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.

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.

Church with a limp

In the Bible people seem to match their names.  It struck me that if we were to name our church for what people would see that ‘Church with a limp’ might be quite apt.  And that would be biblically well founded.

In the Bible it’s not just Jacob who learns about God through suffering and has the permanent reminder of God’s grace through his limp.  It’s Job, who though he is blessed still carries his grief as well as the things he has learnt about God.  It’s Moses who’s learned through suffering as he has led the stubborn, stiff-necked, Israel.  It’s Mary who learns what it means for the sword to pierce her own soul as well as the joy of being chosen by grace to bear the Son of God.  It’s Peter who still bears the scars of his denial, it’s Paul who carries the guilt of the persecution years as well as the physical scars of his ministry for his Saviour.

In the Bible God teaches his people through suffering.  No experience in wasted in the man_legs_walking_cane-1024x576economy of God.  God refines his people through suffering and that means so many of us come to church, we gather together, limping.  Limping because of mental health struggles, long term chronic illness, guilt, abuse, ageing, divorce, grief, loss of work, disappointment, childlessness, fears and anxieties about our families and friends and so many more.  It is a joy to see God at work both through and in the limping.  We come poor in Spirit, we come thirty for righteousness, we come hungry for what only Jesus can provide.

So next time you go to church don’t try to hide the limp, don’t wallow in it and adopt a victim mentality either.  But be honest with others about what God is teaching you as you limp on in following him.  It’s not a badge of shame or of honour.  But it is something God will use to teach us, to refine us, to drive us to him as our rock and redeemer, and if we allow him to encourage others as we limp to glory together.

Pointless preaching?

I spent yesterday studying Titus and preparing a series of 5 bible studies for our Gospel Group to start in June. As I studied I couldn’t but notice Paul’s emphasis that Titus teach sound doctrine and refute the false doctrine so that the Christians were careful to devote themselves to doing good.  He then spends considerable ink showing what that looks like for different groups of people within the church.  I couldn’t help but contrast that with something that is one of my bug bears about so much of the preaching I hear, and often my own.

Instead of applying something from the text we waft around a few implicationsBible – the text says this so we must do this.  That is an implication from the text but not an application of it.  And application gets 5 minutes of a 25 minute sermon, and often tacked on the end.

Look closely at Titus, Paul goes into detail about how each group of people must apply the text to their own situation as older men, younger men, older women, young women, as slaves.  He even explicitly states that part of the application to Titus is the way he lives as an example to the younger men and what that looks like.  Paul’s application is detailed, it is why he writes his letter to see change.  That is the point.

Titus is a letter heavy on application but too often when we preach it is light on application.  Our preaching is pointless – we don’t aim at change.  We need to work harder on ‘exegeting’ our people and their lives, the situations they face, so that we know how to apply the Bible to them and not be afraid to do so.  Not in a legalistic way, but helping people see what godliness looks like.

At Grace a lot of our younger Christians have not grown up in Christian homes, they have come to faith in their teens, twenties, and thirties.  They have not seen godly living from parents.  They have imbibed the ways of the world, it’s limp definitions of the good life not Jesus revolutionary way of living as his follower.  They need application so they know how to live.  They need a passage to end with more than the ‘so let us pray we can live like this’.  And they need it in every area of life the Bible speaks about because Jesus claims lordship of all of their life.

They need to see the radical call of the gospel in detail and, as Paul does in Titus, the power the gospel of grace gives us to live transformed lives as we apply the Bible.

Holy Dissatisfaction

How satisfied are you with your church?  If you were rating it on trust pilot how many stars would you give it?

We live in a consumer culture where we rate things all the time.  My wife laughs every time we go to IKEA because I can’t help but showing my irritation in the form of a rant at the stations at seemingly every department inviting you to say how satisfied you are or are not but hitting the appropriate smiley, bored, frustrated, or plain irritated smiley face!  Apparently punching each button isn’t appropriate!

So it’s no wonder we find ourselves rating church.  But actually we should always expect room for growth and change in our church families just as we ought always to see the same room in ourselves.  That doesn’t make us critical of our churches but it should create a holy dissatisfaction that prays for, acts to create, and longs for more even as we love and thank God for our churches.  Our attitude to church isn’t binary – for or against, positive or negative.  It is to be grateful and thankful but also to long fo fit to be what Jesus wants and by the Spirit empowers us to be.

Over Lent we, as a church, have taken a 40 day prayer challenge, and one of the things we are praying for is for growth in our church in terms of maturity and gospel understanding and application.  To that end we’ve used Ephesians 4v11-16 as a basis for our prayers.  There we see thankfulness as well as a desire for growth.

How would such an approach, such prayer change our attitude towards church and our engagement in it?

We need generous gospel giving not poisonous patronage

As a small church we have always depended on others for our financial survival.  We are immensely grateful for the gracious generosity of our partner churches and individuals who partner with us in accepting that where we are we’re unlikely to be become financially self-sufficient.  These partners are prepared to commit themselves and their money to give long-term to enable a gospel presence and witness where we are.  We exist in part because the gospel has influenced these people’s wallets.

It’s a picture we see again and again in Acts.  Be it Barnabas with his generous giving or Paul’s collection for the churches in need.

If we want to reach the unreached parts of Britain with the gospel we need more people, and more churches, to grasp this kind of big-hearted generosity and commit long-term to supporting churches in tough areas.  Too often church planting is targeted at areas of affluence, areas where churches that stick can become self-sustaining financially, ideally within 3-5 years.  But that severely limits where we plant and who we reach with the gospel.  As well as establishing unhealthy correlations between numbers, finance and gospel success(?!?).

The other problem I sometimes see is a poisonous patronage.  An expectation that because I or we give we expect some measure of control, some influence, some say.  It goes back to feudal lord mentality.  The haves hold the purse strings so they give but those strings stay attached to their money.

I am so grateful that those who support our ministry are humble enough and trusting tough to give, pray and encourage rather than dictate because they feel their giving has secured some patronage.  The question the church in the UK needs to ask how do we facilitate more of this type of giving to support more of these types of plants in these needy areas of not just gospel deprivation.

If we are going to train up leaders for these gospel deprived areas we need leaders trained in them and yet it is these very churches that so often do not have the finance to do so.  Most assistant pastor positions are in middle class churches that have the resources to train the next generation.  But with the best will in the world they can only prepare someone so far for ministry in a deprived area and context.  The best place to train more pastors and planters for these areas is in these areas.  What will it look like for the church to grasp this challenge?

 

Sabbatical’s; godly gift or ministry minefield?

I’m going to be honest up front, I’m conflicted about the churches practice of giving pastors Sabbaticals for a number of reasons.  I’m ready to be convinced, but as yet I’m not convinced that sabbaticals are biblical for pastors.  As far as I can see it’s the land that has a Sabbath year in all the Old Testament passages that are used to justify this practice.  It is not the priests or the prophets or the king or the people but the land.

And why do we apply it to full-time paid ministers of the gospel but not to others who minister so hard alongside other work?  Shouldn’t the Sunday School teacher, the elder, the deacon, the toddler group leader, enjoy a similar rest?

And practically how does a Sabbatical work in a small church with one pastor and no other full-time workers?  And what does it say to our church family if pastors, as many I know of do, go to church elsewhere during a sabbatical?  And why would we want to?

And finally what will the guys I know who work on the railways, or in a warehouse, make of a pastor who has 3 months off?  (I know it isn’t off, it can be used productively for study or writing, but that’s how they see it).  How weird is that, I think it will just be another barrier to the gospel, some weird middle class church practice, a million miles away from working class realities proving yet again church isn’t for them..

These are just a few of my issues with Sabbaticals; theological, ecclesiological, practical and evangelistic.  But I wonder if my biggest issue with it is that as pastors and churches we are buying into the worldly way of binge resting.  Work, work, work at a burn out pace and then collapse into a period of rest.  Is it a sign that we are not enabling pastors to rest well so that their work is sustainably paced to endure and thrive and produce fruit over the long-term?  Is it that as pastors we have an overactive Messiah complex so we work ourselves into the ground until we need a break?  Is it that our diaries are so full that there is no time to read, take time out for long term planning, visit other places etc…  In which case we need to look at our diaries.

I’d love anyones thoughts on Sabbaticals.

Lessons learned from doing all age services

FamilyI’ve never been a fan of all age services.  Too often it has felt as if I have to make too many compromises in preaching, listening, and so on.  However, due in part to losing 2/3rds of our Sunday School teachers because of relocation in the summer we have started a monthly all-age service.  It’s not perfect, I’m not sure it’s easy for parents of pre-school children, but we do have somewhere they can take them to play if it all gets too much or too long.  It’s not perfect by any stretch of the imagination but here are a few things I’ve learned.

Children need to see adults engage with the Bible taught

One of the big pluses of having the children in is that they get to see what the church normally does when they are out being taught by their Sunday School teachers.  They sit with their parents and other adults and teens and see what they normally do.  Both the good and the bad.  I think children seeing adults wrestling with the word of God is good.

It is good as a church to serve the Sunday School teachers by flexing in this way

How do we love and honour those who teach the Bible most weeks to our young people? One of the ways we show love to them is by finding ways to enable them to hear the word of God taught.  If a way to do that is by having an all age service with the occasional noise from one of the children that is a small part to play.

Churches underestimate the ability of children to engage with the Bible

Whilst I’m a little more careful what passages the children are in for I preach a normal sermon.  I don’t compromise, increasingly because the children can engage with it.  Go and sit in a lesson with a class of 7 year olds and see them spotting trigraphs and digraphs, and talking about verbs, adverbs and adjectives in a text.  Our children are capable of looking at the word of God, examining it, searching it, hearing it taught.  We mustn’t baby our children when it comes to the Bible or they will never engage with it seriously.  We have worksheets to help them focus, but they are used to doing and listening and then engaging.

It’s left me wondering if we had a sudden influx of Sunday school teachers would we scrap our all age service?  I’m not sure.

40 days of prayer

As a church we’re doing 2 things for Lent.  One is the each one reach one challenge; of doing something every day that shows or speaks grace to those around us.  Intentionally looking to provoke questions which enable us to share the gospel by loving people.  But we’re also using Lent as 40 days of prayer and here’s what we’re praying for:

40 days of prayer

Will you pray with us every day for Grace church?  Here are 4 things to pray:

  1. that we would be a body growing in maturity (Eph 4v11-16)
  2. that we would love and serve one another (1 Cor 13v4-7)
  3. for the unreached to be reached with the gospel through us (Matt 9v35-38)
  4. that God would grow or send us elders, deacons and Sunday School teachers

 

Enduring commitment

We are naturally impatient people.  We sigh and get annoyed if we have to queue for too long, if it takes too long at the drive through, if staff are stocking shelves whilst we’re stood in a queue at a checkout.  If someone is running late.  If the person we’ve told to do something doesn’t do it when we said.  If ministry is hard or fruitless.

We are impatient. Even, maybe especially, in ministry. But real ministry takes time, it is

green tractor pulling red bin on field at daytime
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like the long slow work of the farmer, ploughing, tilling, planting, weeding, feeding, watering, hours and hours invested before any harvesting.

All around us God orders the natural world to teach us patience, yet all the time we chaff against it with our technologically fuelled desire for quicker, faster, better.  In an era of fast it is hard for us to have the patience and the commitment to persevere in the slow change that is growing in godliness.

But change is slow and we find that frustrating.  We read the accounts of Acts and forget that all the action and growth doesn’t just take place in the 3 or 4 hours it takes us to read it but over decades.  We read of Paul and think of him as a hit and run evangelist/church planter.  He goes somewhere for a few months, or maybe at most a couple of years shares the gospel, gets opposed, sees converts, plants a church and moves on.  Too often that’s our model of ministry, though ideally without the opposition.

But biblically we’re missing something vital.  Firstly Paul’s ministry is unique in terms of his planting and secondly that way of thinking about it is just biblically inaccurate.  Paul gives considerable time to establishing and strengthening the disciples he led to Christ, and the churches he helped plant.  His whole ministry was about long term committed relational ministry. In Acts 14v21-28 at the end of the mission journey, rather than rush back to Antioch the quick way, they go out of their way to travel back through the places where they have planted churches, why?  To strengthen the disciples and strengthen the churches.  Then they establish elders for those churches so that this ministry is carried on by local men committed to the gospel and the church.

Again at the end of their second missionary journey, what do they do?  They go back to all the churches strengthening the disciples.  Paul wasn’t a hit and run evangelist.  He wasn’t short term.  He made disciples and was committed to seeing those disciples to the finish line. He goes out of his way and expends considerable energy to physically be with these disciples.  If we misread Paul and Acts we will never commit to the long term or be patient in ministry.

Evangelising and discipling are long term projects.  They require great patience.  They require a relational resilience and commitment.  They require a pouring out of ourselves not for 3 months, or 2 years, or 5 years but over the long term.  This is especially true in communities that don’t change quickly.  In communities like those across Yorkshire and the North East that because of their working class culture don’t see much change at all, but rather generations staying in the same area or even the same house.

And yet these communities, especially in Yorkshire and especially the working class are not used to sustained committed patient presence.  They have been burned by initiative after initiative that pumps money and resources in amidst promises and visions and long term plans but which then pull out and up sticks after 3 or 4 years when the funding runs dry because of a change of policy, or a new initiative that becomes sexy.  Our churches must be different, our evangelical culture must be different, we must be different.  We must commit, we must resolve to patiently endure, proving to people that we love them over the long term, even as they push us away to test that.  Earning trust.  Proving the doubters wrong.  Patiently plugging away with the gospel even when there is seemingly no fruit for years.