Engaging our children’s world

OK. Let me say at the outset of this post that I am aware that what I’m talking about isn’t a simple equation where y+z= x and y-z=a. It’s not a simple as that. But if we as parents and churches want to help our young people grasp hold of the gospel for themselves, come to trust God’s goodness for themselves, and wholeheartedly love God for themselves because of Jesus we would do well to listen to God’s word.

I’ve just finished a couple of weeks teaching Deuteronomy 6, that well loved mainstay of the ‘family devotions’ devotees. It’s been helpful and challenging but maybe not in the way I thought. First of all v7 which is so beloved by publishers of family devotional material follows from v6 where I think the heart of the matter literally is; the words Moses has taught are to be in the parents hearts before they repeat them to their children! Our children can spot fakes, and we can’t give them what we don’t have. If we don’t love God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength then whatever devotions we do will be deficient. Our children are to our love what a geiger counter is to radiation. They spot what we love and how we love and why we love – I dare you to ask them what you love most?

But secondly in this passage there is the encouragement to put God’s word before our eyes and before our families eyes. That may be devotions, either sporadic due to the chaos or more ordered if that’s the way your family roll. I think they’re helpful but I also don’t think they are a burden we should feel weighed down by – we do them but definitely fall more into the sporadic category. What definitely must mark our families is discussion about God’s word and what it means to live as his people – we should be talking about these things wherever we are. This is where we have tried to put more weight and emphasis.

But thirdly is the final part of the chapter, after a warning against three dangers (comfort, idolatry, suffering based doubt) that will cool the Israelites love for God faster than a zero food hygiene rating sticker cools your desire for a kebab, Moses encourages the Israelites to answer their children’s questions about why they live differently not with a because God said so but by telling the story of salvation and explaining how God’s laws lead to the good life.

If you are a parent or grandparent today, or you are just over 25, we simple don’t understand what it’s like to be a child today. We don’t really understand the social media pressures they face everyday, both outside of the home and increasingly due to their mobile phone in the home. We don’t understand the cultural currents they swim in. We probably aren’t totally aware of the values they are being taught and are imbibing in school and from their friends. And all these things, all these pressures mean quite simply we were never there age. “Back in my day” is ancient history in terms of relevance to our young people.

We need to work hard at helping our children not just hear God’s words and commands but in teaching them why they are good. Showing them the community building concern that lies at the heart of them, how God was really showing his people the good life. We need to work hard to draw out what they are learning elsewhere and the assumptions they then make when they hear God’s word about his character and his wisdom and we need to counter it, ask questions of it. In fact its a great chance to ask ‘why?’ To expose the sandy foundations so many of the world’s ideas are built on or the Christian foundation that lies buried deeper than most are prepared to go.

Do our children know the story of our coming to faith in Jesus? Do they know what he has been doing in our lives since, how we can testify to his goodness? If not is it any wonder they question his goodness? Are we explaining why God says what he says? How it is good, the fruit that flowed from his word that we still enjoy today in our society? Are we questioning and unpicking the stories and narratives and ideas they are told and comparing and contrasting them to what God says in his word?

I pray for my boys regularly, aware of my sin, my failure as a parent. Apparently if he was rag coding our parenting my 16 year old tells me I’d get an amber – he was more shocked that I was quite pleased with that. None of these things will produce devoted disciples of Jesus, but it is tilling the ground in which I am praying the Spirit plants and brings a seed to life in all the children in our church.

Grasping Grace

I’ve been really struck by Luke 7 and the scene Luke records as Jesus eats at Simon’s house over the last week. It’s an image I can’t get out of my head, as proven by the fact that I kept returning to it when preaching and teaching 3 times over the weekend. As Luke sets the scene there’s lots of good religious people around, no doubt doing their best to give the impression that they are sorted. After all there is Jesus to impress and other religious leaders to keep up appearances in front of. Then suddenly a whispered hush spreads around the room and all eyes are drawn to the new figure who has entered, head bowed, tears dripping off the end of her nose. As the tension begins to build in the silence she bends down, and begins to wash Jesus feet with her tears, before using her hair as a towel to dry them and then breaking open her alabaster jar of perfume and anointing Jesus newly cleansed feet with perfume. As the beautiful smell of the perfume wafts around the room so doe the murmurings of discontent. How could he? Doesn’t he know who she is? What she’s done?

It’s a telling and tragic picture of the state of Israel in Jesus day, that someone in desperate need of the gospel of good news, of the hope that the prophets proclaimed, or God’s compassion did not find it among the religious elite of their day. Instead she is shunned, judged, condemned, and it’s made clear that this isn’t the place for her. I found myself wondering last week, and still thinking on it this week, as I re-read those words of Jesus to Simon in Luke 7 if they aren’t the same words Jesus would say to us in the UK?

The religious who gathered around Jesus at that meal would never have invited this woman. They would only have spoken words of judgment to her assuming they knew who she was, why she lived as she did, simply writing her off. But Jesus words are arresting as he addresses Simon: ” I tell you, her many sins have been forgiven—as her great love has shown. But whoever has been forgiven little loves little.” Simon’s problem was his little love – little love for God that led to little love for the lost because he thought he was pretty good, he didn’t really need much forgiveness. But the contrast between Jesus and him shows how very wrong he was. Simon’s self understanding is woefully deficient, he would have been able to speak about sin as a theological concept but he had no appreciation of the depths of his sin and the sheer scale and cost of forgiveness. Jesus confronts him with that deficiency in understanding.

It made me ponder on a number of questions. Are we overflowing in love or has our self-righteousness got in the way? Is the reason why we so often struggle to reach out to the poor and needy because we have forgotten that we are no different to them in our need and that the gospel offers us all freedom in Christ?

It also made me wonder how would I react if someone reacted like this in church on Sunday. If full of awed amazement at the grace of God someone broken down and wept? When did I last react like that? When was I last broken by the horror of my sin and freshly awed and amazed at the grace of God to me a sinner?

Christian cynicism?

It’s hard to get through life without becoming cynical. Without becoming distrustful and convinced that people are just out for themselves or their own ends. Without becoming hard bitten because we often see people act without integrity or concern for others. But can you be a christian and be a cynic? Cynicism and it’s half cousin apathy are rife in society and in the church, I was going to write about apathy, but I can’t be bothered, so today I want us to think through some of the outworkings of being cynical.

We need to acknowledge that there are reasons we become cynical. People do let us down, in a world marred and scarred by sin, even those closest to us don’t always have altruistic motives or act out of love. I wonder if the root of cynicism in the Christian is that we haven’t fully worked out the doctrine of sin in all humanity and of progressive sanctification in our believing brothers and sisters that doesn’t naively expect perfection but holds out grace and forgiveness. And so we live in this world blanketed in a miasma of cynicism, breathing in its fog, until eventually we inhale it and breath it out too without even realising it. But it has real and dangerous consequences for us, our church and the unreached.

God is not cynical about humanity, his creation or his purposes. God has a plan and it is unbreakable. He knows it’s timeframe, he knows the milestones, and it is on track and it ought to suffuse us with abundant hope! One of the first casualties of our cynicism is our faith in God. Cynicism makes us doubt God’s goodness – a doctrine we need to recover in its robust gloriousness. God is almost too good be to true and so because others we thought that of let us down we turn our weary cynicism on God and assume he will too – when suffering hits isn’t that part of the weariness and the worry? Cynicism warps God into less that his holy, holy, holy trustworthiness and loving kindness. Cynicism allows us to wrongly believe that Jesus didn’t face what I’m going through – he didn’t have a smart phone with all its attendant pressures and temptations, he didn’t have my working week, my family, to navigate Christian online dating, face the choice of gas for heat or hot food. Cynicism isolates us from God, robs God of his majesty, and importantly sinfully fails to believe in the hope that we have been given. Cynicism will mean we don’t pray because we’re not sure God has the will or the power to act. Cynicism separates us from God and the joy that is found in resting in him.

Secondly we become cynical about the church. If we’ve been hurt once we become more sensitive to being hurt again. And let’s be honest the church has done its fair share of making mistakes and inflicting wounds on people. There are things the church needs to repent of, abuses that need calling out and dealing with in the light because sin festers and spreads in the darkness. And there are pastoral situations mishandled which aren’t at the level of abuse but are hurtful mistakes or missteps that pastors need to repent of and ask specific individuals for forgiveness for – I know because I’ve had to do just that. And that does not please God. Cynical Christians will respond by leaving the church, withholding forgiveness, and viewing every Church and even God’s glorious picture of his people through that cynicism tainted lens. But I think in our cynical society we’re seeing cynical Christians who are becoming cynical about church because of what they hear about churches rather than what they experience. Predisposed to cynicism and isolation and fearful of community they are easily shaped by what they hear from others which knocks the church. I’m not suggesting covering up things, absolute not, the gospel means we contend for those who are oppressed and abused and harmed, we seek justice, we want to see the church changed to become a haven of hope and healing. But second hand hurt, third hand hurt, and salacious devouring of such things further shape a heart already preprogrammed towards cynicism.

As pastors and church leaders we’ve played a part in that, we set grand visions for our churches – almost but not quite sanctifying it with a ‘thus says the Lord’ that kind of align with scripture but are more prescriptive than scripture is because we buy into the corporate target driven nature of the world around us. When we fail it fuels cynicism. Wouldn’t it be better to just stick to what God calls us to do – makes disciple making disciples by teaching all of scripture applicably to all of life to everyone? Or we fuel cynicism in the idealised way we talk about church and the picture the bible paints of it which is as lopsided as Quasimodo. Rather than drawing out the beauty of the church and the reality of the fight for that to be realised which we see in the Epistles as the believers in Corinth struggle to live out their faith and throw off the cultural sins of their day, as the Galatians are in danger of becoming enmired in legalism and losing the gospel, as the Ephesians need the gospels full impact on race relations explained to them and applied in detail. The church in the New Testament is beautiful but it is beautiful because of the grace and shed blood of the one who died to redeem it, because of the work of grace that is constantly being done again and again in the church as God hangs his ‘Spirit at work’ sign over his church. It is not the beauty of finished perfection, but the certain hope of finished perfection being worked on by the God who can and will accomplish that. Pastors lets preach that far more glorious vision of God’s church so that we don’t create Christian cynics and so that weary people find rest for their souls in Jesus not just more performance management targets to hit.

Lastly, one other area I think christian cynicism injects its deadly venom is in our outreach. Cynicism makes us fearful of failure and wary of risk. We are cynical about peoples response to the gospel. Pastor be honest when did you last preach the gospel and expect (not hope) souls to be saved? Be honest with yourself. When did we last go to work or the shops, or school and expect to have a conversation with someone about our faith? We are deeply cynical about people’s response to the gospel because the world shapes us to be deeply cynical about the gospel. Even now you’re thinking – but they don’t want to hear – your cynicism at work. We hear again and again about the unchurched nature of the UK, about how hard it is to reach people with the gospel and that makes us cynical, we may have shared the gospel and been rejected, we may have faced hostility from family or friends and that makes us cynical. It’s brilliant strategy by Satan because he’s shut our mouths before we open them. But part of the problem is that we think of sharing the gospel as a one shot hail Mary not a long slow walk in the direction of Jesus. I remember someone in a previous church who’s wife and the church witnessed to him for 23 years before him came to faith, but then he found Jesus and the next day went into the yard from which he drove lorries and told everyone about Jesus. 23 years of being loved, seeing the gospel lived out, seeing church live out life together with grace, ask questions, be disinterested and even outright hostile sometimes before he came to faith. Cynicism would have written him off long before then. Have we?

The cynicism in outreach also plays out in our failing as churches to reach the unreached. We look at the council estates of the UK, we hear the stories of knife crime and chaos, and a culture we just don’t understand. We hear the prejudiced and jaundiced reports in the media about such estates and assume the gospel could never win a hearing there. That’s in part why the church has largely abandoned the deprived and working class communities of the UK. It’s why we plant churches in student areas and in University towns and among the middle classes with a regularity and ease that ought to shame us when we compare that to the number we fail to plant in areas of deprivation and working class. Our cynicism means we don’t really think the gospel is for them, or we haven’t really thought through what the gospel and discipleship will mean in those areas. As church leaders and denominations we fear the failure which is a very real possibility if we plant in such areas, especially if we plant without a long term strategy and commitment for ongoing decade by decade support of churches in such areas.

Christian cynicism? It is an oxymoron, it ought not to be. So how do we fight it. We need to call it out for what it is and the be honest about the devastating impact it is having on us, our churches and the lost in the UK. We need to repent of it – all of us if we look deeply enough or ask others to examine us will find it lurking in our hearts. And we counter it by holding a robust realistic view of sin and it’s impact in the world, and a robust and glorious view of the hope to which we are being called and kept certainly for, and an honest and awed view of the church in which God is at work by his Spirit so that we are transformed into the image of his Son and shine light into the darkness.

Don’t write sermons for your week

One of the biggest draw backs of being a pastor is that in many ways we retreat from the shared frontline of the very congregation we are to equip for ministry. Instead of being in the office, building site, classroom, warehouse or shop floor we find ourselves in the church building or spending most of our time meeting with believers in their, or our, homes. There’s a subtle creeping danger with that.

It is that we prepare sermons that equip people to live out their faith in our working week, not theirs. We answer the theological questions that we are aware of in our reading, not the issues they face of hostility and opposition, stress and pressure. We preach about the problems other pastors share with us in their churches rather than being aware of the factors pushing against discipleship on our congregations frontlines. So many of our congregations are facing outright hostility because of their biblical beliefs, not because they’ve expressed them badly but because our society sets up a false dichotomy and conflict with Christians. They face conflict at home. Resentment because their faith pulls them away from their families and their expectations. They are under pressure at work to adopt a public persona, to leave their faith in the glove compartment when they park the car. They are expected to teach what they are told to teach regardless of their conscience, the millstone of professional standards weighs heavy on many in professional jobs. And then there is all the pressure everyone is under and the added anxiety of navigating society, work, family in a pandemic that seems to just rumble on.

As we preach we need to be aware of those very issues. Don’t assume you’re aware of them because you spoke to someone for 5 minutes over coffee after the service, that will just have scratched the surface of the presentable problems and pressures. We need to dig deeper to discover the pressures and fractures, the things that are pulling against their faith, that make discipleship hard. And those issues need to be addressed, or our congregations will gradually assume the Bible has nothing to say to them, that it is about your week not theirs. They need to see that the very issues they face are the issues the Bible so often addresses for the Israelites and the early church. But are we as pastors aware of those issues? Could you honestly tell me where those pressure points are for your church family? Who is particularly feeling which pressures at the moment? How they are manifesting themselves and how people are responding?

I’m increasingly challenged that I need to get out of the Christian rabbit warren and into the real world. It’s why I still serve as a governor in the local Primary School, so I face some of those same pressures, not daily but I’m at least aware of some of them in that specific context. It’s why time to meet and walk and talk with those in our church families is so key. It’s why elders that are investing in and aware of families in church and supporting them where they are under pressure – who can in love feed that into elders meetings for prayer and wider support are worth their weight in gold.

What if the thing that would improve your sermon most wasn’t another hour or two in the office, or with the commentaries, or listening to whoever your go to preacher is on that passage. but a deeper awareness of the connection points between the Bible and the life of your congregation that resulted in prayed through application to those in our flock? That doesn’t magically happen, it doesn’t come through reading about social trends, or scanning social media, it comes from shepherding – spending time living life alongside those in our care.

Connected community

As I walked to work the other morning I stopped for a few minutes to speak to a local family. The kids have been to toddlers, mum has brought them to some Christmas services in the past, we chatted about how both families have recently had members with Covid but how strangely most of us never caught it. What was unusual about this conversation? Absolutely nothing. But this lady has also taught 3 of my boys at the local high school, unusually she lives in the local community in which she teaches. The contrast with a number of recent conversations I’ve had with people about how they could never live and work in the same area struck me.

The rise of the professional is viewed as a good thing. Distance between where you work and where you live is viewed as a good thing. But I’m not sure it is, either for us as individuals or for communities. And it’s something that I think has not just infiltrated the church but undermined it. My contract contains a very specific clause that I need to live within so many miles of the church. In other words I need to live among those I minister too. I need to do life alongside of and in front of these people, both those who follow Jesus and those who do not yet know him. And yet increasingly the church minister is one of the only people who is expected to have such a community focused life especially in middle class churches. For many in our congregations commuting is the norm, in many cases for work, but in some cases for most of life including church.

I can’t help but wonder if that is one way Satan has subtly disconnected us from our communities and made reaching out with the gospel that much harder. If you commute any distance for work how will you reach your colleagues with the gospel? Will an invitation to come to church if they have to drive 30 minutes be more or less likely to be accepted? How will work colleagues meet other believers? How will they see gospel community life in practice so they don’t just write you off as an outlier? If 10 hours of your week are taken up with commuting how much time do you have to do other things?

I think the gospel calls us to connect the dots. To live in community, the expectation is that people will see your life and your witness – all of it, not just certain segmented parts which we allow them to see because of our proximity to them there – and be intrigued by the difference Jesus makes and ask. We short circuit that if people only see parts of our lives. There are issues to think through, there will be challenges of connecting community; if living alongside those you work alongside and teach or care for or manage. And I wonder if at root that’s our real fear, we like to turn off, we like to compartmentalise, but what if doing that is undermining our witness for the gospel? What if it means the community only sees the church on a Sunday and not interacting the rest of the week?

The gospel calls us to connect the dots in all of life.

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