A Mixed Up Minister?
What insights does the book of Jonah have for ministers today?
Led by The Revd Tom Stuckey, a former President of the Methodist Church.
The Word To Change the World
I nervously sat before my GCE ‘O’ level examiner for my French oral proudly displaying in my blazer’s lapel a Scripture Union badge. Unfortunately I had given little thought as to how I would explain the significance of its two letters, S.U., [which of course the examiner asked me about – in French!]. As a Christian of only a few months, I had taken excitedly to regular reading of my Bible, although, to be more precise, it was a New Testament found at home commemorating the 1953 coronation of Queen Elizabeth 2nd. Nonetheless the reading of scripture was thrilling and was guiding the way I thought and acted. It was at Bible College three years later that I learnt to appreciate the authenticity of its text and its authority as the inspired Word of God. All this was over forty years ago. However, throughout my life the Bible has played a defining role, in times of joy and sorrow, in times of peace and decision, but overall the excitement of reading it has not diminished,
Scripture Union Bible reading schemes during my formative years played an important part in my spiritual journey. (I acknowledge others schemes are available.) In my subsequent ministry the linking of S. U. Sunday School material with the worship of the whole church brought benefits to parents and congregation alike with everyone being able to understand the same Bible teaching each week. One of the further ways of encouraging Bible reading was to subscribe to a reading scheme for all new church members during their first year of membership. It was to become an effective idea as it did encourage Bible reading and recipients continued to purchase notes for themselves after the initial year. We chose the ‘Upper Room’ daily readings because the individual contributors testified to the experiences of the new members rather than the scheme being a detailed Bible study. After a while a group of young mums started meeting regularly, whilst their children played, to reflect upon the questions posed in the reading notes. We combined this initiative at Sunday Services by simply displaying page numbers for the Bible lessons alongside the hymn numbers. As the church had placed Bibles at every seat, in consequence they were increasingly being picked up and used as embarrassment, through worshippers not knowing the order of the Bible books and where to find the readings, was reduced. Increasingly more and more people were handling Bibles, looking up and following the readings. Its success was helped by having the same Bible version for the lectern as in the seats and by encouraging visiting preachers to also use the same version.
The Bible knowledge of the church community increased. I am amazed when reading statistics how they show the Bible remains a closed book to the vast majority of people in this country. I am always disappointed to discover how few church members read their Bibles, with many only hearing the Bible when it is read to them on Sundays. As during 2011 we celebrate 4OO years since the printing of the King James Version of the Bible, we ought to remember the sacrifices our forebears had to make for it to become so accessible in English to all who could read. We should all be excited that the biblefresh initiative is being supported by the Methodist Church and encouraged connexionally by “An invitation to Deepen Discipleship” with the promotional leaflet’s accompanying three tag lines: Celebrating Scripture as a gift of God, Reading the Bible so that it speaks into our lives, and Bearing the Word into our communities. Thus the focus shows again the importance the Bible should play in the lives of not only our church members but also in the lives of people in the community.
I began preaching 50 years ago and my minister tutor encouraged me as a member of the little ‘Mission Band’ to preach faithfully in ways so that others could properly understand God’s Word. This I have always attempted to do, and not only when preaching but also in sharing the Word in small group situations. It is never sufficient to pose a question such as, “What does the text say?” without continuing to ask, “What is God saying to you now through reading His Word?” The personal application of the Word of God is paramount to growing in faith as we journey with Jesus day by day. The all important concept, that through reading the Bible our lives are transformed, became the motivation amongst the American leadership of the United Methodist Church for the introduction of the Disciple courses with their objective of encouraging the spiritual ‘gifts of each Disciple’ who participated.
We know that John Wesley emphasised the truth as he perceived it, that the movement of the people called Methodists had been raised up to bring ‘Scriptural Holiness’ not only to his own generation but also to succeeding ones. I believe that purpose is as important now as ever it was for past generations. Reading the Bible and allowing God to speak through doing so does transform lives and many individuals will warmly testify to that fact. The late Rev Dr Donald English, speaking at Cliff College during a preaching conference in January 1996, eloquently told us about the new Disciple Course which was coming over from the States and being made available in a British version. He couldn’t wait for it to be used in our churches. He so inspired me that I went on the first training course for leaders, taking a friend with me. We shared the vision of this new Disciple programme with members in the churches of the Mansfield Bridge Street Circuit in Nottinghamshire where by then I was in my second appointment as a circuit minister - so beginning my lasting commitment to this Disciple experience of exploring the Bible.
The thrilling aspect of the programme over the 34 sessions of Disciple One is that at its heart is the reading of over 80% of the Bible. In various ways it is read, shared and reflected upon during the sessions, with the emphasis of that Course being Transformation – ‘becoming disciples through Bible study’. I led two courses and a third was facilitated by my local preacher friend. Both of us were jubilant by the impact it had on the participants. They ranged from a mother in her early twenties to a lifelong Methodist well in his eighties. Lives were being changed. The young mum made a commitment to Christ and I confirmed her before moving on to another circuit. She is now training as a local preacher. Other lives were altered too and several began to exercise newly found gifts, becoming house-group leaders, worship leaders and preachers. When I later moved to Kingston upon Thames I was able to facilitate not only two ‘Disciple One’ courses but also a ‘Disciple Two’ course (Its theme is: ‘Into the Word into the World’). Again lives were touched by God and this time, in different ways from those in Nottinghamshire, participants took on roles within the church by becoming more caring for one another, increasing and exercising their pastoral gifts.
In both places, the Disciple courses transformed both members as individuals and the congregations as a whole in their understanding of the church’s raison d’être, from which emerged a new vision and mission of the church. In particular at Kingston, the impact on that church was dramatic. From those who had attended the first Disciple course a vision and seven year plan grew, which included the Church appointing their own evangelism enabler. Those who had been reluctant to join the first sessions couldn’t wait to join the second course as they saw a sense of joy in the participants and a deepening of their spiritual lives. The church had become a Bible based fellowship.
It is important to emphasise the commitment of the whole church in support of participants and the decision of the Church Council to encourage them. The Disciple sessions were always planned fortnightly, and we were one of the first groups to do so. This allowed members, especially members from small churches in Nottinghamshire, to continue with other responsibilities and to be part of a Disciple course which when devised was intended to be weekly and completed in one year as opposed to the two year span we developed.
The importance of these Disciple initiatives cannot be over emphasised. Whilst it still remains difficult to get individuals to commit to these courses, the resulting impact not only on individual lives but also on the churches has brought an inspirational approach to what is Church and its outreach to the surrounding community. The joys and the outcomes through encouraging the programme far outweigh the heartaches in getting it established. I wish I could say that all the dozens of participants grew to become spiritual giants, but I can say that all would testify to being different after having studied God’s Word in this way. Even experienced local preacher participants confessed they were sorry not to have undertaken such study when training.
For me the reading of the Bible continues to be one important aspect in the lives of all believers, although I do admit that at times I do not read it as extensively as I would like. Bible based expositional sharing remains one prime focus of my ministry. Let us all celebrate Scripture as a gift of God in meaningful ways so that lives are touched by bringing changes to individuals, the church and the community. What initiative will you explore and implement during the coming year? The leaflet says, “biblefresh, it could change the world.” I pray that it will.