Church planters as ministers of grace

On Saturday the Porterbrook Network and the Acts 29 Network co-hosted the first Dwell London conference with around 200 church planters or aspiring church planters. The speakers were Mark Driscoll and Scott Thomas from Acts 29 and our own Steve Timmis from the Porterbrook Network.

Here are my notes on Steve’s first talk which was based on 1 Timothy 1. This was the stand out talk for me. (Remember they are my notes so they may not be a true reflection of what he said.) I’ll post mt notes on Steve’s second talk in a subsequent post. Adrian Warnock is going to be posting notes on the other talks so check out his blog over the next few days.

We’re going to focus on Paul for two reasons. First, in Acts Luke portrays Paul as a church planter. Second, Paul knew a thing or two about grace.

1. Our primary identity as church planters

‘Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners – of whom I am the worst.’ (1 Timothy 1:15) Paul is not being formal or rhetorical. It’s not Paul feigning humility. And notice the tense. Not, ‘I was …’ But, ‘I am …’ He has a good track record of planting churches, spiritual experiences, suffering persecution and so on. But still he says in emphatic language: ‘I am the foremost sinner.’ We might say Paul is the foremost apostle or foremost missionary or foremost theologians or foremost church planter, but he calls himself the foremost sinner. In the same way the tax-collector in the parable of Jesus says: ‘Lord be merciful to me, the sinner.’ (Luke 18:9-14) The tax-collector sees himself as the only sinner on the planet at that moment in time.

Paul is not making a comparative statement, but a convictional statement. He’s not lining up all the sinners and ranking them. He’s viewing himself and judging himself to be the sinner.

How can he make this judgment?

a. His past (13). Years on he sees his past sin with an even starker clarity than he did at the time. The more we understand the truth about God and his righteousness, holiness and glory, the more we feel revulsion at our sin.

b. God’s grace (14). The grace of our Lord was more than abundant. The word ‘abundant’ comes first in the sentence so this is where the emphasis falls. Grace is the primary cause of recognition of sin in us. ‘Grace abounding to the chief of sinners.’ (John Bunyan)

One of the besetting sins of church planters is the propensity to see themselves as church planters. ‘Church planter’ is a badge that we wear. ‘Anyone can be a pastor of an established church!’ we think to ourselves. ‘But church planters are cool, cutting edge, the SAS of Christianity.’

But even that’s not enough for there are grades of church planter. ‘Anyone can plant with 30 people and a £30,000 budget! The real black belts are those who start alone.’

We used to ask one another, ‘How many people are in your church?’ to ‘rank’ ourselves. But now among church planters the question is, ‘How many churches you’ve planted?’!

But our true identity must be sinners saved by grace.

2. Our primary ministry as church planters

Paul’s purpose in writing 1 Timothy is to help Timothy get the church in Ephesus back on track; to rescue the church from legalism. Paul combats this false teaching by refreshing Timothy’s heart and mind with the gospel. He preaches grace to Timothy’s heart.

Paul wants Timothy to confront the false teachers (1:3-4, 18). Consider the likely scenario behind this letter. Paul was journeying to Macedonia. Timothy, already based in Ephesus, meets with Paul on this journey. Perhaps Timothy wondered if he was up to the task. But Paul sends Timothy back to Ephesus to get on with the job. Paul had spent three years in Ephesus. But, despite that, things had started to go wrong. So Paul sends Timothy to sort it out. If there were a situation going wrong (especially if I’d planted the church), I think I want to sort out myself. But Paul, the experienced church planter, sends the inexperienced Timothy. The word ‘command’ in 1:3, 5, 18 is a legal term (a court summons) and a military term (an order).

Then in 1:18 Paul refers to Timothy as ‘child’. In the context of fighting the fight of faith, he calls him a ‘child’. That’s because it is a ‘good fight’. Timothy must avoid compromising his integrity.

In 2:1 Paul gets down to the nitty gritty and his first command is to lead the people in prayer. How you lead in prayer will shape the understanding of the people. Pray for all people because God wants all people to be saved. Discriminating indiscriminate prayer.

3. The relationship between our primary identity and ministry as church planters

If my primary identity is as an undeserving recipient of grace then that identity will shape my ministry. If I’m a legalist then what we will actually communicate will be legalism and the communities we create will be legalistic.

For example, in situations of conflict it’s difficult to stay humble and act in love. You want to give them both barrels. But when grace has won your affections, you will show grace to those who oppose you. It’s grace, and only grace, that will keep your heart soft.

It’s grace that will enable you to love the unlovable because grace makes you recognise that you are unlovable. It’s grace that enables you to challenge, rebuke, console, comfort – and to be challenged, rebuked, consoled, comforted. We will confront and battle (1:18), but grace makes us the most unusual of combatants. See 2 Timothy 2:24-26. You can only fight the good fight in a good way. If you fight it as a legalist then it will no longer be a good fight – it will not longer be God’s fight, but yours.

This is liberating. When grace is your identity, you can handle criticism. You respond, ‘You don’t know the half! You don’t know what was going in my heart!’ You can handle failure and you can handle success.

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