A Blast from the NLC Past – 2

This is the second ‘substantive’ post in my new(ish, on and off) mini-series, explained here. This talk was the closing evening session of NLC 2012 – and you can listen to it on the VCUKI website.


This was the opening talk of the Conference, and I’ve chosen it as the second part of this series because I think worship is more important than leadership, as I understand the two.

But I digress.

John and Ellie shared the morning Bible readings through 1 Timothy over the subsequent mornings, (which were marvellous) but began with an overview from the end of 1 Timothy. They spoke to start the conference out of 1 Timothy 6:11-20, considering ‘Four Focal Points for Visionary Leaders’. Whilst the majority of attendees at the NLC are church leaders and planters, I think there is much in what they explored that is relevant to every disciple of Jesus. Rooted in Scripture but not a mere exposition of this one passage, the four focal points are things that I try to cultivate in my own life. I’ve often failed – especially on some more than others – but hope that this reminder as I reflect will spur me on, even as it may be useful reflection and encouragement for you reading this.

1 Timothy 6:11-20 is Paul’s final charge to Timothy, his young apprentice. This is an older leader exhorting encouraging and directing one of his successors. Paul charges Timothy to clarify and remember the vision of ministry that God has given, to develop personal godliness, to stand his ground, and to explain and articulate the beautiful mysteries of life in the Spirit to the People God has entrusted to his care. There is much here for study and encouragement – the Mumfords drew out four ‘focal points’ to give shape to the conference. I wonder whether these four would be helpful frames for subsequent theologising and event organisation. But I digress.

– i – Clarify the vision that God has given us – 

The first point made by the Mumfords regarded the final part of the passage. Paul writes in verse 20 ‘Guard what has been entrusted to your care. Turn away from godless chatter and the opposing ideas of what is falsely called knowledge“. God gives vision to his people, not in some special way that leaders must be venerated but in what is elsewhere called an irreducible deposit of faith. The vision of Jesus that Paul presents and reflects through his ministry is an example of this. Every so-called vision for a church or community starts as a vision of Jesus. Jesus is the head of the Church. Paul exhorts Timothy in verse 21 to avoid the things which others have been distracted by, those who have ‘departed from the faith‘. There is something fundamental, something core, something clear to following Jesus and leading others.

The Mumfords described the Church, and a gathering of her leaders, as a ‘called and commissioned community‘. The VCUKI vision, in response to the vision of Christ common to the Church of God in all times and all places, was and is to ‘preach the Gospel, plant churches, and change the world’. John and Debby recently reimagined the wording of this to something simpler: ‘Extending the Kingdom of God together, everywhere, in every way‘. Regardless of your articulation of the vision, regardless of your churches’ understanding and execution of the Great Commission, that vision starts and ends with Jesus. John and Ellie have gone on to help coordinate and serve the international Vineyard movement – they are widely respected leaders across streams. Yet their injunction, their reminder, that we are still in the starting blocks is important for all sorts of leaders, servants and disciples. As Ellie said that evening, ‘we can do nothing if the Lord does not go with us‘. And at the heart of the mission is the proclamation of the Gospel – sometimes we need to strip away all the other ‘stuff’ we do under banners like ‘mission’, ‘ministry’ and ‘church’, and remember the primacy and clarity of gossiping the Gospel and leading people to Jesus.

– ii – Develop Personal Godliness

The second focal point drawn out of this passage and addressed to a gathered group of leaders – and thus vital for all of us seeking to be faithful and fruitful disciples of Jesus – was and is to develop personal Godliness. Paul writes to Timothy in verses 9-10 of some of the pitfalls of life – temptation, wealth, and so on. The challenge is to flee all this and pursue other things.

Righteousness.

Godliness.

Faith.

Love.

Endurance.

Gentleness.

In these things, we see the ‘vertical and horizontal discipleship of the self’, a challenge to so orient ourselves that we please God in and through everything we do. There is a surprising emphasis – though, perhaps, not so surprising given the visible failure of some ‘leaders’ in recent years – on observable conduct. Paul has encouraged Timothy that ‘godliness with contentment is great gain’. The contrast of a life surrendered to Jesus and a life surrendered to self can be seen in part by the way money and possessions are treated and used. As the Mumfords put it, ‘Christianity is not a popularity contest’. Leaders and churches are not valued by God based on the size of their congregation, tithe or building.

John and Ellie reminded us that Christians are aliens in a strange land. The danger for leaders is that they can become aliens amongst their own people. I personally believe that one of the greatest dangers for leaders is seeing themselves as some of their more misguided people might mistakenly see them. The church – ‘leaders’ and ‘non-leaders’ (I personally don’t think there is a distinction, but that is an opinion for another day) – must continually keep calling itself back to personal holiness. We must keep calling each other back to personal holiness. In his other letter to Timothy, Paul puts it beautifully:

So flee youthful passions and pursue righteousness, faith, love and peace, along with those who call on the Lord from a pure heart” – 2 Timothy 2:22

These passions are not solely the preserve of the young. They are the sorts of things that challenge anyone following Jesus. We are called to pursue other things. But we are not called to do it alone. As Paul writes, we are to do this ‘along with those who call on the Lord from a pure heart‘. This is a call to holiness together, with those who also call on God for help out of a place of purity rather than a place of selfish desire. 2 Timothy 2:22 is a deep and challenging verse – but the corporate call to personal holiness is at its heart.

– iii – Stand Your Ground – 

The third and penultimate focal point that the Mumfords drew out of the passage is one that is often forgotten by movements in motion, but vital to true life in the Spirit. We are encouraged as Christians to Stand our Ground and fight the noble fight of faith. Paul’s words to Timothy are firm and militant – Paul encourages Timothy to ‘fight the good fight‘, to ‘take hold‘, to ‘keep this command‘, and to ‘guard what has been entrusted to your care‘. Regarding what has been entrusted, here is the great mystery of the intertwining of the faith and people of the Church, the community of God.

This standing of ground, this fighting, in enemy terrritory for the sake of the Gospel and the advance of the Kingdom, is something that can only truly be done in community. The model of CEO so popular in the business world is not how leadership is to be modelled in the Church. The image of relational leadership in the community of the Church was beautifully demonstrated by Ellie as she described friendship. I tweeted then, and remember now, the description given:

a friend is someone who knows the song in your heart and sings it back to you when you have forgotten

I don’t know the source of that quote – but it is a beautiful idea. Friends help each other stand their ground, reminding each other of the foundation of Joy in the Gospel that first gave us a vision of Jesus, calling each other to personal holiness that Grace may be with and abound in us all. For the glory of God and the extension of his Kingdom.

– iv – Explain the Mysteries of life to your people – 

The fourth and final focal point is one I find really exciting, and could gladly spend hours on. John and Ellie were describing the four focal points of visionary leaders – and this final one is vital as it is more important than the individual vision you as a leader or your gathered expression of Church might have. The mysteries of life are satisfied in a Vision of Christ. This vision of Christ encompasses everything, explains and explores everything, echoing the way in which the Spirit of God enlarges and expands the Kingdom of God in such a way that everything is restored and renewed.

This vision for the renewal of everything – inaugurate in the person and life of Christ, continually enacted through history by the Church and celebrated and outlined in the Bible – allows the Church to explore, explain and enjoy the mysteries of life. It is vital to explain to the people whom God has entrusted you, church leaders, the big picture of how life really works. For every disciple, for every individual, there is a challenge to expand our vision of God to reflect the fact that Christianity explains reality like no other belief system – because it is true.

In verse 12 Paul charges Timothy to take hold of eternal life. We all live life. But in Christ there is eternal life. A radically different, richer, deeper, more mysterious and more engaging life. This is the life we are charged to share and describe. Demonstrate and proclaim. I was struck at the time by the way that John and Ellie spoke in raw words of the reality of the now and not yet of the Kingdom of God. There is a contrast between the false perspective that says we have everything now, the false perspective that says we have nothing now, and an emphasis, as verse 15 points out rather bluntly, that the Kingdom of God is brought about by God ‘in his own time‘. The focus in these passages – the focus of the mystery of life and the focus for anyone seeking to be a visionary leader – is on God himself, who is described by Paul in wonderful words:

God, the blessed and only Ruler, the King of Kings and Lord of Lords, who alone is immortal and who lives in unapproachable light, whom no one has sen or can see. To him be honour and might forever. Amen

This is the truth behind the mystery of life. God himself. Vision, that elusive idea so often co-opted in talk of leadership, always begins with a vision of God. We were reminded – and I enjoyed being reminded now – of the vision of God in Isaiah 6, which is a great place to re-orient our view of our own importance as individuals part of the community of God.

 – Conclusion/Reflection/Pondering – 

As I read through my notes from more than six years ago, as I reflected on memories and Scripture, I was encouraged and challenged by these words. I hope something jumps off this page at you. I’m not sure how I feel about the language of leadership – I’ve certainly led things, but I definitely don’t identify as a leader. I want to be a follower of Jesus, a disciple, and I know and trust that that has to be done in community. The kind of leadership painted as a picture in this talk is one, though, that resonates with me. A visionary leader is not some made up word, not some ‘imagineer’ or wizard who plays with emotions. A visionary leader is someone who sees Jesus, listens to the Spirit, is secure in the Love of the Father, and longs for the world to know God.

A visionary leader is someone who is careful to clarify their vision by the plumb line of Scripture. Someone who is committed fundamentally to developing their personal holiness. That bit is difficult, but is a crucial part of both standing your ground and demonstrating the clarity of a vision of Jesus that compels us to be and do church. And all of these combine ultimately in the vision of Jesus, King of everything, which allows and equips us to explore and explain the mysteries of life to everyone, everywhere, in every way.

 

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