what God is like and what he has said. We need to be taught because we often forget. I sometimes joke that our logo as a church should include a goldfish. Why? Because a goldfish is said to have a short memory span: they forget from one lap of the bowl to another where they. ‘Oh, you again! What a surprise!’

Whether or not that is true about goldfish, it has been my experience as a Christian that I forget who I am in Christ; I forget that God has found me rather than me finding him; I forget that God hangs on to me, and it’s not me clinging on to him; I forget that when the mask slips and the real me shows through, God knows the worst about me already and still he adopts me into his family; I need to know these things through and through, and so do you.

That is why what matures Christians is a deeper grasp of the same message that made us Christians:

  • That we need help because we are deeply flawed and broken people.
  • That Jesus Christ took those sins and brokenness in exchange for the gift of his holiness and wholeness.
  • Even though he knows the worst about us, he settles his grace on you and me when we come to Jesus Christ and throw ourselves on his mercy. As the saying goes, we are more sinful than we realised; and more loved than we ever imagine.

Different Learning styles

Christians are always learning. We learn in different ways: some of us love books, others don’t; some like to listen others like to question. All must be hungry for God’s word: it comes primarily through preaching which is a priority for everyone. It is supported by small groups which are more interactive; by our new series of monthly seminars which will involve presentation, discussion, questions; also monthly Café church looking at issues from a Biblical perspective, with discussion and donuts. Others also see huge benefit from one to one Bible reading.

The way we learn is up for grabs; but the love of learning is not. We are all to be people of the Word – however God gets it to you!

Look at the window:

What is our main activity?

I hope you see now that we can answer Question 37 in the Census: ‘At your workplace, what is the main activity of your employer?’  as far as the church is concerned, it is making disciples, which we do by

  • Going: that is living for Christ where we are
  • Joining: that is living as a community of believers, joining the herd and protecting one another.
  • Learning by dwelling ever deeper on the wonder of God’s grace.

That is making and maturing disciples. It’s not new. It’s what our mission statement says:

We see our work is to

  • Reach Wembdon and Bridgwater with the good news of Jesus Christ (to bring them into God’s Kingdom: Baptising)
  • Build up believers mature in Christ (Teaching)
  • Sending workers into God’s world (Going)

And remember Jesus’ promise: I am with you always. Go, and Lo!