GD: Hello Jim Sayers, and welcome to Exiled Preacher. Please tell us a little about yourself.
JDS: I live in Abingdon with my wife Helen and our son Josh (who is now 2” taller than me at 6’4”). Laura is a relay worker in Glasgow and Meg is studying costume construction in London. Helen is a teaching assistant and I have been Communications Director for Grace Baptist Mission for nearly 9 years, following 16 years in pastoral ministry.
GD: You blog at https://jimsayers.wordpress.com/. What made you start blogging?
JDS: Hard to remember exactly. When I had a sabbatical in 2007 I had run a short, rather bland travel blog so my flock knew what their pastor was doing on sabbatical – churches I has visited, books I’d finally finished. That came off the web when I left for GBM in 09. I watched a few friends start their own blogs, but was busy doing an M.Th with Edinburgh Theological Seminary on the biblical theology of nationhood. Coming to the end of the writing process, I found we were in the middle of a minor referendum, so I decided to blog some of the key ideas about nationhood. This caused lift-off with about 500 hits the night before the Brexit vote – a feat not repeated since! Since then I’ve tried to make the blog live up to its billing, by looking at a wider range of issues related to mission, nations, culture and worship. When my work takes me to another country, it helps to write about the culture I visit. Then there are cultural moments to reflect on, books to review that fit the theme, and the occasional ‘seven things I’d like to….’ kind of posts that spill out too easily. I think it’s better to post thoughtfully and well on what you know well, rather than expose everything you think in some regular daily diatribe.
GD: Which blogs do you enjoy reading and why?
JDS: I love Eddie Arthur’s Kouya.net – short, pithy and well read – the place to start in world mission blogging. Chris Green’s MinistryNuts and Bolts is always good value on the skills of pastoral ministry. Stephen Kneale’s Building Jerusalem is consistently good. John Steven’s DissentingOpinions is provocative, and as a minor law graduate I love the posts that draw on his legal background. (John does seem to get an FIEC connection out of everything from Rolf Harris to eternal subordination!) No one blogs better than David Robertson’s The Wee Flea, which because I studied with the Free Church years ago is specially good for connecting with the Scottish scene. And of course there is an exiled preacher from Wales who likes his rugby!
GD: You're too kind. What are the strengths and weaknesses of blogging as a medium for reflection on theological and ministry matters?
JDS: It is good to be able to get your thoughts into something shorter than a sermon or the chapter of a book. I learnt to write by reading the editorials of Prof. Donald Macleod in the Free Church Monthly Record – so pithy, with short, punchy sentences full of passion and wit. He used his commas sparingly. He preferred the full stop. He connected theology with politics to great effect. When I was a pastor in Kesgrave, I had a column in the local community magazine where I had a 750 word limit to write an apologetics piece. I thrived on it. You learn the discipline of thinking your way into your audience’s mind, and working out what they will make of your obsessions and convictions. So blogging is a good discipline for we preachers who are wont to go on a bit. Its weakness is vanity – the expectation that the world’s public need to read my meagre offerings. After 2 hours graft at my imagined brilliance, the stats page tells me that six people bothered to read it. The blogosphere is big these days, so don’t imagine you can gain a wide audience. Keep a sense of perspective.
GD: Do you use other forms of social media, and why/what for?
JDS: I was on Twitter first, which is a great place for keeping up with ministry friends. I went on Facebook last August just to keep up with a few friends. I’ve decided that Twitter is like the news vendor shouting his headlines, whereas Facebook is like the ladies at the bus stop next to him having a good gossip. Mind you, put your blog posts on Facebook and the hit-count goes through the roof. I get bored with facebook, but the wit of Twitter is a joy. For GBM I am also now running an Instagram account.
GD: Which character from post-New Testament church history would you most like to meet and what would you say to him/her?
JDS: William Wilberforce, who is a real hero for me. I would want to commend him for his faithfulness, discuss the rather incremental way in which he set about the abolition movement – not going for complete emancipation at once. Can that say something to the pro-Life movement today? I’d also like to ask him why he became addicted to opiates!
GD: Tell us how you felt called to pastoral ministry:
JDS: I wanted to go into politics as a teenager – the full speech-in-front-of-the-bathroom-mirror variety. But at 17 I heard a preacher expound 2 Timothy 4 and knew God had spoken to me. When I went to Uni to study law, I heard Geoff Thomas preach and ached to be an expositor. From time to time I have wondered about politics, but gospel ministry always pulls me back.
GD: Where did you train for the ministry and what did you find especially helpful about your training?
JDS: Geoff Thomas wanted to send me to Westminster in Philadelphia, but when that wasn’t possible I went to Free Church College Edinburgh. Mostly I loved it, especially John L Mackay’s OT lectures and Alasdair I Macleod’s homiletics and pastoral studies. But the big pull was…..
GD: Who has had the greatest influence on your theological development?
JDS: Donald Macleod. A real privilege to study systematics under him. Every lecture was top quality, building a framework of thought. He would pause every couple of days for questions, and it was like pressing a button and out came another flow of brilliance.
GD: What would be your three top tips for budding preachers?
1. JDS: Preach within your range. Don’t do John 13-17, Romans 1-8 or Jeremiah to start with. 2. Don’t feel you have to say everything. Leave plenty on your desk and preach what you can make vivid and coherent. (3) Learn to apply well. That means inhabiting the lives of your hearers, more than half of whom will be women. Don’t be abstract – connect directly into their daily challenges.
GD: Why the switch to working for Grace Baptist Mission?
JDS: God had involved me in GBM and in some mission trips to West Africa before the job came up. I knew it was time to move on from Kesgrave, but couldn’t see a way out. When my job because free, it was obvious to us that this was God’s next step for us.
GD What does your role as Communication Director involve?
JDS: I am in change of all GBM communications – magazines, website, our monthly video bulletin Prayer Waves, our prayer diary etc. I also run our Envision programme of short-term mission opportunities. Together with Daryl Jones the Mission Director, we work with sending churches to help them care for their missionaries, and we both preach out among the supporting churches.
GD: What are some of the greatest encouragements and challenges faced by GBM at present?
JDS: It is wonderful to see new churches being planted in several places across Europe, and to see the rapid movement of church growth in places like India and Kenya. Helping churches send new missionaries is a real joy. The big challenge is just to stand still. The average missionary serves for ten years. We need to be helping sending churches to send at least two couples a year just to replace those coming home. Mission support is now much more focussed on giving to individual missionaries rather than mission agencies, so we have to restructure our costs. We need to connect with a new generation of supporters, most of all through the new media.
GD: You believe that God has a special plan for nations. Which is?
JDS: We have to read gen 10 and 11 together, seeing a world of nations living quietly together as God’s norm, and being aware of the dangers of a Babel-like tendency to think ‘global is best’ and we can solve the world’s problems by some global structure. All such empires end in failure, and often in bloodshed. So rediscovering the humility of biblical nationhood without descending into the idolatry of nationalism is vital. Biblical nationhood is a third way that avoids both the hatred of nationalism and the hubris of empire. Christian mission should honour every nation by dedicated contextualisation and a commitment to working in indigenous languages.
GD: How do you understand the relationship between the local churches and mission agencies such as GBM?
JDS: GBM is a mission agency without any missionaries. We help churches to send and care for their missionaries. We cannot tell a missionary to come home. Only their church can. But at the same time they need us to help them raise the support from other churches that their missionary needs. So it is a partnership. It is a joy to be in a review meeting with a church who really take their missionary’s care seriously.
GD: What does it mean to be a ‘Reformed/Grace Baptist’ in terms of theological and ecclesiological distinctives?
JDS: Grace is central, and we need to understand it in all its biblical richness – the grace that chooses, becomes incarnate, atones, calls the dead to life, equips Christians to live, and glorifies us. This shapes the way we preach the gospel, how we do evangelism, and how we pray. It should also make us more gracious – a tall order in a selfish age. In terms of the Church, everything flows from union with Christ. We must not have an individualist/supermarket approach to church. To be alive in Christ is to be united to our fellow-Christians, and that is shown in baptism, which brings into membership of the local church, which identifies itself when it takes communion together. Grace Baptist churches are also known for their commitment to church-based mission.
GD: What is the most helpful theological book that you have read in the last twelve months? It is a must read because?
JDS: The Whole Christ by Sinclair Ferguson. The marrow controversy is little understood today, but it cuts to the heart of our understanding of how the free offer of the gospel is preached, and the basis of our assurance. I think it is essential reading on the doctrine of the Christian life. He deals brilliantly with the similarities between the legalist and the careless sinner, and also takes apart the NPP on his way.
GD: You claim, “Marilynne Robinson is the world’s greatest living novelist.” Why is that?
JDS: She is still quite undiscovered in the UK. I love all three Gilead novels. She has created a new genre – the pastoral novel, in the sense of the life of the pastor. I’m not entirely sure she gets the justice of God as clearly as the grace of God, but the contrast between the legalist Jack Boughton who can’t save himself, and Lila Ames who can’t imagine she could be saved, is quite brilliant. Students will be reading her in 100 years’ time.
GD: A very fine writer. What do you do to relax?
JDS: I did my allotment, where all life’s problems unravel slowly. I also love quality TV drama: The West Wing. The Crown. Endeavour. We love doing National Trust properties. Walking by the Thames.
GD: Care to share your top three songs or pieces of music?
JDS: Beethoven’s 6th. Wade in the Water – Eva Cassidy. Coat of Many Colours - Dolly Parton.
GD: And finally, what is the biggest problem facing evangelicalism in the UK today and how should we respond?
JDS: A truly Lloyd-Jones question! We are a mission field where the church is in decline, but most of our troops have left the front line, and we are doing maintenance. Huge amounts of effort go into conferences, yet very few Christians are equipped to relate the gospel to everyday life. Huge expectations are made of pastors, but so many Christians are detached from church life and cruise from church to church. There is a chronic lack of discipleship. There are a few problems to be going on with. The Doctor would have known which one was the biggest question facing the Christian Church today.
GD: No doubt. Thanks for dropping by for this conversation, Jim.