Why on earth have you done that?

It was exciting earlier this week to finally see the Medhurst Ministries website go live. Medhurst Ministries is a charity set up to take the gospel to the forgotten places in the UK. You can find out more about it by clicking on the link and exploring, you can find out even more by coming along to the first weekender in June.

But a few people have asked why I’ve gotten involved, some out of concern in terms of workload on top of pastoring, family, and being a governor. Others simply because why is there the need for yet another charity? Others because they wonder whether there really are forgotten places in the UK. (If that’s you have a read of Mez’s new book The least, the last and the lost). So why?

Partly because of the need. When we planted into Hayfield a local minister described it as the godless hole in the area. It had proven too hard to get traction in. And it is a hard place to plant a church. It’s a former RAF base with all the divisions of a town in the space of a few thousand houses. When we first started it was a deprived area. It’s been made harder by gentrification and growing divides between different estates. And when we first started out it felt lonely and isolating, we weren’t a middle class church in a middle class area. We weren’t a new church in a student area that would automatically grow through the annual student influx. And whilst other churches in those areas thrived and grew, we seemed to have to fight for every gospel opportunity and there was no calvary coming over the hill. What did we really need in those early years?

It was helpful to have a mentor who regularly took me for lunch to chat. But what we really needed was others labouring in similar contexts who got it. Who got what discipleship meant when dealing with alcohol and substance addictions, abuse and debt. Who understood the pressure of always having a church in the red and where many came with more need than we felt we had resources to give. Where estate and family life was chaotic and disconnected and where community is very different.

The aim with Medhurst is to provide that, to foster that band of brothers and sisters. The UK has a problem in reaching the lost from the working class. I posted this is November 2016 and not much has changed:

Strategy – does that word and all that it means have any place in the church?  I hear a lot about strategy in the evangelical world.  Planting into strategic places, doing strategic ministry among strategic people and so on and so on.  My big question is how much of this is unhelpful and worldly, how much is simply a cover for our desire for comfort and how much is genuinely driven by an awareness of a lost eternity for thousands now?

This post has been percolating away in my mind since we spent a gospel group pouring over, thinking through, understanding and wrestling with the implications of James 2.  Then today as, on my morning off, I drove from Doncaster to Rotherham past community after community without a vibrant gospel teaching church I couldn’t help but think about it again.  At what point does strategy do more harm than good?  Where are the churches doing strategic thinking about planting into these communities – Mexborough, Conisbrough,  Warmsworth – as well as the student areas of Leeds and Sheffield?  Where are the churches willing to fund such unsexy church plants that will grow slowly and need financial life support for a considerable time?

The Bible is not without strategy, in fact it sets out God’s strategy.  The great commission is our strategy – go make disciples of all nations.  Acts 1v8 shapes it for us geographically – Jerusalem, Judea and Samaria and then the ends of the earth.  Revelation gives us a picture of what success looks like; a multitude no one can count from every possible ethnic and socio-economic background gathered together and united in praise of our God and Saviour.

Interestingly people often talk about Paul’s strategy of going to a key town and setting up a church there from which the gospel will naturally be carried to the outlying towns and districts.  Yet the world has changed, areas have changed.  Can we just assume that happens now?  Where are the studies that prove such?  Can we really reach the surrounding areas from the cities in the UK?  Where are the churches who are planting out of cities into the surrounding gospel poor towns and areas?  [Excitingly Gospel Yorkshire is getting churches thinking about just that – why not visit the link on the side bar to hear more].  Why are churches in cities in the UK generally getting younger and growing whilst those in towns age and shrink?  Why is nothing being done to reverse that?

Secondly no one seems to mention Paul’s other strategy.  “It has always been my ambition to preach the gospel where Christ was not known, so that I would not be building on someone else’s foundation.”  Paul takes the gospel to where others are not working, to communities that have no gospel witness.  Imagine how different the church scene would look if that happened today, no multi-denominational church plants clustered in a student/young professional area already well served by churches but a vibrant gospel preaching church for every town, and every significant populace across every area of a city.

It seems to me that often when we talk of strategic ministry we are thinking in worldly terms, reaching the influential and affluential.  I hear talk of deploying people where they can be most fully used.  I hear of the significance of student ministry, or planting churches in student areas, for raising up future leaders for the church.  And let me say I think there is some truth in some of those.  But I also think there is a great big gospel hole in our thinking – it leaves great big parts of the UK unevangelised and are we really achieving our aim if they stay clustered in those student churches well into their twenties and thirties whilst their home churches shrivel and die?

Less than 1/3 of 18 year olds go to university, so how are we going to reach the other 2/3s?  45% of the UK population is working class and yet little strategic thinking has gone into reaching them and few churches are planted into those areas?  Is it because we think in worldly strategic terms of influence and likeness rather than in gospel terms of lost souls to win and cross cultural and class churches united in the gospel?

I wonder if it’s time to review the strategy we have often held to.  Your strategy is only strategic if it achieves the thing it is designed to do otherwise it is just another failed attempt.  I’d love to know what percentage of the leaders being trained up as students go on to serve in churches outside of student towns and cities?  I’d love to hear of churches in the South who see the gospel needs of the North of England and think strategically about partnering with churches there to reach vast areas without gospel witness.  I’d love to hear of more and more young men and women willing to sacrifice themselves for the gospel in hard places rather than serving in a church where there are ‘people like them’ or where they can ‘fulfil their potential’, or play a strategic role in training up and sending the next generation (If you’re not willing to go why would they?  People follow leaders not un-modelled ideas – Ezra and Nehemiah provide a helpful model).

There is another strategy I see at play in the Bible, costly self-sacrifice that dies to self for the gospel.  That goes where there is most need not most ease.  That sees a town or community with no gospel witness and cannot but weep over it and be moved at cost to self to want to take the gospel there, or to facilitate it going there.

As I drove back this morning I felt a burning desire to see churches planted in those places I drove through, in fact I’d love to be involved in planting those churches and see people come to know Jesus.  They won’t be strategic in worldly terms, they won’t win a platform at a national conference, or a board seat on an organising committee, it will be low key, hard labouring, gospel grunt work.  But in God’s strategy there are those who have not heard the gospel who need to hear it and his strategy is for us to be moved by compassion for the lost and to go.  How would that strategy transform our thinking, our planting, our training, our giving, and our going?

It’s in part that desire to see believers trained and envisioned and supported and churches planted, established, and doing the hard yards in such places that has compelled me to get involved with Medhurst Ministries.

Want need and must have conceptional drawing on the chalkboard

Is God Good?

That’s the question.  And it’s the question behind so many of our questions.  We are tempted to believe the lie that God is not good because he hasn’t given me this or that or the other.  God isn’t good because his kingdom doesn’t fit with my kingdom.  Or he isn’t good because of these circumstances, or this suffering, or … fill in the blank.  

Is God good?  It’s the original question that sinks its fangs into us every time.   It’s the question behind so many pastoral struggles and discipling issues.  A failure to believe that God is good and good all the time is behind the unhappy marriage with it’s dreams of, or talk of, separation and divorce.  It is at the root of envy of others, the nagging ‘if only’, the taking of something for ourselves even though our good God as an expression of his love says don’t.  It’s why so many fall away tempted the promise of good in created things rather than in the fountain of that goodness in the God who is good.

It’s a question we face again and again in varied situations all day.  Is God good?  Is his word good?  Is his call to me as his disciple to follow Jesus good?  Is where he has put me good?  What good is he working out here even if I can’t see it?

It is a trust in the goodness of God that enables the heroes of the faith to stand firm.  Daniel throughout his time in Babylon faces temptations and pressures to conform to Babylonian culture, in what he eats in chapter 1, when on death row in chapter 2, when faced with Belshazzar in chapter 5, and when faced with the challenge of obeying the king or obeying God or being lion food in chapter 6.  In every case Daniel resolves to live as a man of faith, that God is good.  God is good in his word, his actions, his promises, and in the situations he has sovereignly placed Daniel in even though they are full of very real peril.  God is good and so Daniel stands, he speaks, he continues to pray toward Jerusalem as an expression of his hope in the promises of his good God.

So how do we answer that question, is God good?  We need to get a grip on the goodness of God.  To allow the truth of God’s utter perfect goodness to transform us in our thinking and living and fighting sin and following Jesus.  We need to help one another see again and again the goodness of God so that we see temptation and sin for what it is; a lie, or a twisting of what is good to perverse ends.  We need to help one another find joy in the good things God showers on us everyday as expressions of his goodness, so that they point us to the inexhaustible fountain of all goodness that is our God and we find our joy in him.

Learning lessons

There are lots of things which stop us learning the lessons we really need to learn. We’re busy, rushing from one thing to the next. We’re afraid of what we might find – on a subconscious level I’m convinced this is why for many of us the prospect of slowing down and incorporating habits of sabbath into our weeks is so hard – but that’s a whole other post. We don’t like facing up to the pain of failures, mistakes, and sinful patterns that might be revealed.

But learning lessons is vital for all of us. If I am to grow in my walk with Christ, in my love for him and my following him day to day, if the world is to see more and more of him in my actions, reactions, loves and care. Then I need to stop and learn lessons . What is true of me is true of you too. And what is true of us as individuals is true of us as churches and wider afflictions and organisations as well. In the mists of the everyday and the ordinary busyness of life; family, work, ministry and so on and it can so easy to just soldier on doing what we’ve always done, or try to learn lessons on the go, like some kind of fast food pit stop that convinces us we’ve done something but really provides no long term nourishment. Instead we need to carve out time to learn lesson, we need to set aside time to reflect well and at length and ideally in discussion with others. Partly because if you’re anything like me unless you carve out significant time, you will just see the surface negatives and not the longer term positives.

I was reminded this week of some advice I gave someone starting out in ministry, it was simply to be patient. To learn patience, not to underestimate what can be done in the long term, not to sacrifice long term development and progress for short term change. But if we want to see that long term development we need to commit to learning lessons. But often we’re not sure where to start. Here are a few questions I’ve found helpful to ask under 4 headings.

Refocus: What is our mission? What are the principles we started out with? Do we still believe those are good, biblically founded, gospel shaped principles? In light of those core principles where does everything we do fit with them (it’s worth having a grid here to work through)?

Review: What fruit have we seen over the last 6 months, 1 year, 3 years, 5 years? How have people been shaped and changed? What has been significant in their shaping and fruitfulness? What is there to praise God for? What do we long to see changed so it is more fruitful and what does that fruit look like?

Reconstruct: In light of the above what is there that needs to change and what does that change look like? What needs to be dismantled and why? What needs to be reconstructed? And what would that reconstruction look like? What are we praying God would do through each of those things?

Re-envision: What are our dreams and hope for ministry in each area going forward? What are we praying for? Are those things big enough that we are reliant upon God or have we settled for management solutions? What does it look like to resource those dreams and hopes for ministry and what specific prayers will we pray to that end? How will we share this with others, the church members, and other shareholders, supporters and partners?

Moving ministry model

What is your model of ministry based on? What has influenced it most? Is it truly biblical or does it only contain a kernel of biblical truth which has then had layers and layers of world sediment cover over it’s beauty?

I’ve been doing some thinking about this and a number of things have struck me. We live in a culture that is celebrity and platform obsessed. We live in a culture where we pay for, and want, the best. You don’t pay to see a warm up act, if they’re good it’s a bonus. You don’t pay to see the under 23 team you want to see the first 11.

In Exodus when Moses leads Israel out of slavery, he meets his Father-in-law and his Father-in-law is troubled by what he sees in the nascent nation. Israel have a 1 man ministry model, and it is burning Moses out, harming the people, and creating discord in the community. What is the solution? It’s to multiply leaders and for authority to be distributed so that God’s people can be led well and judgments passed that are sound and timely, so that both leaders and people are not worn out.

It struck me that too often we have a leadership structure that is like the Moses pre-Jethro model. It all centres around one man or a small cluster off staff. I wonder if this is particularly so in church planting ministry. One man as the driving force. We may talk of a planting or launch team but actually it usually hinges on one person. But what is especially true of plants is also true to some extent of established churches. We may pay lip service to every member ministry, we may teach it when we reach that part of the book we’re preaching through, but to what extent is it really happening?

Who preaches in your church and how often? Are new young preachers given opportunity alongside teaching and mentoring? What about in terms of leading the service? What percentage of your service are led by someone who is not on staff? What percentage of the preaching is done by someone not on staff? What about pastoral visiting? Who visits and looks to spur others on in their homes? Who does the discipling of young families?

Too many of us in our churches have had our ministry models subtly shaped, and warped, by societies trends. Towards valuing the paid for over the voluntary. Towards wanting everything done by the professionals, the best qualified man or woman for the job. But that isn’t the vision of leadership we see in Exodus, or in the New Testament. And we need to challenge this if we want to see healthy churches, where everyone is being discipled and growing in their faith. Because the top down ministry model will mean the bottle neck will always be the minister/staff’s time. And it means so many gifts are being left untapped and so many become disenchanted with, and disengaged from, church. They joined hoping to play their part, ready and willing to humbly use their God given gifts, grow and develop and be invested in. And yet they have become spectators or consumers because in part that is the culture we have allowed to seep into the church. Maybe it’s time to move ministry model.

A command we so easily miss

There are lots of commands Jesus gives his disciples and his church. Matthew 28v19-20 “Therefore go and make disciples…” My hunch is you can finish that one off. Or John 13v34 “A new command I give you…” You can probably finish this one too. But what about Jesus command in Matthew 18v10? Can you remember it? How about if I start you off; “See to it that you…” Got it? No.

Jesus is teaching his disciples about the new Kingdom culture for those who deny themselves, take up their cross and follow him. And he says this “See to it that you do not despise one of these little ones.” It’s the command we can’t complete, and if we can’t even finish it off how careful are we being to put it into practice?. But Jesus takes time to teach it to his disciples and he lays the foundation for his new community. He has a small child stand in their midst, a child who was viewed as a no-one, as vulnerable, unable to contribute, a drain on resources not a contributor to it and he says “See to it that you do not despise one of these little ones.”

Make sure if you are my disciple, claiming to follow me, that you do not look down on or scorn the little ones in your society. For them that’s the children, the Gentiles, the Samaritan, the widow, the orphan, the childless, the poor, the needy, the desperate and the destitute, the broken and the hurting. Studying to preach that last week I was freshly convicted of how easy it is for us, for me, to do that. How easy it is for us to swallow the lies our society pedals and look down on others for the work they do or don’t do, for the choices they make, for where they live, for the situations people find themselves in. How easy it is to believe the lie of social mobility or meritocracy and so scorn people.

This matters, “See to it” Jesus says to the disciples. Make sure you do not despise them because it will easily happen unless you are seeing to it that it doesn’t. So here’s the question; will we see to it? Will we examine our attitude to our societies poor and needy and vulnerable and broken? Will we allow Jesus light to break in and challenge us about the views we hold, the way we think and react to those in need?

What about as churches? How do we think about those in our society who are little ones? How does that thinking translate into action? It is all too easy to ignore the problem, to simply claim that we are open to all because the doors are open. But are we really? If someone Jesus has welcomes into his family as a disciples by his grace and mercy was to walk into your church next Sunday how welcome would they be if they were single, a lone parent, illiterate, homeless, destitute, had severe mental health issues, was a drug addict, or was a convicted criminal?

“See to it that you do not despise one of these little ones.” Quite simply if we won’t we’re choosing to disobey Jesus and that’s never a good place to be?