The other night I was online when someone clicked to chat with me on Facebook. Turned out to be a guy who was a member of a church I used to serve who had graduated from college a few years before and moved with his wife and two children to take a job. He had grown up in the church but had sort of said good-bye to the faith because of some things he suffered at the hands of the church. That was until God sent my friend Ben into his life to be a means of showing him again the true beauty of the gospel. That all started with free pizza but that is a different story (and not my story). It was exciting to see him and his wife grow in the faith while at our church.
We caught up with each other and then he told me that the church he was attending was getting ready to install their first elders (he had been with this church plant almost since the beginning) and that he had been asked to give word of exhortation and asked me for suggestions. First of all I was excited that he church had elected elders. He and his family attended an independent, evangelical church and among those churches there were very seldom “elders” usually there was one elder who basically called all the shots and so I was excited that his church saw the Biblical patter for a plurality of elders.
As I thought and prayed about what to do, I asked my question “What would you say to encourage a new elder”? Surprisingly Acts 6:1-7 came to mind. Those who know the Bible well will immediately remember that that is the passage where the office of deacon was establish, so what does this have to do with elders? Well the apostles said that they needed the deacons to do the works of mercy in the church not because it was beneath the work of the apostles but rather because the apostles had been called to a different work, an also vital work. Here is what they said: “But we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word” (Acts 6:4). I believe that the work that elders are called to are similar to that of the apostles: “prayer and the word”.
Historically the Reformed church has done a good job of stressing the “w0rd” task but not so good on the “prayer” part. It is interesting to note that prayer comes first and in lists in the Bible order is almost always important. The apostles had come to see prayer as absolutely essential to the work of the kingdom. This is remarkable for a group of men who only 60 days before did not even pray. If you don’t believe me read the Gospels and find one place where the apostles are praying. You find the apostles sleeping while Jesus prays but they never pray. After Pentecost they simply pray all the constantly.
I told my friend to encourage the elders of his church to commitment themselves to praying for the pastor, the church and themselves. I told him that this was important for several reasons. First, prayer is foundational to the advancement of the kingdom of God through the church. Churches may grow through planning, programs and personality but when it is not done through prayer it will prove to be a failure either in this world or in the world to come.
Secondly prayer is simply a means for elders (and all others!) of yelling “Help! Help!”. The work of being an elder is simply beyond human giftedness (as is daily living the Christian life!). It must be the daily, consistent work of the Spirit of God in the lives of elders, church members and the church itself that is the foundation for the work of the Kingdom. Whenever elders believe that they are capable of leading the church they are in danger. When they daily say: “I have been called to do this and have been equipped to do this but I can do nothing without the work of the Spirit but I can do all that God has called me to do through Christ who strengthens me: (Phil. 4:13) then they are placing themselves in the place where the Father can use them.
This leads to the third important benefit of prayer. Prayer, rightly understood, is a great tool in God’s hand in humbling elders. As elders see their daily, hourly need of prayer it produces humility. Humility is what produces gentleness in elders, one of the characteristics mentioned by Paul in I Timothy 3. Humility is something that most (should be all) Christians say they desire but they often don’t really want it. Years ago a friend of mine named Jack said: “Lee everyone wants to be humble but no one wants to be humiliated to get there”. Then he chuckled. He knew that there were few things like visible failure to produce humility, particularly in the life of church leaders. He also knew, however, that few leaders were willing to acknowledge failure as a means of growing in humility. Failure in ministry is a great tool in our Father’s hand of showing elders the absolutely essential need for prayer.
So I could encourage a new elder (and all old elders as well) by reminding him that his calling is a calling to a greater commitment to prayer. Not because that is “what elders do” but because that is what elders need and what the church needs. I know very few things that the Church needs today like elders who are committed to prayer.
Finally I pointed to Acts:6:7: “And the word of God continued to increase, and the number of the disciples multiplied greatly in Jerusalem, and a great many of the priests became obedient to the faith”. This advancement of the church was directly related to the dual work of the apostles: prayer and the word. It is not just the preaching of the word that produced this but the prayer that went before and after the proclamation of the word. The practice was to pray about the proclaiming of the gospel, the proclaiming of the gospel, and then praying for Holy Spirit working through the proclaiming the gospel.
Gospel take away: It is interesting to note that Luke tells us here that many of the priests were converted, not many scribed, not many Pharisees but many priests. Why? Day in and day out they saw the number of sacrifices, every day they saw it start over with new sacrifices. They knew by seeing it that there simply were not enough sacrifices to take away from sin. They knew by their daily lives that “is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins” (Heb 10:4), but now a sacrifice had occurred that really had taken away all sin.