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MIDDLE GROUND MINISTRY

A Vision for the Church

[The following material was presented to our local Church at a time when it became evident that the Church needed re-assurance concerning emerging ministry directions and emphases that were exciting some of the Church family and concerning others in that same family.]

It was a long overseas flight and as the night wore on one elderly passenger became increasingly agitated. The flight steward noticed the rising level of the man's unsettledness.

The steward discreetly enquired if everything was OK only to be told by the passenger that he was concerned about where they were. "It's so dark outside and there is no way the pilot can know where we are!" The steward didn't let his amusement show but he was sufficiently sympathetic to try and calm the fears of the passenger. He knew it was pointless trying to explain about the incredible accuracy of the Omega Navigation Systems, Global Positioning Systems, Satellite Tracking and the like.

Then, with a flash of inspiration, the steward saw the navigation lights on the wingtips of the aircraft and said to the agitated passenger, "Look out your window there to the left. Do you see that red light out there? Now look across out the window to the right. Do you see that green light there? Well, whilever the pilot keeps the aircraft in between those two lights, we are right on course and exactly where we are supposed to be".

The elderly passenger was re-assured and settled down to a restful night for the remainder of the trip!

There are times when it is important to navigate midway between points of reference so that the journey can proceed safely. A 747 Jet needs two wings, not one, for balanced flight. A ship needs at least two points of reference to safely navigate its way through the breakwater into the harbour.

Sometimes taking a journey can lead us to a point where we are not sure where we are. Familiar roads and sights are great when you are travelling in a familiar area. But when you go where you have not been before and the terrain is unfamiliar and devoid of familiar landmarks, it can become quite unsettling.

Bev and I came to this Church over 5 years ago to join with you on your spiritual journey as a Church. Your call to us included a request for leadership in that pilgrimage. We came with a clear sense of call and a clear vision. Yet there have been times during those 5 years when the vision has been fuzzy and out of focus. I have struggled to communicate and explain what it was that I was seeking to be and do among you. At times I have found myself with a sense of having lost my way.

This morning I want to share with you from my heart in three areas. I do so with the earnest prayer that the Lord will grant the miracle of accurate communication in what I say and what you hear.

First, permit me a few minutes to report something of my own testimony concerning the Lord's leading in my life over recent years.

Second, I want to explain what I understand our identity to be as a local Baptist Church.

Finally, I want to try and show you what that identity looks like in its outworking. ie. how we are to express and demonstrate our identity in our life together and in our ministry as a Church.

A PERSONAL TESTIMONY In June, 1985, some 5 years before we arrived here, I encountered God in the context of a Sunday Morning Communion Service in such a way that I had never seen before and I knew that my Christian life and ministry could never be the same again. That morning I watched God at work in the lives of people and my heart has, from that day to this, longed to live and minister in that kind of Kingdom love and power.

About 18 months later (in February,1987), I attended a Conference that began to provide me with some practical "handles" of ministry which, in turn, enabled me to begin equipping people in a way that I had not known before as a Pastor. Subsequent to that Conference, I wrote a paper called "Reflections on a Journey" in which I endeavoured to explain the significance of what the Lord had done in my life during those months leading up to and including the Conference.

A good friend of mine whose wisdom and balance I value greatly, read the paper and wrote to me with a response. In his reply, he said the following......

"I was really very pleased to read of the conference and I am certain you are on the right track (if that is an appropriate term). What interested me is that I perceived this as leading-edge, middle-ground ministry. "Leading-edge" in that it is exploring new ground....."middle ground" because it spans across poles. The more my knowledge and experience grows, the more convinced I become that the really difficult ground is in the middle. There is a sense that it is far easier to be in one camp or the other; trying to bridge the gulf is hard. It is in this middle area that our Baptist Union of Churches cries out for leadership. As a member of one of those churches will you please, under God, give us that leadership".

Although the term, "middle ground" is now fairly common, that was the first time I had heard it. That extract that I have just shared with you had a profound impact on me as I read it. It was as though some kind of mantle was being placed on me. There was a sense of the prophetic about it. I have come to increasingly recognise the wisdom in the letter and the truth that the middle ground is the most difficult of all.

I believe that God's calling on my life is to explore the middle ground of Christian truth and experience. We came here 5 years ago with a heart desire to lead you all to explore this "middle ground" that spans the poles between what some would define as "Conservative" and "Charismatic" expressions of Christian life and ministry. I wish I didn't have to use those two words because they will mean different things to each of you but there are no others that better suit what I need to explain to you.

Early this year, after returning from holidays, I found myself in a spiritual 'black hole'. I felt that my vision for this Church was all but lost. My enthusiasm and passion for ministry among you was at an all time low. It would have taken very little to sideline me.

Early one morning, I sat with a cup of coffee and just stared out the window wondering about my leadership among you. Then, in the midst of my sense of despondency, a phrase pushed itself into my conscious mind - "middle ground ministry". My spirit was suddenly quickened within me. It was one of those "ah ha" moments that come along only very occasionally for me. The phrase came as that "still small voice" that I have come to recognise as the voice of the Lord. I knew I had encountered that expression of "middle ground ministry" on one other occasion - but where? That morning I went to my office, looked for and found the letter, a portion of which I have just shared with you.

By now I realised that God was taking initiatives in my life that day that were very significant for me and, therefore, for you. Before that day was over, the Lord had graciously restored my identity and purpose as a Pastor.

What had virtually been missing for many, many months was re-energised within me. I again was possessed by the fact that God's call on my life was to explore and experience middle ground ministry and to lead the Church on that journey as well. At the same time, I realised that not all would want to make that journey with me.

But how does one explain "middle ground ministry"? What does it look like? How is it different from what we normally refer to as "ministry"? My responsibility this morning is to help you understand what I mean when I use that term.

You see, I was raised within what we call the Conservative Evangelical tradition of the Christian Church - a heritage for which I will be ever grateful to the Lord. Much of my spiritual formation took place in an evangelical Methodist Church. Subsequently I studied at Tahlee Bible College and then at Morling Theological College. I was raised in an environment that placed high value on the authority and inspiration of the Word of God.

I have passionately held to the supremacy and authority of God's Word to this day. Many of you have expressed to me an appreciation for the teaching ministry that I exercise here and you need to know that any value you find in that ministry is rooted back in my conservative evangelical tradition. You also need to know that I will continue to be tenacious in my commitment to the Word of God. There is no way that I could or will abandon or compromise that passion.

But, like many other evangelicals, I came to recognise that much of my Christian life was lived at a theoretical or cerebral level. I lived with that disturbing yet inviting sense that there is always more of God to know and experience. For some years as a Pastor, I lived with the unspoken awareness that, despite the knowledge that had been imparted to me in a doctrinal and theological sense over the years, there were significant areas in my life that lacked the reality of those truths. In other words, there were dimensions of the Christian life recorded in Scripture that I believed in my head but rarely, if ever, experienced in my life.

At the same time, while I recognised that the "charismatic movement" had insights to teach us if we could humble ourselves enough to learn, I was far from convinced that the movement generally was the answer to my own heart longing. I was committed to hold on to my theological and biblical integrity which was a major dimension of my evangelical heritage. But I was also committed to know God in a deeper way. I began to recognise that there were many other Christians who were on a similar journey to mine.

That was the tension. I was determined to be true to the Word of God but I also wanted to experience the God of the Word.

Then came June, 1985, and that Communion Service in which God came among us and did some beautiful things in the lives of dozens of people. It was an encounter with God and an experience of God that called me further into the tension between spiritual truth and spiritual experience.

In the intervening years, I have come to see that there are many other Christians whose heart longing is the same as mine. I know there are many "conservatives" who, in the midst of their head knowledge of the Lord, have a heart longing to know the reality of God in their daily experience. Their Christian lives are knowledgeable but almost sterile when it comes to God's reality.

On the other hand, I have met many "charismatics" who have an experience of God but who know that they lack solid biblical teaching and their hearts long for the living truth of God's Word to be taught into their spirits.

I now look back and believe that God's call on my life as a Christian and as a Pastor is to walk with those who know there is more to the Christian life than what they currently experience but who, like me, are not convinced that it is to be found in a full-blown Charismatic or Pentecostal emphasis or experience.

That's middle ground ministry

I cannot go back to the merely cerebral or theoretical aspects of what it means to be a Christian and a disciple of Jesus Christ. Once you have seen God at work in the lives of people as I did that June morning in 1985 and on some other occasions since then, you know that you must press on further into what the Apostle Paul calls "the fullness of the blessing of the gospel". Let me emphasise that this does not mean you abandon your former heritage. I have not abandoned anything of my heritage but I am embracing more and more of what I would call "life in the Spirit".

For me, the middle ground of life and ministry is to be found between what I am calling the "conservative" and the "charismatic" expressions of the Christian faith. Middle ground does not abandon either. It needs both. It needs both the WORD (represented by those we call the conservative evangelicals) and the SPIRIT (represented by those we call the charismatics). For me, it is not either/or but both/and.

My friend who wrote that letter was right when he said that the middle ground is the hardest of all. It is easier to be in one camp or the other! You see, for those who belong to one or other camps, I am exploring a dimension of the Christian life that, so far as they are concerned, does not exist. For them, there is no middle ground - only one camp or the other and between them there is a great gulf fixed!

The tension between the two camps means that there will be two groups of people who will not be able to walk with me or accept my ministry calling. Both groups will be unhappy with my commitment!

First, there are those who belong to what I have called the Conservative Evangelical camp, who will not be able or will not be willing to recognise any ministry that attempts to span the poles...that is, to recognise that the best of the evangelical tradition and the best of the charismatic tradition can be "married" and live together in harmony and produce quality ministry. Because of their unwillingness or inability, these folk will resist and probably reject the directions and emphases that I bring as a Pastor. From their perspective, I have gone too far from my original heritage. I understand why they think that way. But I would want to lovingly ask them, "Have you gone far enough? Or have you perhaps allowed your commitment to truth to become solely propositional or theoretical rather than experiential & life-transforming? Have you settled down along the journey and become familiar friends with doctrinal truth to the point where you have been robbed of the experience of God and intimacy with Him because you have settled for only a cerebral expression of Christianity?"

Second, there are those who are committed to the Charismatic/Pentecostal tradition who will see the term "middle ground" as a synonym for compromise! I believe that "balance" is a legitimate goal and mark of maturity but, from their perspective, I am trying to have a "foot in both camps"; which is an expression we often use to denote compromise. In their eyes, I have not gone far enough! I also have a question for them. "Have you perhaps gone too far? In your understandable pursuit of an experience of God, have you compromised the supremacy and authority of Scripture and invested in your experience the kind of divine authority that ought only be given to the written revelation of God, the Bible? Have you become experience-focused rather than God-focused?"

I now have no doubt that God's call on my life is to work with Him in what I am here calling "middle ground ministry". I am here for those who also choose to stand between the two camps. I cannot reject either camp and neither can they. There is truth in both, just as there is fallibility in both. For me it is an issue of integrity - the need to be true to the God Who has placed this call on my life; to be faithful to the truth of God as I understand it in His Word and to be true to the people who have called me to be their Pastor.

There is a magnetism about both "poles" or "camps". Each seeks to pull me from the other. It would be easier to go to one or other. But to do so means the surrendering of integrity and I long ago realised that without integrity I have nothing to offer by way of service in the Church and in the Kingdom. I am committed to walk a path between two poles and I believe there is a great number of Christian people who want to walk such a journey.

In what I am saying to you this morning, there is nothing new or different to what I wrote to this Church back in 1990 when the Church called Bev and I. At that time I wrote a profile of my family, my background and the way I understood the nature of ministry and, therefore, the emphases and directions that I would seek to bring. I have endeavoured to teach and model these principles in the last 5+ years. The tension of middle ground is real. But the journey must continue. Sometimes we may lean too far one way and then, too far the other. Without question, middle ground ministry involves walking a tightrope.

A CHURCH IDENTITY I believe that my ministry identity as a Pastor is directly linked with the identity of this Church. The way I understand that relationship is that, if God has called me here as a Pastor/Leader committed to middle ground ministry, then that must be because He wants this Church to be a middle ground ministry Church. The "marriage" of Pastor and people makes no sense otherwise.

As one of the Churches in this community, I believe our identity - who we are to be in God - is to minister to those who are strongly committed to the centrality and the authority of the WORD but who hunger to enter into more of life in the SPIRIT and the reality and experience of the truths they believe.

I do not believe we are meant to become a "charismatic" Church in the way that term is usually used. That is not our God-ordained identity. Nor are we to be simply a group of people who rehearse and affirm biblical truths without the living reality of those truths being worked out in our corporate and individual lives. It has to be both Word and Spirit to be true to Scripture.

As part of the Christian Church in this city, our primary contribution will be ministry to those who can commit to middle ground - who cannot reject the best dimensions of either conservative or charismatic expressions.

That, then, is who I am and that is how I am called to lead. Our identities are linked. My conviction is that, if and when the time comes for our identities to be "unlinked", then God will lead us accordingly so that we can continue our respective journeys. I have made it very clear to our Leadership Team - and I do so to you all today - that, should this Church ever come to the place where it believes that my ministry emphases and directions are no longer appropriate for this Church, I will whole-heartedly accept their conviction and willingly stand aside from the position of Pastor.


A LOOK AT MIDDLE GROUND MINISTRY Finally, what does "middle ground ministry" look like? To answer that, let me take the four core values that we Pastors embrace - Worship, Wholeness, Witness and Warfare - and paint a word picture of middle ground ministry within each value. Actually, it will be more of a quick pencil sketch than a full colour painting!


WORSHIP - OUR UPWARD VALUE

Middle ground ministry recognises the value of our heritage and traditions without being a slave to them or venerating them. We will seek to hold to those great hymns of the past that continue to have relevance in the present. At the same time, we will embrace the best of contemporary music that is blessing and refreshing the people of God now.

We want our music worship to be God-honouring, people blessing, biblically sound, linguistically understandable and culturally relevant....and that is no small goal!!

We want our congregational worship to include celebration, meditation, education and demonstration - in other words, music that exalts the Lord, prayer and reflection that encourages engagement with God, teaching that is bible-based and life-related and opportunities to minister to each other in prayer at the close of our service times.

We want to encourage the development of gifts that enrich the worship life of the Church.

We have not been slow to urge our Home Groups to include worship as part of what they do when they meet. You need to know that when we meet as Pastors and Deacons, we now spend the first hour in worship and prayer. In Acts 13 we are told that when the Church Leadership at Antioch prayed and fasted, the Holy Spirit spoke to them and the first missionary journey of Paul and Barnabas was birthed. Worship is our highest calling and greatest privilege.


WHOLENESS - OUR INWARD VALUE

We are committed to pursue wholeness and healing at all levels - spiritual, emotional, relational and physical.

We want to live and teach the gospel of repentance and faith in such a way that people are healed in their relationship with God and brought to new life in Christ.

We believe in the value of Prayer Ministry and, to that end, we are committed to train and equip people for this strategic ministry. These folk would be available at the close of each service to pray with those who would welcome the ministry and impact of prayer into their lives. These same folk would be available for needs that arise during the week. I look forward to the day when ministry times will be such a natural part of the life of the Church that we will see small groups dotted around the place as people pray for each other. In fact, that should be so much a natural part of being the people of God that it will be appear as an oddity if it doesn't happen!

We believe in the value of counselling for the restoration and healing of relationships and we will continue to encourage that ministry within the church.

We believe in the value of spiritual gifts - divine enablings that will enrich the Church and see it equipped with the tools to do God's work, God's way with God's results.

As a Leadership in the Church, we are committed to respond to the directives of James 5 where provision is made for the people of the Church to call for the Elders to anoint them with oil for healing and wholeness.

Middle ground ministry does not accept what some parts of the conservative tradition teach; that is, God does not heal today - that was for then. Equally, middle ground ministry does not accept what some parts of the charismatic tradition teach; that is, God's will is always to heal on every occasion and in every way. We believe that it is our responsibility to bring the sick to the feet of the Lord in prayer and wait on Him for His Will to be done in each situation.


WITNESS - OUR OUTWARD VALUE

We want to encourage personal witness and friendship evangelism. While there is a place for unconverted people to come to Church, we believe that the most effective evangelism is that which results from a well-fed, healthy Church being released into the Community.

We want our corporate worship and teaching to so equip people that they will go out into their community areas to be salt and light.

We believe that Home Groups can be a very effective tool for personal bridge-building. Teaching our people the principles of Christianity Explained through Home Groups is an immediate step that can be taken to equip people with a confidence in the gospel and an approach that encourages friendships with non-Christians rather than threatening them.


WARFARE - OUR FORWARD VALUE

We believe that to think "Kingdom" is to think "Warfare" - the two cannot be separated. We live in a world that is in the grip of the kingdom of darkness.

As those who are members of the Kingdom of God, we are called upon to confront the false kingdom and to advance the kingdom Rule of God.

We believe that we are called into spiritual warfare through prayer and intercession. We believe that the weapons of our warfare are not worldly but are mighty through God to bring down enemy strongholds and this happens primarily and initially through prayer.

We believe we are called upon to expose and confront injustice and unrighteousness in all its shapes and expressions in our community. We are called upon to have a prophetic voice in the community that not only exposes injustice but proclaims God's righteousness.


CONCLUSION

When we came here 5+ years ago, our personal vision was summed up in the two-fold statement, "giving the Church back to God" and "giving the ministry back to the people".

This morning, I want to submit to you that same two-fold goal but in a slightly different form. This vision statement or mission statement is at the heart of who I am and what I would love to see emerge in increasing measure in the life of Bathurst Baptist Church.

To live under the reality of the Lordship of Jesus Christ and to equip and mobilise all God's people in Kingdom service".

At our Leadership Retreat last month, we wrestled with our vision for the Church. As I set out my convictions about middle ground ministry, the Pastors and Deacons clearly indicated their commitment to work together to see this vision fulfilled in and through our Church.

They urged me to share with you all what I shared with them at that Retreat. Within the limits of the time factor, I have endeavoured to do that this morning.

I stand before you this morning and call the Church to the journey of exploring middle ground ministry in the terms that I have set out. Yet even that explanation is inadequate. Even if I had unlimited time today, I still would not be able to cover the very many questions you would want to ask about middle ground ministry. Some of you will want guarantees that 'this' or 'that' won't happen. Others will seek assurances that certain emphases will not be overlooked.

Even if I could address all those issues, there would remain aspects that I could not describe to you simply because I have not "been there". It will be a journey of discovery together.

It is a journey that will involve new paths for all of us. There will be times, as with all journeys in new areas, where we will occasionally discover we have inadvertently taken a wrong path or have gone too far one way or the other. But then there will be times when we turn a corner in our journey with God to behold a view of Kingdom scenery that will take our breath away!

The journey will be long - a lifetime, in fact - and there are times when it won't be easy. There will be times when, like the disciples in the boat during the storm, the wind will be against us. There will be times when we will want to go back to the paths and tracks that we know.

It's time for the journey to be resumed. We have been camped long enough. The pillar of cloud is beginning to move and we need to strike camp and follow the Lord's presence into more of the great inheritance that is ours in and through our Lord Jesus Christ.

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