It is by now old news that we are living in a hyper-connected age, a period unlike any other in history in terms of our access to people, places, and information. This is often lauded and occasionally lamented, the bittersweet blessing of being part of a global village with worldwide reach continuing to create new opportunities and new anxieties in modern life. As Christians, hyper-connectedness can be greatly to our disadvantage, disconnecting us from the local lives and churches we are called to be committed to. In this post, however, I want to isolate one way in which wider connections can powerfully bless us and help us in our discipleship – particularly through the ministry of distant pastors and preachers. All of this thinking has been prompted by the home-call of a greatly beloved Northern Irish minister of the gospel.
On Saturday past the news began to emerge via social media that Rev. Edward Donnelly had been called home to glory. A number of people began to share their reminiscences of his ministry, of his Christian integrity, and of his impact on their own lives and service. As these posts populated my feed I found myself strangely moved by the fact that this choice servant of God had passed away. My personal contact with Rev. Donnelly over the years had been sparse, with a few warm, enriching, and encouraging conversations at events and church services, and the unspeakable blessing of hearing him preach at multiple conferences and other occasions. His manner in person and in the pulpit was that of a man dedicated to the proclamation of the glory of Christ and the encouragement of his people. His ministry was enriched and, it seemed, endorsed by the power of the Holy Spirit attending his words. With the self-deprecation that is the hallmark of this part of the world he carried himself without pomp or aloofness, a rich earthiness permeating his heaven-given mandate to make the Saviour known.
Local and global connections
Even with all of that, I have sought to understand the strength of emotion which Rev. Donnelly’s death evoked in me, and the answer that suggests itself to me springs from the Scriptures themselves. In a world of globalised Christianity there is an inevitable (and vital) pushback from many of us about the essentially local nature of the church. Many of us have been glutted on the grift of celebrity pastors and the regular disrepute that their moral failures bring the cause of Christ into, and we can find ourselves increasingly concerned about the advent of remote worship – on-demand discipleship with live streams replacing the living fountain of fellowship that in-person worship offers. In this kind of environment we can readily laud the local, we can insist on a re-centred view of life and ministry which sets aside the less helpful consequences of being able to be everywhere (and nowhere) all at once.
As with everything, we can go too far with this, and stray beyond biblical bounds. The New Testament is a document deeply concerned with place, with people, with local gatherings of those won to Christ – with the complications and implications of being committed to the local assembly of believers. That is not all that it speaks of, however. The early church also had an enviable ability to balance the priority of the local with the reality of the regional and global. The work of God in Samaria was of concern not just to those who were party to it in Acts 8, but to the church in Jerusalem. The salvation of Cornelius is relayed to us twice in Acts, once in its occurrence and once in its retelling to Jewish believers through Peter. The issues around how newly-converted Gentiles would express their faith in relation to Judaism may have been a localised issue, but its redress in a regionalised council tells a tale of how what happens somewhere in the church affects everywhere in the church.
Nor are such regional and global elements always ecclesiological, they are also deeply personal. The Apostle Paul often wrote to people whom he had never visited, who only had access to him as a missionary church planter for a vanishingly small period of time, or people whom he had been able to influence for just a narrow run of years. In this environment Paul could speak of holding people who were far from him close to his heart, he could reveal that they populated his prayers, that their needs bore down upon him, and that he expected them to sense a connection with him although he was geographically distant from them. Paul was a local man, who planted local churches, but also an individual whose influence and ministry were intentionally global and catholic. What makes all of this remarkable is that the only technology involved with these connections was the Roman road network.
Loving the Lord’s people across the miles
This connection between local and global can help us to avoid a parochial imbalance which could follow our reaction to the tacky Christian globalism of our day. We are designed for fellowship with those who live and work around us but, through union with Christ, we are also vitally connected to all who are in him. This is what allowed Paul, without a hint of sentimentality, to write to and relate to Christians with whom he had enjoyed no face to face contact, and this is what gives us a sense of belonging to one another, an immediate spark of fraternity and love unlike any other human community.
Crucial to this is understanding the dynamic of local and global. Where the global is viewed as an upgrade of the local we are falling prey to the spirit of the age. Where the global is viewed as an outgrowth of the local we are following the harmonious score of God’s grand plan to unite a people from every tongue, tribe, and nation.
The ministry of Ted Donnelly found its global connections before the internet. His endearment to people globally was hard-won through his investment in God’s people personally, but this wasn’t via commodifying his gifts to get personal recognition. His was no meteoric rise via social media influence, but the steady consensus among otherwise disparate gatherings of Christians that he was a man who cared about Christ and for his people. His was neither the elevation of the man above his ministry, nor the leveraging of a ministry for the accrual of influence. Instead a local pastor served Christ well, and the word of that ministry was uncontainable and highly transmissible.
In 2006 I was privileged to sit under Ted Donnelly’s ministry at the Banner of Truth Ministers’ Conference. It was preaching unlike any I had heard before (or since). The best description I can give of what I heard in his ministry on the book of Jeremiah was that Christ was in it. By that I don’t mean that he included Christ in his content, but rather that Christ inhabited that content by his Spirit. That experience of having my soul probed by God himself, of having my wounds addressed by a preaching pastor, created in me an esteem for his ministry that only increased over time. On the occasions when we worshipped as a family in Trinity Reformed Presbyterian, the ministry was entirely consonant in tone and Christ-tincture as that on the wider stage. The local and the global were knitted together seamlessly because the ministry was discharged in the former without intentionally aiming for the latter.
Their deaths diminish us
All of this explains to my own heart why the news on Saturday afternoon hit home. This is not the parasitical attachment to the grief of others that our society has particularly celebrated since the death of Princess Diana. It is not bandwagon bereavement where the mundanity of our everyday experience can be briefly electrified by the profundity of the grief of others. The loss of an esteemed brother or sister whose life and Christian service have reached beyond their immediate locality is an echo of the influence they have had in many lives. It is our union with Christ and one another made briefly tangible, a connection which is transcendent of place and time and is felt in the soul between one brother or sister in Christ and another.
The concentric circles of influence and those of loss are index linked. Those closest to a believer are blessed most richly by them and bereft most rawly of them. As the circle widens the sense of sadness undoubtedly weakens but is still felt nevertheless. If a man’s preaching has blessed the local church he pastors most profoundly through exposure and investment, then they will feel his passing all the more deeply, but those of us on the outer edges are still part of the body of Christ that the individual has served, and it is right that we mark our esteem for them in life and our sense of sadness at their death.
The passing of Ted Donnelly is for him a blessed realisation of the gospel of Christ he so faithfully preached. It is an incredible loss to his family, who should firmly feature in our prayers. It is an inestimable loss to the wider Reformed Presbyterian family among whom he walked as a beloved father and brother in the faith. It is also a loss of a different and lesser stripe to the wider Christian world which God used Ted to bless and to encourage.
Andrew I echo this totally. My experience with Ted was similar to yours. I met him several times and he was warm and encouraging. But I can’t say I knew him. In my ministry to a small church in Sunderland he used to fill me up again, under God, on Monday mornings as I listened to recordings. His lectures on Paul’s letters are also amazing and help me greatly still as I find myself lecturing New Testament at Union School of Theology. So like you I’ve felt a sense of loss this week.
Our paths crossed in Newtownards BYF. And I’m glad we both have received help at a distance from Ted Donnelly’s ministry.