Friday 11 February 2011

Preparing the next, next generation (2 Timothy 2:2)

And what you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses entrust to faithful men who will be able to teach others also.
2 Timothy 2:2

I think it was almost ten years ago when a good friend sat me down and said, “Calvin, there are just so many good people this year. Maybe, next year.” He was talking about an internship for ministry at my church back home. It was a good church and a vibrant church. A mark of that vibrancy was a keen interest amongst its members to preach the gospel. And many pursued the opportunity to do this full-time. Praise God!

Ten years later, it is encouraging to see the same interest and opportunity reflected in the churches here in Cambridge – perhaps, even more so. Many students take a year out upon graduating from university, to join the staff of one of the local churches. It gives them a chance to explore the joys and hardships of ministry under the guidance and care of experienced Christian leaders. Perhaps the biggest advantage Cambridge uniquely offers is the training. The very best bible teaching is made available to interns through programmes like TEAM (Training in East Anglia Ministry) designed to teach its students how to handle the scriptures with care and to preach the gospel with clarity.

Yet spending the past five years in a Chinese Church has, I think, given me an added perspective on what it takes to raise and train leaders. What I mean is this: Here in the UK, ministry training is focussed on the individual. Courses like Christianity Explored and Alpha speak to the individual person – how he or she understands the world, God, sin, death, life – in light of the cross of Jesus Christ. Of course, following Jesus is a personal relationship with him as Saviour and Lord. But as a result, leaders are trained in the context of communicating the gospel to persons and individuals – One-to-one bible studies; Personal evangelism in the workplace and at dorms.

In contrast, Chinese Churches are community-based churches. They often begin as bible study groups among migrant families meeting in homes. Every meeting starts with a meal – every meeting (and it always must be Chinese food!) Eating is what you do in everyday life. Eating is what you do with your family. Here in the English-speaking congregation, I think I have met almost everyone’s dad or mum (or even their grandparents, aunts and uncles!). I’m not just talking about the young kids who grow up in church. Even the working adults bring their parents and relatives when they’re over for a visit. The Chinese Church is where you meet your son’s buddies; your daughters close friends.

So when it comes to the issue of leaders, people in the Chinese Church don’t just think, “How do we reach the next generation?” They’re asking “What about the next, next generation?” Meaning: they’re thinking about their kids. Not just their colleagues, their friends, the people in their community, other Chinese people – No, they’re thinking, “If I have a family and my children grow up here, what kind of church do I want this to be?” Not just the next generation. The next, next generation.

In this verse taken from 2 Timothy, the apostle Paul gives us insight into his strategy to reach and prepare the next, next generation. This is Paul’s last letter to Timothy; his last words of encouragement and advice to his good friend, partner in the gospel – his son in the faith. He tells Timothy, Be strong. Be strong in the grace that is in Christ Jesus (2 Timothy 2:1). Keeping trusting in his grace, Tim. Jesus will keep you going. He will keep you faithful.

But here, Paul says to Timothy in verse 2, You need to do one more thing. Raise up leaders – or more specifically, raise up teachers. Leaders in the church lead through the authority of the word of God. They teach the scriptures. That is what you need to do, Timothy. That is what you need to teach these leaders to do well; so that they can teach others also.

And what you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses entrust to faithful men who will be able to teach others also.
2 Timothy 2:2

These leaders have to be two things: faithful and able to teach – both men of character and capability. There has been some debate as to whether Paul meant just men exclusively – male leaders – or are women included in this assessment? I noticed that the recent NIV revision has “reliable people” in place of “reliable men”, and I think I agree (though, I’m still thinking about it) that at least here, Paul is using anthropois in such a way it could refer either to men or women. However, because of the recurring phrase “able to teach” found here and in 1 Timothy 3, where it is used specifically of male elders (it qualification is missing from requirements of deacons in the same passage; compare also Titus 1:9), I think Paul has a special eye on men who will take up positions of leadership in the church. The bible is clear that responsible and capable men are tasked with eldership and the public teaching of the scriptures.

The practical challenge is in identifying such men. Do exceptional gifts make the exceptional leader? Gifts are often easier to notice than character. If you are in a big church where many individuals are in active ministry and many are seeking opportunities of leadership – is it not easier to measure their qualification based on fruitfulness rather than faithfulness? Fruitfulness you can see – people, skills, success, results, response. Faithfulness takes time and discernment – patience, steadfastness, reliability, responsibility.

Obviously, we all want the guy who has both character and capability. Helpfully, Paul is specific about the form and faithfulness he is looking out for. It’s the gospel. It is the ability to handle and communicate the gospel effectively.

Meaning: Paul is not talking about the guy whom everyone says is really, really nice, good with kids, and always turns up early for prayer meetings. “Faithfulness” here has to do with the bible. He is entrusted with the very words of God. Will he be faithful in speaking the message of the bible; not his opinions, thoughts or musings. Will he preach that full gospel – not leaving out the hard bits. Will he put in the hard work of prayer and preparation. Is he faithful?

(As an aside, when Paul says “faithful”, he is obviously talking about a believer. It’s an obvious point, so obvious that we might foolishly take it for granted. Please make sure your leader is a Christian! A person needs to know the gospel in order to be faithful to the gospel!)

And Paul is also not talking about the scholar who can parse the Greek text and recite Deuteronomy from memory. “Able to teach” is a qualification we look for in Sunday School teachers. Can he tell us about Jesus in such a way that even kids understand him – and not have to bribe them every 5 minutes with Haribo.

You know, if I had to choose between two good potential leaders – both capable and both reliable – but one was slightly more loving and patient, while the other was slightly more experienced in bible-study – at the risk of being misunderstood – I would choose the bible-study leader. In the Chinese Church, I know the tendency is to go with the nice, reliable guy. That’s because we think, That’s the harder quality to come by. And I agree. It takes more time and love to shape a person’s character. But I would still go with the one with bible skills. Because the final criteria in choosing a leader is not the leader, but the gospel.

You see, the qualification that Paul outlines here in 2 Timothy, is not really in and of the candidate himself. Rather, it is an external qualification – the gospel. And his whole motivation of passing on this important instruction to Timothy to appoint leaders is not so much to ensure that the church will still be carrying on for another generation, or that Timothy won’t be going at it alone without adequate help and assistance. His single purpose is in making sure the gospel is preached.

Notice that Paul had already begun the process of preparing these leaders long before he wrote this letter. He says to Timothy, “Remember what you have heard me teach,” and then he adds the qualification, “in front of many witnesses”. This could either be a reference to a specific event where Paul preached in front of a crowd that can testify to his message. Or more likely I think, Paul is referring to his entire ministry of preaching, where he has proclaimed the same message about Jesus, again and again. And because he has preached this same message everywhere he went, many people can say, Yup, that was what Paul said about Jesus. He preached the cross. That’s Paul’s message.

And Paul is saying to Timothy, you too, heard this message of the gospel from my lips. Now, pass it on, he says. “Entrust” it to reliable men.

This means: while it is good to have structured classroom-based lectures, that go through the bible systematically verse by verse, topic by topic; and while it is an absolutely good idea to send pastors off to seminary in order for them to do this - Paul’s idea of training leaders is simply to preach the bible. He does this in a public setting (“in the presence of many witnesses”), meaning in the assembly of believers, as in a church gathering. But this must also include his preaching before unbelievers – which is mostly what Paul did in his ministry. He preached the gospel to those who had never heard of Jesus before.

And all this while, Paul brought Timothy along with him on his journeys to help him with his mission; but also to be a witness to his ministry. So that, Paul could one day say to Timothy, Remember. Remember this pattern of preaching the message of the cross, what I said, when I said it, how I communicated it – and pass it on to these leaders. If you are an existing leader, this means your first priority in raising leaders does not involve setting up a committee or getting someone to organise an evangelistic event. The most effect thing you could do is preach the gospel. When you open the scriptures and proclaim Christ clearly and powerfully, God will call men and women to do the same. You prepare new leaders in your church by preaching the gospel to your church.

One more thing: I said that this is Paul’s strategy for training not simply the next generation (Timothy), but the next, next generation (men who will teach others). So, Paul reminds Timothy of everything he has learnt. But then, he also tells Timothy, You have to pass this message on – in other words, you have to teach the gospel to others. But on top of this, Paul does one more thing. He says to Timothy, Teach this to others, in such a way, that they too are able to teach the gospel.

How do you do this? We have already seen that Paul leaves Timothy a pattern to follow – his own life and ministry centred round the message of Jesus Christ. In part, it means: we are always preaching the gospel to one another. Not just the pastor up front during the sermon, but even during the songs, for example. Everyone is singing about Christ, his redemption on the cross, God’s love displayed through his sacrifice (if we have chosen our songs wisely) – and we sing this to God, but also to one another. The people of God are perpetually “gospelling” to one another. This is one good, godly, biblical way of learning how to speak the gospel to one another.

But the focus in this verse is much, much more pointed. Paul uses the word “entrust” to describe the appointment of the leader. And what he is doing is making absolutely, crystal clear to the new leader what God is “entrusting” the leader with. It is the “good deposit” (1:14), the thing Timothy has heard Paul say in front of many witnesses (2:2) – it is the gospel (1:11-12). God is entrusting the leader with the weighty responsibility of preaching, teaching, speaking the gospel of Jesus Christ.

If your church were to advertise for a pastor, what would the job description say? When you interviewed the candidates, what would the one thing be that you are looking out for? And when you install and ordain a new vicar or elder – what is the one thing you would prayerfully ask God to empower this new leader to do for glory of his name?

Paul makes it clear to Timothy: impress upon them and remind them that their job is to do one thing, supremely above all other things: They must preach Christ! What are they entrusted with? The gospel. What is their chief responsibility? To proclaim the gospel! Why does he need to be reliable and able and trustworthy and godly? So that he will faithful in teaching the full message of the scriptures which point to the fulfilment of all God’s blessing in the one salvation that comes through Jesus Christ on the cross. They are entrusted with preaching the gospel!

And that, says Paul, is how you reach the next, next generation.

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