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The danger of comparison

25th May 2017 — by stevepalf

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Comparing ourselves to others seems both natural and common, everyone does it instinctively from school yard competitiveness to grandparents fawning over the achievements of their grandchildren, we’re all at it.  But even taking into consideration the great things achieved under the spur of competition this perpetual comparing of our achievement with others does us no good.
Let me try to explain with a couple of examples.
Tony feels a failure.  His work colleague Gary always seems that one step ahead. His personal life is in better shape, his kids are in better schools, he gets a bigger bonus at Christmas and has just been accepted for a promotion ahead of Tony.  Tony is a Christian but his feelings of failure carry over into church as well.  He’s always the last to pick up the thread in housegroup and his Sunday School class definitely prefer the weeks he’s not on the rota.
Graham also feels a failure.  Marriage has been difficult ever since the children arrived, work has been stressful and issues in the wider family have taken their toll on his emotional health.  Feeling low and away on business with an attentive female colleague one thing led to another and Graham failed to honour his marriage vows, as he and his colleague shared the hotel room.
Now in pastoral conversations you’re trying to apply the gospel to both Tony and Graham.  Both exhibit similar emotions, both are grieved at their failure, both earnest to hear what Christ says to their situations.  Take Graham first, he’s there with his wife, weeping at his sin and the mess it’s made, but as you remind them of Christ’s work on the cross and as you reassure them that forgiveness is real and transformation possible they leave in better shape. They have lots to work through for sure but there’s a hope that wasn’t there before.  Tony is a harder case.  You remind him of the gospel that his standing before God is secure in Christ, that he can be no more righteous or loved or adopted than he is in Christ, yet still he leaves despondent, he desperately wanted Jesus to tell him that he was better than others but somehow despite the beauty of justification by faith alone it doesn’t answer his dilemma.
You see here’s the problem with the grief and failure that comes from perpetually comparing myself negatively to others; the gospel has no solution to it.  Listen to what Paul says in 2 Corinthians 7:10:
“For godly grief produces a repentance that leads to salvation without regret, whereas worldly grief produces death.”
In the context Paul is referencing a previous stinging letter to the Corinthian church in which he called them on some sin.  The letter made the church grieve, but positively with a grief that led to repentance and not a worldly grief which wallows in failure.  In other words in Paul’s mind there are two kinds of grief which look very similar as they present but have very different ends.
That’s the nub of Tony’s problem, wallowing in feelings of failure resulting from negatively comparing himself to others is worldly grief that leads to death.  The gospel has no direct answer for Tony’s comparative questions, instead it bids him to ask a different question a more important question because what really matters is not Tony’s relative performance but his standing before God.  Tony’s identity, security, joy and life should flow from knowing that before God he stands as perfect as the Lord Jesus.  Tony will only be helped when he is able to repent of trying to secure his joy and satisfaction in fleeting feelings of superiority rather than the gospel of grace upon grace in Christ.
So if you find yourself feeling a bit like Tony, remember that while your assessments of your relative success may leave you feeling a failure it’s not an assessment that really matters. The one that matters is secure in Christ.

Church Community

Why you should pray for your fellow church members

27th February 2017 — by stevepalf

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Each members meeting we re-issue the member prayer directory as a tool to help us pray for each other. Every issue has an introduction encouraging members to make the most of the directory.

This is the intro from the current edition:

“Dear Church Members

The directory in your hands is a list of all the ministers of Aigburth Community Church.  Each member listed is a believer in the Lord Jesus Christ who is committed to our church family and that makes each of them a minister of the church.

That’s not a radical new idea or a change in direction for our church leadership structures rather that’s normal church.  So when Paul describes the role of a pastor teacher in Ephesians 4 he says their role is “to equip the saints for the work of ministry”.  In other words my job is not the ministry of the church, my job is to help all the people listed here do that job.  Ministry in Aigburth Community Church belongs to all of us.

That means that in a very special way each of the people listed here is in your care. A person to whom you are to minister, a person you might need to correct and teach, and certainly a person for whom you are to pray!

So don’t lose this directory, keep it with you and pray for those listed, don’t stop there either invite them round and pray with them, weep with them, rejoice with them, walk alongside them.

Because after all what kind of minister doesn’t pray for their church?

Love

Steve”

Church Community

Church discipline: “It’ll never work”

31st January 2017 — by stevepalf

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It’s rare to hear of churches exercising church discipline 1 but when they do it’s common for the story to end badly followed by a renewed conviction that “it’ll never work”.  So should we ditch church discipline altogether?

Richard Baxter thinks not and he gives 4 reasons to carry on in his book “The Reformed Pastor“.

  1. It’s not right for to call something the Bible says we should do (an ordinance as he puts it) “useless”.  Creatures telling their creator that he can’t make an instruction work doesn’t fit.
  2. Church discipline is effective in humbling sinners, calling sin sin, and showing that Christ is holy to a watching world. Unrepentant unchallenged sin in the church is bad for the individual, bad for the church and bad for their witness.
  3. Not disciplining an unrepentant sinner is cruel because the discipline is the means we’re given to bring repentance which is what they really need.
  4. Church discipline isn’t meant just for the individual, it’s meant to stop others following their example and it’s difficult to see that effectiveness because it’s seen in what’s not happening.

All that given Baxter does say carefully that church discipline should only be exercised cautiously and humbly and after many efforts in private. He then goes on to give a model script to read out to church which even given the antiquated English is really helpful:

Having heard of the scandalous conduct of ____ of this church, and having received sufficient proof that he hath committed the odious sin of _____, we have seriously dealt with him to bring him to repentance; but, to the grief of our hearts we perceive no satisfactory result of our endeavours; but he seemeth still to remain impenitent.

We therefore judge it our duty to proceed to the use of that further remedy which Christ hath commanded us to try; and hence we beseech him, in the name of the Lord, without further delay, to lay to heart the greatness of his sin, the wrong he hath done to Christ and to himself, and the scandal and grief that he hath caused to others.

And I do earnestly beseech him, for the sake of his own soul, that he will consider what it is that he can gain by his sin and impenitency, and whether it will pay for the loss of everlasting life; and how he thinks to stand before God in judgement, or to appear before the Lord Jesus when death shall snatch his soul from his body and he is found to be in this impenitent state.  And I do beseech him for the sake of his own soul and as a messenger of Jesus Christ require him as he will answer the contrary at the bar of God that he lay aside the stoutness and impenitency of his heart and unfeignedly confess and lament his sin before God and this congregation.

And this desire I here publish not out of any ill will to his person, as the Lord knoweth, but in love to his soul and in obedience to Christ who hath made it my duty; desiring that if it be possible he may be saved from his sin and from the power of Satan and from the everlasting wrath of God and may be reconciled to God and to his church; and therefore that he may be humbled by true contrition, before he be humbled by remediless condemnation.

These would doubtless be difficult words to read out in any setting but it is love that stands behind them and a concern not for church to be full of fake perfection but of heart felt genuine repentance.

Notes:

  1. Church discipline is when a local church publicly calls a member to repent of a particular sin for which they are unrepentant (see Matthew 18:15-18), there are normally a number of stages in the process  ending in the removal of the individual from membership if they still refuse to repent.

Church Community

Praying as a church

17th January 2017 — by stevepalf

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How many times in the book of Acts do you find the local church praying together?  Take a guess! The answer is at the bottom of this post, no cheating! 1

The church prayer meeting is probably not the most glamorous meeting in the church calendar (although glamorous is probably not a word that anyone would use to describe any of our meetings but you get the picture) yet it’s probably the most common kind of meeting recorded in the early church.   From the very beginning Christians have gathered to pray together, coming before God in acknowledgement of their need of him, laying hold of him for what they long for and praising him for what they’re thankful for.

In our own faltering way that’s what we’ve tried to do as a church since we started 8 ½ years ago and I thought for your encouragement I’d list some of the answers to those prayers that we’ve seen:

  • We’ve asked for and seen people become Christians.
  • We started with less than 20 people and prayed for God to send more workers, we now have nearly 80 adult members.
  • We had no-where to meet and asked God to provide and we’ve now got a place to meet that has been renovated, where the roof no longer leaks, we don’t have to give out blankets in the winter and where we can have an office during the week.
  • Twice we’ve called emergency prayer meetings for 2 really poorly children who praise God are still with us and are in good health.
  • Two church members have been much in our prayers as they’ve battled cancer, both are still with us and both are spiritually stronger than they were before.
  • Having started with mostly young families we prayed for a more diverse age spread and now have a membership with an age spread of 70 years.
  • We’ve prayed for God to provide the money we’ve needed and we’ve not yet been broke and instead have been able to give away £1,000s every year to local and overseas mission.
  • We longed for God to use us to help plant other churches in the North West and prayed for God to make a way, Ralph came and joined the staff team leaving 2 years later to start City Church Manchester, which is now bigger than our own church.
  • We prayed and prayed for a church planting team in an east European city with no church, and last year they saw the first new local believer in living memory.
  • We prayed for God to send out workers from our church to other places and the Jones’ and Wilsons are both training for ministry elsewhere.

I could go on, the list is very long. Don’t misunderstand me though I don’t want to give the impression that we’ve never had any difficulties. Grief, loss, trouble and hardship have all been part of our experience and continue to be so, yet in every situation God has never let us down, no prayer has been wasted, no request unheard, he has drawn near to us as we have drawn near to him.

Churches have always gathered to pray, and we will continue to 2, and it’s pretty clear why.

 

Notes:

  1. According to Megan Hill in Praying Together it’s 19 times in 28 chapters!
  2. Church prayer meetings are the first Sunday evening of the month at 6pm and 7.30pm

Church Community

Why would a church have staff?

16th September 2016 — by stevepalf

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If you’re a member of Aigburth Community Church you’ll be pleased to know that as part of our staff/volunteer orientation this week we discussed the answer to this question! Here is the answer in 4 parts:

  1. For the sake of the people who make up the church – this is obvious but at times neglected. The work of the staff team is focused on the people of the church. Our work effort belongs to you for your good; we are not here to pursue our own agendas, to preach ‘conference sermons’ pitched at a selection of random people or to get you to fund our personal ministries.  Rather we’re here for the people of Aigburth Community Church and that means effective staff need to know the church well and work in a way which suits the particular needs, troubles and opportunities of our situation.
  2. For the sake of the ministry of the word of God – as part of the staff orientation I got the staff to read “Christ and His People” by Mark Ashton. In that little book Mark helpfully says “the word of God does the work of God through the Spirit of God in the people of God”. That means effective staff are working directly or indirectly to get the message of the Bible out amongst the church.  Be that 121s, small groups, children’s ministry or simply helping make time for the pastor to prepare properly to preach clearly.  When the church staff team works well more of God’s people are exposed to God’s word more of the time.
  3. For the sake of the lost – the church doesn’t exist for itself and the staff don’t exist just to tend the church for the sake of itself. Rather the church is on a mission to tell others of the greatness of God and the wonder of the gospel. It really is the best news ever and the staff exist not just to help out at the front end of that but also to help the church get better at telling others about the Lord Jesus.
  4. For the sake of the ministry of the church members – Ephesians 4 really helpfully reminds us that the ministry of the church is not done by a few but done by all the members.  The staff team exist in part to turn the practical handle of the church to free up members to do ministry both with one another and out in the community sharing the gospel with others.  So the cleaned building, the printed notice sheet, the available chair on a Sunday is all there to help members do the important work of ministry on which our life together depends.

So please do pray for the staff team this year, their work is important for all of our good.

Church Community

5 tips for praying together

20th May 2016 — by stevepalf

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One of the great encouragements in a pastor’s life is to discover that members of the church are meeting up regularly to pray together. When our church works together on the principle that ministry is not something reserved for the elders but something we all do it makes our church life rich and fruitful.

If you’re one of those people meeting with others to pray then here are 5 tips (adapted from Habits of Grace) to help shape your time, and if you’re not, will maybe these will inspire you to get something started.

1. Make it regular

It won’t happen if you don’t plan it and if it’s always swapping time and place people will forget to come. The same slot each week or fortnight is going to work the best even if you can’t all make it every week. It might also be an idea to get people to commit for a fixed time “every fortnight for 6 months” and then review if it’s too open ended it can just fizzle out and be discouraging to those who want it to keep going.

2. Read a portion of the Bible

We speak to God in prayer because he speaks to us in his word. You don’t have to turn your prayer time into a Bible study but carefully choosing and reading a portion of the Bible will help your group remember that you come to a speaking God.

3. Limit share time

Here’s David Mathis telling it like it is:

“It can be easy to let the sharing of requests cannibalise the actual praying together.”

Sound familiar? Does to me! So as a group agree to work together to stop it happening. For sure sometimes things will come up that demand more time to chat through but often much rambling stops praying.

4. Focus on the Lord not just the problems

There’s a temptation for our prayer groups to become “God bless my plans” times. Why not one week suggest that you simply spend time thanking God for his plans and express together your confidence in them.

5. Remember to put others first

I’m not just talking here about letting others share their prayer points first but also about the dynamic of leading others in prayer. There should be a sense in your prayer group that you’re coming together before the Lord. Ask with “we” and “us” not “me” and “I”. You are asking with your friends what we might struggle to ask on our own. Pray to God but with your concern for others front and centre.

Church Community

Church or Cinema?

17th May 2016 — by stevepalf

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What’s the difference between going to the cinema and going to church? Here’s the closing 2 minutes from Sunday’s sermon on 1 Corinthians 11 where (maybe surprisingly) we found the answer!

The full sermon including the explanation of hat wearing can be found here.

Church Community

Dealing with distractions

10th March 2016 — by stevepalf

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Staying focused in church gatherings is difficult.  There’s nothing like sitting down with the purpose of praising God, hearing from his word and addressing him in prayer to bring random thoughts into our heads.  This might be a fact of life but even so it is definitely not something we should be content to live with.  Worship, corporate or otherwise, is only worship if we are thinking about God while we are doing it.  Singing praises while mentally planning a holiday brings God no glory and does your soul no favours.  So what are we to do?

John Flavel (17th Century long haired preacher and writer) writes about the problem of distraction in public and private worship in his book “Keeping the Heart” 1. Here are a selection of his solutions.

1. Take some time to prepare. Rushing to church gatherings, being the last to sit down or generally only really starting to think about what you’re doing once you’re doing it doesn’t help fight distraction. Take a few moments, even a matter of a few seconds to sit and ponder what you’re doing, to talk to your heart before the event reminding it of what you’re there for and talk to God asking that he would help keep you focused.

2. Remind yourself of the holiness of the God you worship. Flavel  helpfully tells us that “the presence of a grave man would compose us to seriousness how much more should the presence of a holy God”.  His point is that when we gather for worship or engage in private worship with the purpose of addressing God and hearing from his word we come to a God who is holy, who sees and hears our hidden thoughts. Taking a moment or two to remember that helps focus the wandering mind.

3. Engage your emotions in what you are doing. There is a vicious cycle between unfeeling worship and distraction. Not allowing, expecting or encouraging corporate worship to affect your feelings (affections as Flavel puts it) leads to distraction, and distraction leads to worship that doesn’t affect your feelings and so on. So engage your emotions. Here’s Flavel’s advice:

If you would prevent the recurrence of distracting thoughts, if you would find your happiness in the performance of duty (i.e. duty to worship), you must not only be careful that you engage in what is your duty, but labour with patient and persevering exertion to interest your feelings in it.

4. Think about the serious consequences of distraction. Do you know a godly older Christian who is frivolous about personal or corporate worship? Ponder the benefit, especially the eternal benefits, of being fully there at church and when you open your Bible at home,  The seeds we sow in the performance of our Christian duty (to use Flavel’s phrase again) are reaped in eternity, if we sow to the flesh we will reap corruption; if we sow to the Spirit, we reap everlasting life.  Knowing this and reminding ourselves of this are to quote Flavel: “well calculated to dissipate vain thoughts”.

Notes:

  1. This book has appeared before on the blog here