The essential of leadership we so easily miss

What does your leadership look like? What’s the one thing most essential to your leadership of the local church? What’s the thing that will make preaching a joy rather than a chore, that will sustain us as we pastor people? As elders what is the things we look for most in pastors and preachers and others that we put into ministry leadership positions?

I wonder how you’d answer those questions? I’ve been in ministry nearly twenty years and have had to watch myself and others too often orbit too closely to the withering sun of burn out. In part because of expectations placed on us by others and in part use to the unrealistic expectations we place on ourselves, occasionally leading to the creation of a messiah complex caused by both of those things. And in part because I wonder if we’ve missed a key lesson in leadership. If I asked you what made David a great leader what would you say? Where would you go to prove it?

Leadership guru’s might look at his delegation, his past experience of shepherding that prepared him so well for leading a recalcitrant flock like Israel, his warrior like spirit, the trust his people put in him because of past victories won. But I wonder whether they or we would ever turn to the Psalms to see what actually enabled David to lead Israel well. You can explore this in pretty much any Psalm David wrote, in the Psalms when he’s under pressure like Psalms 52, 54, 56, 57 when he’s on the run or being hunted down or betrayed or in a jam. You can see it in the Psalms when he’s expressing his greatest longing. We see it really clearly in Psalm 16. Just stop and read it.

No really. Stop and go and read it!

What strikes you about that Psalm? There are loads of things and we haven’t got time to excavate it all we’d be here all day and I’ve got a sermon to prepare. But what runs throughout the Psalm, and through so many of the Psalms David composes, is that God is his refuge and the thing he wants more than anything else. God is his greatest good, his portion, his blessing, he is able to rejoice because he has God and enjoys right relationship with him. What fuels David’s leadership? Relationship with God and the joy he find therein.

That’s further backed up by David’s confessional Psalm, Psalm 51. Where he confesses his sin and pleads for restoration not to leadership but to the rich sweetness of the relationship with God which he has so enjoyed. This Psalm is all the more staggering when we realise David sinned and hadn’t even realised what he had lost, it wasn’t until Nathan confronted him that he was led to confess. It is so easy for our relationship with God to drift and atrophy bit by bit until we find ourselves in blatant sin and using and abusing those God has given us to shepherd. But it is that sweetness of joy in God that David longs for restoration to.

Yet all too often we forfeit the joy of our relationship with God because we relate to God as minister first and person second. We focus on our leadership at the cost of what will sustain leadership – the joy of our salvation. 1 Kings 19 and the incident post Carmel with Elijah teaches us that we need to rest and eat well if we want to serve God well. That there are times when we just need to stop and enjoy what God has given us, refuel and rest. And David teaches us that if we want to serve God well we do so best out of a deep knowledge of God that means we run to him for refuge, we look to him for joy and we hunger to know him more.

In all our busyness the danger is we miss this, we forget to set aside time for this. When it’s the greatest gift we can give those we lead, be it our families or our churches. Elderships and churches need to make this a priority for our pastors and leaders at every level if we want to see pastors leading well. We need to make sure there is space for this in ministry, knowing that every individual has different ways of approaching this and resting in God. Pastors need to prioritise this if they want to lead well, because too many ministers minster out of a sense of duty not joy, on the edge of burnout not out of a sense of joy in God.

Love the real not the ideal

We all tend to idealise things; marriage, family, children, holidays, the seaside. Everything. It’s as if we have a filter on our memories and our hopes that means we only remember or imagine the best bits. Idealism isn’t bad but it can cause us to rear back when we find something isn’t ideal. It can cause us to react to reality by withdrawing rather than engaging.

Too many people approach pastoring and church planting with the same filters in place. They imagine they will be pastoring the ideal church, the congregation will love your teaching, really engage with it, and so revival will break out. People will grip your hand after a sermon and speak about how the gospel is really changing them in detail and then, the next week, bring along everyone they know to hear this great gospel of which you are a herald. Elders meetings will be a time of joy filled plotting the upbuilding of the kingdom of God and the downfall of the kingdom of darkness. And church members meetings will be times of unity and gospel focused renewal to mission. And when church discipline issues come up people will quickly recognise their sin, repent and make things right. Everyone will love everyone and be considerate and gentle.

When we plant a church that type of community will form quickly and as a natural application of the gospel taught and last enduringly. The core team will all embody the DNA not just give lip service to it. They will delight to serve long term. No-one will leave. No-one will become disillusioned. No-one will feel disappointed. No-one will grumble or just get worn down. Everyone will engage in mission, and the people in the community you’ve planted in will just come because your community embodies something different, see Jesus for the great Saviour he is and follow him and grow and serve. And in just a few years you’ll be planting again and then again and again, because you’re not just planting a church you’re starting a movement.

But all of our naive idealism gets a cold wave of water in the face not just when we actually do it but when we read the New Testament and about the early church. Yes there is great growth, such as at Pentecost and in some of the towns where Peter and Paul and others preached. But I love the gritty reality of the way God doesn’t hide their struggles from us. In Acts the ideal of Acts 2 and Acts 4 meets the reality of external persecution, potential sinful corruption in chapter 5, and nascent grumbling division in chapter 6. In Galatia we read of churches planted in Acts but soon read of those same churches with elders in place and taught by Paul drifting into legalism and in danger of losing the gospel. In Corinth we read of a church planted and growing, of people from all walks of life turning to Christ for life and it is absolutely amazing. And then in the letters to the church we see the gritty reality of discipling such a church with it’s celebrity culture, power struggles, accommodation of culture, relationship struggles and so on.

The Bible shows us the reality of the church. We need to reckon with that reality. Too many pastors and planters are idealistic not realistic and that is why so many burn themselves out trying to create this ideal, I wonder if unhelpful models and expectations fuel this even more. I also wonder if it, in part, leads towards the dangerous rocks of heavy shepherding and anger in ministry that can fuel unhealthy cultures.

The correction we need to make is not to pessimism, it is not to lower our expectations of what the gospel can do. The gospel of Jesus Christ has the power to change any life at any time because it is the good news of a person who can do that: Jesus Christ. And he is the same yesterday, today and forever. His word endures, he was and is and is to come and so his word is enduringly relevant and powerful. But we do need to correct our idealism because change is slow. Just like our society we want everything done instantly, everything must be faster, better, more productive more powerful. In the church and in ministry we have bought into this worlds fakery and fallacy. The problem is not with the power of the gospel to produce change it is in the timeframe within which we expect it to happen.

The Bible constantly uses images of slow growth; plants, sheep, trees and so on. Paul uses images of dedicated long term labour to describe ministry; the soldier, the farmer and the athlete. But we seem so often to forget that. Pastoral ministry is hard. It is graft not glitz. The reality is that it is long term and change and growth are so often slow. Discipleship is a life long process of becoming more like Jesus and that is what we are called to make.

What are the implications of this? Our idealism is dangerous for pastors in leading to burn out, wanting to do too much too soon and so investing in too many programmes that are all singing and all dancing. Our churches idealism leads to the same thing with all its unspoken pressures and expectations. Instead of being realistic and investing in the slow work of discipling a few others who will in turn disciple a few others who will in turn disciple a few others. It means we settle for shallow profession not deep growth because we want to grow numerically and prove that things are working that somehow we measure up to the ideal. It also means we mistake church transfer for church/kingdom growth which it is not. It means we fail to really love because we love the ideal church we want to have not the real church we have been given. It can also lead us to be manipulative in having our target of where we want to get people to rather than listening to them and what God is doing and how he is making them like Christ and playing our part in that. And there are so many more implications of this that I’m sure you can think of.

So what? A good place to start would be to go back and read scripture and work out the time frames, to see the decades over which we see discipleship take place in the early church, to see the ups and downs, to read of those who made good progress and those for whom it was faltering and those for whom progress floundered and they turned back. And then to repent of our idealism. Our failure to see beyond the instant. And then to get down to the hard work of real ministry with the real people God has given me to love. Yes the real is more messy than the ideal, but then you and I aren’t the ideal pastors and planters we like to imagine ourselves to be, we are the messy works in progress that God has called to his service in reality.

Foundations of connection

Yesterday Nay Dawson started a really helpful twitter thread about friendship and the school gate. Various others chimed in and it was a helpful discussion with various helpful resources posted. But it did remind me that whilst we live a society desperate for friendship many of us struggle to build friendships. It can be especially hard if, and when, you move to a new area, especially if you are an outsider to that area. Or if you are entering an environment where relationships seem to have been already forged and you are on the outside. So I thought I’d share some things which I’ve found helpful, whilst acknowledging that I’m not brilliant at this and have to work hard at it.

The first thing is to be in the community you are in. Too many of us are commuters, we drive in and out, in and out, in and out. We’re so busy that we don’t really have time to dwell, to abide, where we live and that inevitably has a knock on effect on the relationships we build or not. Busyness and rushing signals that we don’t have time or capacity for friendship. As does hiding behind your phone, they are brilliant friendship deflectors again signalling that I’m too busy when really we’re just scared of being vulnerable. So plan in time, put the phone in your pocket or leave it at home and look up and smile.

We also need to work hard to develop repeated community habits like using the local shops and cafes regularly. As a church you might encourage people to do that too, for example we’ve just negotiated a discount card for our toddler mums at a local cafe on the day toddlers runs and our toddler team regularly have food together there after toddlers has finished. Get to know the staff and ask how they are. Use local shops where you can and say hi to the staff when you see them around.

Identify key community gateways. Where do people meet? Where do they just hang out? Where is there opportunity to be around people? Are there existing community groups or networks that you can join? Are there local sports teams you can play in or coach? That may mean changing your diary and getting out of the Christian rabbit warren we can find ourselves sucked into or changing some other existing commitments in order to do so but long term it will pay off.

Also look for the small everyday opportunities, we’ve found the school drop off to be fruitful during our boys primary school years – so much so that I’m dreading not having a child at primary next year for the first time in 15 years. We’ve deliberately walked them to school and back again, arriving a few minutes early for each and looking to chat to people as they pick up or drop off kids. Key to this I think has been not diarising it, not having to rush off but having chance to stop and chat, and looking for opportunities to say hello to people. It has taken time to get to know people but being there and willing to talk has helped so much. It’s led to opportunities to play sport together, and even attend the wedding of friends we first met at the school gate when our now Uni Freshers were in Nursery.

Walk rather than drive if you can and be ready to say hi and smile to people. That means taking your headphones out when you walk and being aware of what’s around you. We’ve got to know some people just by walking passed them at the same time every day smiling and saying good morning and gradually building things up that way. One lady we’d only ever said ‘hi’ to even stopped us to ask if we were involved in the church that meets at the local school. One brilliant shortcut is to get a dog, its amazing how many people will chat to you while your dogs sniff each other’s butt who wouldn’t normally stop and talk!

I wonder if we suffer from friendship anxiety, we worry about it so much we make it a much bigger thing that it is, and I say that as someone who is naturally quite quiet and happy to not put myself out there. What if it was as simple as being friendly, making eye contact, signalling willingness by not rushing and not gazing at a screen? At least it’s a place we can all start.

Our treasure

What’s the meaning of life? What am I here for? Where is life headed? What’s the greatest joy you can find? I wonder how you would answer those questions? How would you answer them if a friend asked you? We all live life looking for meaning in something. Where would you go to find an answer to those questions in the bible? What one verse or passage would you turn to and how would it help answer those?

We’ve recently started our formation discipleship course and for this first term we’re doing a Bible overview in 8 sessions looking to explore what God says we exist for, what he says the meaning of life is. In a nut shell I think the answer is found in John 17v3, as Jesus prays to his Father he says this “This is eternal life: that they may know you, the only true God, and the one you have sent – Jesus Christ.” If I was asked for one sentence that sums up the whole Bible that’s it for me. Why do we long for more? Because we were made in God’s image to know and enjoy him. What is the story of the Bible? It is the story of life and joy found in relationship with God, and then lost because of sin and rebellion. But it is the tenacious story of God’s faithful love and amazing grace in redeeming us in Jesus – bringing us back into relationship with him and giving us eternal life, that doesn’t just start when I die but now, and which one day I will enjoy undeterred, unfettered, and uninterrupted in his new creation when there will be no barrier to us enjoying him forever.

You can trace that story throughout the Bible’s pages, God’s gift of relationship with him and the life and joy that brings. And that’s exactly what we’ve been doing as we see Abraham called to walk with God and know God and talk with God. As we see Israel redeemed from slavery to be God’s people, a holy priesthood, to choose life as they choose God. It’s a great picture and so helpful for our hearts to remind ourselves what God has redeemed us for. That the true treasure is God himself, we are saved to know him in Jesus filled with his Spirit, given his word, invited to walk with him and enjoy life in him.

I can sometimes forget that. In the busyness and bustle. The habits and devotions. Sometimes I forget the plain and simple joy that I am called, and saved, to know God. That is where eternal life is. And it’s all gift.

The idolatry that destroys friendship

Perhaps the biggest barrier to our building friendships comes from our idolatry of marriage in the church. If you’re single you experience it as people in church trying to matchmake you with any eligible Christian of the opposite sex, and that makes you weary of friendships especially those with the opposite sex. All of us imbibe it in the relationship talks we’re given at youth groups and camps which are often well meaning but focus on marriage as the thing that will save you from your struggle with sexual sin and provide you with the intimacy and friendship you so long for. And that often means when people get married they so with unhealthy expectations. They also tend to pull away from previous friendships, almost as if a close relationship with anyone else will endanger their marriage. Pastorally I’ve dealt with many who have been badly wounded by just that unloving act and now feel fearful of building new friendships because what if they meet someone….

The churches idolatry of marriage is partly the result of our overreaction to the world’s idolatry of sex. Sexual love is viewed as the highest form of love in the world, it’s the ultimate hence the mantra that love is love and nothing should get in the way of that. It is the highest good, the ultimate expression of love, the goal to aim for. And so the church doubles down on the teaching that marriage between a man and a woman is the only right context for sexual love and intimacy, without challenging societies mantra on sexual love being the ultimate, the place you will find fulfilment. But in so doing I worry that we write cheques marriage can’t cash. The bible’s picture of love is so much broader and more beautiful and bountiful than that. It’s much more multifaceted and we lose something when we shrink love down to sexual love, we lose friendship and end up overburdening and overexpecting of marriage and naturally as a result we will find our churches full of people struggling with loneliness whether married or single and marriages creaking under the strain.

The Bible is full of stories of the joy of love that is not sexual. Sexual love is only one type of love we were made to enjoy. Marriage is the only context in which God says we’re to fulfil that love, yet marriage itself has limits, it points beyond itself to the eventual eternal joy of the union between Christ and the Church. And that means we must see marriage for what it is. A signpost, a precious covenant signpost that can bring much joy, yes. A good gift of God, yes. But also one that is given not to be an idol but to be part of a process of growing Christlikeness spurred on by those entering it. It is not the only form of love we were made to enjoy, that we need. Even in the garden the image of Adam and Eve isn’t it, it’s not complete. They aren’t sat snuggled up and loved up on a sofa with a Rom Com or Action flick blissfully content to find all they need in each others eyes, they have a job to do to create a community of worshippers, with a web of other relationships, other types of love, that is what they were made for.

The highest love is not sexual love and that means we may need to repent as churches, couples, pastors and individuals of making this an idol and the destruction that has wrought in this area of friendship. We ought to focus and teach much more on friendship. After all when was the last time we gave friendship preparation classes rather than just marriage preparation classes? When was the last time you taught friendship from a biblical text? Yet the Bible is full of descriptions of the joy of friendship and we need to not be afraid of them. We need to speak of them loudly and proudly, we need to reclaim some of them where they’ve been hijacked by other agendas and lovingly show how wrong that is and we need to speak often in praise of friendship and apply the principles so our congregations can flourish as they enjoy friendship as God intends it. Rather than imperil marriages I wonder if actually this might save many of them, relieving them of a burden they are not made to carry.

I am not denigrating marriage. It is a God given good, it points to something far greater. But we need to get the balance right. I am not denigrating family. But I am saying that as a church we need to be biblically balanced in our teaching. The Church is a new family, it’s not nuclear, we enter into an interconnected web of loving sisterly and brother friendships that is a blessing and provides the welcome and love so many in our society are desperately hungering after.

And in a society that is desperately lonely, that seems to put all its eggs in the basket of sexual love we can show them a better way. But only if we stop and study and teach what the bible has to say about friendship. We were not made for loneliness we were made for love, not romantic love but love from God, love by neighbours, love by a redeemed community that meets us again and again with the welcome of grace and the rest of the gospel. That truly sees us and loves us as Christ loved us. That truly sees us and loves us enough to rebuke and correct and train as well as bind wounds and pour the oil of the gospel onto our wounds. We need that love of friendship that is God’s gift to us.

Peter writes to the believers scattered across Asia Minor “Above all, love one another deeply, because love covers over a multitude of sins.” Do you see what he is saying? There is an urgency to this love, a necessity for it if we are to persevere in following Jesus especially in a hostile world. I get the sense that many are feeling a hunger for this love, a longing that somehow as the church we are falling short of. The answer isn’t to look for it elsewhere it is to examine ourselves, repent of our idolatry, and study God’s word for what it has to teach us about friendship. And then put it into practice.

What might that mean? It’s not the whole answer but interestingly the very next verse Peter talks about hospitality. How about opening up your home? Lower the drawbridge, lift the portcullis and fill in the moat. Your home is a God gifted arena in which others can by grace experience the blessing of friendship. Be patient, don’t rush to do everything at once, take time. Invest, give of yourself, do things together with others, avoid exclusivity always be looking to include not exclude, and pray that God would give you a heart to love and the grace to bear with others and that God would give others the patience and grace to bear with you. When it’s awkward keep going. When someone offends – why not rather be wronged? When sin rears its ugly destructive head confront it with truth and love and be ready to forgive with grace. Relationships are messy – I wonder sometimes if that’s why we find them hard they are not instant or easy or within our control or diarise-able, there isn’t an app for that – but there is joy in the mess of being truly seen and known and loved by grace in Christ.

Photo by Michael D Beckwith on Unsplash

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False friends

There are lots of things that hinder us in building friendships but I want to call out some of them as we think about the gift of friendship and the longing for friendship that God has placed within us.

I am my personality score/type

I’ve heard this quite a lot, especially from the more introverted, the tests people do at work or at home seem to baptise this with something verging on infallibility when all the time I worry that it is really robbing of us of something God designed to be life sustaining and joy giving. We are not the sum of our personality test score or result no matter what letters, numbers, or label it provides or what it claims to reveal about us. It’s not as simple as being an introvert or an extrovert and we mustn’t hide behind that. It may helpfully expose certain traits but what it almost definitely didn’t tell you is that all those things are because you are simultaneously a saint, a sinner, and a sufferer. There are parts of our character that are that way because we were made in the image of God and for those who follow Jesus as Lord and Saviour because we’re being remade in his image as the Spirit works in us and we cooperate with him, but there are also parts of our character are that way because we are sinful and not finished works of grace yet – these need recognising and battling against. Other aspects of our character have been formed and shaped by our experiences, especially the suffering we have been through in terms of loss and let down in friendship and other relationships – these need acknowledging but not idolising.

Now all of those are tangled together and freighted with emotion. We are all simultaneously saints, sinners, and sufferers even as our primary identity is as a child of God. And that means whatever your personality score tells you it is revealing those three realities. So what? We mustn’t hide behind, or settle for our personality test score, you are not just an introvert or extrovert, or whatever other label you have come out with. We are redeemed in Christ to be something more, to follow Jesus, to be remade in his image, not just to say ‘I’m not a people person’, or ‘But I’m not energised by community’.

But I’ve been hurt

Yes, you have and I am deeply sorry about that reality. I have no idea of the trauma of the experience you have gone through, or the long lasting damage that has caused. But as a fellow sufferer, and fellow cause of suffering in this area, I want to say it doesn’t excuse us forever from building friendships. There may be things we need to work through, there may be false starts, there is risk, and pain will be part of the process of building and investing in friendships. But the New Testament models to us painful friendships met by grace and love. As I read the gospels I am constantly amazed at the disciples mistreatment of Jesus; Peter denies him, John and James spectacularly misunderstand him, all of them run away from him, Judas denies him, and they constantly seem to fail to see who Jesus really is – and his gracious love for them that endures so much misunderstanding and outright sin against him. Truly Jesus is tempted in every way we are in this area of friendship and yet he is the friend.

We see that struggle for friendship and faithfulness continue into the early church, the Bible doesn’t hide from us that friendship sometimes hurts. That sometimes close friends desert us and the faith as Paul experiences to his immense cost – just read his words in 2 Timothy and hear his pain. The Bible doesn’t hide the reality that sometimes whole churches seem to reject those it previously loved being led by and yet Paul pursues them in Galatia and Corinth. Bear with one another in love isn’t something the Apostles wrote as a theory someone else may find helpful but it was branded on their hearts and seared into their psyche. They bear with, they love like Jesus, they extend gracious invitations of forgiveness and welcome. They invest in building friendships again and again and again because it is part of the call of the gospel.

I’m too busy

We have a real problem with time. We seem to rush everywhere and be overloaded by everything. We cram stuff in and teach our kids that busy is good, rather than giving time and space for conversation and relationships to develop. And yet we have time to spend hours on social media and consume a steady diet of box sets or latest must watches. I want to recognise that there are good things we invest time heavily in – families matter – Deuteronomy 6 emphasises that it is the family that is the primary means of training and discipling children in knowing and following Jesus and that takes time in the normal rhythms of life. We are created to work – it’s not a necessary evil, it is an arena where God places us to be his people and speak of him and serve him in whatever we do whether that’s preparing a sermon or procuring paper clips and stationary for the office, teaching children or sweeping floors. We are made to sleep, in fact it’s ungodly not to sleep – it is a rebellion against God’s creation and a lack of faith in him that wants to rule and control all the time.

But even if you take those three out we still have considerable time to build and pursue friendships, time is just the excuse a distracted society/church lazily reaches for. But part of our problem is that we compartmentalise those things in life rather than think about life holistically. We need sleep lets take that as a given. But we have to move beyond compartmentalising the other areas of life. We have to stop ensuring no box – be it the box of work, family, church, gym, sport… – ever touches the other apart from at our wedding – and let’s be honest that’s just terrifying and is why the seating plan is so complex and fraught.

We can pursue friendship in our workplace – take lunch for example, too often the pressure is on to work through lunch, but why not take a walk, ask someone to walk with you, speak to them, ask how they are, invest in them. Take a risk, build friendships. It’s the same in our families, family time matters yes, but families need to see us model friendship that is more than just occasional, virtual, and mediated through social media. Families need to not be under pressure to be our sole place of support and refuge. We as a family have benefitted massively from welcoming others into our family; sometimes having others live with us for a period of time, having others who regularly spend time and meals with us, having long term friends we do life with, and just having people drop in and out during the day. Every person we meet today God has ordained that we meet, what if that was so we could extend his welcome and stop and receive his blessing of friendship from them?

Ministers in particular have an issue with this. There’s always something to prepare, something to tweak and perfect, a pastoral issue to resolve. I’ve been awful at this. But I really valued some time away with another bunch of guys a couple of weeks ago that just reminded me it is more beneficial to take a break for a few days with friends than it is to plough on because I’m too busy. It reenergises us and readies us for service again. Don’t believe the lie you are too busy.

I wonder if those 3 lies we believe are the dams that bring to a grinding halt the flow of friendships we so desperately crave and need. We need to call them out for the lies they are.

Leaders in friendship

We have an unhealthy friendship culture in church because we have an unhealthy friendship culture in church leaderships. I remember being told that a pastor can’t have any close friends in his congregation because it will lead to favouritism and jealousy and cliques. And there is a danger of that, let’s be honest about it, it would be stupid to deny that there isn’t that possibility. But that doesn’t negate the Bible’s call to pursue friendship, to pursue close relationships where we can fulfil the one another’s. It just means we need to be watchful that doesn’t happen. In fact a failure to build friendships in our congregations as elders and pastors means that we stand open to the charge of hypocrisy whenever we preach or teach on those very issues. It will also leave us isolated and lonely and make burnout or moral failure so much more likely.

We need to develop a culture of friendship and we need to start by modelling it in our leadership teams. So why not do a bit of an audit: How much time do you as leaders spend together outside of leaders meetings? Do you ever just sit back with no business on the table and be together? When did you last laugh, really laugh with your leaders? Have you ever? How well do you know your leaders? Do you know one another strengths and weaknesses? Or does that very thought fill you with dread? Do you know where each other is struggling with sin, the battles you are fighting to believe God’s word, the temptations you face? Are you good at encouraging one another, do you say thank you to one another for your works of service, do you have a culture where you can encourage one another with the growing Christlikeness you see in one another?

I’ve been privileged to be part of some great leadership teams, where there was openness and honesty. Where we started our meetings not with the business of the church but with concern for one another’s walk with God. Over time we were able to be honest in those meetings about our struggles, our temptations, how we were spiritually, how we were within our families. And we trusted one another with those things, prayed for one another with those things, followed up with one another with those things. We didn’t do so perfectly, I’m sure there were times we didn’t bear everything or failed to follow up well. But those relationships have lasted, in some cases, even though people have now moved away from Doncaster. We didn’t just lead together we were friends who spurred one another on in loving Christ and leading the church he had blessed us with. Those friendships eased the burden of leadership and pastoral care because we knew there would be a candid but grace and truth filled support and discussion.

But what if we don’t have those? What if that simply isn’t how our leadership functions? It’s easier if we’re starting a new leadership team to build that in, it will feel clunky at first and don’t be afraid of silence, don’t do what most pastors do and rush to fill it, let the silence breath as God works. Press in with questions and be ready to follow up. It will take time for trust to build, lay the ground rules about confidentiality at the start and make sure people keep to them.

But this can feel so much harder in an existing eldership, but if elders are going to lead the church in the spiritual battle they need one another, they need friendship that “strengthened his hand in God” just as Jonathan did for David. How much time do you spend together outside of business meetings? How much do you speak to one another of one another or is it just about the church. How can you build the relationships outside the meeting that will enable you to spur one another on in following Christ? As for reshaping the business meeting so it is more pastoral for each other, introduce this sort of thing slowly, build trust, take a risk by beginning yourself in sharing. Don’t let awkwardness or even a little bit of resistance put you off. Pray for one another, either after you’ve all shared, or the next person along simply prays after the person next to them has shared.

We need to friendship in our churches, but our churches also need to see friendship modelled and that has to start with the leaders, leaders who are willing to open up, to show vulnerability, apply grace, and spur one another on to follow Jesus. And don’t believe the lie that pastors can only do that with other pastors, don’t leave friendship to the fraternal because I don’t that’s a weight it can or should bear for all sorts of reasons, not least our prideful desire to measure up to others. We need friends and we need friends among our leaders and in our churches.

Satan’s stolen treasure

Satan is a thief. He takes what’s not his. Be it glory, worship, children, whatever he can get his hands on. He’s also a saboteur, read Genesis 3, he doesn’t form things, he doesn’t do beauty, he can’t create culture, he can only sabotage it, or create counterfeits. He steals, he twists, he warps, he deforms. And we live with the consequences. Our lives so often are impoverished as a result without us even realising it.

One of the treasures that Satan has stolen is friendship. I love the image in the garden of Eden of Adam and Eve enjoying an rich intimacy that is founded on knowing one another without shame or fear. It was a relationship of love and laughter and total safety and joy. And it isn’t just an image of marriage, it’s an image of community, of friendship. What they experience they are to replicate as they multiply until God’s good creation is filled with people who enjoy relationship with God and with each other.

The Bible is big on friendship. It shows us dysfunctional friendships and beautiful friendships like David and Jonathan, or Jesus and his disciples, that leave us longing to taste that same joy filled trust and intimacy. But Satan is always looking to sabotage and steal that joy. And the result of that is that we are a church that is marked in the West by loneliness. And that’s tragic. Loneliness is endemic in Western society. But God calls a people to him in Israel who are to be marked by hospitality and generosity and a tightly woven mesh of familial commitments that are to more than just their flesh and blood. And the church isn’t to abandon that but redeem it, to take it’s best bits and empowered by the Spirit fully flesh out what Israel so often struggled to be.

But Satan is still in the business of sabotage and stealing. We see him doing it in Galatia, Corinth, Ephesus and elsewhere by various means – legalism, racism and nationalism, pride and arrogance. And he has not stopped doing that. He does the same today. He does it as he lies and tells us we’re too busy to have real friendship, or to expand our circle of friends. He does it as he shrinks our expectations of friendship to less than covenantal commitment that forgives and shows grace. He does it as he gets the church to repeat societies mantra that men and women can’t be friends because sex gets in the way. And increasing in our sexually revolutionised world hints that that may be true of same sex friendships too as we hear the whispers of words like ‘bromance’. He sabotages friendship as he seeks us to invest our every longing for friendship in our marriages and our spouse, piling on that precious covenantal relationship a weight it was not designed to, and cannot possibly sustainably, take. He sabotages our friendships as he piles on cultural norms that make it hard to encourage someone or show our love and appreciation for them.

Too many in our churches are lonely. Not just the single, the widow, and the widower, but everyone, anyone of any age, any stage. And the tragedy in the church is that so often we’re too busy to even notice. In fact often those of us in ministry model the very opposite of friendship. But we need friends, those we can laugh with, be honest with, open up to, be comfortably silent with knowing there are no expectations just welcome. We need those who we know and trust love us and will spur us on to follow Jesus. Will we cultivate this friendship and provide spaces for them to flourish? Will we combat Satan’s lies with God’s redemptive truth and counteract his sabotage by working hard to build friendships that flourish in grace and loyal love?

Multiply discipling opportunities

How out of the box do we think? Let’s be honest, not very. Not many of us are that entrepreneurial. We tend to do what we’ve done before, or what we’ve heard others do. But the problem with that is that it doesn’t work for everyone. We end up trying to squeeze, or hammer, or wedge square pegs into round holes.

Just stop and think for a minute: how are you discipling others? We know that Jesus calls us to make disciples – not just converts. We know – at least we do if we stop and think for any length of time about it – that is so much more than just sharing the gospel with someone, it is a lifelong helping them become like Jesus. It involves time and commitment and sharing and honesty and love and friendship and encouraging words and rebuking words, and modelled living. But how does your church disciple people? How do you disciple people?

Stop and think. Take an inventory. Everything we do is in one way or another discipling someone. The way we do church on Sunday morning disciples our people. The way we talk of the bible, sing our songs, and pray all disciples people. And there’s loads we could dig into there but that’s not what I’m thinking about in this post. What are the discipling opportunities you have and are they all of one type? Do they all look the same? Are they all sit down and listen to someone teach? Are they all experts delivering? Or do we have multiple means of discipleship? Do they involve discussion? The chance to get stuff wrong? laughter? Fun?

We started Formation discipleship last night. And it’s different from our Sunday morning which is fairly vanilla Sunday service, with prayer, singing, preaching, and time spent applying God’s word to our lives. It’s also different from our Gospel Group (think bible study) where we work through some questions together as we study God’s word led by an individual. Formation is more like your continuing professional development you get at work, which is looking to upskill you and equip you. There’s pre-reading and thinking to do, that you’d ideally do with others. Then there’s discussion over coffee and cake before the session proper, and then a mix of teaching, discussion, group work and prayer. And all the time we’re looking to make it personal, to ask ‘So What?’ So what difference does this make to me? The idea is that its equipping us to disciple others better in the church by helping us enjoy God more and be formed more like Jesus. I really enjoyed our first session and am looking forward to more.

But we also need more informal discipleship opportunities. One of the things I’ve loved about lockdown is doing lots of walking with various people from church, chatting as we walk, asking questions of one another about how we’re doing spiritually and gathering prayer fuel for each individual family. I’m loving that I’ve been able to start meeting up with people one to one again to discuss issues, read the bible or read God’s word. But we really need to multiply even more ways of discipling people, living life alongside them, modelling grace and forgiveness and love. I wonder if this is going to be the hardest thing fo all to do post lockdown, we’ve all just got out of the habit of hanging with people, building friendships founded on following Jesus and spurring one another on to love Jesus more and be more like him?

Religion or relationship?

Those two things are so often placed as opposites in our conversations about gospel culture. I’m sure you’ve heard the preacher say following Jesus is about relationship not about religion. And in some ways I want to say yes, but in lots of others I want to say no. I think its lazy to characterise it in this way, it’s far too simplistic.

Religion has a number of meanings: Firstly it is belief in, worship of and obedience to a divine power(s). Secondly it is the formal expression of such beliefs in actions. So far I’m not sure what the problem is. When we turn to the bible we see that the word religion is used positively by James in 1v27 “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world.” And when James and Paul put religion in the crosshairs, it is not religion itself that they have a problem with but hypocritical or inactive religion. Jesus when he clashes with the Pharisees attacks their hypocrisy not their habits of prayer, giving, teaching and evangelism.

Here’s the problem with the phrase relationship not religion, it is individualistic. It’s about me and it seems somewhat anti-biblical. Religion must have something to it because we see God institute a religious system for Israel so they they are careful to remember all he has done for them, so that they have a means of redemption via the sacrifices and the law is a gift for them so they can enjoy relationship with God as his people in the land he has blessed them with. The prophets so often rebuke Israel, holding them to account for their failure to live out their religion, the habits and actions God called them to as part of the covenant he made with them; worship of him alone, love for neighbours, care for the poor, orphaned and widowed. Yes the prophets rebuke them for wrong religion, yes they call them to turn their hearts back to God, but they express that not in terms of relationship instead of religion, but they call them to love God with all their heart and from that will flow right religious expression of devotion to God. As an aside, I can’t help wondering if this is why we have such a struggle with reading the Old Testament, we see it as antithetical to relationship with God. Thinking it’s about religion and we’re done with that, but it is about worship of God by his redeemed people together in all of life – and we desperately need more of that!

As we turn to the gospels we see Jesus inculcating in his disciples patterns of discipleship – listening to his words, thinking about scripture, prayer, care for the oppressed and poor, proclaiming the kingdom come and so on. And he does that over and over and over again, in a (dare I say it) religious way. And Jesus institutes the church, and the disciples follow through on Jesus instructions in the early chapters of Acts and we quickly see patterns and habits emerging – preaching, praying, sacrificial giving, serving, singing, and so on. And they gather regularly on the first day of the week. Sounds a bit religious to me.

And yet that isn’t religion as opposed to relationship. But it is those very habits that form and shape and facilitate the joyous relationship with God – Father, Son and Spirit – that the vibrant early church enjoy. It isn’t privatised and individual as our concept of relationship with God so often is (it’s just me and God that’s all I need) it’s corporate and communal and all the more joy filled for that. It’s not cerebral, it’s not weak, it constantly challenges legalism or sacramentalism or hypocrisy. Because that’s the problem, not religion. Religion – actions as an expression of devotion to God and faith in the gospel is good, in fact without it James would say religion is worthless.

We need a gospel culture in our churches and by its very nature that will be religious in that it will involve patterns and habits and creeds and beliefs whether formalised or not. It mustn’t be cold and formal, it mustn’t be rigid and one size fits all, it must be Christ centred. What does that mean? Our churches must be places where the weak and stuttering and failing and flailing Christian can come, not in fear and trepidation that they can’t live up to the ideal or that they will be rejected. But that the gospel we believe and put into action religiously will mean welcome. Where we can come and confess failures and struggles and hear the promise of Jesus to the weary and burdened that in him they find rest. We need that culture because that is what our world, our communities, our neighbours are so desperately searching for, even if they don’t realise it. Real rest, real welcome, real joy in God. That isn’t phariseeical in pointing out failure, or inflicting burdens but openly confesses struggle, failure, and need, and points us to Jesus as the one who meets a standard that what we cannot and who promises forgiveness and calls us to a new way a life. A pattern of lovingly, devotedly, following him, sometimes failing getting muddied and sullied with sin, sometimes feeling beaten and bereft of hope, but always know that we can and will run back to him for cleansing, power to stand and fight sin in the spirit, and hope in his plans and purposes and then following him again, listening to his word and fighting with his strength to live out of the love we know he has lavished on us and for eternity will have for us.

This false contrast between religion and relationship is dangerous. Yes we must call out false religion, word only religion, hypocritical religion, legalistic religion, burdensome religion, but the gospel saves us for a life of being more and more formed to be like Jesus together, it calls us to living out his habits and patterns in love out of an overwhelming awareness of his love.