How Grace in Christ frees us for courageous leadership

What does it look like to lead successfully?  Is it numbers?  Is it growth?  Is it planting another church?

There are a number of perils associated with leadership; pressure, people looking at and up to you, the fear of being the one that screws up, wanting numerical growth, to run a successful mission, to be respected, to lead well, and be approved of by our own, and other, church leaders to name just a few.

Those pressures can lead us to be one person up front, or when leading or with Christians and another in private.  That’s what the bible calls hypocrisy, wearing masks, taking on the role of an actor.  And that is a tragedy and a recipe for spiritual stagnation at best and shipwreck at worst.  So how do we avoid that?

Here’s another question to think about; which matters most in leadership competency, character or capacity?

The bible stresses character above competence, but that character flows out of capacity, not a capacity for workload, but a capacity to grasp, live and lead out of God’s grace.  Because it’s our capacity and hunger to understand and know God through the Son by the Spirit that sustains us, keeps us, enables us to love, forgive, risk and not be crushed if and when we fail or are hurt.

In Isaiah 6 we see Isaiah’s commissioning and he’s told that his mission won’t be welcome, that it’ll be risky and be a failure in terms of results.  No crowds repenting, no buzz about his ministry, no acclaim, no followers on Twitter and yet God calls him to this risky unpopular ministry.  Ask yourself honestly how keen would you be to sign up?  The question is what will sustain Isaiah in that ministry?  What enables him to keep going?  What stops him being crushed or giving up?  Because what sustains Isaiah will sustain us.

Isaiah 6 calls us not to look externally but to look at God we serve.  To see God in all his holiness, sovereignty and grace because that will enable us to keep going, to risk, to lead, to love even when things are hard.

Seeing God and Receiving Grace

Isaiah’s vision of God comes in a time of pressure; King Uzziah has just died.  He’d ruled well; was a brilliant military leader and social innovator and Judah had flourished under his rule.  As he died Judah was uncertain about the future especially as Assyria was growing as a threat.  But as the human king dies and the future looks so uncertain Isaiah sees a glorious vision of the real King whose reign never ends.

John 12 tells us that Isaiah actually sees God the Son, a pre-incarnate Jesus in his glory.  He sees him ruling and reigning on his throne, above all, this is where the real power lies.  And just the train of his robe fills the temple, the place which symbolises God’s presence with his people.  Just the trailing edge of his glory fills the temple, so great is his majesty glory and splendour.

The glory of God is underlined by the description of the Seraphs who hover above the throne.  They are awe inspiring in their own right, their voices shake the temple, but they are just God’s servants.  They cover their faces from looking at God’s glory, they cover their feet and call to one another

“Holy, holy, holy is the LORD Almighty; the whole earth is full of his glory.”

These amazing creatures praise God because he is holy.  We misunderstand that word, we think it is cold, dry, and distant, about restrictions and can’t do’s.  But it’s not, the word holy means totally set apart, not in terms of being aloof or not wanting relationship – that can’t be right because God is Trinity, Father, Son and Spirit, he is a loving relating community and creates us so we can share in his love.  Holy means God is totally different from his creatures.  Jonathan Edwards wrote “Holiness is more than a mere attribute of God, it is the sum of all his attributes, the outshining of all that God is.”

And how does Isaiah’s react to seeing God in his holiness and glory?  “Woe to me!”  Ch5 is full of woes on society and its failings but now in God’s presence Isaiah is personally unmasked.  In God’s presence there’s no argument, no comparative righteousness just an awful awareness of sin in contrast to God’s holiness.  “I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the king, the LORD Almighty.”

He highlights his lips because they reveal his heart; we never speak what is not already in our hearts. Do you ever catch yourself saying something and then trying to take it back, saying I didn’t mean that?  That’s a lie.  We did mean it, it was in our hearts, what we mean is I didn’t mean for you to hear what’s in my heart, what I really think!

But secondly compared to the seraphs knowledge and worship of God his own praise from sinful lips is unfit.

Seeing God, understanding more of who he is always unmask our sin, our fears, our hearts.  We pick up our bible and read of God’s character; his love and concern for the poor and find ourselves convicted of our half or hard heartedness.  We read of God’s compassion for the lost, a compassion so great that God takes the ultimate risk in Jesus becoming man, living, and dying and it convicts us of our half hearted concern for family and friends or our fear of risk and love of comfort and familiarity.  Knowing God convicts us until we stand with Isaiah and cry “Woe is me!”

That’s a right reaction, we should be amazed at who God is and convicted of our sin.  Turn to Luke 5:1-11 we see a similar reaction when Peter realises who Jesus is, he drops to his knees and cries “Go away from me, Lord; I am a sinful man.”  Isaiah and Peter are both forced to confront their sin in the face of God’s holiness, you and I as we spend time with God and get to know him better will be forced to confront our sin, to see how its roots are more deeply enmeshed in our hearts than we ever dreamed.  Sin separates us from God, and we are helpless to do anything about it.  Isaiah doesn’t cry out for salvation, he simply realises and confesses his sin.

But (6-7)God acts by grace, a coal is taken from the altar where the peace and sin offerings were made which atoned for sin, and it atones for Isaiah’s sin.  Grace is God’s initiative, God’s love freely given to undeserving sinful people.  Isaiah experiences grace just as we do, the altar points to Jesus, the sacrifices which that coal has consumed point to Jesus sacrifice once for all.  Grace is all a Holy God’s initiative and is extended to undeserving sinners.

Sometimes we make the mistake of thinking God’s holiness is the flip side of the God’s love.  In Batman  Harvey Dent, aka two face, has a normal half to his face and a horribly disfigured other half.  He has a coin similarly marked and when making decisions he flips it to see which side of his character will act.

Tragically we can think like that about God; love is one side of God’s character, holiness the other. People even say that is reflected in the Bible, the OT shows the holy wrathful side of God, the New the loving, gracious side of God.  That’s utterly wrong and blasphemous!  God’s holiness is all about his love, it flows out of his love.  You see that here, God’s holiness is his difference from us and our failings and sin, but it doesn’t make him harsh and judgemental.  Because God’s love is also holy just as his holiness is love.  It’s not just his perfection that is other than ours it’s his love, you see we love what we find lovely, he loves because he is love and that means he sets his love on the unlovely, the unholy and makes them holy!  His holiness makes him welcoming and loving and that’s seen in his provision of grace to undeserving Isaiah, it is seen supremely in Jesus who is terrifyingly holy but who lovingly welcomes, bringing sinners back to God by grace, making atonement for us at the cross, making the unholy holy and the unlovable beloved children.

Seeing the holiness of God will show us more of the depth of his love for us.  We mustn’t shy away from reading or exploring God’s holiness because in knowing God we will be more amazed at his grace. It is seeing God’s grace that fuels loving service; that saves us from being crushed by failure or paralysed by fear because it thrills our hearts with his grace.

Grace sustains and liberates us to serve(8-13)

I wonder how you picture(8)?  I’ve always pictured Isaiah stood bravely and heroically declaring in a loud voice that he’ll boldly go on this impossible mission, not unlike Captain Kirk boldly going on the Starship Enterprise.

But I’ve realised that’s wrong.  Isaiah humbly offers himself to God if God could possibly use him.  It can’t be any other way, can it?  He’s just seen God in all his glory, he’s heard God speak, he’s in the presence of the awe inspiring Seraphs.  He can’t in that company be thinking ‘Yep, I’m the only man for this job, God is lucky to have me’.  He’s been humbled and made aware of the sin of his lips, but God has shown him grace so Isaiah humbly offers himself if God can use him.

What is it we need in leaders and as leaders?  An awareness of the greatness of God, a sense of wonder at the grace we have received, and a humble desire for God to use us for his glory.

And what a task Isaiah is given(9-13).  He’s to preach to people who won’t listen, his preaching will harden their hearts.  As he warns people that they have broken the covenant and calls them to covenant faithfulness they won’t listen.  It’s not the way he preaches which makes it hard, in fact some people rejected his words because they were too simple.  So why will his preaching harden?

Because preaching the truth confronts people with their sin and they react one of two ways, they either respond like Isaiah or they reject it, that rejection acting as part of their judgement as they turn their back on God’s word.  In John 8:45 we see the same thing in Jesus ministry.  Jesus, speaking to the Pharisees who reject him because they are Abraham’s children, says “Yet because I tell the truth, you do not believe in me!”  That is an astonishing statement, in ch12  we see these words from Isaiah used to explain why so many reject Jesus.  We must expect the same and that will save us from being crushed when people reject the gospel, it’s not a personal rejection.

God’s truth provokes reaction.  However there’s a danger in over realising that truth, it can make us callous and hard hearted – serving, leading, sharing the gospel as a duty and not caring for people. Isaiah asks a brilliant question which shows that he has God’s heart (11)“How long, Lord?”  The answer is until the exile brings destruction, a destruction so harsh that even when a tenth is left it will be laid waste again.  God will judge his people who reject him, his word, his grace, but God still loves and therefore Isaiah still loves.

Leadership burn out is a reality and one of the key factors is lack of response so how on earth does Isaiah keep going in a hard mission field?  I think two things sustain him and will sustain us. Because being a Christian is tough, leading is hard.

Firstly Isaiah knew God.  He knew God in all his glory, splendour and rule and the joy of having his sins forgiven – he remembered and lived out of his identity – who he had been made in Christ.  Whatever he faced, whatever rejection it was not outside of God’s control, and it never mortgaged his experience of grace and challenged his identity.  He was not defined by his ministry and its success or how people viewed him he was defined by grace as a child of God.

Secondly he preached aware of judgement and hope.  (13b)“But…”  If (v9-13a)are judgement here comes the hope “as the terebinth and oak leave stumps when they are cut down, so the holy seed will be the stump in the land.”  Judgement was not final, that phrase looks back to Abraham and the promises made to his seed, promises God would keep, and to God’s promise in Gen 3:15 about an offspring who would conquer sin.  But it also looked forward to the “shoot from the stump of Jesse”(Isaiah 11:1) the Messiah and the kingdom he would bring.  God will judge sin but he brings salvation. There will be a day when God will be with his people he has made holy through his Messiah.

Both hope and knowing God will sustain us.  As we lead it is knowing God in his holiness and love that will keep us going – we will dry up and shrivel and burn out if we don’t keep refreshing ourselves in who God is and what he has done for us, if we don’t keep mining the depths of grace as we are confronted with the depths of our sin in the face of the holiness of God.  And we must remember that God is sovereign even over people’s rejection of the gospel or we will exhaust ourselves trying to do what is God’s work in our own strength.

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Church in Denial

Is your church in denial? Are you?  Does church look clean?  Does everyone have it together?  Or does the brokenness all hang out?

I’ve been struck in conversations with people over the last few weeks how we as believers like things to be neat and tidy.  We like our edges squared away and our emotions kept in check.  Church, we think, should more closely resemble the kitchen of the neat freak than a teenagers chaotic slightly smelly bedroom.

Just stop and think. If you could go back in time and visit one of the Churches Paul write to which would it be?  Which would you be least like to choose to visit and why?

I think we’d be least likely to visit chaotic Corinth.  There are just so many issues at play in the church; favouritism, celebrity culture, flaunting gifts, failing to love, sexual immorality, struggles to leave idolatries, relationship chaos.  And yet Corinth is a church where Paul is convinced Christ is at work, where they are no longer what they were but have been made new in Christ.  It is chaotic but that chaos is a result of gospel transformation at different ages and stages.  It is a true growth in holiness battling sin which is not linear and easy but messy and hard won.

How would you feel if your church more closely resembled Corinth?  Let me put it another way.  How would you feel if your church was full of new believers, people struggling to embrace their new identity in Christ and leave their old selves and sins?  Saved spectacularly by grace from every walk of life and united together, but still bringing remnants of that old life into church with them on Sunday’s.  Wouldn’t you love that!  Walking with them, discipling them in the progress and the regress, the steps forward and the step backwards.  That is real church

Is that how our churches look?  People are often surprised when they hear about the brokenness of the community we serve. Of self-harm, suicide, abuse, alcoholism, drug addiction, chronic illness, and so on.  What would you do if all those people came to church?

If those things shock us we are in denial.  We all have those same issues lurking in our hearts and if we’re not dealing with them we’re in denial and so is the church.

Training at every level

I like an easy life.  I like pre-packaged.  I like off the shelf solutions.  The problem is they just don’t tend to work or translate into our context.  In a small church we have people who love learning, who are decidedly bookish.  But we also have people who have a chip on both shoulders about education and for whom courses, books, and the normal way churches do training just doesn’t work.

I spent last week at the Union Conference as I prepared to be lead mentor for our Doncaster learning community, where we’re offering the Graduate Diploma in Theology. It’s been interesting hearing people’s surprise at a church like ours offering such a theological course (I’m deliberately keeping off my soap box about what that says about our expectations and prejudices).  And we offer it knowing that it isn’t for everyone, in fact it isn’t even for the majority.

But I am very aware that if we are going to re-evanglise Doncaster we need people who have been trained to this level.  And as the cavalry aren’t coming from the South or the big City/Town churches in Yorkshire to Doncaster we need to be strategic in preparing to do it ourselves.  If we want to see churches established and planted that means we need training on every level because we need leaders on every level.

As a church that’s our aim.  Or perhaps it would be more honest to say that’s certainly what I’m trying to find time to think through.  I want everything from evangelistic, and pre-evangelistic opportunities, and people across the church trained in how to run a variety of courses and less formal approaches, to Graduate Diploma’s because we need people who are learning Christ and loving Christ.  People who are cascading that love of Jesus, who are overflowing (in a good way – think champagne and fizz, not toilets and sewers) about the love, grace and welcome that they have found, and know how to share that with others and then disciple others.

We need leaders at every level, from those who teach at toddlers and disciple our young people on Sunday to those who are stepping up to practically love and serve the church as deacons and are teaching and shepherding as elders.  And I want them all to be growing in their understanding of scripture, to have a sound grasp on grace, to hold fast to the deep truths of the gospel and to pass them on one-to-one, and when we gather.

The danger is that our current lack of leaders paralyses me, that I think I just can’t do it – my mind is often at its most creative when finding excuses.  But unless the church grows its leaders it can’t expect to have any.  I can’t afford to wait, we as a church can’t afford to wait.  As pastors we need to train, to disciple, to raise up.  That means alongside our GDip, we’re beginning a new leaders training course on Sunday’s once a month exploring what church leadership is, how to pray for your leaders and what leadership at every level looks like.  It also means we want to look at everything above, below and in between.  Not to do it all at once and burn out but to create an atmosphere where growing and loving Jesus more is the norm, where discipleship is the norm, where growth is expected.  Where every part if doing its work and the gospel is seen.

Where as we grow leaders the expectation is that they play their part in growing leaders.  Modelling love and service of the Father, Son and Spirit who loved and served us.

It’s all about people stupid

Strategy.  It’s a thing.  It’s a church thing.  It’s a very profitable church thing if you write about it.  And it is a biblical thing.

Every church has a strategy.  It may not every good.  It may not be articulated very well.  It may not even be one cohesive strategy.  It may not fit with God’s strategy.  But every church has a strategy that drives and determines what it does.  Some churches don’t have their own strategy but borrow someone else, or whichever one seems be on trend or working somewhere else.  Some strategies seem a bit like throwing mud at a wall and hoping it sticks.  Others seem like professionalism is the thing God delights in.  But isn’t God’s strategy all about people?

We need to contextualise our strategy and that starts with and never moves on from people.  How you reach the lost with the gospel depends on who you are trying to reach.  How you disciple people with the gospel depends on who you are trying to disciple.  The early church got this, Peter and Paul got this but I wonder if we keep forgetting this.

Our strategy will need to be different in different places, amongst people of different educations and backgrounds, and in different areas.  In fact it will need to be different even within those groups.  No group is homogenous.  A group is composed of individual people, each wired in different ways.  And so maybe its wrong to talk of one strategy.

I’ve found increasingly here it is just about people, it is about time, and it is about combining the two over a prolonged period of committed care.  For example yesterday I was chatting to a lady I’ve known for years, who has in the past shared certain issues and struggles with me.  I promised to pray for her and kept touching base with her from time to time.  Yesterday we were chatting and she shared how there had been massive breakthrough, I simply said that was great as I’d been praying for those things repeatedly in the years since she’d shared it.

It wasn’t a Saul of Tarsus moment, there was no blinding light, there was no sudden conversion but there was a thank you and an openness to the fact that prayer had played a part in the change.  That small step has taken a long time.  Many of the people I’ve had opportunities with and some good gospel conversations with over the last year are the result of committed relationships and care over the last 12-13 years.

In our busy busy, diarised culture in the church too often we miss this.  So what would it look like to build in much more time for people into your week.  Being with them, hanging out with them, chatting, caring, and committing for the long term.  I’m encouraged when I read the gospels and see that is Jesus strategy too, time spent with people, often unhurried, often as his disciples want to chivvy him along to the next thing.

A planting proposal: partnership

When you think of church planting what is your default model?  How do you naturallydefault think of it being done?  Who goes?  How many?  How is it funded?  How long does the relationship with the sending church remain?  And what does it look like?  How long does the funding keep going?  Where are they planting into?  How do they grow?  What will it look like after 3, 5, 10 years?  And how has that partnership changed?

There are lots of different ways to plant.  There’s the strawberry plant model, where the new plant stays attached to the mother plant for resourcing until it’s self sustaining.  There’s the three years funding model where the team goes off to plant with funding for 3 years, the idea being by year 4 they are self sustaining with an ‘or else’ landmine hidden away to keep you on task.  There’s the small core team, part time pastor, which gradually grows with minimal expenditure all the way through until they may or may not be able to sustain a full time worker.  There’s the multiple churches recognising a need and working together to plant (though I think this is rarer).

There are pros and cons to each.  But the key thing we need to get is that they are context specific.  Context specific in terms of where you plant; leafy suburb, student city, housing estate.  There is no one size fits all approach.  And it is context specific nationally and historically.  As the context is shifting in Britain I wonder if we need to shift with it in terms of our thinking about how we plant churches.  How we plant in 2019 and 2020 needs to be different than it was just over 10 years ago when we planted.

For example there is now a greater hostility to Christianity.  We haven’t been a  Christian nation for along time, if we ever were, or if there ever has been such a thing.  Britain is ‘Christ-haunted’ but it is not Christian.  There are vague influences and haunting images and shadows of Christ in our culture, laws, social wisdom and sayings but little more.  And what has arisen in its place is not welcoming of committed, unapologetic, cross carrying, Christ following.  More than ever we are strangers and aliens.

We need to wake up and recognise the implications this may have in the next decade for our church planting in terms of hiring of public spaces.  What will we be asked to compromise on in order to still use a school hall or a library or a community centre?  And when will it be a compromise too far?  We need to plant with that in mind.  (As an aside, that’s partly why we need to be thinking about revitalising as much as planting, and buying up and redeeming buildings when we can).

And established churches and plants need to be thinking what will we do when that day comes?  Where is the line for us?  And when we can’t meet in a public space, where will we meet?  We need to be planning now for then.  And that MUST impact the way we plant churches.  As we think about planting churches we need to be planting sustainable, resource able churches that will still be there in 10, 20, 30 years.

But we also need to be thinking about context in terms of the locality in which we’re planting.  For example it may be feasible to plant with a 3 year budget in a student area where some growth will be graduates staying on and investing good and growing salaries in giving to fund that church and make it self sustaining.  It may work in a middle class area, but it definitely won’t work in a deprived area where a significant proportion of the population are out of work or in manual labour.  In fact in those areas I’m not sure that even the Strawberry plant model works, because it assumes that the smaller plant will gradually become more and more self sufficient, which in a deprived area may not happen at all, with the loss of jobs, chaos of family life, social pressures and so on.  And that model doesn’t take into account the needs of the people in that deprived area – often those saved from such backgrounds need greater discipling which is more energy and labour intensive.

So what am I suggesting?

In Acts I see an ebbing and flowing partnership of churches, support goes one way then it goes another.  It is an interconnected seemingly symbiotic commitment to the gospel and to God’s kingdom, not my Church, that determines giving, support, sending.  The needs of the one don’t outweigh the needs of the kingdom, or the many if you are thinking of the lost.  I wonder if we’ve bought into individualism as churches.  ‘This is my church, that’s your’.  ‘This is the church you are the church plant.’  In a way that undermines such a symbiotic relationship.

So what would reforging our partnerships look like?

We grow together.  Imagine how different things would be if every well off evangelical church partnered with a plant in a less well off area.  And that partnership was more than just praying and occasional giving.  But actually sharing needs and resources without any sense of patronage.  So when the well off took on a member of staff they committed to taking on 2, one for themselves and one for the church in a less well off area in whatever area they determined they needed it.

What if the pastors swapped pulpits frequently, so that those in both churches grew to love and care for the leaders of different churches, and those pastors grew to care for both congregations. So that barriers were broken down, chips were taken off shoulders, prejudices overcome, unity in the gospel promoted.  So that it fostered a spirit of togetherness and care, of kingdom not church.

What about mission teams.  What would it look like to send a team to help out a smaller church in a hard to reach area?  What would it cost?  Could it be a good way to galvanise some of the pew fillers who feel in a bigger church there is no need to get involved?  What would a symbiotic sharing of gifting and leaders and training look like?  What would it yield in terms of fruit?

And what about the smaller church providing training etc to the bigger church where and when it could?  Using the expertise it has to serve.  Not all resources are monetary or dependent on size.  We all have much to learn from each other.

Gospel partnership is not the lord of the manor dispensing scraps to the poor.  It is growing sense of unity in the gospel and focus on the kingdom we serve without worrying about the cost to each individually.  But focused on the salvation of the lost who are hurtling towards a lost eternity when we have a Saviour to share with them.