Tuesday, 30 January 2018

Mark 12v35-44

How in your face is Jesus? How often does Jesus make you uncomfortable? How often does what he says unsettle you? Does Jesus still challenge and provoke us? Or is he too tame?

If the gospel were a pantomime we all know how we’d react when the Pharisees come on stage. We’d boo and hiss. Why? Because they’re the baddies, they just don’t realise it, but we do, we know. Except the danger with thinking like that is that we defuse the explosive power of their interactions with Jesus, which are recorded to challenge and change us.

Which religious group is this description of?  “They have a very high view of scripture, they study it, memorise it, and seek to interpret and apply it to every day life. They want those around them to walk with God not just talk about him. They seek to live life in such a way that it pleases God. Dissatisfied with the corruption and half-heartedness of contemporary worship they designed a new way of worship focused around prayer, public reading and exposition of the scriptures. They pray often, fast, value fellowship, hate sin, pursue holiness, give generously and are active evangelists.”

Which group is it describing? It could be evangelical Christians but its actually a description of the Pharisees. As Jesus faces off with the Pharisees they are more like us than we’re comfortable with. And Jesus gets in their face and confronts them because their view of him is too small. Their religion is too constrained and joyless and their love is too half-hearted.

Way back in Mark 3v6 the battle lines are drawn when after Jesus heals a man on the Sabbath “the Pharisees went out and began to plot with the Herodians how they might kill Jesus.” They then react furiously to his clearing the temple and know that Jesus has them in his crosshairs in the parable the tenants(12).

Jesus confronts them, challenges them and their religiosity. And so Mark 12 resembles the scene from Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark. When having taken the golden statue from the altar in the temple Indie has to avoid blow darts, jump a pit, get under a descending rock door, and avoid a spear wall before outrunning a giant rolling boulder. He races along facing one booby trap after another after another.

Jesus here in Mark 12 avoids trap after trap, after trap. Trap 1 (13-17)should we pay taxes to Caesar? (18-27)Trap 2 who will she be married to at the resurrection, and Trap 3(28-34) which is the greatest commandment? Jesus avoids every one and challenges the religious leaders about their failure to know the scriptures and love and serve God. And now, in these verses, the questioned becomes the questioner.

Religion that Jesus Rejects
Jesus authority is shown (34)as he pronounces that this Teacher of the Law isn’t far from the kingdom. That would have staggered those listening, They’d have assumed this man was in the kingdom. He was a teacher of the law. He’s got the right family background, connections, education, letters after his name, he could name drop more conference speakers than even the best connected networking pastor. He’s just brilliantly summarised the law, even saying that love mattered more than sacrifice and offerings. But Jesus staggeringly says he isn’t far from the kingdom, but he isn’t in. One crucial question remains, who does he say Jesus is?

That’s the key question in Mark. In Mark 1:1 Mark tells us he believes Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God. In Mark 8 Peter confesses Jesus as the Messiah and then Jesus teach them he’s so much more than their limited understanding, and at the cross the centurion confesses Jesus is the Son of God.

Here Jesus is in the temple as he asks his question. In the very centre of their worship and asks the question that’s really at the heart of Judaism. The question that’s still at the heart of the universe

Entry to the kingdom depends on who you say Jesus is. That’s the issue Jesus raises as he challenges them. (35-37)Jesus quotes Psalm 110:1, where David describes God speaking to the Messiah. The religious leaders think the Messiah is just David’s descendant, born of his line, an anointed king yes, important, yes. But Jesus wants them to see how far short their expectations fall of reality. How small and timid their concept of the Messiah really is. How they haven’t really grappled with what scripture says. If David calls the Messiah his lord then the Messiah is greater than David, not just David’s son. He is David’s Lord, the one who will be exalted to the right hand of God, the place of honour, and whose enemies God will help him overcome.

Jesus is pushing them to think through who the Messiah is, who he is. (37)He’s not just David’s son, he’s God’s Son. He’s the Son of the parable(1-11). And there’s no entry into the kingdom unless you recognise who Jesus is and confess him Son of God and Messiah.

To love God means to recognise his Son. And as the King of the kingdom Jesus rejects the religion he sees around him because that religion rejects him even though he fulfils the Old Testament. Even though he’s everything the sacrifices going on around him and the prophecies pointed to they reject him. So Jesus rejects religion that is full of hypocrisy, whose constraints and expectations are too small, which should have recognised him but rejects him.

You can’t have faith if you won’t have Jesus. Can I ask have you trusted Jesus? Have you actually got beyond your preconceptions, taken off the stabilisers, and really looked at Jesus? There is nothing tame or timid about him. Listen to his claims. Have you confessed him as both Saviour and Son of God? It matters because if we’ve rejected him he will reject us no matter how religious we are and there’s no worse place to be because he is right now at the right hand of God and to be opposed to him is to face God’s anger.

Let me say, if you haven’t yet followed him you’re always welcome in church, there’s no better place to be, but don’t just settle for religion when you really need Jesus. Keep asking that question – Who is Jesus? Ask it as the Bible is read, ask it as you hear the preaching, as you sing the songs?

For those of us who have trusted Jesus, have we grown comfortable with him? Have his words lost the ability to surprise us anymore? Is our Jesus like a pair of well-worn comfortable slippers? Stop and hear his claim. He is great David’s greater Son. God in all his glory made man and he is now at God’s right hand and will come again when every one of his enemies will be put under his feet. And that is great news for us because it means he is able. Able to answer our prayers, able to keep us, able to give us hope that will sustain us in the face of opposition and struggle and suffering because he will return.

We must see the real Jesus, not settled for a scaled down version if we are to live lives for his glory.

Following this Jesus radically reshapes our loves
As Jesus closes this teaching in the temple he deliberately stops and draws a contrast. He pointedly tells his followers that they must be different from the religion they see around them(38). That understanding who he is will transform them. How?

Love God not reputation(38-39)– A young pianist was making his debut at Carnegie Hall, he played magnificently and as he left the stage the audience cheered. The stage manager encouraged him to go onstage for his encore, but the pianist refused. “But look out of the curtains. They love you! Go take your encore!” The Pianist answered “Do you see that one old man in the balcony on the left?” The stage manager looked and said he did. “That man is seated. I will not give an encore until he stands and cheers.” The exasperated stage manager said “Only one man is not standing, and you will not take an encore?” The pianist said “You see, that man is my piano teacher. Only when he stands will I take an encore.”

What distinguishes between religion and faith is love. The disciple loves God because we know how we’ve been loved, we’ve tasted God’s goodness and salvation in Jesus Christ and we cannot but love him in return. And that love means we live for his praise and glory not ours. And everything we do flows from gratitude and thanks not to earn forgiveness but out of an overflowing awareness of grace.

That’s so easy to say but so hard to do. We live in a world that encourages us to crave recognition, to long for respect. We all want that don’t we? We have to ask – am I living as I do for love of God or love of self via the approval of others? Do I love God as a response to his love for me and is that overflowing into active love and concern for God’s glory? Or do I just want a pat on the back, a positive performance management review, a good reputation from others?

Love God not money(40) – The tragedy is that the religious pray in two ways: they pray to God for show and prey like vultures on the poor and helpless for profit. You cannot love God without loving those God loves. Throughout the Old Testament God has shown special concern for the poor, the refugee, the widow. In Matthew 23 Jesus challenges the Pharisees and says “you have neglected the more important matters of the law” … What do you expect to come next? Religious activities, prayer meeting, mission and fasting? What does he say? “justice, mercy and faithfulness.”

Do you see the challenge Jesus gives? It was great last week to listen to your compassion weekend. You are a church that cares for the poor and fatherless. But can I ask you how many of you went home and did as Andy suggested and looked again at how you support one of those 6 organisations? How many actually did it? How many were moved where it is often most painful – our wallets?

Loving God because we’ve been loved by God leads to practical action. It leads to a giving of ourselves for others just as Jesus gave himself for us.

Love God wholeheartedly(41-44) – Jesus makes a deliberate contrast between the religious rich who give lots and the poor widow, who gives everything she has to God and lives by faith.

I wonder how the financial planner in you reacted to this woman. If she came and sat beside you this morning and asked you if she should put her last coin in the offering box, what would you say? My hunch is we’d say no! But Jesus looks at it differently, he praises her generosity because by it she shows her devotion, her love for God, that she’s holding nothing back because God has held nothing back from her in his love.

Instead Jesus calls his disciples to a love which gives all to God just like the widow has. Disciples realise that in Christ God has held nothing back from us, he has done what we cannot and therefore we cannot hold anything back from him.

If we find ourselves struggling to give our all back to God it’s because we haven’t fully understood what he’s given for us. 12:6 “He had one left to send, a son, whom he loved.” God loved us so much that the Father sends the Son who loves us so much that he willingly comes knowing he will die in our place for our sin. Jesus gives up all the glories of heaven out of love for us. How when we grasp that can we hold anything back from him? How can we not love him? How can we say this far I will follow but no farther? You can have this but not that?

Jesus is calling us to a passionate love, a love that is lavish, that is total, that is all absorbing. Why? Because that’s how we have been loved.

Are we, am I, so amazed by how we are loved that it transforms our speech, our living, our loving? Or is our view of Jesus too small?

Do Jesus words shock you? Is Jesus in your face this morning? There is nothing half-hearted about discipleship because there is nothing half hearted about the cost to make us disciples. God the Son, great David’s greater Son clothed himself in flesh, the creator becomes creation, the eternal one experiences death, the sinless one bears the wrath of sin. Why? Because he loves. Do you see the glory of who Jesus is? A wholly devoted Saviour calls for wholly devoted disciples.

Devotion seen in our love for him that overflows in our concern for God’s glory, our treatment of others, and our use of our God given resources. In Jesus God held nothing back and when we see who we really we will do likewise.

Friday, 26 January 2018

Preparing Students for life after University?

I want you to imagine that the year is 2050. The only surviving churches in Yorkshire and the North East are located in university towns and cities. How would you re-evangelise Yorkshire and the North East?  Go on stop and actually think about it?  How would you do it?  Small groups of people sent to strategic locations?  House churches in different areas of a town? More localised small groups with a central gathering?  Mission teams who move live, work and worship in a new town?

That feels like a far-fetched scenario, it may be a little too pessimistic in terms of time frame and there are places and churches bucking that trend.  But without wishing to be apocalyptic that situation is a possibility. A recent survey of evangelical churches found that:
  • few churches experience growth of more than 1% a year.
  •  4 FIEC churches a year are closing.
  • Of those that are still going 46% have seen no conversions in the past year.
  • 45% have had no baptism.
  • And 53% have fewer than 35 church members.
My hunch is that those figures are slightly better than figures for the Church of England as a whole and Methodism and are broadly replicated among other groups.

Add to that: the vast majority of those who are converted are under 25. And the majority of those are either children of Christian parents or are converted whilst at university.  Many of those young people who are converted in their home churches are part of the 1 million young people who migrate to university every year.

And few of those graduates will return. 25% of all graduates end up in London and many others stay in their university town or city. One church leader at a recent working party I was at when asked what the biggest migration factor affecting their church was said, without bitterness, the biggest impact for us is that “our students all head off to university and few return.”

Those factors mean that many churches are shrinking and ageing in towns that send their students to university. Even when recent graduates get jobs in towns they will often commute from a university town or city where they choose to live.  For example a significant number of recent graduates who work in Doncaster chose to live in Sheffield so they can go to churches with lots of 20’s and 30’s.

Church planting has picked up steam in recent years and it’s been great to see churches planted. But how many have been planted out of cities or university towns? Very few. How many have been planted to reach working class areas? And yet the North is predominantly working class in outlook if not social class.

That scenario we started off with sounds apocalyptic but it might not be a million miles from the truth. Many churches outside cities and student towns in the North are declining. Some have shut, others are only a generation or two away.  We need to be deliberate and strategic in our thinking about the UK so that this scenario does not become a tragic reality.

We need to prepare students for life after graduation and lift their eyes beyond the obvious. Help them think through the mission needs on our doorstep but outside university towns and cities. So we never reach the apocalyptic scenario we started with.

If you combine the population of the North East and Yorkshire there are approximately 8.1 million people. Yet only 3.6 million of them live in university towns or cities. Strategically, missionally we need to think about and grow churches outside these towns and cities now before we end up in that scenario we started off with.

Many churches need an injection of young men and women who have been discipled and who are committed to discipling others. Strategically we need people who will go and forsake the comfortable in order to grow the gospel. But it’s hard. So what lesson have we learnt? How can you prepare students for life after graduation and get them thinking about church in harder places? What are the key factors in flourishing there?

Loneliness has never been good. (Gen 2)What’s the one problem God sees as he looks at the garden? Adam is alone. He needs others, man is created for community. Throughout the Bible we see patterns of community, of more than one. Moses and Joshua, Elijah and Elisha, Deborah and Barak, Zerubbabel and Joshua. In the New Testament Jesus and the 12, Peter and John, Paul and Timothy, Titus, Luke, Barnabas and Mark and so on.

Many students want to stay at their university church and I see why. They have peers, people who know you and friends committed to provoking one another in godliness. Great. But what about transplanting that small group to a church elsewhere?

My wife and I were students in Leicester. We went to Knighton, were well taught and cared for, then served there, led the youth work there, took early steps in preaching and leadership there. But then felt God call us to go back to my parents church where there was no-one within 10 years either side of us. But that’s why we felt called. It was a wrench to leave good friends, peers, but the gospel need was greater at Chorley than at Knighton. But looking back we’d have been far better to encourage 4 or 5 of our friends to come with us, not as the great white hope of the church, Jesus is the Saviour not us, but as support, as a network.

That’s been our experience too as some graduates have returned or come to faith having returned, it is hard. That’s in part why we’re looking for 3 ministry trainees this year. It’s a huge stretch for a small church financially, to fund three. But I think it gives our trainees the best chance of getting the most possible out of the one or two years they are with us.

Welcome to the mess. Open doors and open lives matter. Discipleship isn’t just taught it’s caught; observed, heard and watched. I asked our last ministry trainee to evaluate our old ministry trainee program for us. What were its strengths and weaknesses. What do you think he said was best? I thought it’d be my teaching, or the chance to really deal with and discuss some deep theological issues. He said the best thing was seeing the mess of our family. Watching how we got on, fell out and applied grace to resolve issues. Clearly seeing that we were far from perfect and constantly got things wrong but sought forgiveness, tried to make things right and always fought to apply grace even if it took some time.

That’s helpful because one of the most common struggles for students who leave the student bubble is that they don’t really get to do real life with people any more. There isn’t that same intensity of relationship, the same time spent, the same realism. We need to open our lives, after all that’s what Paul does, that’s his model of discipleship.  So that young graduates still do real life with people, it is just with a broader range of people.

Leaving the greenhouse doesn’t mean the end of growth. It can be hard after the greenhouse of student life as a Christian where they’ve grown rapidly to adjust to the slower pace of church life. So it’s vital that recent graduates are invested in not just seen as a resource to suck dry, or a low-maintenance short cut to a healthier budget.

The pace of change in church is so much slower than in CU, partly because life gets in the way. I realised just over a year ago that I was getting quite discouraged about the slow pace of change. So as leaders every time we meet we give one agenda item over to talking about where we see signs of growth and change in the congregation, and it’s been encouraging. But life in church can’t mimic the intensity of the university greenhouse for growth, but it can continue to build on that. Though we also have to be realistic and help students recognise the uniqueness of the university/CU environment.

I’ve always had a few people I meet with 1-2-1, some are regular and planned some are less so. One way I’ve started trying to drip feed people to stimulate growth a bit more, and a bit more widely, is by giving away books to people in church. Sometimes its related to an issue – for example last year I bought ten copies of 'Enjoy your prayer life' and gave away. Another time a group of us met up to discuss each section of Glynn Harrison's ‘A Better Story’ and apply it to our work and families. I’ve given away copies of ‘Raising teens in a hyper-sexualised world.’ and others...  And that constant learning and growing never stops.  Churches need to intentionally develop those within it.

Applying the gospel to relationships. There is a sharedness to university life, similar ages, outlooks, experience that just isn’t there outside of a university church.  In a small church that causes another issues, you are forced to relate to those very different to you.  How does a 23 year fresh out of uni relate to a 77 year old lady? A 4 year old boy? A stressed out young mum? An exhausted hospital surgeon? Or a single mum diagnosed with cancer? Very often we don’t, we avoid that by staying with those who are like us. But in a small church that’s not an option and that is hard. It forces us to work the gospel more deeply into our lives. To work out what are non-negotiable gospel issues, what are debatable issues and what are just matters of conscience and we can flex over and unite round the gospel rather than fall out about. To work out what loving one another, rejoicing and mourning together looks like.

There are differences within a CU but those are magnified not reduced in a small church.  But applying the gospel to such relationship provides a great opportunity to grow in grace and love.

Resource poor opportunity rich. Smaller churches tend to be resource poor. Smaller budgets, few musicians – if any – one of the unseen factors in university migration. Fewer groups running midweek. All those things make it hard for students who have been very used to lots going on. But Grace, for example, is opportunity rich. A 1200 place sixth form college has just opened, the Primary school where we meet has literally thrown open the doors to us and we can’t meet the need. And evangelistically we have loads of families positive towards church and willing to come along. But the need is people to meet, teach, build friendships, make connections.

Smaller churches also provide greater freedom to try things. There are greater opportunities, to lead, to teach, preach, study.  Greater freedom to launch something and roll it up into storage again for another time if it doesn't work.

What other issues have you found as a recent graduate in adjusting to church outside of university?

Tuesday, 9 January 2018

Reimagining ministry teams?

Teams matter.  We are made for community, even those of us who are introverts need others.  This is even more true in ministry and yet I often hear that ministry is lonely.  We need others around us to encourage us, stop us becoming prideful, help us see our weaknesses, and remind us of our strengths.  A team helps us balance our pessimism and optimism, our tendency towards either 'can do' positivity or 'can't do' negativity.  Bible Study, prayer, singing, weeping, grieving, rejoicing are all improved when shared with others.

If you are in a ministry team thank God for his goodness to you.  Yes, it brings its challenges but those challenges are preferable to the isolation of the lone pastor.  In the UK the average size of a church is small, which means most can only afford 1 full time member of staff.  In an ideal world elders would function as a team, and I'm grateful that in many cases I have seen they do.  However, often elders meetings are infrequent, monthly or less, because lay elders are busy at work and at home as well as leading in church.  Being a pastor can be a lonely place to be.

It is a privilege, absolutely.  To be set aside and paid to study the word of God and pray is an amazing privilege that I am immensely grateful for.  Yet I wonder if being a lone pastor creates a number of problems in ministry.  I wonder if the loneliness of the position magnifies inherent dangers in ministry; pride or lack of confidence, laziness or work-aholism, isolationism or exhibitionism.  I wonder if it leads us to pull up the draw bridge and not live a life that is open to or examined by anyone else.  I wonder if it reinforces a tendency to be oversensitive to criticism, overly introspective or develop a Messiah complex.

Not everyone is in a position to be able to have a staff team at Church.  God willing at Grace we are looking to build one as we look for 3 ministry trainees who will have a chance to be heavily involved in the life of the church with everything from admin to preaching, from teaching toddlers to pastoral care.  We're also looking for a part time outreach and communities worker.  Why?  Because we have way more opportunities for the gospel than we can effectively make use of at the moment.  Also because we see the need to train people up especially to work in non-student, non-city contexts.  But also because I recognise the need for a team to leaven out my weaknesses and lead in ways I cannot and because it will do me good.

But not everyone is in that position - let me say it is not because we are well off but because of the sacrificial financial commitment of a few individuals who see a need and want to invest in the kingdom.  But regardless of whether we are in a team or not we need to build connections and begin to think about teams and networks of ministers especially for those who minister alone in their churches.  I've been to a few monthly fraternal meetings and they were great as far as they go.  But I wonder if we ought to be pushing ourselves to go deeper.  Why not have a small group of pastors who meet weekly or fortnightly?  Why not mix up what you do depending on need?  Maybe you want to submit 2 or 3 pastoral or church polity questions before you gather to chat through and seek each others wisdom on - not to be controversial but so that you are thinking through issues before they come up in your setting?  Or maybe you want to help one another preach better and so you'll bring an outline for a few weeks time and work on it together?  Perhaps you'll just come and share where you feel burdened or are rejoicing in ministry at the moment?  Always we want to pray together.

Yes I know the problem is always the diary.  We are busy, busy, busy.  I get it, I really do.  But what if committing to this made everything else easier and less burdensome?  And for those of us in teams, what about inviting someone who isn't in that privileged position to come and share ours?  Not just to sit in and observe but to reshape it so they are fully included and benefit?

Monday, 8 January 2018

Careful thinking

We started our series at Church yesterday on the Christian and conscience.  It's not an easy series to prepare or preach and I have a hunch that yesterday's first in the series will prove to be the easiest of the three.  It very much laid the foundations: Our Conscience is God given so that we have an ability to weigh up and determine right and wrong, we should always listen to our conscience, yet our plasticine, malleable, conscience is affected by the fall in a number of ways so that it does not line up with God's will.  Before finally we looked at the joy to be found in our conscience driving us to Calvary where as we confess and repent we find cleansing from guilt and the promise of the Spirit to change us.

This coming Sunday I'll be preaching on how as Christians we calibrate our conscience.  So here's the challenge that I've been increasingly aware of as I've been doing the background preparation on this for the last month of so.  We simply don't take the time to work God's word into our conscience in every area of life.  We also underestimate the influence of our culture, family, education, peers and media in shaping our conscience in those very same areas of life almost without our realising it.

As I've been preparing this series I've been aware of the challenge of doing that personally.  Have I allowed God's word to shape my conscience about; tattoo's?  Burial or cremation?  Sunday?  Clothing?  Relationships?  Family?  Care of ageing parents?  Bank Accounts?  The items in my shopping basket?  What I watch, listen to, read?  My friendships? and so on...

If I believe there is no square inch of my life over which Christ does not claim Lordship then I need to be giving myself over in community to working out what that Lordship means.  In forming my conscience, recalibrating it, realigning it by the Spirit through his word.

Thursday, 4 January 2018

Connecting life with mission

Christmas is a great opportunity to share the gospel.  But Christmas is also sometimes the most frustrating time to do mission because there is so much else going on; nativity plays, concerts, social engagements, family commitments and so on.  This is all exacerbated by the disconnected way in which we live life.  We often live at a distance to family, meaning time with them is more difficult to crave out because of travel and also less possible to do spontaneously.  If you live three hours drive away from family you can't just drop in, or come over for dinner.

Many of us also work at a distance from where we live.  Increasingly people work in different towns or cities from where they live commuting for 30-90 minutes is not abnormal.  That is often hailed as a good thing enabling professionals, especially in caring professions, to keep their distance from those they are involved with.

Because travel is so easy many people now commute not just to work and to see family but to church.      A 20 minutes plus drive to church is not unusual.  And tragically for many, especially in the North, they have no other option.

But here's my concern.  If we don't live and work and do church in an area will we really see it as our mission field?  My experience would lead me to believe that people don't really engage in mission unless they live in the area you are trying to reach.  Instead they see it as the mission field of those who do live in that area.  I wonder too if people disengage from mission at work if they commute any distance because realistically any friend they get into conversation with is unlikely to travel to come to church with them.  (Though recently we've had a work colleague drive 40 minutes to church twice because of how positive someone from church has been about his church family).

And honestly the distances people live from the church do make it more difficult to be involved.  If you add an hours commute to church then doing church twice on Sunday is a bigger commitment than someone who walks 5 minutes each way.  If you commute to church, attending prayer meeting or Bible study also becomes more of a commitment midweek.  Yet many people are choosing to commute to church.  And evangelistically that makes mission more difficult, are your neighbours and friends going to do the hour round trip to come to church that you do?  Unlikely, so again by living at a distance are you subconsciously opting out of mission or out of church?

Imagine instead if everyone in your church family lived in the community you were trying to reach.  If everyone lived on the mission field.  It's funny how we expect missionaries to move but we rarely consider it.  Imagine the multiple opportunities for discipleship, for involvement, for evangelism, for shared friendships that display the gospel.

Tuesday, 5 December 2017

Doing social media Christianly?

Social media love it or hate it is here to stay.  As with so much innovation and technology it has tremendous potential to good whilst also being something that can be used to do so much that is bad.  It is an easy medium in which to let your guard down and wound, be careless, fail to bear with, and be unloving or unthankful.  So I've been wondering how can we use social media well as churches and believers?

As a church we don't have a policy about how our staff, leaders and Sunday School teachers interact online, but here are some suggested guidelines that would help us all be wise in our interactions online which I'd include if we did:

Never miss a chance to say something positive.If you have a chance to tweet, update a status, “like” or comment on something great that’s happening, or that someone has said about Jesus, the church or serving, take it. Be yourself and be genuine. Don’t say stuff you don’t mean.  But do look for and take every opportunity you can to edify others and point them to places online that will potentially edify them.  In fact it may be worth doing an audit of your last ten posts or likes do they convey thankfulness?  Do they edify?

Think carefully before you publish.Be wise about what you say online. More than being viewed as a representative of your church, you represent Jesus to the world. As leaders, you are “servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God" (1 Cor 4:1). Take your calling seriously, and think through how your public comments, posts and “likes” will be perceived by others both inside and outside of the church. If you like it or share it, you endorse it. If in doubt, don’t.

Keep the big picture in mind.It can be helpful to conduct a self-review of your social media every few months. We post in isolated moments, but people can see the whole picture at any point. Are the majority of your posts negative, boastful, hyper-spiritual or venting? Do they portray you as always working and never playing or vice versa?  Do they represent real life or a life that looks stylised or spun?

Don’t use email for hard conversations or social media.Talking face to face minimises opportunity for misunderstanding and maximises the chances of understanding.  It contains so many things social media or email do not; inflection, intonation, body language and so on.  Just by committing to take time to see someone you convey something about your care for the person that a quick social media posting or email doesn't.  It also means that your exact words will not be copied and pasted out of context and forwarded to others.

Respond to accusers in private, not public.There have and will continue to be people who use social media to disparage the church and its leaders or mission. Arguing, maligning or even teaching in a public forum like Facebook, Twitter or a blog comment section is difficult. It is best to deal with that person in love, privately and as a friend according to scripture first before taking further action if necessary (see Matthew 18v15-20).

Your blog is not just your blog (or Twitter, Facebook or Instagram….)
People know you follow Jesus (if they don't that's a problem you need to address), and unfortunately they’ll attach your opinions and actions to Jesus and the church. When Paul describes us as Christ's ambassadors that applies to both when we are good ambassadors revealing his love and grace and holiness and when we are bad ambassadors screwing it up.  While no one would expect you to post a disclaimer on your social media, just be aware that people don’t separate your ideas and choice of activities from way you follow Jesus or lead a ministry.

…and your email is not just your email.It’s best to keep email from your work email related to just that: work. Gossip detracts from our goals and diminishes your influence. And email is your point of least control for private information — easy to pass on to others without your knowledge.

Pray for the reputation of God’s Church.Social media is a powerful tool to create and destroy influence. Pray that Satan will be limited in his power to claim it and use it, and that we can be a part of redeeming it for Christ.

Monday, 20 November 2017

Is Church really the problem?

I spent a large chunk of last week preparing to preach on Jeremiah 2 where God outlines his case for divorcing an adulterous and idolatrous Israel.  It is a tragic tale of lost love, ungratefulness, stupid exchanges, searching for love and meaning every where but with God, disgrace, discipline and denial of sinfulness.  As well as forcing me to look at my own heart as I prepared and preached it got me thinking about all those that, over 15 years of ministry, I've seen begin running the race well before backsliding and abandoning the faith.  It also got me thinking about a growing number of young people, in their twenties and thirties, who profess faith in Christ but also disillusionment with his Church.  'I just can't find a church I like'  'We can't find a church for people like us.'  'I can't go to a church that teaches that, or that, or that, or that.'

Both those thoughts, of those who are backslidden and those who are disillusioned with church, have troubled me over the weekend.  It has led to some soul searching and self examination.  But it has also led me to the conclusion that often for the latter category of people the problem is not so much with church but with God and the Bible.

The Bible is brutally honest about the nature of church.  It is a glorious, messy, sanctifying, frustrating, beautiful, forgiveness needing, grace saturated display of the glory of Christ.  It will one day be holy and pure, without spot or blemish.  But it isn't yet.  It's impossible to read the epistles and conclude that the first century churches were sorted.  That they didn't face conflict, personal rivalries, false teaching, false application and even some hypocrisy. And yet it is through the church that God is working to reveal his kingdom.  Not because of its sorted nature but because God is at work in the glorious messiness of a church.  Church is messy, it is imperfect, but it is where God has staked his glory.

In an age where appearance matters, where via social media we massage and manipulate how people see us and our 'perfect' lives, I wonder if the rugged rough and tumble nature of church is just perceived as too imperfect by some.  Some of us need to recognise how societies norms and values are robbing us of all that God intends for us to experience in the church.  Being a committed member of a church is not easy, but then it wasn't meant to be, it was meant to be sanctifying and God glorifying.  We also need to see that whilst we can choose to only associate with those who are like us outside of church, in church God graciously for our good calls us to commit to and love those who aren't like us for our sanctification and his glory.

I wonder, however, if the bigger problem is that what those people are saying is I don't like the God of the church.  God's word conflicts with our culture and that is nothing new.  It has conflicted with every culture throughout time.  Yet our culture has worked hard, investing billions, to persuade young people how to think and feel about many of the big issues of the day, it has moulded and shaped their emotional response and their consciences through the stories it tells, the heroes and villains it casts.  Those values clash with the Bible at a fundamental level - gender, sex, identity, marriage, divorce, multiculturalism, pluralism and so on.  Those shaped by that education and media saturation seem to be rejecting the church because of its stance on many of these issues.  It just feels wrong to them.

But they are not rejecting the church if the church is teaching God's word faithfully.  I wonder if we haven't been blunt enough about diagnosing that.  If we've left them thinking its a church problem when really it is a problem with the very nature of God.  With believing God is good even when his word is at odds what society says.  With believing that God is just even as it clashes with the justice and laws of our nation.  With believing that God is loving when it contrasts with what our friends are posting on their social media pages.

It has not been the easiest weekend as I've sat and thought through these things.  Seeing people drift away who once ran well is heartbreaking, and this week I plan to spend a chunk of time praying for those folks.  But I also plan to pray for opportunity and boldness for myself and others to challenge those who are hiding a problem with the character of God behind the facade of disillusionment with the church.