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The call

March 2005 | by Gary Benfold

These days, there seem to be very few real preachers approaching Bible colleges for training. Friends of mine have spoken to leaders in several colleges who all lament the same lack. Why is this?

‘Ah’ say some, ‘it’s a sing of God’s judgement; there’s a famine of the Word of God in the land’. Well, possibly. But perhaps there is another, rather more prosaic, reason contributing as well.

Protecting the pulpit

It was Mr Spurgeon, I believe, who used to say to young men, ‘If you can do anything else, do it. If you can stay out of the ministry, stay out of the ministry’. It is a point of view endorsed by Dr Martyn Lloyd-Jones: ‘I would certainly say that without any hesitation whatsoever. I would say that the only man who is called to preach is the man who cannot do anything else’ (Preaching and preachers, chapter 6).

The sentiment is common enough, and it seems to have been ‘received wisdom’ in many churches for well over a century now. Both Spurgeon and Lloyd-Jones were undoubtedly moved by a strong understanding of the biblical idea of a call to Christian ministry, and doubtless both were concerned to protect the church from men without a divine call. We can certainly understand those concerns.

Problems with perspective

However, admirable as this is, there are several problems with this perspective as I have described it. The first is that it seems to stem more from an over-romantic view of the preaching ministry than from a biblical concept of ‘a call’.

A second is that, quite simply, it does not seem to have produced a generation of effective, Spirit-filled ministers of the gospel. On the contrary, it seems that all too many ministers are tired, dis-spirited if not disillusioned, and eager for retirement.

Finally, it ignores the rather obvious fact that, even though God is sovereign, men may still make mistakes. It is at least possible that, influenced by this view, some men who would have been, under God, very effective ministers have never entered the ministry at all.

For, as Spurgeon said somewhere else, if a man can be a minister he can make a success of anything.

Preparing the preachers

Contrast this with what seems to have happened in the Anglican diocese of Sydney, Australia, over the last few decades. There, ministers have actively recruited some of the best young men from their churches and Christian Unions and directed them towards the ministry.

Such men have been carefully discipled and trained. They have been helped with high-level theological study, often in England — but even then ministers ‘back home’ have kept a careful eye on their theological development and orthodoxy. Finally, they have been supported as they entered the difficult task of Christian ministry.

What have been the results? Moore College (the Anglican theological college in Sydney) has rightly become famous for the depth and breadth of its courses, and its influence has begun to stretch throughout the world.

Even more important, the number of high-quality Anglican preachers in and around Sydney itself has grown. Browsing on the Web recently I was both intrigued and amused to come across an Australian Anglo-Catholic web site deeply concerned that ‘virtually all’ the young curates in Sydney were not just Evangelicals but extremists — by which they seemed to mean ‘conservative’ or ‘classical’ Evangelicals.

It has been a long-term but very effective policy. It does sometimes seem that our Anglican brethren are somewhat better at taking the long-term view.

Persuading the gifted

Let us consider this for a moment. What do you think the effect might be if a number of ministers in a given area (say Wales) were to begin actively looking now for likely young men, — either in their own church, or students worshipping with them in term time?

What might be the effect if such ministers said, ‘Now, brother, I know you’re training for a career in teaching (or accounting, or architecture, or whatever it might be) but it seems to me that you have certain gifts that may well make you suitable for Christian ministry.

‘Would you perhaps consider whether God is calling you to that? And would you meet with me and a few others, say once a fortnight, to look at the Scriptures together and pray for God’s leading for you?’

Is it not possible that within ten years we would have a godly, educated, capable group of young men serving our churches? And that in twenty years, we could have seen a radical turnaround, with Evangelicalism again being a force to be reckoned with?

Perceiving the gifts

Such a strategy does not deny the need for a call of God; but it perceives that the call may come in the first instance through a pastor recognising a young man’s gifts — a young man who may well be awed by the thought of ministry and too aware of his own deficiencies to thrust himself forward without some encouragement.

It also has the merit of being biblical, for is this not precisely the strategy that the apostle has in mind in 2 Timothy 2:2, where he plainly expects Timothy to take the initiative? And is it not true that ‘if you can do anything else, do it’ does not have a shred of biblical support?

To be fair, Lloyd-Jones certainly recognised that there was merit in such a procedure. He writes: ‘In many biographies you will read that a young man who had never thought of preaching was approached by an elder or spiritually-minded fellow-member of the Church who puts the question to him: “Don’t you think that perhaps you are called to be a preacher of this Gospel?”

‘The questioner then gives his reasons for saying that. He has been watching you, and observing you and has felt led to speak to you. It is through him perhaps that this initial move may come’ (Lloyd-Jones, ibid.).

Providing for the future

It might be twenty years before we would see much change, and twenty years seems a long time. But it is not. As I write this, various programmes have been on TV and radio reminding us that it is twenty years since the ‘’84 miners strike’ and the Brighton bombing. Twenty years! They have gone faster than a weaver’s shuttle, haven’t they? In as long again, perhaps…

There’s an interesting story in church history which is worth quoting here. A young man (let us call him Charles) had been recently converted and was showing great zeal for the gospel. He was active in giving out tracts and was taking a leading role in Sunday school, and so on.

One day a respected older brother approached him and, choosing his words very carefully, said, ‘There’s a young man who is booked to preach this Sunday in such and such a place. It is his first sermon, and I think he might like company on the journey’.

Charles volunteered immediately. And on the Sunday as they were walking along he turned to his fellow-traveller and said, ‘Brother, I hope God gives you liberty in your preaching today’.

His companion was astonished: ‘It is not I that will be preaching; it is you. Believe me, if you do not preach to this people today, no-one will!’ Charles was also astonished, but realised immediately what had happened.

Fearfully, reluctantly, he resolved at least to tell the people what Christ had done for his own soul. So he did so, and many people were blessed. Charles, if you have not guessed, was Charles Haddon Spurgeon — amazingly, barely sixteen years old.

Propagating the species!

Now surely Spurgeon was called by God into the ministry — we cannot doubt that. But it was first recognised by someone else, and without that ‘someone else’ Spurgeon’s history might well have been very different.

Whatever he may have said on other occasions, this was the beginning of his entry into the ministry. In fact he comments in his biography, ‘Are there not other young men who might begin to speak for Jesus in some such lowly fashion?’ You know, I rather think there are, and it might prosper the Lord’s cause if we made a more determined effort to find them.

Ultimately, of course, we would want to know if such a course of action would be biblical. This brings us back to 2 Timothy 2:2.

We know very little about the church that Timothy pastored. We do not know whether he had a congregation of twenty or two hundred. But we do know that he was commanded to look out for other men (plural) and train them — in such a way as to ensure that they could, in turn, train others. Paul had his sights on the long term; so should we.

The author is minister of Moordown Baptist Church, Bournemouth

Reproduced from The Evangelical Magazine Nov/Dec 2004