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.

Friday, 17 November 2017

The coincidental conscience?

Imagine that you have a green card and a red card in your hands.  As I say the following raise the imaginary red card if you wouldn't and the green card if you would.  Ready...
  1. eat meat
  2. drink alcohol
  3. drive over 70 on the motorway
  4. take your child out of school for a holiday during term time
  5. shop on a Sunday
  6. go to a concert with explicit/sexual lyrical content
  7. pick an apple from a neighbours tree and eat
Got your answers?  So having gotten you two do that let me be honest, I'm not really bothered by your answers.  The bigger question is why did you give those answers.  We all have a conscience, an awareness or sense of what is right or wrong and that will have informed the answers above.  Our conscience is the result of a wide range of influences throughout our lives.  The challenge for us as christians is to train and calibrate our conscience in light of God's word.  To hear what God says and train our conscience accordingly.  As well as to identify and erase those influences which numb our consciences, sear our consciences or just put them out of step with God's word.

But here's where it gets more complex both in church and in mission.  Different people are at different stages in terms of training and recalibrating their conscience.  And some of the calibration of our consciences is constantly being carried out by our society without our realising it via the media, arts, legal system, education, peer pressure and so on.  And some of that instinctive awareness of right and wrong varies from country to country, culture to culture, region to region and from class to class.  The church as a cross cultural and cross class community is therefore going to have lots of people with varying, and at time diverging, consciences all together.  That is why we need to exercise love in our dealings with one another in church.  It is also why we need to listen to others and not judge and why we need to be constantly examining ourselves searching for the planks that are wrongly informing our conscience.

The added difficulty is that so many of these things we are just unaware of, they operate at the level of assumptions and therefore remain unchallenged until we rub up against someone who thinks differently to us, whose conscience is more or less tender on that issue, or who doesn't even see it as an issue at all.  And the challenge then is to meet such differences with grace and humility as we look to help one another reform our consciences in light of grace.

Come the New Year we're going to take some time at Grace to think about The Christian and Conscience.  What it is, what the Bible has to say about it, how it is trained, how we retrain it in light of scripture and how as community of grace we engage with one another where our consciences differ.

Tuesday, 24 October 2017

A non-conformist parish?

How do we engage our communities?  That is a huge question all churches, but especially church plants, need to answer.  How do we ensure we are known?  How do we reach out to the community?  How do we meet people, invite people, disciple people?

The default from a previous generation is to hold evangelistic events, good quality events at which the gospel is spoken or which function as bridge building barrier breakers.  Except this makes an assumption I'm just not sure we can make anymore; that our people are plugged into their communities.  I'm not sure this is the case.  Certainly in my experience it is the minority of church members that bring a guest.  Many simply don't know anyone to bring, or their work is so distant a commute from their home and church that it is too far for people to consider coming, many of our churches contain a considerable number of commuters which makes inviting their friends harder because they are less likely to come (or we simply believe they are).

So how do we change this?  We need to readopt the parish mentality, that the area around our church is our mission field.  That ought to be reflected in a number of things:

1. Get people to live in the area where your church meets and work within a 15 minute drive.  This creates a sense of shared mission.  Put simply people will disengage from reaching the community if they don't live in it.  (Evangelism is already hard to get people to do, I wonder if living like that is a short cut to not having to invite anyone without a guilty conscience?)

2. As pastors we must see the area as our parish and connect with it.  I guess for some of us this is easier than others.  Geography will define the limits of our patch naturally, but even where this isn't the case I wonder if it'd help to have an area we view as ours.

3. Pray for people in your parish by name.  This is only possible if we've done the above.

4. Preach addressing the issues the parish faces.  Not in terms of what passage or series we pick but in terms of some of the issues we address.  What are the local fears?  Where do people falsely turn for their security?  What are the things they rely on?  What are their hopes and dreams?  And how does the gospel as revealed in the passage we are preaching confront, challenge and address those?

5. Connect your church to your parish.  That is one of our challenges, for those who live out of area I need to be thinking through how I get them to connect with individuals in it.  Because once they get to know and care about individuals they will pray for them and naturally want them to come to know Jesus.

Our area is naturally defined by geography, though that is changing as it grows through housing development. But I know my parish.  I walk it everyday with the dog.  I do everything I can in that parish, play football twice a week, send my kids to school, and so on.  That means I am getting to know people and am getting known by people.  At the school gates every morning and afternoon there is the chance to speak to the same people, to listen, to care, to break down some barriers.  We've even had some parents approach us to ask out of the blue for pastoral help because they just need someone to talk to.  Those people we meet are the natural people for me to invite to any and every evangelistic event we run.  For some people these events have become a yearly staple, they put them in their calendar before they are invited, often asking about it before I've even done the invites.

And it gives me a wealth of people to pray for.  As a leader I need to lead in evangelism.  If I haven't got out of the office and gone fishing for men why would anyone else?  If I haven't prioritised meeting those who desperately need Jesus why would anyone else?  And if I'm not meeting these people and listening to them I won't preach in such a way that their deepest need and pressing issues are addressed in the gospel, and that won't encourage anyone to invite their friends.

Monday, 16 October 2017

The sound of.... music?

Throughout time has God has been incredibly good to the church.  One of his greatest gifts has been in the gift of music and musicians.  Singing is powerful, it lifts our eyes, instills truth and provides a vehicle for our expressions of trust, fear, joy, and so on in response to God's word, our lives and our hope.  A church without singing would be far poorer.

And yet I wonder if that is where we are heading.  Not wishing to seem apocalyptic but musicianship is on the wane.  If you're church has lots of gifted musicians my hunch is you are located in the city or in a locale with a university.  Be thankful, even though at times there can be tensions with having lots of musicians.

I am very grateful to God for the gifted musicians he has provided for us as a church over the last ten years.  Their faithful service has been of great benefit to us.  Yet here is my fear looking around about me and into the future about music and musicians in the church.  A fear that is especially true if you are not a university town/city church and that is exacerbated even more if you are in working class or deprived area.

Put simply there aren't many musicians and there is little prospect of there being lots of musicians n the future.  There are a number of reasons for this, one is that young people who head off to uni rarely return home.  But secondly and perhaps a greater cause for concern in the future is the sheer cost of music lessons.  Due to budget constraints our local school music service has put the cost of lessons up from £160 a year to over £400!  That puts music out of the reach of so many families.  It limits music and musicianship to the wealthy, because that is without the add on cost of instruments, music, etc...  And that will impact our churches, maybe not yours because you're church is largely middle class and fairly affluent, and so music will be an affordable priority, we ought to be thankful for that if that's us.  But for those in working class and deprived areas I wonder if it means many more churches without musicians.  There are ways around it, there are a growing range of apps, but we lose the sense of someone willingly serving the body of Christ, someone who has taken hours to craft and hone their skills.  It also means the next generation don't grow up to aspire to play and so the cycle perpetuates itself.

So what?  Ought we to be encouraging musicians to think about moving and serving in other churches, if we have a glut of them?  Could your musicians help another local church out by training their young, or not so young, people?  Are there musicians in your church who could provide free lessons to the next generation either in your church or in another to fill this void?

Thursday, 12 October 2017

Crossing cultures?

I was reading an historical fiction book last week based in India under the Raj, what stood out for me particularly was the position of those who were half Indian and half English.  They were accepted by neither and suffered quite badly from both parts of society they lived in.

It made me stop and think about the challenge of middle class planters planting into working class and deprived areas.  I struggle to place myself in terms of class, I guess I'm middle class, but I'll let you decide.  On one side my Grandad was a farm labourer he lived in a tithe cottage until he and my grandma died paying I think 50p a week rent.  They were never wealthy, none of their children went to university.  My maternal grandparents were very different, landowner farmers and clearly quite wealthy, at least back when that was possible in farming.  Added to that my dad had a management job, we were encouraged to do well at school, college and then go to university.  I then trained as a teacher and taught for 5 years before entering ministry.  So far so very middle class, though with working class roots.

Then we came to Yorkshire and then planted Grace Church into an ex-RAF base, with lots of social housing and some more affluent areas, in many ways we have all the divisions of a town in a more compressed area.  It was an area intensely segregated along base housing lines.  And with a slightly unique former forces feel.  It is a hard place to plant, we have seen fruit, but it has not been low hanging, but hard graft.  And increasingly I find myself not quite fitting in in either social class.  I've discovered I've quickly adopted the same chips on my shoulder as those we work predominantly alongside, though perhaps with the added zeal of the converted ex-smoker, in terms of class.  I see so many privileges that are taken for granted by so many Churches and Christians who don't stop to think about who they are not reaching in how we do things, who we are reaching, accessibility, funding ministry etc...  Who swallow the media line about the undeserving poor and the feckless welfare spongers.  When reality is far from that for the vast majority.

But I also find that I don't quite fit with those we work alongside, we have some shared experiences but so many that are different.  My assumptions and theirs about childhood, food, bills, schooling, parenting and so on are so very different.  But and here's the key we listen and learn and love.  And we seek to apply the gospel again and again in our actions and our conversation committed to people and the area.

One of the fallacies in the UK church scene is that you need people with working class and deprived backgrounds to plant into those areas.  In some ways it would be a huge advantage, but in another it ways it comes with some big potential drawbacks.  What these areas need is people of whatever class who will love and listen and serve in humility.  It needs people who don't assume they know the answers but come with compassionate determination to listen and empower not assume and solve.  We need people who love Jesus and show that by loving people, who cross divides, who accept differences, who don't confuse gospel values and cultural or class values.  Who will commit to discipling those who are very different from them and train up leaders over the long term from any and every social background.  We need people who are prepared to be between cultures for Christ.

Monday, 2 October 2017

Our very own Macedonian Call?

Last week I had the privilege (and surprise) of being asked to speak at the Gospel Yorkshire conference.  As ever in those sorts of situations there are things that I didn't get to address or talk about or nuance quite as I would have liked.  One of those was a perceived North South divide, the other was some issues to do with class.  I thought I'd try to type myself a bit clearer on those issues.

North South divide
This is a reality, the North of England has a lower percentage of believers per head of the population that most of the South, barring the South West I think.  And therefore just as in matters of normal life there is a natural influence that comes with this.  This can mean that those of us in the North develop a bit of a chip on our shoulder (or on both as I'm sometimes asked if I have - slightly ironic as I was born in Ipswich and am not quite a qualified naturalised Northerner as I've only lived in the north for 20 years).

On Thursday I made reference to a comment about Southern churches with a Yorkshire postcode.  What I was trying to get at was the idea that as churches in the North and Yorkshire we need to contextualise.  We ought to reflect and speak the gospel into the area and towns we meet in, the issues it faces, the hopes and aspirations it has, in light of its unique local history.  This will mean that it is different from churches in other areas, not just North South, but East West and even within a town.  What I was trying to get at was that we need to exegete our local culture.  Our churches if we reach locals will reflect local culture, but more than that we will reach locals best if we address the local culture with the gospel.  There's loads more I could share on that but I'll leave it at that for now.

That does not mean we do not need help.  I'd love churches across the UK to see the North, and especially Yorkshire, as missionary country.  I'd love them to encourage people to think about moving and serving in existing churches here.  There are faithful, gospel loving churches in lots of towns and cities sprinkled across the North that would be greatly blessed by the presence of more people who love Jesus and are willing to serve no matter where they are from.

One of the issues we face in Doncaster is that we are short of leaders, now long term I'd love to have more Yorkshire accents being heard from our pulpit, but that is a long term project in a town where evangelical Christianity among the population is below 0.5%.  But in the short and medium term we need workers to come and join us, to labour in the harvest field to see won and discipled those very people who will be leaders of the future.  It is not a problem to have southern voices at a Gospel Yorkshire conference or preaching from a pulpit, but I personally feel it will be if in 10-15 years we aren't hearing more Yorkshire accents too.

Addressing the Class issue
This is another subject which we touched on on Thursday and which I'd like to just share some thoughts.  I hope I made clear that the gospel and God's kingdom is for all classes, as well as all ethnicity's, languages etc.  God's vision of his Kingdom is vast.  But we naturally tend to reach people like us.  We don't deliberately set out to it is what we drift into.  We tend to spend time with those like us because we share loves, likes, hobbies, neighbourhoods etc... and so that is who we meet.  We need to be deliberate in reaching those not like us.  I think class is one of those areas, Christianity in the UK is predominantly middle class which means we will predominantly reach the middle class.  Unless we are intentional about reaching the working class (45% of the population).  Hence my focus on reaching the working class, especially in light of Yorkshire having a working class mentality.

That does not mean that you have to be working class to reach the working class.  It means we have to love people and seek out those different from us.  We need middle class background people to move into areas of gospel need and love those they find there, love them enough to commit to them and take the gospel to them and disciple them.  That will be hard, it requires wisdom and humility to listen to the culture, especially one very different from our own, and discern it's gospel echoes as well as the places it has been warped by sin.  It requires compassion and humility to walk alongside and learn with rather than assume we come to teach or solve problems.  I know because I've learnt some of those lessons the hard way through mistakes I've made serving such a community with my background and assumptions.

So come and help us.  No matter your class or county of origin.  If you love Jesus and love people and are prepared to listen and learn and love there are harvest fields that are ripe for harvest but where there are currently few workers.

Monday, 4 September 2017

Reflections 10 years in...

If you'd asked me where we would be ten years into planting if I'm honest it is not where we find ourselves.  I'd have envisaged more people joining us, more people coming to faith, and probably us preparing now to plant again.  Many of those ideas were born out of the conferences available on Church planting and having discussions and reading books written by other planters.  Most of the speakers at the conferences were those whose churches had grown quickly, most were either from the US - let's be honest a whole different ball game to the UK in so many ways - or from towns or cities with university populations.

Ten years in seems good point at which to reflect on a few things because we aren't where I'd envisaged us being and I'm not disappointed with that, I am grateful to God for his undeserved grace.  Maybe these reflections will help some of those thinking about, or about to, or who have just, planted.

Seek out those who have planted in situations like yours, listen to their stories, ask them honestly to share the joys and hardships not just the headlines.  Planters feel a great pressure to talk about the positives and the successes, those coming along rather than those who have left the plant team after a few weeks and so on.  In our experience planting has been hard, joyful, exhilarating, exhausting, heartbreaking and God glorifying, often from one day to the next, sometimes from one hour, or moment, to the next.  In non-university towns planting is hard graft, it is low and slow, it is gradual and sometimes it feels as if it has stalled or gone backwards.  Seek out those stories and people and learn all you can from them.  Gospel Partnerships may be a good place to start looking for such people rather than big conferences or books about church planting.

Pray for your daily bread.  Reflecting on ten years this is perhaps the biggest lesson I have learned. Jesus doesn't teach us to pray for 6 months time, and he wisely tells us each day has enough trouble of its own.  That has certainly been true in our ten years.  There have been times when the church has felt secure and stable but also many times when it has felt fragile and weak, when the fear has been will we still be here in 6 months.  And in such times I needed to pray for my daily bread, to deal with today not worry about tomorrow or March.  That isn't saying we don't plan or dream we do, but I'm learning - too slowly - to pray for my daily bread in a church context.  Planting is hard.

Reach the lost with the gospel.  We don't plant churches to recycle God's sheep.  We don't plant churches to give believers in Bible teaching churches another option, or we shouldn't either as individuals or denominations.  There's a great temptation to welcome such people, especially because of the pressure we too often feel about numbers, about growth.  But we plant churches to see the lost saved and discipled.  As a church we need to keep that at the top of the agenda because it too readily slips down the priorities.

Pastor believers with the gospel.  I think this has been one of the things I most frequently made a mess of during our ten years.  I wanted to reach the lost and yet on day one, 2nd Sept 2007, we were a church with all the pastoral problems involved in that, and to be brutally honest I took too long to see that and so we weren't set up for robust pastoral care.  We spent hours talking about how we would reach the lost; reading, dreaming, engaging with etc... but we invested little time as a launch team preparing means of and planning to provide pastoral care for believers.  Naively I assumed teaching the Bible would be enough, along with some pastoral visits, and that in a small team I and the other leaders would see, know and respond to needs as they arose.  It meant pastoral care was too patchy, depending on how much you would reveal, how quickly, and to whom, who you knew and how well you knew them.  By God's grace it has been a thrill to see the church grow in this area over the years, to see people grow in visiting and loving and pastoring those around them in the gospel.  Though often its still feels as if our needs outweigh our resources.

Buildings matter.  If I could suggest three things to a church looking to plant this would now be one of them; find a building for your plant to call home.  We meet and have always met in a school.  There are lots of positives with that, and we are very grateful for the good relationship we enjoy with the school.  It has opened doors and provided many opportunities.  But if I was planting again I'd look for a building from the beginning.  In the area we meet entering homes is fraught with social complexity, meeting in a school provides challenges in terms of running things mid-week among other things.  And I think having a permanent premises gives you a footprint in the area and makes a statement about permanence and commitment, especially important in an area like ours where children's centres and other community outreach initiatives have proved short lived and simply left people feeling let down again.

Partner with others.  Perhaps the most significant thing in our making 10 years both as a church and with me here as pastor have been gospel hearted partnerships.  Bessacarr Evangelical Church has been an incredible blessing to us; generous with both the time of their staff and their money, and also being forgiving of me in a way parents often have to be.  Other partnerships have provided financial support and encouragement at key times, maybe sometimes when those involved haven't realised how crucial their partnership and encouragement has been.  God given partnerships are a blessing and planters and planted churches need to to do all they can to cultivate them before, during and after planting.

God is good and his grace has sustained us, his plans and purposes have been far beyond our imagining and we pray that as we move into year 11 God would bring others to taste and see his goodness through his people.