After 30 years in ministry I was worn out and part of me was wanting out. Married to an amazing wife with two remarkable grown sons, I served with a gifted team, in an inspiring and even influential church. I had published a number of books, some well received and these opened the door to speak in numerous contexts home and abroad. But ministry had sucked the life out of me.
I felt bruised, jaded with much of church life, disappointed at the drift in my denomination (Church of England), sad at seeing friends and former role models falling into serious moral failure, doctrinal error or throwing in the towel on church. After years of longing and praying and preaching for church renewal and national revival it seemed further away than ever.
I was not aware of any glaring sin in my own life, but God seemed distant and I was becoming apathetic and cynical. I didn't like what I saw in me. I was spiritually dry, and physically tired, and mentally anxious and depressed. Always an introvert, the strain of public ministry had much reduced me, and I was increasingly withdrawing from company. I snatched comfort in eating and drinking a little too much and hiding in my hobbies. I spent more time with the latter than the Lord. I was not in a good place – all the while, with more desperation than faith, I was calling out to God for help, for change.
Then in March 2019 I attended the funeral of evangelist and theologian, Michael Green. I first came across Michael when I became a Christian 35 years ago. I was discipled and equipped by many of his books. Years later I got to know him personally in Oxford. He did me a great honour of writing a beautiful Foreword for my first book More.
Michael Green’s infectious evangelism
Michael was one of the outstanding evangelical Church leaders of the last 40 years and his contribution, through hundreds of missions and over 70 books, is unquestionable and almost unparalleled in his generation. But what struck me at his funeral, as I listened to the contributions and testimonies, was that this man was ablaze with the love of Jesus. It was this love for Jesus that made him such an infectious and effective evangelist.
At the age of 88 he was still passionately preaching Jesus on student missions, still witnessing to the hospital staff nursing him, still handing out booklets to strangers that he had written about Jesus. He was all about Jesus. And people wanted to know the Jesus they saw and encountered in him.
Michael’s single-minded focus moved me and indeed provoked me. Had I become so caught up in working for the Lord that I had lost the Lord of the work? Probably. Martha was dutifully preoccupied with many things for Jesus, but neglected “what is better”; the option her sister Mary took by sitting and gazing on Jesus. I knew I needed to begin again at the beginning, and return to my first love, Jesus.
Shortly after Michael’s funeral I was meditating on the gospels and was struck by how often the response to Jesus from those who met him was amazement. As I pondered this, Jesus presented himself afresh to me. Words tumbled out as I sat in a café, tears rolling down my face trying to capture what I was seeing – just how amazing Jesus is. Those words preached the next Sunday were put to music and image by some gifted creatives and joined by some photos to become a small booklet called Amazing. That has been expanded to a large study on Jesus called Amazed, which is out next spring.
Three decades ago I became a minister because I had met Jesus and he transformed my life and I wanted to tell the world about him. Somewhere that vision of Jesus became blurred, and the ministry had bizarrely pushed Jesus to the periphery. No longer. An evangelist of an earlier generation, Gypsy Smith, once said of Jesus: “I have never lost the wonder of it all.” I don't ever want to either.
Falling in love again
How do we fall in love with Jesus all over again? Jesus challenged the Laodiceans because they were lukewarm and he challenged the Ephesians because they had forsaken him, their first love. Jesus is always wanting us to come back to our first love, the one who loved us first. How can we do that? Well, absence makes the heart grow colder. We need to consciously seek him, like the Greeks who came to Andrew and said: “Sir, we would see Jesus.”
First and foremost, we find Jesus revealed in his Word: “These are the very scriptures that testify about me” said Jesus (John 5:39) and we need to immerse ourselves in this ocean of revelation. All the while praying that God would reveal Jesus to us.
Steep yourselves in the gospels. Read them over and over and over. Secondly, we need to ask the Spirit to reveal Jesus. Much of prayer to and for the Spirit has been for power for ministry, and that is surely appropriate to pray. Less so has been the prayer that the Spirit would conform me to Christlikeness. But specifically, Jesus tells us the Spirit will make him known and lead us into all truth, the Spirit sublimates himself in the son, shines the spotlight on the son, fills us with the height and depth and length and breadth of Christ’s love. Seek the spirit to know Jesus nearer and dearer and clearer.
In Donald Miller’s superb book Blue Like Jazz – he recalls a friend of his, Alan, who was researching ‘successful’ churches and interviewing big church leaders. He visited Bill Bright, one of the most influential Christian leaders in the twentieth century – founder of Campus Crusade which has some 25,000 missionaries in 200 countries. Alan was shown into a grand office and sat there behind a big desk was “a big man, full of life, who listened attentively and engaged with the interview”.
The final question put to him was: “What does Jesus mean to you?” Bill Bright just started to cry. This big man, sat there in a big chair, behind his big desk, wept. Donald Miller comments: “When Alan told me the story I wondered what it was like to love Jesus that way. To cry at the very mention of the name Jesus…I knew then, I would like to know Jesus like that.” Me too.
Rev Simon Ponsonby is pastor of theology at St Aldate’s, Oxford. Amazing is now available to purchase from all good bookshops or online at muddypearl.com
Premier Christianity is committed to publishing a variety of opinion pieces from across the UK Church. The views expressed on our blog do not necessarily represent those of the publisher.