7 November, 2013 Richard Coekin
“When they arrived, he said to them: “You know how I lived the whole time I was with you, from the first day I came into the province of Asia.” (Acts 20:18)
Gospel ministry is a way of life
It’s very striking that the Apostle commends, “how I lived”. Paul wants the Ephesian leaders to imitate his lifestyle because Gospel ministry is really a way of life. Although the Gospel is verbal and must be learned, a life that is shaped by the Gospel is powerful in training others because it demonstrates and recommends the practical benefits of the Gospel.
Gospel ministry is therefore not just a set of intellectual principles or professional skills to be learned from a book or in a classroom, in the way that you might learn how to preach or to manage people effectively. Gospel ministry is a way of life molded by the Gospel.
Gospel ministry is learned from sharing life
Paul says confidently: “You know how I lived”. As Jesus had trained his disciples by taking them with him on his unforgettable missions around Israel, and as Paul trained bands of co-workers by taking them with him on his dramatic missionary journeys around Eastern Europe, so he had shared his life with these men in Ephesus to train them in Gospel ministry. Paul elsewhere summarises this pattern of coaching disciples by sharing life in parental terms:
“we were gentle among you, like a mother caring for her little children. We loved you so much that we were delighted to share with you not only the Gospel of God but our lives as well.” (1 Thessalonians 2:7-8)
This commitment to personal mentoring by sharing life is evident in all our Co-Mission churches and especially in training the dozens of young people enrolled in our Apprenticeship Training Scheme.
Most of our Co-Mission churches have been planted and staffed with former Co-Mission Apprentices who now train their own Apprentices. These men and women share not only in learning Reformed Evangelical Bible doctrine, but in a Gospel ministry way of life. This whole pattern of ministry is our family likeness, our “Gospel DNA”. This begins with Biblical principles but also includes the can-do, sacrificial-kindness, team-work atmosphere that bold missionary work generates.
We’ve discovered that the essentials of Gospel ministry are as much “caught” by sharing in ministry as “taught” in books and lectures. Paul reminds Timothy of this when urging him to be loyal to his pattern of suffering for the Gospel of the cross:
“You, however, know all about my teaching, my way of life, my purpose, faith, patience, love, endurance, persecutions, sufferings ...continue in what you have learned.” (2 Timothy 3:14)
The key ingredient of our Apprenticeship Training (as in other excellent training courses around the country) is therefore sharing in the Gospel-ministry life of a more experienced pastor, with personal coaching in head (training in the knowledge of Scripture), heart (formation in Christ-like character) and hands (Gospel-ministry skills) to create confidence in Bible-shaped ministry. What a joy it’s been over the years to share my church ministry and my life with such men as Richard Perkins, Paul Dawson, Andrew Nicholls, Matt Fuller and many others. The warm co-operation of our Co-Mission network is largely built upon the mutual trust and affection of senior Pastors who learned Apostolic Gospel ministry together by sharing a Gospel way of life. Notice that Paul describes his way of life “the whole time I was with you”. He’s speaking about his unchanging essential ministry principles, rather than the various adaptations he would make for ministry in different cultural contexts in order to be “all things to all men so that by all possible means I might save some” (1 Corinthians 9:22). There is an important clarification to be explained here.
Gospel ministry should adapt in different cultural contexts
It is imperative to be as flexible as possible in cultural aspects of ministry. For example, Paul even had Timothy circumcised to avoid culturally offending the Jews!
I’m very much in agreement with those who observe that churches are often unaware of how their ministry culture can alienate unbelievers from a different culture. We must try to ensure that the way we ‘do’ church is culturally as accessible as possible for the lost of the different communities we’re trying to reach.
Some have, understandably, expressed anxiety about shaping church for a particular culture because the Gospel is for all nations and heaven will be wonderfully multicultural. However, since every church does inevitably develop its own culture, it’s preferable to be intentional about this and consciously try to adapt to the community we’re trying to reach.
Moreover, integration is a process not a moment.
London is wonderfully multicultural and we are trying to make disciples of all nations right here in London. But these cultures are usually segregated by numerous cultural and historical factors. So if we want to reach into these communities, we need to shape or “contextualise” our ministries to be accessible to them. Over time we can then disciple those who are converted to enjoy the glorious diversity of God’s people as we prepare to live together in heaven.
Throughout Co-Mission we’re committed to a radical flexibility of culture and to contextualising our ministries as best we can. The ministry of St John’s in the World’s End housing estate is therefore very different to that of Christ Church Mayfair working with young urban elites, which is again different to the ministry of Cornerstone in Kingston among students, or that of Grace Church Worcester Park among suburban families. However, we must also be faithfully inflexible in preaching the unchanging Gospel of Christ.
Gospel ministry should not contextualise the Gospel itself
While we gladly contextualise our ministries, including the shape of our teaching programmes, we are uncomfortable when talking of contextualising the Gospel itself. One of the most powerful arguments for the truth of the Gospel is that the same Lord Jesus Christ is worshipped by churches all over the world. In order to thrive, Islam needs an Arabic culture, Buddhism needs an East Asian culture, Hinduism needs a South Asian culture and Atheism needs a Western culture. But the same Gospel of God’s grace is enjoyed by Christians from every culture.
Certainly, different aspects of the same Gospel will be more appreciated or more provocative in different contexts. But it is our joyful experience that our dear friends among Palestinian Muslim-background believers in Jerusalem and among Belorussian communist background believers in Minsk and among animist-background believers in rural Kenya believe the same Gospel, and live by the same Bible, as our westernised brothers and sisters in Sydney, New York, Cape Town and London. We have very different music but we sing the same words.
Across Co-Mission, we’re committed to contextualising our ministries but also to proclaiming the unchanging Gospel of God’s grace.
In Acts 20, Paul is recommending for all future generations across all the cultures of our planet, some unchanging ministry principles that always governed his own Gospel ministry. We’re committed to living this way of life and sharing it with others to train them in this life-saving Gospel ministry.
Think it through
1. Why do you think it’s important to share our lives with those we want to teach and train?
2. What would it mean to contextualise the Gospel effectively for the unbelievers in your community? How would you live differently?
3. How would you shape an outreach service differently if you were seeking to share the same Gospel with co-workers from your office, or your close family members?