Friday, September 30, 2011


A couple of weeks ago Mike Breen posted the first part of a series of posts about discipleship. It caused a bit of a stir, mostly because it forecasts the failure of the missional church movement and people seemed to have latched onto that. Read the article carefully and you will clearly see that the point is that any model of church without discipleship will fail, not just those who call themselves missional.

Through the series the process of discipleship and its importance is discussed. We cannot ignore the validity of Mike Breen's point. His analysis is surely correct when he states that:

The reason the missional movement may fail is because most people/communities in the Western church are pretty bad at making disciples.

It's not the type of movement, its the basic structure of most Western models. Have we not learnt this lesson form all the studies and reports and analyses we've had over the past 20 or more years? We simply are not making disciples. People are not becoming whole-hearted, fully devoted, followers of Jesus Christ. We are making users more than we are making disciples.

If one was being cynical, you might say users are easy to spot. They are the ones who ask if tithing is really important and did God really mean 10% and is that before or after tax. Users are usually familiar with Bible stories but can't paint a big picture of the biblical narrative. They are, to put it plainly, biblically illiterate. Users are often more interested in what they get out of church than what they put into church. More interested in how their needs can be met than it how God's mission can be implemented. For users discipleship is an inconvenience that disturbs their essentially selfish pattern of life. It is too demanding, too time consuming, too life altering and too costly to comtemplate. "Just give me forgiveness and assurance and let me get on with my life", might be their motto.

That might seem harsh (re-reading it and it does seem quite harsh), but maybe it's time we took a long hard look at the reality. It's time to ask ourselves some tough questions. When was the last time you took stock of your Christian life? When did you last try to answer question like:

  • How is Christ being formed in my life right now?
  • What am I learning about God through my daily interaction with him and his word?
  • How am I partnering with God in his mission to the world he loves?
  • What things are holding me back from full commitment?

None of us really like being asked these kinds of questions, but how are we supposed to grow as disciples if we won't ask the basic questions we need to ask? Have we really reached a point where we actually think that tomorrow we will wake up more committed than today without doing a thing to grow?

It won't happen.

I rant, or appear to rant, simply because I know myself. I know how much I resist asking the tough questions and avoiding the honest answers. Yet if I truly want to grow, if I want to develop the spiritual capacity to walk with Jesus, sensitive to his prompting and obedient to his mission, then I simply cannot afford ignore my discipleship.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Articles to read

I have a confession to make. I believe I'm far from alone in this confession. My confession is this: much of my life is shaped by irrational beliefs that make no sense. So, just because I make a mistake or someone criticises me, I drift towards believing I'm a terrible person destined to fail forever.

If you never feel this way, then bless you. But I do, and I'm not alone from the evidence of conversations I have.

There's an interesting and helpful article, particularly for church leaders that discusses three irrational beliefs that I certainly recognise in me and maybe you will recognise in yourself. Read it here.

A second article is more of a short review of Michael Quicke's book Worshipless Preaching. The book looks interesting. The review article is a bit short, only really introducing the idea and illustrating it. But it's enough the make you stop and think for a while about the place of the sermon in worship and the place of worship in the sermon.

I've long since wondered what we are trying to do when we preach. My formative Christian life was in a church where the preaching was very much the teaching focus of the church. That extended into the para-church organisation with which I was connected. Over the years I've come to realise that the church teaches a lot and sometimes does something with it. Much preaching seems to feed the mind but fails to inspire change.

I have my theory about that and the reasons why it is so, but I won't go into that now!

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

Friday, September 23, 2011

Taking your church Missional

Taking your Church Missional is a downloadable paper from It makes interesting reading. The focus of the paper is the cost to the church leader. Here are some of the more challenging quotes to whet your appetite:

In his book, The Present Future, Reggie McNeal warns, “It takes enormous courage to give spiritual leadership in the North American church culture, because the church is increasingly hostile to anything that disturbs its comfort and challenges its club member paradigm.
“The biggest thing to realize is not to model yourself on the traditions of the past, but on Christ—what he did, how he would love people and talk to people. And that gives validity to the model,” says Lee Clamp.
“For years we have trained our congregational members to come to the pastor when the system becomes off- balance—a personal problem, a complaint, a boiler issue, a janitorial issue. Becoming missional means spinning off small satellite clusters of folks who offer their assets to the larger group. It is a cost because people have grown accustomed to running to the pastor. Redefining the call of the pastor finds new ways of working together, with Christ—not the pastor— being the centrifuge that keeps the system turning.”
“Leaders are shifting away from being the doers and concentrating on leadership development. God puts the passion in people—we’re not going to do it for them. Well-meaning churches have had the hired gun mentality, but now we are equipping people for works of service. It’s a transition from catching people to releasing them, and getting people to see their own personal mission.”
“Going missional sounds risky, doesn’t it?” Reggie McNeal. “That’s because it is. You will bet your life and ministry on it. But you may also discover that committing your life to the missional journey will help you find it.”

So there you go. I'm not commenting on the validity of these comments, but I know from personal experience how difficult it can be to get your head around some of the issues that face you as a leader as you seek to shift your ministry towards a missional focus.

You can find the paper in the resources section of the website. It's free and there are plenty of other papers worth a browse too.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Jeff Vanderstelt on being missional

I'm often asked questions around why I am so passionate about the need for the church to change, for the church to grasp the fundamental idea of what it means to be missional, to be in partnership with God in his mission in a whole-life way. Trying to help people grasp that mission is not something we do but something we are is quite a shift for many in the established church.

One way to help is to keep trying to expose ourselves to new ways of thinking about church and understanding this language. Somebody who I find really helpful in doing this is Jeff Vanderstelt of Soma Communities.

Here's a short video interview with him where he talks about being missional, what it means, how it applies and what the journey for an established might look like. Listen out for his definition of missional life in terms of family, missionary and servant and for his observation on the problem of the traditional church model. You might not like what he says, but personally I think he's absolutely correct in his analysis.

Jeff Vanderstelt // The Meaning of Missional from Newfrontiers USA on Vimeo.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Psalm 113

 1 Praise the LORD.
   Praise the LORD, you his servants;
   praise the name of the LORD.
2 Let the name of the LORD be praised,
   both now and forevermore.
3 From the rising of the sun to the place where it sets,
   the name of the LORD is to be praised.
 4 The LORD is exalted over all the nations,
   his glory above the heavens.
5 Who is like the LORD our God,
   the One who sits enthroned on high,
6 who stoops down to look
   on the heavens and the earth?
 7 He raises the poor from the dust
   and lifts the needy from the ash heap;
8 he seats them with princes,
   with the princes of his people.
9 He settles the childless woman in her home
   as a happy mother of children.
   Praise the LORD.

"Praise" occurs five times in the first three verses. Do you think the psalmist is trying to draw out attention to something important?

As I read this I almost said out loud, "I think we get the point!" I wasn't angry, I was just smiling and thinking to myself how easily we forget to praise God. I wondered when the last time was that I started my day with praise rather than lament or petition. When was the last time I responded to something with praise and worship as my first instinct. Maybe we need to train ourselves to do this, to make a disciplined choice to start with adoration as the old ACTS acrostic reminds us so to do.

Did you start your day with praise? Are you willing to stop now and put that right?

Non-Religious Funerals

Imagine getting a call from a Funeral Director asking you if you'd be prepared to take a non-religious funeral. What's your very first thought? Is it, "What do they mean by non-religious," or is it, "How could I dishonour God by taking part in something that doesn't acknowledge him."

Our response is crucial, and our first response might actually say more about us than we imagine. 

Okay, you might not think in terms of dishonouring God, but I'd hazard a guess that there would be all sorts of questions that might have more to do with missing an opportunity to preach the gospel or something similar. I have them too. But I'm also drawn to wonder what role I might play by getting alongside a family and simply serving them as best I can in a way that meets their needs at that time rather than fulfilling some theological criteria.

And it's not just a theoretical question. While I haven't yet been asked to do a non-religious funeral, I have been asked if I'd be prepared to do one. And that in itself makes me wonder what I might do and how I might do it. It seems to me that while the family might not want anything religious that doesn't mean I can't prepare prayerfully, serve prayerfully and support them in prayer, even if they don't know it! I don't stop being a disciple of Jesus Christ just because I'm in a non-religious setting, doing non-religious things.

In the end, non-religious might simply mean not having someone in a cassock with a dog-collar on. I've done plenty of funerals where the family have said to me, "He wasn't very religious you know. He didn't go to church, but he did say his prayers every night."

It's not for me to judge, I'm there to serve. All people matter to God. It's a phrase I learnt from Willow Creek and it's a phrase that shapes much of what I do and think. All people matter to God, and therefore all people should matter to me. 

Perhaps a final word from Paul might focus my thoughts:

Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters,

Friday, September 16, 2011

Thoughts on Psalm 112

I most definitely do not subscribe to the point of view that suggests that God wants all his people to be rich, but Psalm 112, at first glance might be saying that this should be true. After all those who fear God and "find great delight in his commands" are blessed and "wealth and riches are in their houses".

While most of us probably wouldn't balk at the idea of facing the dangers and pitfalls of wealth, of which there are surely many, most of us will not get the chance to find out if it's difficult or not to remain generous and gracious, full of compassion and lending freely, conducting our affairs with justice.

The issue of personal wealth is not actually the heart of the message of Psalm 112. The Psalm goes on to talk about facing darkness, enemies and bad news. Perhaps the downside of wealth is that no matter how wealthy you are, you can't avoid bad news.

Whilst their houses might be full of riches, it is their righteousness that endures for ever. It is as the righteous that they will be remembered, not as the wealthy. What they do for the poor far outweighs what they might have done for themselves. I guess that's because our ability to be generous is predicated upon our experience of the generosity of God. If we have not experienced God's grace, if we fail to live in the shadow of that grace, then we are highly unlikely to extend that grace to others, especially if it is going to be personally costly to us.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Same seed, different soil

A long time ago, in a church far far away.... Well not that far and certainly not that long ago that it sounds like a Stars Wars epic, I preached about the sower. It is such a familiar story that we don't often dwell with it to see beyond all the normal things we've been taught to see. Of course that's true of most of our familiar and favourite passages in the Bible.

One day, so Jesus said, a sower went out to sow seed. The seed went everywhere, indiscriminately falling  in all sorts of places. Good, fertile, well prepared soil; along the path, trampled down and hard by the passing of many a pair of feet. Some found it's way into gaps between hard ground and rocks where there was some soil, weed free but shallow and some of the seed bounced around in the thorn bushes until it hit the ground beneath them.

Every place you could imagine became home to a seed, the same seed.

But not all soil produces the same crop from the same seed.

Some of it rejects the seed because it's hard and the birds get to eat it, picking it easily from the surface. Some soil is too shallow to sustain lasting growth because it doesn't have the nutrients or it can't retain the water needed under the prevailing weather conditions. Some soil is too busy feeding weeds to provide space for the growth of the new seed, a more vulnerable seed than the apparently defiant, resistant and more resilient thorns and briars.

Some soil is good. It receives the new seed, nurtures it, sustains it and as result it flourishes, producing fruit that can go way beyond the imagination of the sower.

It's a great story, but what about the sower, the character almost at the heart of the story. Was he a success or a failure? An accountant might say he's a failure because he's careless about how he sows. He might get lucky with the crop he gets, but how much more could he have harvested if he'd been just a little more careful about the sowing process.

But what if the sower's only job was to sow? All he, or she, had to do was to give every type of soil the opportunity to work with the seed that was being sown. Whether the soil responded or not was someone else's responsibility. Are they a success now? You decide.

Just remember, if Jesus has called you to sow the seed of the kingdom of God, then don't ever forget to sow.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

A question of discipleship

Mark Greene in his monograph The Great Divide says something along the lines of: the greatest challenge facing the church today is the need to develop whole-life disciples. Apologies to Mark if I'm misquoting, but I think I have the gist of it and as I recall you'll find the exact sentence of page 20 unless mt memory is playing yet more tricks on me.

Anyway, the point is this, we need to be making disciples, followers of Jesus Christ, who are living out that discipleship in their everyday lives not just their Sunday and housegroup lives.

Discipleship has always been at the heart of the things that move me most. I'm constantly asking myself about what discipleship really looks like, if it's actually defined by all those evangelical niceties I was taught when I first came to faith, or are they a smoke screen that too often allows me to treat my life with God superficially? A topic for more thought I feel.

Well, I was catching up with stuff from around the blogosphere this afternoon and a post from David Fitch popped up about the Missional Learning Commons that is coming up in Chicago in October. I see the information about these events and wish I could be there or at the very least find a few like-minded folk who would do it here in the UK near me!

These are some of the questions that will be shaping their discussions this October and I think they are questions that should be shaping our thoughts too.

  • What does discipleship actually look like in our lives?
  • Does the gospel we preach naturally and organically lead people into discipleship, or does it feel like an extra-curricular activity?
  • How should the call to make disciples shape and guide our church practices: what we do, and how we do it?
  • What is the significance of discipleship as the core component of the formation of Christian leaders?

Perhaps we should add at least a question about what we are going to do next about discipleship in our particular setting. At least that makes it practical and focussed.

I'm particularly drawn to the question about the Gospel we preach and whether it naturally leads to discipleship or not. Certainly in the past we preached a gospel of escape from judgment rather than one of transformation.

Friday, September 09, 2011

Feeling another's pain

Yesterday I spoke with someone who is having a bad week to say the least. Very little has gone right, and as we talked I felt the pain, wished I could have been able to do something to change things and make them better (which I can't do) and wanting so much to absorb the pain myself (but I can't do that either).

Of course as a follower of Jesus, I can pray and pray I have and pray I will.

I think that if we are not attentive we can so easily see prayer almost as a none response. Maybe even to the point of thinking, "What good will that do, things won't rally change." I think happens because our understanding of prayer, particularly answered prayer, is more focussed upon getting what we want rather than on submitting ourselves into God's hands.

Changing tack, I read an article yesterday about skipping church. It was by a minister and was his reflection on having what everyone else might consider a normal Sunday, actually a normal weekend. He used an interesting phrase when he talked about the sacrifice people in ministry make because their weekends have no options to wake up and decide to do something different. Already I can hear the cries that it's only two day a week that are so defined for ministers, everyone else works a five-day week at the least.

Sorry, but that's not the point. Many, if not most, manse families have two working adults. That accounts for all seven days every week. Anyway, this isn't a moan about time off and understanding ministry life. The point the original author was making was somewhat different and I've drifted into other areas. I love the flexibility inherent in ministry, but sometimes I wish I knew when my day ended or when my week ended. I'm never quite sure. Mind you that makes a weekend off even more special.

Talking of flexibility, I've been thinking about how I can connect with more people who are far from God. Some time ago I thought to myself that one of the problems with the way we usually do connecting with others is quite artificial. Ages ago, in a previous setting, I wondered about setting church money aside to enable church folk to take up an evening class. Not just as an evangelism strategy, please not another put-them-under-pressure-to-share-the-gospel programme. No, just a simple way of helping people make friends with people far from God. Maybe it's because I have so few friends outside of church (do I actually have any in church I find myself asking!) that I think like this, but that was my thought.

It then morphed into the idea that why not find something you really enjoy doing and then go and do it with people who are far from God. Not original to me. I got the idea from a story I heard Bill Hybel tell about buying a boat and sailing with a bunch of non-Christians. I've just got permission to run a social tennis morning in the park. I wonder what connections that might make.

Well. the day calls. Errands to run and jobs to do. I've just got a text message from my wife that read "Ecc  3 12 to 13" I assume that's a Bible reference and not a chess move. Better go and look it up in case she quizzes me on it later.

Wednesday, September 07, 2011

Rethinking church and its mission

Here's a helpful reflection on the process of rethinking the church in a context of mission. It doesn't use all the confusing language of missional church that seems create uncertainty and panic for some, but the heart of it is about asking what the church looks like in a new context. a question at the heart of the search for a missional expression and understanding of the church in a cultural setting that no longer shares the same narrative or values.

Early Prayer

Getting up early to pray might be a laudable thing to do, but when the alarm rings and you haven't slept much, it can be the last thing on your heart. Today is the first shot at having a dedicated prayer day in the life of the church. I don't how many people have remembered it, and it probably didn't help that it wasn't mentioned on Sunday, but we're making a start.

I would say we've planned, but the truth is it's my idea and I've suggested a plan of having three times for corporate prayer through the day. The first was at 7:00am, the second will be at 9:30am (although I think some might come for 9:00) and the third will be at 8:00pm. The two morning times are half hours and the evening one a full hour.

My hope is that each month will have a theme or a focus that will shape part of the prayer time together. Today the theme is simple: Unless the Lord builds the house the labourers labour in vain.

Other times I hope we will focus on things like those who work in retail or those in care services, education, the business world, etc.

This morning three of us gathered at 7:00am, if you can call three a gathering! We had a great time. It was wonderfully quiet and peaceful as we shared our hearts with God. In fact I think it was probably the most peaceful it's ever been in church! Sometimes the noise from outside filtered in through the open door, but that simply served to remind us that we are in the world even if we're not part of it as Jesus might say. And yes I'll be honest I was expecting to be alone, so having two people with me was a great encouragement.

For next month I hope to be able to provide some basic information the Sunday before, just to keep everyone in the loop. But we really ought not to need too much paperwork in order to be able to pray.

All this reminds me of something I have buried away somewhere in my study about the differences between a church that is committed to prayer and a church that prays. While the differences might be obvious I've yet to work out a successful plan for making the journey from one the other, from praying to a deeper commitment to prayer. And that's as true for my personal life as it is for the life of the church. It's far easier to not pray than it is to pray. As the sign outside one church read:

Why pray when you can worry and take tranquillisers!

Speaking of which, sine I don't take the pills I'd better get to praying again.

Tuesday, September 06, 2011

Missional Community

I know I worry some folk when I talk about simplifying church and missional church and doing life together and other such crazy talk. But it is precisely because I am passionate about the local church reaching its full potential as agents of of God's kingdom that I am drawn to ask deep questions about how we do church.

Anyway, here's an inspiring article that tells the story of one small missional community, how it began and how God has been at work through it and in it.

A story of one MC.

Shane Claiborne Podcast

If you want to listen to Shane's talk from the other night at the Oasis Centre, then there's a podcast of it here.

It is worth listening to, especially if you haven't read the book.

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

A Feral Underclass

So, Ken Clarke has given Middle England the data it needs to breathe a huge sigh of relief that the riots indeed where the work of a criminal underclass. According to the statistics on the BBC Breakfast News this morning, 75% of those arrested in connection with the recent events had a criminal record.

Case proved, it's not our fault.

At no point during the hour the news was on this morning did I ever hear anyone ask why they had a criminal record and what might have contributed to the situation. Again the marginalised are simple pushed further away from protected green belt of middle class morality.

Let me say that in no way endorse any of the behaviour that we saw so vividly displayed on our televisions. There are no excuses. But there are explanations, and until we get to grips with the social and economic conditions and inequalities that create any kind of underclass nothing will get solved.

Telling us they were all criminals already really doesn't help solve anything.

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

Thursday, September 01, 2011

Achieving something

There are days, weeks even, when the though of achieving anything is a somewhat utopian ideal. At least it feels like that! It's nice, then, to be able to report that I actually did achieve something in August, if only in the arena of counting steps.

At the beginning of the month I set myself the goal of taking 500,000 steps in a month. I'd never done this before. In fact I think I only broke the 400k barrier once or maybe twice last year. (I've just looked, it was three times!) So 500k was, to pardon the pun, quite a step up. It meant doing the equivalent of nearly 8.5 miles of walking a day, every day for a month. In a straight line, that would be about 250 miles. Imagine where you would be if you travelled 250 miles from home.

But I did it. It took quite an effort in the last three days because I had one day when I didn't walk at all, doing only 2000 steps. Now at the beginning of the month making up the difference over the course of a week would have been okay, but I had three days. That meant 10 miles a day, but I had a plan. On Tuesday we went to this event with Shane Claiborne and I made sure I walked everywhere I could. On that day I did 31k steps, which made it a whole lot easier to complete the job. So, yesterday afternoon as I set out to walk to church to do a small job, I passed the 500k mark. There were no balloons or major celebrations.

To be honest it has been far more difficult to hit a daily target of 16k than 10k for obvious reasons. It's further! But it's more than that. I can do 10k just walking to the station and back twice a day with Anne. That's a fairly steady, even distribution of steps. But the higher target relied more heavily on big days making up for low days. And by low I mean down around 12k! Anything below 10k was really low.

So, for example, I had 7 days over 20k and 1 day over 30k. I had 9 days where the cumulative average was below target, and overall I missed my target on 16 days. So it was a lot tougher than any previous challenge. But in the end I made it and I'm glad I did. To have missed out would probably have meant that I would have tried again, although probably in October because that's the next month with 31 days!

I guess I've learnt that I can do 8 miles a day, that 15 miles is still possible, and that it takes a large dose of disciple to sustain yourself to the end.

What's next? Well I will probably keep using the pedometer, but I'll stop keeping a daily record. I'll walk less, but I'll swim more. I haven't been in the water for a long time. I pulled a shoulder muscle or damaged a tendon of some sorts that kept me out of the water and I couldn't swim and do my 16k steps every day. So maybe this month I'll swim more if the shoulder is okay.