Prayer. People. Pennies.

Jamie Read

Prayer, people, pennies - if these were sermon headings, my father-in-law would call it ‘a posy of sweat-peas’. Predictable perhaps too. But at least it’s memorable

At this time of year gardens die back and autumn is setting in. Just as we might struggle to remember the enjoyment of summer flowers – here one month, gone the next – so we can easily forget the joy that comes from our mission partnerships. It might have been revived by a mission partner’s brief visit in the summer, but this quickly fades from memory. 

We look forward to seeing them after a period of absence. We are expectant when they speak from the front and delighted by the stories shared over coffee. We really do enjoy their brief visits! 

But as mission partners come and go, we need to guard against ‘missionary amnesia’. Instead we should recall the lasting privilege of standing with them in our mutual labours for Christ.

Paul’s letter to the Philippians is gold dust for the church today and a personal memo for every Christian seeking to play their part in God’s mission.

Prayer, people and pennies would have been words not far from Paul’s mind as he sat down to write, weighed down by imperial chains. At least ten years had passed since he had seen the believers in Philippi and they were now 4,500 miles away to the east. No Skype. No WhatsApp. No airports. Definitely no ‘home leave’. Paul had every reason to let this partnership slip. 

But instead it was thriving. Why? Because the soil in which this tender partnership grew was gospel soil.

Nine times Paul refers to it in his letter: its bonding effect (1:5), its defence amid opposition (1:7, 16), its impact on the palace guards (1:12-13, 27b), its standard for Christian living (1:27), its service (2:22; 4:3) and its preaching (4:15). Christ himself is the pinnacle of the letter, the pattern of sacrificial servanthood (2:6-11).

On one level the message is simple: the partnership existed because of the gospel. 

Growing that partnership required more careful tending. The book of Philippians shows us three ways that can be done. 

Prayer

Paul begins with prayer. When the reality sets in that you can’t see, hear or embrace a brother or sister in Christ because of the separation of time and space, you pray for them! And God will be at work (1:6).

What do you pray? 

  • Pray for gospel priorities (1:9-10). Paul’s heartfelt longing for the Philippians climaxes with a prayer that they would know and love Christ more. Whether you pray this as a sending church or for a sending church, this is the compass bearing from which we plot a course for fruitfulness in life and ministry. Pray for discernment, sincerity and with one eye on the return of Christ!
  • Pray for everything, worry about nothing (4:6). In other words, pray about any troubling situation that might threaten the peace of God. Prayer includes ‘petition’, derived from a word meaning ‘to be deprived of’. When we lack something, we easily worry about it. So we pray confident that God will prove sufficient in all that we lack. But as well as recognising what we lack, prayer should recognise what we have been given. 

Are your prayers characterised more by what you don’t have than what you do have?

People

Years ago, when working on campus amongst students, we were trained to think in terms of ‘people, not projects’. I only really learned the value of this when I served in South Africa years later.

It is tempting to focus on getting programmes and structures right – ‘trellis work’ as some have said. Not once does Paul make reference to such things in his letter. Of course he valued leadership structures (see his letter to Titus), but his emphasis in Philippians is people. He has them in his heart! He longs for them with the affection of Christ Jesus (1:8). 

Aside from this, notice the direction of travel among the relationships described in Philippians:

  • Paul is concerned for the Philippians (1:7-8).
  • Timothy is concerned for the Philippians, taking a ‘genuine interest’ in their welfare (2:20).
  • The Philippians express concern for Paul, via Epaphroditus. The church sent him to take care of Paul’s needs (2:25). He ‘risked his life’ to help Paul in the Philippians’ absence (2:30).
  • Epaphroditus, lying on his sick bed thinks of nothing other than how he can ease the Philippians’ concern for him (2:26).

Just as there are more important things than programmes and projects, there is no one-way traffic in the relationships established by the gospel. 

Can you recognise such mutual affection with your partners scattered around the world? 

Pennies

As the saying goes, ‘there are two things you never talk about – money and politics’. In the current climate, we can let ourselves off the latter! Thankfully, Paul is unashamed to speak of money even if we are.

In his closing words Paul says he is content whether in plenty or in want, because of Christ. Perhaps that is what frees him to speak in the way he does about financial commitments. What does he say?

  • Financial commitments are long term (15-16). You can trace the origins of the Philippians generosity back to Paul’s earliest acquaintance with these believers. They then continued to give when he moved on to Thessalonica. Ten years on and they are still giving. Giving to mission partners becomes harder the longer they serve overseas. When you begin giving, plan it for the long term. Of course both church and mission partner will go through changes, but don’t let time be the reason the pennies dry up.
  • Financial commitments yield a surprising return (17). Paul adds a disclaimer to his thankfulness for their gift. More important than how he benefits, is the benefit that accrues to the giver. Paul would have us see that giving to gospel ministry is like investing in a business venture. That means you are allowed to share in the profits of a partnership! Philippians 4:17 should shape any church council discussions about setting budgets for mission partners.

‘Not that I desire your gifts; what I desire is that more be credited to your account.’ Philippians 4:17

  • Financial commitments are an expression of worship (18). It goes without saying, there is more to giving than setting up a standing order. Paul describes the gifts he receives as ‘a fragrant offering, an acceptable sacrifice’ (v18). Stewardship is an act of worship, not a just a fiscal arrangement. Just as the sweet-smelling fragrance of a sacrifice brought pleasure to God in the temple, so giving money is an expression of worship. Your giving doesn’t just meet the need of a mission partner, it brings pleasure to the Father.

This Sunday, have a look at your mission board. Better still, click right now onto your church website and visit the mission partner page. What do you find there? Where are your strengths? Do you prize prayer as much as giving, or visa-versa? Do you deeply value the relationships formed across continents?

If the roots of any partnership lie in the fertile soil of the gospel and it is tended by prayer, people and pennies, you will be able to enjoy it, not just for a season, but for many years to come.