Friday, May 30, 2008

Two days to go

It's Friday and I have only today and tomorrow left before my sabbatical starts. And I think I'm more relaxed now about the whole thing than I certainly was a few weeks ago. 

The weather doesn't look too promising for doing my woodwork projects. Maybe the first thing I need to do is build a workshop! A friend has offered his garage, so I'll have to see how things shape up. Still, there's plenty of other things I can do in inclement weather. There's a fair amount of decorating that I can get on with, which would please Anne. 

Tomorrow is my last official working day, and it's nice to have a wedding as my last official bit of ministry before the rest. On Monday I intend to spend the day making sure my study is tidy and I've dealt with all the paperwork that's accumulated recently. 

The question is will I be bored by Wednesday or will have paint in my hair and newly decorated bathroom!

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Inside out and upside down Christianity

It was time to tidy up in church ready for a funeral yesterday and a wedding on Saturday. It was a good opportunity to bring my model of the Tabernacle home before recycling it. 

When I first presented it at church as part of our series Wilderness Ways, I talked about how it represented God's desire to draw close rather than exclude the people from his presence. This, for me, is a key perspective on the heart of God. There are times when I get the feeling that we've spent much of church history creating an orthodoxy that majors on our unworthiness, our sin, our exclusion from God's presence rather than God's desire to draw close to us. Such a perspective makes grace hard to grasp.

I think also that it means we emphasise judgement and all that's wrong in our world instead of focussing on grace. When failure comes, we ask first what discipline we should apply. We become desperate to preserve the purity of the church. 

But the church is not pure. 

I guess the fear is that if we turn things upside down, we run the risk of thinking we're okay. We're afraid that we'll stop preaching about the need to repent. We're afraid that we will make it too easy to be a follower of Jesus. But how difficult did Jesus make it?

Unrecognisable faith

Having read Joel Edwards response to a recent Dispatches  documentary about "Fundamentalist Christianity" in the UK–In God's name–and having missed its transmission, I thought I'd have a look for myself using Channel 4's "watch again" feature on their website. 

In order to watch the internet replay I had to fire up my Windows PC, download Windows Media player 11, update it and then only in Internet Explorer could I watch the programme. I wish I hadn't been so persistent. 

After less than two minutes I had to stop watching. It wasn't the portrayal of faith that bothered me, it was the faith that was being portrayed that bothered me. In the opening few minutes I saw a version of Christianity that worried and, if I'm honest, offended me. Is this kind of militancy a true reflection of Biblical faith? No wonder the scientific community think we hate them, no wonder the gay community think we hate them. In those two minutes I heard no mention of grace no sense of sharing the pain of a broken world, no attempt to engage in dialogue. All I heard was judgement and condemnation.

This is not the faith I share. This is not the faith I want to share.

It's sad to think that some evangelicals are rejecting the label "evangelical" in favour of "red letter Christian". If the kind of militant, venomous expression of evangelical faith I saw in those two minutes of TV is going to become the only expression of evangelicalism that society sees, then I guess I too will need to find another label to describe myself.

Whilst I recognise that Channel 4's documentary, as do many documentaries, focused on the sensational, I do get the uneasy sense that it points to an underlying mood swing in some sections of the church which not only offends ordinary people in the streets, but actually contributes to alienating them from the God who loves them.

If Jesus came to save the world rather than condemn it, how come some of his followers only appear to use the vocabulary of condemnation?

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Planning the sabbatical

Having been asked by a number of people, most recently Scott via a comment on a recent post, what I'm going to do with my sabbatical, it really does sound like a good idea to have a plan. If only to have something to say every time I get asked the question. 

The first thing I will do is rest. Rest and work out. I actually quite like going to the gym, and although I'm not exactly a picture of health, the gym is a place where I get away from stuff. And it's good to get away. So I'll spend more time at the gym and more time walking. 

If the weather improves I hope to walk at least 10 maybe 20 miles each week. I have a favourite restaurant down by the river about 6 miles from home. It's a nice walk there and back, and there are a couple of different routes I can take. I might have a go at a longer walk. The one I'd really like to do locally is the Ouse Valley. From start to finish it's about 150 miles I think, so I don't suppose that will get done from end to end, but I might have a go at a section or two.

For those of you who feel faint at the thought of walking to this degree, don't worry. My knees and feet tend to ache after 12 miles and I can't realistically do more than 10 miles a day if I want to walk every day. And believe me, once you get into a rhythm, 10 miles isn't that far. Trust me, I'm a walker!

Between walks I hope to build two pieces of simple furniture. The blanket box in the bedroom is falling apart and I think I'll make a new one. Woodwork was my escape at school from chemistry and maths and biology etc. It was something I loved to do and would, if  I had the space, have a workshop in which to potter about and make things. It's also a good discipline for slowing down. There's no substitute for precision and care if you want to make something decent.

The second bit of furniture is more adventurous. I want to build a wardrobe with a couple of drawers in it, for the guest room. I've actually had quite a lot of fun doing the drawings for these things. It must be around 35 years since I did a proper technical style of drawing for a piece of furniture.

Having rested, walked, worked out and become a master craftsman(!) I'll turn my attention to reflecting on ministry. I know it sounds a bit "spiritual" but I want to learn how to spend time with God again. Ministry is both consuming and demanding. It's so easy to lose sight of one's own relationship with God when you spend most of your time fixing other people's. Ministry dries you out, a sabbatical gives you the time to soak up God's grace and love again.

I've also been toying with the idea of writing something about ministry and organisation. As someone who is constantly battling the indiscipline of a disorganised life, I've been working hard to be better organised. The last year has seen some marked improvements and, while there is still so much to learn, it might be helpful to write down some of the lessons.

I have no doubt that some of these things won't get done. I'm not prepared to sacrifice having a rest simply to write a book. So priorities will need to be set. The last thing I want to do is to arrive at August 31st feeling like I've not done anything and wasted three whole months of opportunity.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Church Planting Conference

For those who might be interested...

The cost of this one-day conference is £20 and you can read more about the conference here. Bookings are here.

Monday, May 26, 2008

Countdown continues

Into the final week of ministry before my sabbatical starts. Yesterday was my last celebration service for 13 weeks. Last time I went on sabbatical I can't say it was difficult to go. Things had been hard and I don't remember preaching or leading worship at all in the run up to the break. This time is very different. I feel a different stress as I let go of everything.

The plan is still very fluid. I need to work out the autumn plan, which would be great to have done by the weekend. I have a couple of meetings and funeral and a wedding to do before Sunday (the first official day of the sabbatical). I think I might spend the first part of next week writing down everything that I might do and then begin to pick off the one's I feel drawn to think about. Whereas last time I was caught between wondering if I was going to consider staying in ministry or do something else, this time I know I'm coming back. 

I want, therefore, to take the time to reflect on how I do ministry, what it means to me, what my vision is, and most important of all, ask God if I'm actually doing the ministry he wants me to do. When my previous contract was drawing to a close I had various people telling me how I needed to "sell myself". It was almost as if I needed to convince the church that I was worth keeping. But I've never been big on doing that. I suspect in the secular world, or even in the world of Christian organisations, I probably don't interview well. 

Given that I've not been interviewed for a job for a very long time, things have probably changed. But I never could get the hang of telling people why I was just the right person for the job. I always felt that wasn't my decision to make. All I could do was tell the truth and be myself. 

When it comes to ministry, I'm much more interested in a sense of call than anything else. I know there needs to be a good fit. When I came to Cotton End I showed the church profile to a friend of mine. After he read it, he looked at me and asked, "Did you write that?" The fit, it seems, was rather good!

I suppose the question to ask is whether that fit remains good after seven years of ministry. I still feel there is so much that God is revealing to us that it's hard to put it all on hold for three months, but then again, God has his timescales. My hope is that after the sabbatical, we'll all be in better shape to push forward.

Perhaps, if you're the praying kind, you will pray for the church as they live without me and for me as I live without them.

Saturday, May 24, 2008

Defining Pastoral Care

One of the interesting things from my day out on Thursday was the sense that we were not all working from the same definition of pastoral care. On the other hand it appeared to me that everyone else was assuming we all meant the same thing when we talked about pastoral care! Which of course begs the question: What do we mean by pastoral care?

My working definition is:

To offer spiritual, emotional and practical support, irrespective of the decision taken by those for whom we are caring.

One immediate issue that such a definition raises is that of church discipline. It was quite clear from the discussions and interactions that the withdrawal of care was, for some, part of the process of care. I'm not judging either way, it's a complex issue at the best of times, but I still like my definition because it expresses a sense of care even if we don't like what a person chooses to do. 

Anyway, perhaps part of the struggle to develop meaningful pastoral care systems in our churches is precisely because we haven't actually defined what it is we're trying to do through our care.

More thoughts to come.

Friday, May 23, 2008

A day out

Yesterday, May 22nd, I spent the day at Waverley Abbey House again, this time at a seminar on facing pastoral challenges. You may recall that I blogged quite a lot about Closing the Back Door back in March. This was another helpful day that will need some processing. As I do that I'll try and highlight some of the issues that come out of the day.

One interesting thing, that may or may not be a red herring with regard to pastoral care, was the male/female ratio on the course. Out of 36 attending the seminar, only 4 0r 5 were men (I didn't do an absolute head count). Does this mean that most of the pastoral care is actually done by women in the church? Is that a bad thing? Is it appropriate? Are male ministers more inclined to view pastoral care as an element of ministry but not the focus of ministry? 

Of course this is not a detailed survey. I don't know how many of the women present at the day were either the ministers/ senior leaders in their respective churches or part of the leadership team and called specifically because pastoral care is their primary gift. Let's try and avoid stereotyping people. It was just the apparent imbalance that caught my attention.

Maybe it's a positive thing that churches are developing pastoral care models and structures that no longer rely upon a single, ordained leader do everything. It would seem to me that a healthy church will have a diversity of ministry across the leadership rather than a single leader doing everything. It also naturally opens the door to leadership to people who don't have the traditional gifts associated with church leadership, but who nonetheless are called and equipped to lead the church. Perhaps even better equipped. 

Thinking about Alan Hirsch's Ephesians 4 paradigm, even if you still have a hierarchical approach to leadership, the senior leader could be any of the five types he mentions without isolating or minimising the others.

I just hope that the lack of men at yesterday's seminar doesn't mean that men have abdicated their responsibility to care.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

More on Missional

An interesting article by Alan Hirsch caught my eye on the Christianity Today website this morning.

As I continue to think about missional church and what that actually means in terms of the changes we need to make to become more and more missional, I was drawn to this piece about leadership. The misisonal church, Hirsch argues needs a different pattern of leadership:
We need more than a pastor and/or teacher leading a congregation. A missional church requires pioneering, innovative, organizationally adaptive, and externally focused leadership, and this means a five-fold understanding of ministry leadership.

Hirsch argues that: Missional churches require all Five aspects of ministry Leadership on the team. His five aspects are taken from Ephesians four–Apostles, Prophets, Evangelists, Pastors and Teachers. I'm not sure what he makes of the exegetical arguments about the text–are they apostle-prophets, evangelists and pastor-teachers, or apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers? 

But his contention rings true that the model we have for church leadership today, primarily pastors and teachers, is at the heart of our problem. Our received model puts a high premium on looking after the sheep, and a lower premium on searching out the lost sheep. We are, to use and old phrase, more focused on maintenance than mission for the most part. Shifting away from this inward focus to a more outwardly focused pattern of church is taking time, but I do see evidence of it working its way through church life.

Hirsch goes on to talk about how the church in which he was involved restructured their leadership around a team representing these five aspects. I don't see anything particularly new about this, after all the concept of team leadership has been around for quite some time. I'd also suggest that we're not unfamiliar with the challenges Ephesians 4 presents to us. On the other hand, choosing this as the basis for organising the team, moving away from a single leader making all the decisions, may well be new for many a more traditional model of church.

The challenge comes in the smaller churches where leadership is thin and the minister has to fulfil more than one or two of these roles. He or she may even have to fulfil all five if the church is to grow. But then again, if we want to grow we will need to change.

Dysfunctional families

We're reading Jon Ortberg's Everbody's normal till you get to know them in our Book Club at the moment. It's a book I read some time ago and just dipping into it a second time reminds me how much I enjoy Ortberg's writing.

His description of the "as is" tag that we all carry and the dance of the porcupines brings home the reality that we are all far from perfect. Take the headline: Totally normal women who stalk their ex-boyfriends. As Ortberg points out, "if the obsessive stalking of an ex-lover is not just normal but totally normal, how far would you have to go to be a little strange?"

The Bible, rather than hide the fact that we are all flawed, tells it as it is about the people who come "as is". Here's how Jon Ortberg sets out the patriarchal family line and its flaws:

Cain is jealous of Abel and kills him. Lamech introduces polygamy to the world. Noah–the most righteous man of his generation–gets drunk and curses his own grandson. Lot, when his home is surrounded by residents of Sodom who want to violate his visitors, offers instead that they can have sex with his daughters. Later on, his daughters get him drunk and get impregnated by him–and Lot is the most righteous man in Sodom!

Abraham plays favourites between his sons Isaac and Ishmael, they're estranged.

Isaac plays favourites between his sons Jacob and Esau; they're enemies for twenty years. Jacob plays favourites between Joseph and his other eleven sons; the brothers want to kill Joseph and end up selling him into slavery.

Their marriages are disasters:

Abraham had sex with his wife's servant, then sends her and their son off into the wilderness at his wife's request. Isaac and Rebekah fight over which boy gets the blessing. Jacob marries two wives and ends up with both of their maids as his concubines as well when they get into a fertility contest.

Jacob's firstborn son, Reuben, sleeps with his father's concubine.

Another son, Judah, sleeps with his daughter-in-law when she disguises herself as a prostitute. She does this because she is childless since her first two husbands–both sons of Judah–were so wicked that God killed them both; and Judah reneged on his obligations to her.

These people need a therapist.

These are not the Waltons. They need Dr.  Phil, Dr Laura, Dr. Ruth, Dr. Spock, Dr Seuss–they need somebody.
It's a sobering thought to see this family history set out like this. But God continues to use flawed people. 

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Of mice and men

We love our cats. Normally they are sociable and very little trouble except when hungry. One of them spends most of the day following the sun around the house, the other follows me around the house in the hope of biscuits.

But cats are hunters.

Now if they just went out, hunted and came home, it would be fine. It's not a pleasant sight watching a cat play with it's prey, but it's what they do. Sometimes of course they like to bring their trophies home for inspection. Again not pleasant, but bearable. It's when they bring the live stuff home for you to play with that we get a little upset. It's not too bad if you catch them near the door because you can keep them out of the house, but every so often we get a live mouse dropped on the hall floor.

"Look what I've brought you," declares our proud feline, "Ahhhhh," is the typical human response. This of course throws the aforesaid moggy. He can't understand why we don't want his prize catch hiding behind the crockery cabinet. He also can't understand why we aren't fast enough to catch the thing as it runs between our feet and into the safety of the darkest corner of the dining room.

We have a quite elaborate method for catching and releasing these small creatures, although I did squash one by accident one day. I had it cornered in a big box which I picked up to take outside. Unfortunately the delicate little animal got trapped just where I grabbed the box and it's short life was brought abruptly to and early end.

Tonight we had the full team out. 

Anne, Ally and I went into action with our biscuit tin, torches and wooden laminate floor sections. We build a simple rectangle to contain the mouse or shrew-the most common invaders-and try to negotiate a surrender by getting it to run into the tin which then gets flipped upright and the lid attached in a single swift motion. It's then across the road and a civilised release back into the wild. 

Unfortunately most of these small visitors appear not to speak a great deal of English and the gentle intonation of, "We're only trying to help, we're not going to hurt you," falls on unappreciative ears.

This evening's captive was a plucky little fellow, who evaded us several times, even scaling the wooden barricade at one point in a vain attempt to escape. But we are too seasoned at this procedure to be outwitted by a simple mouse (no disrespect to Reepicheep). After several attempts to corral the little chap and one worrying injury moment for Renee's distant cousin, we finally got him into the tin and out into the wild.

As I released him into the undergrowth on the far side of the road from the house, I had the distinct impression that he looked back at me with gratitude in his eyes. Either that or he was just checking so that he could tell the tale to his friends of the odd looking cat that walked upright and his strange journey in a dark box the likes of which he hopes he never sees again.

Willow's Reveal

I've just got around to listening to the Willow Creek Association's "Defining Moments" CD about Reveal. Very interesting.

As I said before, I don't think the survey necessarily tells us anything we don't know. But what it does do is put data on the skeleton of what we've suspected in church for years, namely that time served in church is no measure of spiritual maturity.

If you're at all interested, then visit the website and check out the key findings.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Using the "BCC" field for mass email

If you don't like being one among a long list of email addresses, then you might find this website useful. It sets out the simple principle behind using the "BCC" field rather than the "To" field if you're sending out a mass mail message.

The idea is that you simply direct your mass email friends to the site, politely pointing out that there's a better way to mass communicate something.

Sunday, May 18, 2008


As I prepared the talk for church this morning, I dipped quickly into Philip Yancey's book What's so Amazing about Grace. It's a book I last read when I was on my previous sabbatical seven years ago, but I've never forgotten the sense of the book and the impact it made on me.

Today's topic was "Failure and Restoration" The outline notes I used to preach from are on the church blog.

The central story was the golden calf incident in Exodus 32. As I prepared I knew that what I wanted to talk about was grace. It's so easy to focus on the failure, but a few weeks ago something quite profound struck me. I was thinking about Aaron and his role as High Priest as we wandered around our full-size layout of the Tabernacle and its courtyard. What struck me was that it was Aaron who made the golden calf and yet, because God is a God of grace, it's Aaron who becomes the first High Priest. What amazing grace. The most significant role in the covenant life of the people goes to someone who got it so terribly wrong.

We are not often as gracious with others as God is with us. In his book Yancey talks about ungrace, the refusal to forgive. He describes a family generation after generation deeply wounded by ungrace.  This how I described ungrace this morning:

Ungrace turns forgiveness into something that works for the one who needs to forgive rather than for the one who needs forgiveness. We trade it like a commodity. You give me humility, you take all the blame, you own up to what you’ve done to hurt me, and I might, if I think you’re sincere, if I think you really mean it, I might just forgive you, but there will be conditions. 
I will store up this memory and use it at my convenience to remind you of your failure.

When I make a mistake, I will use your failure to demand forgiveness for mine. I will remind you that your sin was worse than mine ever could be and that mine would not have happened if you hadn’t failed in the first place. I will shift the blame.

We take the story of the prodigal son and focus on the remorse of the son who comes crawling home, forgetting so easily the joy of the father figure. We assume forgiveness is granted because the son prepares his speech. However, his forgiveness comes unconditionally as the father greets him and welcomes him. He does not wait for the son to ask, he simply forgives him.

Grace. like love, keeps no record of wrongs.

Saturday, May 17, 2008

'tis the season for sabbaticals

Is it my imagination or is 2008 turning out to be the year of the sabbatical? Maybe it's just my circle of ministry friends, but it does feel like this year we're all on sabbatical at some time.

Tomorrow will be my penultimate Sunday before my sabbatical kicks in on June 1st. My last sabbatical was just before we came to Cotton End. I'd had 10 years in ministry at that time and I really needed the break that a sabbatical afforded. This time, while the rest will be welcome, I get the feeling that I ought to enjoy the opportunity to reflect rather than just let the time drift by.

My plans are suitably vague. If the weather is okay, I hope to make some furniture. I need the good weather because I will have to work outside. I hope to do some work on my role as chair of governors in a local school. It will be good to have the time to sit down and work out some boundaries of the role and some of the responsibilities etc. School governance is getting more complicated and demanding, and I wonder how much longer it will be possible for ordinary folk to fulfil such a role while they continue to do their day job. Perhaps there's a challenge there too for church leadership. What kind of demands does the 21st century church put on its leaders?

Maybe there's a little sabbatical project there too, who knows! 

Probably the thing I need to make sure I do is to take the time to reflect deeply on where I am in ministry (not geographically speaking) and where God wants me to go. The sheer pressure of the daily demands makes doing this kind of considered reflection really difficult, so  a sabbatical should afford the time to do this without either the pressures or the strains of day-to-day ministry.

It will be interesting to see what shape my blog takes during these next three months.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

For such a time as this

There are days when I wonder why I do some of the things I do and then there are days when I realise that God has placed me in certain situations because I do what I do. As I've got older, I've become more comfortable accepting that God is at work in my life and through my life. Sometimes I'm aware of God at work, other times I'm not. There's no pattern to being aware and there's no pattern, as far as I can see, to being unaware.

And so it is that I find myself facing challenges because God has placed me somewhere to use my gifts and skills in a way I wouldn't have imagined a number of years ago. Yes, someone else could do it, and someone else would do it differently, but God has placed me there to use me.

As Christians we should never assume that the highest calling is to serve in the church in some ministry, preferably full-time. I'm privileged  to do just that, but it's not all I do. I serve as a school governor and as a member of a governance body for another organisation. I have other connections with community groups.

In all these areas I can serve God. In all these areas, God can use me. 

If you have the opportunity to serve God right now through something that isn't church, don't despise it, do it for his glory.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

A long and busy day

So, we went to the Christian Resources Exhibition which entails walking up and down a seemingly endless array of stalls collecting information you want, information you don't want and information you didn't know you wanted until someone thrusts into your hand! I didn't find anyone who was talking about missional church or conversational evangelism but I did have one or two helpful chats with a few folk, especially about data projectors with long throw lenses. I'm sure you find that fascinating!

Having been quite regularly over the last few years, it's quite interesting to see how things appear to have changed. At one time there were a lot of photocopier suppliers demonstrating their wares. Now it seems as though there are more banks, ethical investment and insurance companies, and fund raising advisors. Some of the big exhibitors have cut down their presence and I didn't actually come across one theological college. It was noticeable too that there were fewer technical stands dealing with PA and AV equipment, lighting and stage stuff.

Perhaps it was just the way I approached it all this year that I missed some organisations that I expected to see, but then again maybe things have changed and this kind of event no longer serves their needs. I think for some sadly, the event has become too expensive to justify being there. Still there was a lot to get around and, armed with my trusty Ikea bag I set off in pursuit
of information and inspiration. This year for the first time, I took advantage of the seminar programme and attended a seminar on All-Age Worship. 

Suitably tired I returned to the Bible Society stand to buy some books that had caught my eye and then wandered back to our agreed meeting-point to drive home. The M25 was gloriously slow as usual and we turned off early to avoid the trauma that is the M1 at 5:00 in the afternoon.

Now all that's left is to go through everything I've accumulated and decide what is worth keeping and what needs to be recycled, but that can wait until tomorrow when my aching shoulders have had a rest. In the meantime there's a website for an organisation, the founder of which I know, and who planted an idea in my head for something I might do during my sabbatical. Very interesting!

Sandown here I come!

Up early today, which is fairly typical in our household. Anne usually goes off to catch the train to London that leaves Bedford at around 7:00am, so I'm awake if not up and about at 6:00am most days. Today it's a little earlier because she's on a course.

Anyway, it's given me time to think about the things I want to find out about at the exhibition today. On my list are:

  • Data projectors with long-throw lenses
  • Solutions to our interference problem between the PA system and data cables
  • Bible study software for the Mac
  • Companies who can provide creative and thoughtful solutions to our low balcony
  • Information about Conversational Evangelism
  • Any up-to-date information about DMin courses and Continuing Professional Development for ministers (it's time I stretched my brain again!)

Then there's catching up with a few old friends who might be about. Some run companies and others ministries. 

And finally...

There's a seminar I might go too, a couple of bookstalls to browse and undoubtedly a few new things I haven't thought of that will catch my eye.

All-in-all quite a busy day in prospect and I get to play with the traffic on the M1 and the M25. What joy!!

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Off to CRE tomorrow

Every year there is a major exhibition of Christian resources in Esher, Surrey. It's a great way to find out what's new and what's useful for church and ministry. So off I will go tomorrow and collect a bagful of information about all sorts of things. I'll take some of my questions too and see if any else is asking about Conversational Evangelism and Missional Church.

How do you define missional?

In 1989, as part of my theological studies, I wrote an essay about the church and mission. It had a title that was way too long, but the essence of which was a heart to see the church re-involved in mission. Little did I know at the time that what I was trying to do was to put the church back into a missional context rather than the maintenance context into which it appeared to have fallen. 

20 years later, missional has become a term we throw around, often to describe the contemporary or emergent church. But missional is not just about style, in fact it's not about style at all. Missional is a way of describing the fundamental context in which the church lives and ministers. As one website puts it:

A missional church is one where people are exploring and rediscovering what it means to be Jesus' sent people as their identity and vocation.

But it's quite a shift to begin to see the church as existing primarily for those who don't attend and don't believe. Being missional however is not just about being evangelistic. I'd even go so far as to suggest that it's possible to be an evangelistic church without being a missional church, simply because evangelism is all to often a programme we do rather than a  life we live.

With all the talk about declining church attendance, isn't it high time we rediscovered our missional call.

Monday, May 12, 2008

A quick thought

When did evangelism and outreach become synonyms?

My recent flurry of posts about conversational evangelism got me thinking. I tag them as evangelism and outreach, and a thought crossed my mind as to whether using two tags was a redundant exercise. Why not just choose one and stick with it?

And then I thought: Is evangelism the only way we understand outreach? Perhaps that's the problem. If they are synonyms then they are the same thing. But if they are not, then evangelism in one aspect of outreach and that means there is more to outreach that we may imagine.

Perhaps we have defined evangelism too narrowly, reduced it only to "sharing the gospel". Outreach might help us broaden our concept once more. It allows us to integrate sharing our faith with serving our community and building relationships. The importance of sharing truth is not lost, it just becomes a significant part of something much bigger and, dare I say, something in which we can be involved more fully and more widely involved across our community of faith of diverse gifts and personalities.

Defining Conversational evangelism

Here's the definition of Conversational Evangelism from the CEC website.

Todd Hunter, President of Alpha USA, explains what Conversational Evangelism is and why it’s important.

Preaching in large venues worked well in the 20th century. The modern world respected, demanded and loved its experts. If something went wrong with our car we expected to find an expert mechanic. If we suddenly developed a health issue, we demanded expert medical care. It was a totally normal part of life. Add to that the realities of Christendom wherein pastors, teachers and evangelists were those experts in religion, it created an atmosphere wherein seekers could feel comfortable looking up to the religious expert on the big stage. That kind of environment fit the way they sought expertise in every other facet of life.

Today it is different. Most seekers don’t want to be talked down to from a stage in one way communication. They need to talk, they need to tell their story, they need a place to unload all their fears and pre-judgments about religion, etc. This requires a conversation. It requires that we come down from stages and sit with seekers around a dinner table, letting them set the pace and direction of the conversation.

Some people fear that letting “non-Christians” talk will lead to compromise. They say “why would you let a non-Christian go on about false doctrines or wrong beliefs”. It’s not like God is surprised to hear what they are thinking! We create an environment in which they can get it out and then hear feedback from their seeking peers and the guides of the group. We are always amazed by the way the Holy Spirit works in these settings. Some seeker will say something crazy or blasphemous and another seeker will, tone him down or set forth an alternative view, etc. Over a period of ten weeks the Spirit is able to find pure gold out of the dirt and rocks sifted in the group through honest conversation.

Who is Pastor Joe?

I don't know Pastor Joe, but in my search for all things conversational connected to evangelism, I cam across this insightful post called My Suburbia: Evangelism. In it, Pastor Joe makes a number of observations about evangelism:
1. Door to door evangelism is seen as an unwanted invasion.
2. Initiating conversation at Starbucks is welcome.
3. The evangescript is perceived as invasive and fake.
4. Showing how real-life concerns connect to the gospel is well-received.
5. The churched are often as clueless about the gospel as the unchurched.
And he ends with this comment:
I am convinced that in my suburbia unscripted, conversational evangelism is generally a better way to share Christ with strangers than reading from a tract, or reciting a script. My culture requires more natural conversation skills that are developed through practice. It demands a strong theological framework from which we can make connections between real-life concerns of the people we meet to the gospel they need.

Conversational Conference

In case you were wondering what I was talking about when I mentioned the CE Conference, you can read about it here. Some f the names are very familiar to me, guys like Garry Poole, Mark Mittleberg, Jon Ortberg (there's a strong Willow connection there!), and I've come across several of the other speakers through emergent church blogs et al.

When I read through the topics section of the conference, I was almost tempted to book a place and fly out for it. I even checked out flight times and prices. And if my sabbatical had been starting in May rather than June, I might just have gone. Take the following two examples of topics Tod Hunter is covering:

The Cultural Context for Conversation 

The modern world loved and valued its experts; you could even say we have come to demand them. In the Christendom world, the church sat at the center of society as the trusted expert on God, morality, society, etc. Both modernity and Christendom are giving way to postmodern and post-Christian realities. These shifts call for new ways of doing evangelism—more conversational, less one-way communication. It is not so much that “truth” is up for grabs these days…but “how people come to truth” is changing. Even when important things are shaking, the Kingdom of God is never at risk. God faithfully called and equipped his people in the pre-modern and modern world. We can be sure he will do the same in the postmodern world. In this session we will learn to stand in that flow—to contextualize without compromise.

Introducing Three is Enough

Todd is forming Three is Enough Groups as an antidote to the massive image problem currently ascribed to Christians and Christianity. This unfortunate viewpoint stymies most attempts at evangelism. TiE Groups have a double meaning: they are three friends or colleagues doing three simple and humble activities together (reading, praying and serving others). Functioning in members’ most natural places of community – the workplace, school, or at the local coffee shop. TiE Groups will go on the Journey Inward of spiritual transformation and the Journey Outward of serving others. Spiritual transformation into Christlikeness has always been the true goal of Christian faith—now it is utterly strategic. TiE rescues evangelism out of the program category and relocates it back in the natural context of spiritual formation.

This all resonates with me. Hopefully I'll find out more as I read and research this stuff.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Conversational Evangelism

Has anyone come across this term? It entered my vocabulary recently when I got an email with information about a Conversational Evangelism conference. I've done a little digging and found a website that talks about it and a few blogs that have some tenuous connections, but little else so far.

It seems to be a term used to describe having non-programmed conversations with unchurched people in which they discover or uncover truth for themselves. It sounds quite a lot like the sort of things Garry Poole talks about in his book about Seeker Small Groups but on a one-to-one basis rather than in a group setting.

If anyone is going to the conference, I'd love some feedback about it.

Do we get it?

Today we took a look at the church in Acts 2, given it's Pentecost. I wanted to recast the vision and remind us all of our core purpose. In the midst of doing this I turned to a quote I've used before from Bill Hybels. As I recall it comes from Courageous Leadership:
“I believe that the local church is the hope of the world. I believe to the core of my being that local churches have the potential to be the most influential force on planet earth. If they get it and get on with it, churches can become the redemptive centres that Jesus intended them to be. Dynamic teaching, creative worship, deep community, effective evangelism, and joyful service will combine to …strengthen families, transform communities and change the world”

Now I've talked about the local church as the hope of the world before and I'm probably not the first nor will I be the last person to use that line. But today we did something a little different.
Having talked about the model of church I see in Acts 2 and setting out our vision, mission and purpose, I introduced the quote. And then I asked a question.

"What kind of local church is the hope of the world?"

We did a little interactive thing with a flipchart and wrote down our answers. Using different words, we basically described the early Acts community. If you do that you realise something rather significant.

We get it.

We actually understand what a local church needs to be and do in order to be the hope of the world. And if we get, we need to get on with it! I don't think we need more teaching, I think we need more opportunities to get on with it.

God added, on a daily basis, to the church because they got it and got on with it. Is it really that simple? If we get it, and we do, then if we get on with it, might not God respond to that and do what does best as we seek to do what he's called us to do.

I know that God is no slot machine. I can't pull some theological lever and get him to deliver the jackpot. But I do believe God honours what we seek to do that brings him glory.

So, since we get it, why don't we just get on with it! What have we got to lose?

Saturday, May 10, 2008

The Challenge we Face

Churchgoing on its knees as Christianity falls out of favour
This was the headline for an article in The Times, Thursday 8th May. The article goes on to say:
Church attendance in Britain is declining so fast that the number of regular churchgoers will be fewer than those attending mosques within a generation, research published today suggests.
Perhaps, having just started a focused time of prayer for the mission of the church, it's a timely reminder that whilst governments and banks worry about credit crunches, oil prices and global terrorism, the need for a saviour slips by unnoticed. Sadly I fear that too many Christians are also so caught up in worrying about the price if a litre of petrol or their mortgage rate that we too lose sight of the greatest challenge we face.

You can read the whole article here.

Friday, May 09, 2008

Month of prayer (2)

Back in February we had a month of prayer at church and I posted the weekly section of the guide on the church blog. Well, I've been thinking of doing another focused time of prayer, but this time focussing specifically on outreach.

If the last one was helpful to you in any way, then you might want to follow this one too. Again you will need to adapt it to your situation, or you may just want to join us in praying for our mission here at Cotton End.

The first week will appear on the church blog soon, and the others will follow.

A thinking break

I'm currently trying to get my head around all the things I want to say on Sunday. It's Pentecost and that always seems to me like a good time to talk about vision and purpose and the amazing power of God to transform people and communities.

As I prepare, I know that what I must do is make the vision as clear as I can, as compelling as I can, and as Christ-centred as I can. I guess that all too often, when we get up to preach, we've spent so much time preparing what we want to say that we forget what it is that we want everyone to take away. I'm often guilty of that, and the end result is that probably very few people take away anything that really sustains them or challenges them over the long haul. On the other hand maybe I'm doing myself a disservice and God too for that matter! Anyway, there is always room for improvement and things to learn.

So, as I look at my confusion of notes and thoughts, I keep asking myself what is it that we should be doing or reflecting upon as a result of this Sunday's topic.  Perhaps I need a list of questions to ask before, as, and after I've done my preparation (assuming the preparation is done in good time, and therein lies another sad truth for many a preacher!). Here are some possible questions that come to mind:
  • What should we be doing as a result of this message?
  • What should we be doing differently as a result of this message?
  • What should we be praying faithfully about as a result of this message?
  • What question do we need to consider as a result of this message?

I'd just like to qualify this by saying that the main imperative is to let God speak, so these questions have to be seen to sit in that context. Thinking about it, it would be interesting to know what questions others ask when they are preparing talks and sermons.

Thursday, May 08, 2008

A Holy Place!

I've done talks and presentation in some interesting place, but this is first time I've done one from the Holiest part of the Tabernacle!

Thanks to Michael and TJ for the photograph.

What's wrong with evangelicals?

I'm an evangelical. I'm committed to an evangelical understanding of the Bible. I'm committed to an evangelical expression of faith. I'm committed to an evangelical approach to evangelism.

And I'm worried about evangelicals.

I'm worried because I can't help thinking that the historical commitment of evangelicals to biblical teaching and authority is turning us into a movement so quick to criticise each other that we are in danger of pushing the self-destruct button. The problem is that we don't seem to be able to engage in constructive dialogue mixed with genuine encouragement of each other to pursue God's highest calling for our churches and the world we are so desperate to reach.

What has caused this concern to surface in me? Recently I stumbled upon a website that appeared almost to revel in what the author saw as an admission by Bill Hybels that Willow Creek has failed in the process of disciple-making. Their recent major survey of the effectiveness of their ministries was one of the bravest investments I think I've ever seen a church make. That they were willing to share the results on a wider scale was also incredibly brave. And what is more, I don't think their survey discovered anything many of us in ministry were not either aware of or afraid of.

The simple truth is that programmes only help when someone commits to the programme. I know, I go to the gym, I have a plan, I have a personal trainer. But if I only trained when the trainer was there I wouldn't get very far. I need to develop consistent habits for myself.

Anyway, that's not the point of this post. My point is this: I don't necessarily agree with everything I see in the evangelical church. I don't always agree with everything I hear other evangelical leaders say. But if we are all trying to serve God and reach or communities I want to encourage that.

And as for Willow, well I hope they continue to do what they do best. I hope they continue to ask tough question because I actually think they are one of the few expressions of church who will actually take seriously what they discover about their effectiveness and seek to do something about it.

Spiritual Growth

Whilst looking for resources connected with spiritual growth, I came across this helpful looking outline for daily reflection. You can find the original here.

1. Silence...a time of releasing the spirit.

A state of alertness standing in God's presence. This inner stillness and a state of attentive listening and total surrender to God's word in the depth of one's being. This leads to spiritual poverty and self-emptying. (Matthew 5:3, Luke 6:20, Romans 8:3-11).

During a period of silence, we turn from words to seek some place where God shall speak in a voiceless but varied language. At its best silence becomes solitude and we realize that God is wrapping us with His presence.

The sanctuary of silence is the rallying place of the spirit, the rendezvous of the soul with God.

2. Bible Study (lectio) -- what does the Bible say to me?

"Give the sacred text a special place in your room and it will begin to exert a meaningful influence - calling one regularly to prayer and reading."

Read the Bible as if you are reading a letter from a friend.

Linger over the words. "We linger over the words, savor them, and allow them to soak into the very center of our being, because we know that in this letter we are being addressed by someone who loves us." (John Mogabgab)

Read the Bible with your mind and body. Get inside a scripture, walk in it, be one of the characters. Listen between the lines of scripture for God to speak. Jesus often walks with us, like the road to Emmaus and we may not recognize Him. Getting to know God leads us to know and accept ourselves, weaknesses and all; then we can relate to others.

3. Meditation - examination of my own life in light of the scripture you have been reading.

Reflect on its meaning for the sake of illumination of one's own life.

4. Prayer - A time of pouring out my soul to God.

"I look at Him. He looks at me and we are happy."When we pray we should be as beggars approaching Christ. An experiment in prayer:

  • Companion Prayer - Take the analogy of a friend whom you are showing your world for the first time. Make God a part of your life. Show Him your world.
  • Soaking Prayer - We do not ask for anything special. We just rest, let go, breathe in, and soak up the healing light of God which embraces us. We rest in it, breathe it, and allow it to work its transforming renewal in us.
  • Prayer of the Heart - Pray for Jesus to come into your heart. Pray: "The living Lord is within my heart and bringing new life to me, He is re-energizing my soul, restoring my sense of purpose, and leading me to be in His presence."....Open your hands upward when it feels right. Sense the power or God's spirit within.

5. Contemplation -- making my life like putty in God's hands.

"Not my will, Lord; but thine be done."

6. Obedience - obeying God's will in my life.

(Hearing a rhythm in life that is not ordinarily heard. God needs men and women whose hearts are in tune with His.)

Wednesday, May 07, 2008

Prayers for growth

Reflecting this morning on the business of praying for growth, about how to pray and indeed what to pray, the thought came to me that this is far less about praying people "in" to church than it is about praying the church "out" into the communities of home, work and leisure.

I reread Bill Hybels book Too busy not to pray recently, and it reminded me that much of our praying focuses on the things God is already doing. For example, we pray that God will be with us in our worship services, but he's already said he would do that. Far better to pray that we would be aware of his presence.

So ,when it comes to growth, perhaps the prayer should focus on our getting involved in what God is already doing. If we took the simple line of thinking about what we already know about what God is doing, what would come up on that list? Thinking out loud, and off the cuff, my first thought is Paul's comments about God intentional self-revelation in Romans. How does that change the way I pray?

Beyond that I' sure that God is at work in hearts and lives around me, I'm just too often taken up with my own agenda that I'm insensitive to his movement and work unless it jumps up and hits me smack between the eyes.

"Open my eyes Lord, I want to see Jesus..."

Monday, May 05, 2008

Another day another 'phone

While I wait to reach the point of being able to reconcile buying an iPhone with the hefty cost of the contract you have to use it, and the fact that I really can't actually justify it, I found myself out shopping for a new mobile 'phone for church use. While I'm away on Sabbatical we are going to have a mobile as a contact point.

The best offer I found was for a Samsung E250. It wasn't the cheapest, but it was good value and Ally, my daughter is happy with her Samsung. Being a Mac user, my first thought was, "will it sync?"

It seems as though whilst iSync is a good idea, it's hard to keep up with new 'phone models, so it's almost inevitable that you get the "can't sync" message. The good news is that there's a fix.

I found my fix through a forum, and it didn't cost me anything, which is rather nice! The link is to a translated version of the page, but the instructions are pretty easy to follow.

Of course iSync would be really good if you could synchronise specific contacts using the notes in address book. But you can't have everything... well not just yet.

Building the Tabernacle

So, in order to try and help everyone at church get a sense of the scale of the Tabernacle, I built a very simple model and also set out the courtyard and Tabernacle very simply in our field. We are very fortunate to have such a large site, and it worked far better than I expected. We all trooped outside part-way through the morning celebration to walk through the full-sized layout.

I also used my video camera connected to the data projector to show the congregation my model.

Here are a few pictures:

The model was made to a scale of 1cm=1m

Outside, we used a simple bamboo cane and line construction to show the dimensions of the various parts of the courtyard and the Tabernacle.

In Sunday School (Stepping Stones), they'd made an ark, and they carried it out and put in its place while I described something of what would have happened and the significance of it all for us.

I had some very positive feedback. I don't think any of us will read the Exodus description of the Tabernacle construction in quite the same way ever again!

Thursday, May 01, 2008

Is it really that important?

It's All-Age on Sunday and we're looking at the Tabernacle as the place to meet with God in the wilderness. If you know your Ancient Near Eastern history, you'll know something of the significance of tents as meeting places. It's not odd then that God should choose a tent as a place to meet with the people during their journey. After all I don't suppose there was always going to be a convenient mountain available.

Anyway, I was looking for a helpful drawing or plan so that I could explain to folk on Sunday how big it was and what it might have looked like when I came across photographs of two full sized replicas. How amazing. I don't know why I'm amazed that someone should choose to do this, I've often thought it would be a fascinating thing to do or see.

Amidst all the helpful and interesting things, I also came across the more dubious end of the spectrum of speculation about the Tabernacle. My favourite was the wonderful maths of taking the perimeter and height of the outer court to get the number of years between Moses and Jesus, the dimensions of the holy place to get the era of the church (it's all going to end in 2034 apparently), and some other dimensions somewhere for the 1,000 year reign of good old dispensational eschatology.

I can't help thinking that this rather misses the point of God choosing to live in a tent alongside the people he loved and called. It seems to me that the Tabernacle, and the tent of meeting before it and the Temple after it, are all cries from God's heart to find a way to draw near to people. A way by which unholy people can be in close proximity to a holy God. It's what he's always wanted to do, right from the garden with Adam and Eve, to the incarnation in Jesus. God comes close. He wants to live amongst us and has paid a great price so to do. 

Less prophetic mathematics, more presence please Lord.