Remember your leaders, those who spoke to you the word of God. Consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith. (Hebrews 13:7)
I grew up in a mixed denomination in Sri Lanka and was often exposed to liberal preaching. But my mother, a convert to Christianity, drilled into her five children the dangers of unorthodox teaching and how important God’s word was to life. All five remain committed evangelical Christians today. And thankfully God has provided a much stronger evangelical witness in the denomination today than when I was a boy.
When I was thirteen, we got a new pastor, the Reverend George Good, a missionary from Northern Ireland. The first Sunday that he preached, we went to church nervously, wondering whether he held evangelical convictions. My mother later said that when we sang a particular hymn early in the service, she knew her prayers were answered. The hymn was Charles Wesley’s “Jesus, the Name High over All.”
My parents were very active in church, and naturally we got to know the Rev. Good, whom we affectionately called “Uncle George.” I received an impression then that remains with me even to this day: this is the most Christlike man I have met. Little by little as I watched him, two convictions grew in me: First, my most important goal in life should be to be like Jesus. And second, the most vicious battle I have in life is with my sinful nature, which hinders my being like Jesus. Despite numerous failings, this remains my desire and battle today.
Favorite Day of the Week
Soon Sunday became my favorite day of the week. I came to see worship as something glorious. Uncle George introduced us to the great hymns of the faith, which celebrated the great doctrines of the faith. Aided by music, the language of the heart, the lyrics triggered joy and praise within me. It was later that I was able to articulate this experience verbally with the expression “the joy of truth,” which gradually became a key theme of my life and theology. Hymns are bearers of truth, and truth is one of the happiest things in life. Even today, I begin my time with God almost daily by singing a hymn.
Sunday was also special because our pastor offered a feast of biblical preaching each week. Rev. Good was a busy man, giving himself to the rigors of pastoral work. But rumor had it that he would be up into the night preparing his sermons. Preaching is such a great work, reflecting the honor of God and his word, that it needed to be done well. And George Good did it well.
Each Sunday, we would come to church eager to hear what gems he had mined from the word. I was exposed to the example of a man who tirelessly worked with people but also conscientiously studied the word and prepared good expository sermons. This is hard and tiring work.
“Hymns are bearers of truth, and truth is one of the happiest things in life.”
Most ministers are called to do a lot of things and strive to do them all well. The result is tiredness. As far as I know, the Bible never calls tiredness a sin. It is wrong not to delegate responsibilities to others. It is wrong not to take a Sabbath rest. It is wrong to be always complaining and unhappy about how hard we have to work. George Good was an example of a happy man who worked very hard with pastoral care and the ministry of the word. I had a model to follow.
My Hunger to Preach
I was about fourteen years old when I committed myself fully to Christ. I suppose seeing the glory of ministry in my church made it attractive to me too. Soon I became convinced that God had called me to the ministry. But there was a problem. I was extremely shy and hardly opened my mouth in public. I dared not tell anyone that I wanted to be a preacher! I also felt that I was the mediocre member of a very capable family. I thought I would amount to nothing significant. How could I ever hope to be a minister of the glorious gospel?
When I was fifteen years old, I followed the confirmation classes at church with the Rev. Good. As part of the course, he had personal appointments alone with each of the youth. I think he wanted to make sure that all those he was going to confirm had been born again. When I met with him, he asked me a question that astounded me: “Ajith, have you considered going into the ministry?” Someone really did think that this mediocre, tongue-tied, shy boy could possibly be a preacher! I don’t remember what answer I gave, but I was encouraged to keep thinking about the call to ministry.
Sunday after Sunday, I heard inspiring, faithful preaching. Over time, this awakened and fostered my own hunger to preach. Thus began an exciting journey into the study and proclamation of the word. Later in my father’s library, I found books of Bible exposition by men like F.B. Meyer, G. Campbell Morgan, and John Stott. I devoured these books. My real introduction to the supernatural power of preaching, though, was still what I heard each Sunday in my local church.
When Youth Become Pastors
After finishing my university studies, I went to the United States to study at Asbury Theological Seminary. I had hoped to return and work with Youth for Christ, the movement I served in before leaving Sri Lanka. While in seminary, however, almost everyone I respected told me that I could be making a big mistake doing parachurch ministry. The church or a seminary was the place for a person with my gifts, they said. I was confused and wrote to my parents for wisdom.
“A pastor’s calling is not to be famous; it is to tend the flock God has entrusted to him.”
George Good had returned to Sri Lanka at that time on an assignment. My parents told him about my struggle. His response was not what one would expect from a churchman. He said, “Let him work for Youth for Christ. God can use him to send many young people into the church.” So, I ended up working for Youth for Christ and have now been on staff for 47 years. I believe what George Good said happened.
Through our ministry, hundreds of unchurched youths have found their permanent home in churches. About a hundred have become pastors. Considering that the Protestant population in Sri Lanka is about 300,000, that is a significant figure.
Faithfulness and Fame
Uncle George taught me through his hard work, his faithful preaching, and his wise counsel. He also taught me through suffering. Shortly before he and his wife Eileen left for Sri Lanka, the educational policies here changed, making it impossible for their teenage daughters, Valerie and Joan, to come with them. Their family sacrificed so much for our people. What a relief to know that, despite the huge price they paid, both daughters are vibrant Christians today.
Here was a man whose Christlike character I could never come close to matching. Here was a man whose all-around capability in ministry I could never imitate. But I am known fairly widely, whereas George Good is known only in Britain and Sri Lanka. From a worldly viewpoint, that seems unfair.
But I do not think that would be a problem for George Good. His values were not derived from this world. A pastor’s calling is not to be famous; it is to tend the flock God has entrusted to him. That he did. In terms of qualification for service, a pastor needed to be Christlike and to perform his duties conscientiously, to the best of his ability. That he did, with distinction, even though it did not make him famous over a wide sphere. He surely heard a resounding “Well done” when he met his Master. That is reward enough!
And here on earth, he demonstrated the beauty of Jesus and the glory of pastoral ministry, qualities that won me as a boy and young man. Today, many features that characterize my ministry, and that of my minister brother Duleep, were first learned by watching George Good.