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By David W. Virtue, DD
October 3, 2022

I am now in my late 70s, seminary trained, somewhat theologically astute, at least I think I am, though you may choose to disagree. I have watched, prayed and been involved in churches both great and small, rich and poor, in four countries with over half a century of experience, some of it in church planting, nurturing priests and pastors, doing evangelism and discipleship. I am first and foremost a theologically trained journalist and author watching from the sidelines as the church has stumbled and reeled, sometimes forward, often two steps back.

What have I learned that I can pass along to another generation? I have seen most of it, participated in much of it, viewed a lot of failure and some success.

I write today on the cusp of yet another church plant that is without doubt the most exciting to date. Its success or failure will depend on the preacher expounding God's Word to us that is historically based, but relevant to the times in which we live. He will have a newspaper, nowadays an iPad in one hand, and a Bible in the other. He will need to understand and be conversant with social media and know how to draw in young people.

The first question that comes to mind is why God is bothering to use an old codger like me to advance his kingdom? Well, the answer is that age is utterly irrelevant to God. Abraham was 75 when God called him to leave Haran. Moses was 80 when God called him. Caleb was still fit and vigorous at 85. Scholars say John wrote the Book of Revelation on Patmos Isle somewhere between 80 and 90.

Age is just a number. Nothing more. 1000 years is a blink of an eye to God. Retirement is not found in the Bible. Slowing down, taking naps, yes, but announcing that at 65 or 70 you are done is simply not found in scripture. God is not the slightest bit impressed with your golfing or fishing plans that may dominate your future.

William Wilberforce died three days after the passage of the Slavery Abolition Act was passed by the House of Commons (it became law the following month).
Fully half the original disciples were martyred for the cause, and the apostle Paul never stopped until they took him out and beheaded him, so tradition suggests.

So, what have I learned that is worth passing along?

The central thrust of ministry is preaching. If a man is not capable of expounding God's Word in the pulpit, the church will wither and die or simply coast along till someone new is found. As John Stott clearly writes, "Churches live and grow and flourish and mature by the Word of God, and they languish and even perish without it." Amen to that. Speaking in tongues, making the Eucharist central, worrying about what vestments to wear, concerned whether you are facing the congregation or showing them your back, will not make churches grow. The success of John Stott's ministry and that of Martin Lloyd Jones, to name just two men, was solid biblical preaching. Their parishes and ministries flourished for decades with clear biblical preaching and teaching.

Here are some pointers, observations and things I have learned over several decades.

• The unfolding and application of scripture must be central in the life of a church.
• Explaining the gospel in language people can understand and respond to.
• Preachers are teachers of God's word, not psychologists. Leave that to someone else.
• Building relationships with the congregation and this means not just couples but with singles as well.
• Weekly follow up on absentee parishioners. This is a huge area of disappointment. Most churches see about one third of their parish on any given Sunday.
• Having an outreach ministry in the community: Food Pantry; clothing for the poor.
• Using social media effectively.
• A pastors prayer life must measure up to his words.
• Having peer relationships.
• Jesus only had 12 that he nurtured into disciples that changed the world.
Pastors could take six men and personally disciple them to be the next generation of disciplers. Seminary training not always necessary.

Years ago, when I was in Southeast Asia visiting our Anglican brothers and sisters, I was told that a person offering themselves for full time ministry and a seminary education must first go and plant a church. It quickly weeded out the "professionals". I met a lady church planter doing evangelism in the jungles of Malaysia. She did this under the watchful eye of her bishop who performed all necessary sacramental functions.

Seminaries need to know how to screen people before they head into the ministry to see if they really are a good fit. Based on more than 55 years of ministry, I would say most are not.


Of course, churches also fail when there is no solid biblical preaching from the pulpit. Pushing to change clear biblical teaching on pansexuality for example, will only split and empty churches.

Pushing woke issues that have little or no biblical support or making them fit the Procrustean bed of your own interests and desires is a church killer.

God does not expect perfection, it is not achievable in this life. He does expect faithfulness to His word. That is achievable. You will never be John Stott or Martin Lloyd Jones, and honestly Stott himself would not hold himself up here as I have done. He was way too humble, even when NY Times columnist David Brooks eulogized that if Protestantism ever had a pope, it would be John Stott. Stott would have disavowed such talk.

We are now told that 52% of American adults believe that Jesus was a great teacher, but he is not God. Among those surveyed who identified as evangelicals, 30% agree that Jesus was merely a great teacher, and "nearly 65% still agree with the statement, Jesus is the first and greatest being created by God".

What we can take from these numbers is that inadequate biblical preaching from the pulpit resulted in these appalling figures. These statistics would not exist if preachers did not give off an uncertain sound from their pulpits. Theological and moral relativism are church killers.

If you want to start a church, start with a Bible study. Sink yourself and your friends in holy writ. "When your words came, I ate them; they were my joy and my heart's delight, for I bear your name, LORD God Almighty," wrote Jeremiah.

You may never have a mega church, and that's probably a good thing as power, money and sex have sunk so many of these preachers.

But 50 faithful men and women can change your community and from there to the ends of the earth. We should never forget that Jesus started with 12, lost one to betrayal, and still kept going. The great apostle's final word was not to a church but to one man, Timothy. It can happen again. A Fifth Great Awakening is still possible even in the terrible spiritual times in which we live, but it won't happen unless it is deeply rooted in God's Word.


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