Jonathan Dodson is a church planter in Austin, Texas. If you don’t know Austin, it sounds a lot like Toronto. It’s called a weird and wired city, full of technology, but also very diverse, creative, and not at all religious. A popular bumper sticker there says “Keep Austin Weird.”
Dodson did what we’ve done here. He packed up his family and moved to start a new church in this city that wasn’t asking for a new church. They knew that they wanted to do more than recycle Christians. They wanted to reach people who did not know Jesus in a city in which 76% of people say that they find the gospel of Jesus Christ unbelievable. They planted a church to reach not just unchurched but resistant people.
In their first year of ministry, they saw exactly one person come to know Christ. Even that success was short-lived. Soon after he professed his faith and for the next four years, it looked as this first convert had walked away from his new faith. “One person in a city of 1.7 million? In one year? Not a great start,” Dodson writes.
They started to see more traction. But still, it was slow. Dodson writes:
Still, after two years of ministry in Austin, we had only baptized one new disciple. We had gone to Austin hoping to reach hundreds, if not thousands of people. One person. I was discouraged. I felt like I was failing.
I want to pause here to say that I relate so strongly to Dodson’s story. We have moved into a gospel-resistant culture with great hopes of making a difference. By God’s grace, I think we are making a difference. But it is slow, painfully slow. While we have many stories of relationship, of sharing the gospel, of seeing people hunger and explore the claims of Jesus Christ, and of building credibility, our growth as a new church has been slow. There were times last year that I got pretty discouraged, wondering how many people would even show up at our worship service, wondering if we would see the fruit we’ve been praying for. I’m encouraged to read Dodson’s story because I can relate to it so strongly, especially when he asks:
Were we doing enough? Did our “conversion rate” justify the costs, personal and financial, that we had made in planting the church? Was it worth it to relocate our family and deal with the intense spiritual warfare we were under? Most of all, I wondered: If I was leading our church correctly, equipping our people well, shouldn’t we be seeing more results? Was I doing something wrong? (The Unbelievable Gospel)
I want to explore this a bit tonight. I want to look tonight at a vision for 2015 that does a few things: that takes into account where we are, that reminds us of why we’re here, that gives us the resources that we need to take our next steps as a church, and that sets us on the right track for what we need to be doing. I want to be as clear as possible about the next steps I believe God is asking us to take as a church. And I want to pray that these things, as we put them into practice in the coming year, will make a real difference in what our church looks like.
So let me tell you what I believe God is calling us to. Three things, all found in the passage we read tonight: 2 Timothy 2:1-13.
First: Strengthen yourself in the gospel.
We see this in verse 1, and again in verses 8-13:
You then, my child, be strengthened by the grace that is in Christ Jesus. (2 Timothy 2:1)
Remember Jesus Christ, risen from the dead, the offspring of David, as preached in my gospel, for which I am suffering, bound with chains as a criminal. But the word of God is not bound! Therefore I endure everything for the sake of the elect, that they also may obtain the salvation that is in Christ Jesus with eternal glory. The saying is trustworthy, for:
If we have died with him, we will also live with him;
if we endure, we will also reign with him;
if we deny him, he also will deny us;
if we are faithless, he remains faithful—
for he cannot deny himself. (2 Timothy 2:8-13)
Notice where Paul begins and ends. We would begin with a list of actions to be taken and steps that we should follow. Not Paul. Paul begins and ends with the gospel of Jesus Christ. Rather than take steps, and think of things we need to do, Paul tells Timothy to ground himself in what Jesus has done. Don’t begin with what we have to do; begin and end with what Jesus has done, and live there.
This is crucial, and I propose that we begin here. This year, let’s major in being strengthened by the grace that is in Christ Jesus. I think I’ve told you about Jack Miller. He was a pastor and seminary professor who quit the ministry because people just weren’t changing. He went to Spain and there encountered the gospel of Jesus Christ in a new way. He knew the gospel already, but the gospel went down into a deeper level in his life and completely changed him. He was strengthened by the grace that is in Christ Jesus. He returned to Pennsylvania, asked for his old jobs back, and saw more fruit in his ministry in the next year than he had in all of the years up to that point. The ripple effects of that transformation are continuing today through the lives of the people that he touched.
Before we can change the community, we need to be changed by the gospel. Before we can see Liberty Village transformed, we need to be transformed. That’s why Paul starts here. One of the greatest things we can do this year is realize that we can do nothing, because Jesus has done it all for us. Why is this so important?
- Because this is where the power comes from — from Jesus Christ.
- Because this will help us deal with our idolatries and need to prove ourselves. There’s a vast difference between ministering out of gratitude for the gospel versus ministering out of insecurity, idolatry, and a desire to prove ourselves.
- Because the gospel takes the pressure off. We can begin to serve out of freedom rather than out of compulsion and duty.
So Paul begins and ends here. Count on Christ. Look at Christ. Major on Christ. Dwell in that grace. Stop trying to earn God’s approval. Let the gospel become so big that there’s no room for the idolatries that occupy your heart.
A look at the gospel is enough to keep Paul going through beatings, imprisonment, and possible death. Even though Paul is in prison, he knows the gospel and the Word of God is not bound. They can lock Paul up, but they can’t lock the gospel. The gospel is Paul’s motivation. Because of what Jesus has done, Paul can endure all things so that others may share in the salvation that is in Christ Jesus in eternal glory. He ends with the call to be faithful, but even there he ends with the reminder that even when we are faithless, God is faithful. Our confidence isn’t ourselves. Our confidence is in God. He will get the work done. He chooses to use us, but he doesn’t need us. It’s ultimately up to him. He is our confidence.
So I propose that this is where we start this year. We are going to major even more on the gospel of Jesus Christ, because I need it, and you do too. We need this church to not just preach gospel doctrine, but be shaped by a gospel culture. I want us to learn what Richard Lovelace says: that most people’s problems are just a failure to be oriented to the gospel—a failure to grasp and believe it through and through; that the key to both individual and corporate renewal is a continual rediscovery of the gospel.
So that’s the first of three things I believe God is calling us to this year. The second is this:
Second: Multiply yourself.
Paul says in verse 2 one of the clearest and most important commands. It’s predicated on strengthening yourself in the gospel.
…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)
If you’re like me, you wonder how you are going to make a difference in the lives of other people. How are we going to see the gospel spread in Liberty Village? How are we even going to see lives change within this church?
Paul gives us the strategy we need here. It’s a simple one, but we can’t ignore its power. In this simple verse, Paul unlocks a strategy that has the potential to transform more people than we can comprehend.
He gives four generations of the gospel. It goes from Paul, to Timothy, to faithful men, who will then be able to give it to others also. That’s four generations. What Paul is saying is this: remember how someone entrusted the gospel to you? Do the same to someone else. Even better, train them how they too can entrust the gospel. The results will blow your mind.
Admiral William H. McRaven, ninth commander of U.S. Special Operations Command, gave a commencement speech at the University of Texas at Austin on May 17. He spoke to 8,000 students. The average person will meet 10,000 people in their lives.
But if every one of you changed the lives of just 10 people, and each one of those folks changed the lives of another 10 people—just 10—then in five generations, 125 years, the class of 2014 will have changed the lives of 800 million people.
Now, we don’t have 8,000 people here tonight. But I’ve done the math. If 12 people in this church reached 10 people, then in five generations, we will have reached 120,000 people. In six generations, that’s over a million people. All it would take is in the course of your life that you invest your life and the gospel in just 10 people.
The question I want to ask this year is: how can we actually do this? Why are we so scared of evangelism? Who are the “faithful” people in our lives to whom we can entrust the gospel? How can we turn this from a theory to something that’s happening? Sometimes I can relate to the name of a blog, “Jamie the Very Worst Missionary.” I feel like staring one myself: “Darryl, the very worst evangelist and church planter.”
I propose that this year be first the year of strengthening ourselves in the gospel, and secondly the year of entrusting the gospel to others. I want to spend a lot of time this year exploring this and praying for this.
But there’s one more. I want this to be the year of being strengthened in the gospel, and the year of entrusting the gospel to others. These will be too major themes that will keep coming up over and over again. But there’s one more thing that Paul mentions:
Three: Prepare to pay the cost.
In verses 3 to 7, Paul tells us what this will cost us. If we major in the gospel, and in entrusting that gospel to others, it will come at a cost. It won’t be easy. Paul compares the cost of gospel ministry to the cost of three professions that were common in that day: a soldier, athlete, and farmer.
How is gospel ministry like being a soldier? It takes endurance and focus. In the first season of Downtown Abbey, a whole episode revolves around a missing cufflink. That’s what you can worry about in peacetime. In the second season, they’re at war. They are in foxholes worried about avoiding bombs and staying alive another hour. You have a whole set of other priorities in wartime.
Paul says that Christian ministry is warfare.
Being a soldier during wartime is no picnic. It wasn’t when Paul wrote to Timothy, and even today it’s far from a day at the spa. The elements of war are unforgiving, unpredictable, and uncomfortable. Much is demanded and little is given in return. To exist and succeed in this type of environment, the soldier must be able to consistently endure hardship without complaint and always remain focused on his task.
Once a battle begins, the soldier is in it until his job is done. He can’t take a break because he is hungry or tired. There’s no time off. No sick days. He can’t let his mind wander, and he can’t be distracted by the chaos around him. (Stephen Graves)
Spurgeon said, “When you sleep, remember that you are resting on the battlefield; when you travel, suspect an ambush in every hedge.” He said, “The present world is the battlefield; Heaven is a place of complete victory and glorious triumph. This present world is the land of the sword and spear; Heaven is the place of the white robe and the shout of the conquest.” Understand that if you devote yourself to going deeper in the gospel and entrusting the gospel to others, it will be hard. You’re going to war.
But that’s not the only image. There’s also the image of an athlete.
How is Christian ministry like being an athlete? It takes discipline and obedience. I’m training for a half marathon right now. Tomorrow I have to go out and run 16km according to my training schedule. I’m learning that if I am going to run the half marathon on March 1, it requires that I make certain choices today that align with that. Talent and desire isn’t enough; it takes discipline and obedience.
Ultimately, discipline in any area is really just a series of choices. For athletes, it’s about saying no to the burger and yes to the grilled salmon. No to a late night out; yes to the early morning film session. For the rest of us, the choices may not be so cut and dried, but discipline is still about consistently making the small right decisions that make up a life or career of right choices. (Stephen Graves)
If we are to go deep into the gospel, entrusting the gospel to others, it will take discipline. It will take showing up. It will take doing the work.
But there’s one more image, and it may be my favorite out of the three.
How is Christian ministry like being a farmer? It takes hard work and patience. In his commentary on this passage, Kent Hughes describes the life of a farmer. The farmer’s life involved:
- early and long hours because he could not afford to lose time;
- constant toil (plowing, sowing, tending, weeding, reaping, storing);
- regular disappointments—frosts, pests, and disease;
- much patience—everything happened at less than slow motion; and
Sounds a lot like ministry! The ministry of the gospel requires strain, struggle, and diligence. It involves suffering. Ajith Fernando writes, “If the apostle Paul knew fatigue, anger, and anxiety in his ministry, what makes us think we can avoid them in ours?…Tiredness, stress, and strain may be the cross God calls us to.”
Paul says in verse 7, “Think over what I say, for the Lord will give you understanding in everything.” He doesn’t want us to rush on. He wants us to really think about the cost of what he’s saying. Don’t get into this thinking it won’t cost you. It does cost a lot, but it’s worth everything.
So that’s it for tonight. If you want to know what this next year is about, it’s simply about three things:
- strengthening ourselves in the gospel
- entrusting the gospel to others
- being prepared to pay the cost — which takes us back to number one, being strengthened in the gospel
We’re going to talk about Jesus a lot. We’re really going to unpack what it means to evangelize and disciple others. We’re going to ask hard questions about why it’s so difficult. We are going to keep coming back to the gospel so that when it gets hard, we’ll have what it takes to carry on.
But that’s enough for today. What I want to do is to pray now, and ask for God’s help as we look ahead to the coming year and all that God wants to do.
Father, we are in a great area. But it’s also an area in which many find the gospel unbelievable. And we have sometimes wondered how it could be that the gospel could make a difference in this community, and if you will use us.
Tonight we want to begin by thanking you for what you have done in Jesus. He is everything. Thank you for the grace that we have in Christ Jesus: that we have been completely accepted in him. He has paid the price so that we can be made right with God. He has done everything necessary. He lived the life we couldn’t live, and died the death that we should have died, and now we live with his forgiveness and power. Help us to keep coming back to that over and over this year.
I pray that you will help us as we consider what it means to entrust the gospel to others. We want to see the gospel spread throughout the community. We want you to use us. But we are uncertain and scared. We pray for your help as we look at this in the coming year. Take the pressure off so that we can live out of our gospel identity and be freed to share your love as we should.
Father, this will be hard. You’re calling us to count the cost, like soldiers, athletes, and farmers. But it’s worth it because of the gospel.
Do your work in us this year. We pray it in Jesus’ name and for his glory, Amen.