Reach

By David Meredith

"The incarnation is the ultimate model of ministry."

Mr John Ball was the main general surgeon at the MacKinnon Memorial Hospital in Broadford, Isle of Skye.  His skill, kindness and winsome humanity should be the subject of another blog by another person.  Rural mythology said that the shore at Broadford was strewn with gallstones removed by John.  Such was his penchant for removing gallbladders that he was known locally as ‘Dr Gall’.  Rural cottage hospitals are like mission hospitals in remote areas, doctors just do what has to be done.  In Broadford, Mr Ball would move from a quick appendectomy to a Caesarean section.  In surgery today you will find fine-tuned specialists.  Tertullian famously asked, ‘What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?’ Well, what has Upper GI to do with Lower?

The same situation is found in ministry today. My ministry in this chapter of life gives me the privilege of a bird’s eye view of my own denomination which is becoming gloriously diverse.  I also mix daily with pastors and people in other traditions. I have seen something.   There is a problem with what I call ‘lack of reach’.  Ministers seem to be imprisoned in the silos of their own interests and experiences. I may be imagining things but each interest group seems to be pulling up the drawbridge and in some cases, they are starting to gather stones to throw at the others.

Let me identify some of the growing specialisms. We have specialist ministries for schemes, addictions, church planting, revitalisation, urban, rural … the list goes on.  In preaching, we also have the tribes, each with their unique identity markers.  Readers will identify those who have clocked the melodic line early on and shout ‘Hurrah’ to Biblical Theology and ‘Boo’ to Systematics.  We have those who teach the Bible with all the fervour of cabin crew giving a safety notice and those who shout in the hope that sheer volume will compensate for lack of substance.

My contribution to this conversation is to ask that we stand still for a moment and assess whether it is possible and beneficial to extend our reach.

Ministry skill-set is pretty much uniform across all situations. We are called to preach the word and rightly divide the truth.  There is the requirement for that basic sanctified humanity which can weep with those who weep and rejoice with those who rejoice.  The hand which gently holds the addict in his final minutes after an overdose will be the same hand which mops the brow of the stockbroker as he succumbs to cancer. Our calling is to give our attention to prayer and the ministry of the word.  Prayer in Garthamlock is no easier than prayer in Gorthleck.

Often colleagues will tell me about horrific situations, usually among people who struggle at multiple levels and are at the bottom of the social hierarchy.  It may be my basic insecurity but there is often the unspoken assumption that people like me will never understand from our experience in strong suburban churches or even worse from the ivory tower of denominational headquarters.

Ken Larter is an old friend who was once a minister in Brora in Sutherland.  Ken then moved to leafy Dunblane and onwards to a ministry among AIDS sufferers in Philadelphia.  Ken taught me incarnational ministry.  He was a trained nurse and often literally got his hands dirty in ministry.  He famously said that he didn’t come across anything in downtown Philadelphia that he hadn’t seen in Brora.  You get the point?

Let’s land this plane!  How can we work at extending our reach?

Training.  I know that I’m a product of an old school typical Scottish Presbyterian training model.  A general degree in arts or sciences was followed by 3 years of post-graduate divinity.  There was a placement in an island crofting village, Waternish has a special place in my heart.  There was also a disastrous attachment to a ministry which was dysfunctional at multiple levels but even, perhaps especially, that was helpful.  Intellectually I was exposed to a wide range of ideas and introduced to the foundation of our modern society.  You simply cannot understand society from the lens of the Reformation without knowing about the Enlightenment.  My teachers in seminary also knew a variety of stuff.  The older I get the more I realise that men like Professors Clement Graham and James Fraser were men of immense intellectual reach and humanity.

Life.  I was ordained at the age of 23.  In those days nobody wanted a young minister and no minister wanted to go to a church plant.  Changed days!  I was the minister no-body wanted who went to the congregation no-body wanted to go to.  Congregation and pastor were misfits in those days but we got on well together. The point?  Everybody has life experience, it’s just unique for each person.  Experience as a bus driver is no better than that of an Oxford don, it’s just different.  Go through life with your eyes open and recognise that people are not all that they appear.  This is a self-evident truism.  I know preachers whom people regard as privileged and out-of-touch and yet I know that they have been deeply affected by issues like coping with adoption, sexual abuse, alcoholic parents, depression, religious abuse and an infinite number of problems. Life growing up in a crack den is not the only badge of honour.  It’s not a crime to have been raised in Milngavie, don’t hide it.

Example.  Does your heart not warm when you think of Jesus as our ministry model.  He is the very embodiment of ‘reach’.  The incarnation is the ultimate model of ministry.  Jesus communicated well with the village people of Galilee but he was equally able to handle the metropolitan elite in Jerusalem.  He spoke and the common people did not just understand him but they received him gladly.  He had intellectual reach as seen in his teenage conversation with the clergy in the temple.  He was at ease with the prostitute as he was with the politicians and business people.

So scheme ministers, church-planters, revitalisers, ministers both posh and poor … speak to each other, love each other and tear down the silos.

What has Niddrie to do with Morningside?  Everything.

David Meredith - Mission Director for The Free Church of Scotland   David Meredith

David accepted the position of Mission Director in 2015 after planting Smithton Free Church, Inverness where he ministered for 30 years. He blogs at Calvinism and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance