How do we get the balance right? How do we rejoice in God and lament the brokenness we feel around us? As believers we must not isolate ourselves from the pain and suffering in the world, or take the ostrich approach and bury our head in the sand to the reality of life and the horror of sin. But neither must we be so consumed by the tragedy and sadness that we lose any sense of joy in being God’s people and the certain hope we have for the future.
Our world is deeply deeply broken. And the jagged edges of its brokenness deeply wound those who walk in it. It was brought home to me afresh on Saturday as I went into Doncaster to do some shopping. My normal walk through town to the bank was closed off because of a brutal attack in the early hours of Saturday morning which resulted in the death of 2 young men and put another in hospital. That isn’t an isolated incident. Doncaster has made its way on to the most dangerous towns in which to live in the UK. The tragedy and human suffering caused by sin is readily on display, this is just the latest and most obvious sign of it. But we see it everywhere in our communities. A pervading sense of hopelessness that leads to a numbed acceptance of such events as inevitable, and leads to escapism in drugs or drink, or fearful denial. How do we minister in such circumstances? How do you not just become hopeless?
Too many believers avoid coming face to face with the horrors of sin in the world. They live in a la-la land of make believe distant from life for so many in the UK. Poverty is a brutal reality for many. Abuse is a tragic reality for the vulnerable. A sense of this just being how it is without escape. The church cannot put its head in the sand about such issues, if we do it’s no wonder society questions our relevance and our doctrine, and they are right to do so, because James would question it too!
But for others as they engage with such suffering it seems to drain their hope. How can I find joy in anything when others are stuck in this situation? The brokenness and suffering becomes overwhelming and warps their view of God and they forfeit any sense of joy and hope.
This is where we as the church have to rediscover lament. God has given us a book of prayers in the psalms and a huge chunk of them are lament Psalms, Lamentations does exactly what it says on the title. Jeremiah is not called the weeping prophet for nothing. And even Jesus models lament for us in his longing for Jerusalem to recognise him and turn. These prayers wrestle with the hideous reality of sin and it’s serpent like crushing grip on the world, but they do so whilst holding on to hope. They simultaneously express their broken heartedness at the reality of the world whilst still holding on to trust in God’s love and gracious sovereignty.
It’s only in this battle to see both those truths that we can rightly respond to the sin we see and the consequences that make us mourn. If we only see one or the other, or if we hide from one or the other we will either lose our joy or fail to be moved to help. And ultimately the only hope for the world and for those suffering in it is the good news of the person of Jesus Christ.
I keep hearing horror stories about the number of pastors who are leaving the pastorate, something which is expected to accelerate post COVID due to decision fatigue and exhaustion. If those stories are right there is a crisis looming. But that is nothing new. I remember when I first entered ministry hearing horror stories of the majority of pastors being in their final 10 years of ministry, with a shortage of replacements waiting in the wings. That impending apocalypse doesn’t seem to have hit in quite the way that was feared thanks to God’s gracious provision and equipping. But there is a simple thing I think we often miss in churches and as pastors..
Pastoral mathematics ought to be focused on multiplication not division. It’s the Biblical pattern. Adam and Eve are to fill the earth with others made in God’s image. Moses is exhorted to multiply leaders not hoard the decision making by his father-in-law. Jesus gathers around him a band of twelve that will form the foundation of the early church, and in Acts we soon see them multiplying minsters. In the pastoral epistles we see that ministry is about multiplication of leaders and teachers and elders and deacons.
And that multiplication is not for the good of one church but for the good of the kingdom. Paul trains and sends out. The church at Antioch trains and sends out. They don’t build a ministry team and keep on building a ministry team for their own good. But they keep on training up and sending out their brightest and best. Too often in the West we aren’t multiplying leaders, we are replicating a ministry that forgets to multiply, or is hesitant or fearful of multiplying leaders. Or if we are multiplying leaders we are multiplying for our own benefit not for the good of the kingdom. Even where we multiply we hoard.
For those reading this in ministry, who are you training up? How are you multiplying ministers of the gospel both in terms of gifted lay people being invested in and discipled so that they can lead but also in terms of those who may be set apart for full time gospel ministry? For elderships; what priority are you giving to training up the next generation of pastors, elders and deacons? To what extent does that extend to developing them for the kingdom rather than just your churches? How will you do that intentionally?
I don’t think the answer is to send people away to bible college. I think the answer is in house training, it’s the apprentice model, where ministry is explored alongside and mentored by a more senior minister. I really valued that as a younger man with a young family, bible college was financially beyond us, so the opportunity to be assistant to a godly experienced pastor on the ground was brilliant. The training provided, the conversations after pastoral visits and other things were vital. It was an ideal training ground. I am grateful to God for that, and then the ongoing support and mentoring once we had planted.
There has been a healthy move away from the importance of buildings in ministry over the last few decades. Lots of churches have been planted and establishedthat meet in schools, libraries, community halls and other shared spaces. And that has been tremendously beneficial, it has freed up money for gospel ministry rather than tying it up in bricks and mortar and maintenance. It has enabled church planting to be far nimbler and more rapid than if we were buying buildings for every plant. I’m convinced that much of that planting wouldn’t have happened had it not been for that change of mindset.
But I wonder whether now is the time to reconsider that. Britain is undoubtedly becoming more hostile to Christianity, less accepting on it’s views. And I worry that may lead to the loss of community spaces and schools as venues which are available for churches to hire. We are not there yet. But I’m not sure we are far off. What would happen if every church planted in a school, or community space lost the use of their venue in the next 6 months?
We are very fortunate to have a great relationship with the school where we meet. We have a good partnership with them, which we hope is mutually beneficial, we don’t just want to be a tenant but a partner. And so we partner in a number of ways, helping serve one another and collaborating on things where we can. But interestingly even here we’re beginning to feel the pressure of recent trends and changes. We’ve been asked in the assemblies we run not to teach on marriage in case it offends anyone, while we’re still allowed to teach the gospel. And that’s the thin end of the wedge of what is coming that reveals where the battle may well be fought. There is a very real battle being fought in schools and communities over sexuality and gender identity ideology, and society perceives churches that hold to the Bible’s truth to be on the wrong side of that battle.
The question is what will that mean for our renting of community spaces? We’ve already seen some Christian student groups lose the right to meet in Student Union venues because of issues like these. How long until that seeps out of academia and into school and community letting agreements. How along until we’re asked what we will teach on those very issues before a letting is agreed? How long until a live streamed service is watched and a parent or partner offended who then contacts the school to protest that by hiring it’s premises to such a group it is supporting groups who undermine what it teaches about sexuality or gender?
Looking at the future of the Church in the UK it would seem wise for us to begin to formulate strategies that will enable churches to have their own buildings again. To look for new spaces for the medium term; to look for churches that are closing their doors, or community venues that will close, or to look for plots of land and start raising the finance now to make purchasing those possible.
Our strategy has been good, our thinking has been right; the church is people not buildings. But in a society where Christianity is increasingly the bad guy we have to realise that we can’t expect the use of community facilities forever. We need to rethink our planting and establishing of planted churches. We need to recognise that growing the kingdom may well mean we have to change the way we think about buildings because we cannot be silent if the gospel is to be heard.
I was preaching on the transfiguration on Sunday and was really struck by the application God makes of the events to the disciples. The disciples are in something of a turmoil; they are struggling to grasp what some of Jesus’ teaching mean, Peter has confessed him as the Messiah but has his own ideas about what that means and what the kingdom will look like and Jesus has had to rebuke him for that. And then Jesus defines discipleship as denying yourself, carrying your cross and following him. Ramping up the challenge so that turmoil is now even greater. There are so many competing voices, so many religious teachers with so many theories about the Messiah and where he will fit, what he will do, what his kingdom will look like, who comes first. But Jesus contradicts that.
It’s against that tumultuous background that Jesus deliberately takes 3 of the disciples up the mountain for his jaw dropping transfiguration. Where the veil of Jesus’ humanity is pulled back so they can see who he is; God the Son in all his splendour, so they see Moses and Elijah converse with him, and they experience the cloud of God’s presence and hear God’s affirmation of Jesus as his Son, whom he loves and with whom he is well pleased. And what is the application of all that? What is the take home? What is the ‘so what’ of this spectacular event?
God doesn’t leave them in any doubt; “Listen to him.” In the welter of competing ideas and theories and kingdoms tune everything else out, turn it down, and listen to Jesus. He alone is the Son of God speaking to you, so he knows what it means to be the Messiah, he knows what the kingdom looks like and how it comes. He is more glorious than any other speaker or any other voice, his words carry more weight and are more reliable. He reveals God’s will in a way no-one and nothing else does. So listen to him.
That is the everyday moment by moment choice every disciple faces, whose words will I live by? Whose words carries most weight, which speaker has the most glory and authority? Foolishly we can so often find ourselves giving our words the same weight as Jesus words when our kingdom clashes with his. We can end up giving the worlds words more weight as if it had more glory than Jesus words. What do we need as disciples when that is happening – we need a glory encounter. We need to be reminded that Jesus is the Son of God who alone has the words of eternal life so that we listen to him.
That has so many applications. We need to be reading or hearing God’s word frequently, but not just stopping there with the mechanics but seeking through it to have an encounter with the glory of God as we see Jesus. We need to ensure we are hearing his words and being led to see him when we listen to Bible teaching not just settled for being entertained – that means we want teachers who work hard too teach well enough that they get out of the way and show us Jesus. We need to be weighing every voice we hear and placing it under the authority of Jesus words, and that includes our own assumptions, plans and inclinations and well as the mantras of our society and the expectations of our friends and families. We need to be doing all those personally, as families, and as God’s people corporately daily. Because we will only follow Jesus, we will only seek his kingdom, deny ourselves and carry our cross if we see him in his glory so we give his words the weight they are due.
What does your life revolve around? That is the question we need to ask but rarely do. It’s the time of year that we try to start new habits and new routines. For many Christians it’s the time of the year when they resolve to start trying to read the bible through in a year, or to copy Daniel’s 3 times a day prayer routine, or make promises about trying to make it out to the Bible study. None of those things are bad things. But here’s my issue with them, they are peripheral.
They are about shuffling routine and habits about so you can find more time to squeeze in doing something good. It makes reading the Bible and praying on a par with getting fitter, not eating so much fat or promising to let people see all of your face not just the edges around it as you are clued to your phone. It makes following Jesus about peripherals when it isn’t. When we do that we have missed something so fundamental to discipleship that it’s almost unfathomable. And I can’t help wondering if that’s a huge reason for the discipleship deficit we currently face in the west.
Jesus is not a habit or routine or part of life. No, following Jesus is making him the blazing sun at the centre of your life around which everything else orbits. It isn’t about lifestyle tweaks it is about everything being transformed in light of Jesus and his kingdom.
Discipleship is to live life following Jesus. In Matthew 16 Jesus summarises it as denying yourself, taking up your cross and following him. And he says those words after he has just explain that he must go to Jerusalem, be tried, convicted, suffer and die before rising again. Jesus whole life is headed inexorably towards the cross, his life revolves around that moment of staggering love and purpose which changes everything forever. To follow him means we must do that same. It means our whole life revolves around him, his mission, his kingdom. It isn’t a priority among many, it isn’t the most important priority. It is the sun around which our life orbits. Jesus is the centre of our life, our life is geared around him. That does mean we will spend more time in his word and more time praying and more time meeting with his people though for a very different reason than if we just settle for those things are resolutions. But it also means everything else changes, the way we parent, our relationship with friends and family, our conversations, our loves and lives. It revolution not resolution.
Because anything less than that simply isn’t discipleship. It’s not denying ourselves it’s denying Jesus. It’s not carrying our cross it’s seeking our comfort, and it’s not following him it’s following the patterns of the world and settling for a comfortable religion that doesn’t ask to much. How can we truly have understood the gospel of the God who gave everything for us if that’s the way we respond? If the best we give him is a few more squeezed moments in the early weeks of the year until things get too busy again. When what the gospel calls for, the only right response, is to make Jesus the centre, the sun, around which everything else orbits.