Monday, 14 November 2016

Is there a place for strategy in the church?

Strategy - does that word and all that it means have any place in the church?  I hear a lot about strategy in the evangelical world.  Planting into strategic places, doing strategic ministry among strategic people and so on and so on.  My big question is how much of this is unhelpful and worldly, how much is simply a cover for our desire for comfort and how much is genuinely driven by an awareness of a lost eternity for thousands now?

This post has been percolating away in my mind since we spent a gospel group pouring over, thinking through, understanding and wrestling with the implications of James 2.  Then today as, on my morning off, I drove from Doncaster to Rotherham past community after community without a vibrant gospel teaching church I couldn't help but think about it again.  At what point does strategy do more harm than good?  Where are the churches doing strategic thinking about planting into these communities - Mexborough, Conisbrough,  Warmsworth - as well as the student areas of Leeds and Sheffield?  Where are the churches willing to fund such unsexy church plants that will grow slowly and need financial life support for a considerable time?

The Bible is not without strategy, in fact it sets out God's strategy.  The great commission is our strategy - go make disciples of all nations.  Acts 1v8 shapes it for us geographically - Jerusalem, Judea and Samaria and then the ends of the earth.  Revelation gives us a picture of what success looks like; a multitude no one can count from every possible ethnic and socio-economic background gathered together and united in praise of our God and Saviour.

Interestingly people often talk about Paul's strategy of going to a key town and setting up a church there from which the gospel will naturally be carried to the outlying towns and districts.  Yet the world has changed, areas have changed.  Can we just assume that happens now?  Where are the studies that prove such?  Can we really reach the surrounding areas from the cities in the UK?  Where are the churches who are planting out of cities into the surrounding gospel poor towns and areas?  [Excitingly Gospel Yorkshire is getting churches thinking about just that - why not visit the link on the side bar to hear more].  Why are churches in cities in the UK generally getting younger and growing whilst those in towns age and shrink?  Why is nothing being done to reverse that?

Secondly no one seems to mention Paul's other strategy.  "It has always been my ambition to preach the gospel where Christ was not known, so that I would not be building on someone else’s foundation."  Paul takes the gospel to where others are not working, to communities that have no gospel witness.  Imagine how different the church scene would look if that happened today, no multi-denominational church plants clustered in a student/young professional area already well served by churches but a vibrant gospel preaching church for every town, and every significant populace across every area of a city.

It seems to me that often when we talk of strategic ministry we are thinking in worldly terms, reaching the influential and affluential.  I hear talk of deploying people where they can be most fully used.  I hear of the significance of student ministry, or planting churches in student areas, for raising up future leaders for the church.  And let me say I think there is some truth in some of those.  But I also think there is a great big gospel hole in our thinking - it leaves great big parts of the UK unevangelised and are we really achieving our aim if they stay clustered in those student churches well into their twenties and thirties whilst their home churches shrivel and die?

Less than 1/3 of 18 year olds go to university, so how are we going to reach the other 2/3s?  45% of the UK population is working class and yet little strategic thinking has gone into reaching them and few churches are planted into those areas?  Is it because we think in worldly strategic terms of influence and likeness rather than in gospel terms of lost souls to win and cross cultural and class churches united in the gospel?

I wonder if it's time to review the strategy we have often held to.  Your strategy is only strategic if it achieves the thing it is designed to do otherwise it is just another failed attempt.  I'd love to know what percentage of the leaders being trained up as students go on to serve in churches outside of student towns and cities?  I'd love to hear of churches in the South who see the gospel needs of the North of England and think strategically about partnering with churches there to reach vast areas without gospel witness.  I'd love to hear of more and more young men and women willing to sacrifice themselves for the gospel in hard places rather than serving in a church where there are 'people like them' or where they can 'fulfil their potential', or play a strategic role in training up and sending the next generation (If you're not willing to go why would they?  People follow leaders not un-modelled ideas - Ezra and Nehemiah provide a helpful model).

There is another strategy I see at play in the Bible, costly self-sacrifice that dies to self for the gospel.  That goes where there is most need not most ease.  That sees a town or community with no gospel witness and cannot but weep over it and be moved at cost to self to want to take the gospel there, or to facilitate it going there.

As I drove back this morning I felt a burning desire to see churches planted in those places I drove through, in fact I'd love to be involved in planting those churches and see people come to know Jesus.  They won't be strategic in worldly terms, they won't win a platform at a national conference, or a board seat on an organising committee, it will be low key, hard labouring, gospel grunt work.  But in God's strategy there are those who have not heard the gospel who need to hear it and his strategy is for us to be moved by compassion for the lost and to go.  How would that strategy transform our thinking, our planting, our training, our giving, and our going?

New Song: Prepare our hearts

We're going to be learning this song over the coming weeks.

Thursday, 13 October 2016

Learn, Launch, Re-learn, Reform

Last week I had the privilege of sharing something of the story of Grace Church at Gospel Yorkshire's second annual conference.  I'm not going to rehash it all here.  But I did want to just share one key thing which I think has been hugely helpful at every step of our journey as a church so far and in thinking about the future.  It's not original, it's based on an idea in the Redeemer church planting manual which I have always found stimulating and thought provoking.

At the initial stage when we planted a lot of time was spent trying to learn as much as possible about the area and the people and the needs.  Speaking to key people, headteachers, doctors, local councillors etc is vital and insightful.

However, as the saying goes no battle plan survives first contact.  So as we launch we need to be ready to re-learn.  How do we do that?  By listening as we get to know others in the community and work alongside them.  By continuing to ask questions and have open eyes to observe the community and our interactions with them.  Are people wary and suspicious of a church?  Are there other things that clash with when we meet?  Are there needs that are now apparent that weren't when we first started meeting?

It's also important because areas change.  The area where we meet now was only 680 houses 10 years ago.  Now it's well over 1,000 and still growing and the nature of those houses has changed as a new estate of 4 and 5 bedroom houses is rapidly being built.  It's prompting me to ask new questions as I relearn about the area as it grows.  How are those moving in now different from established populations?  How will they get on with those established in the area?  How can church bridge the gaps?  How are their preconceptions and misconceptions about church and the gospel the same or different to those already here?  How ought we to adapt to reach them with the gospel whilst still reaching those we are already trying to reach?

The process is never ending.  It is not just one that is good for planters to be aware of but for all pastors and elders.  The social landscape around us is shifting all the time, the gospel does not change but barriers to it shift as populations do and so do opportunities.  If we are not engaged in our communities, asking questions, listening to responses and praying about and for our communities we will grow increasingly distant from them and so will the gospel and the way we present it.

Tuesday, 27 September 2016

The dangers of disconnection

We're working our way through Esther on Sunday morning's and as I prepared for last Sunday I couldn't help but notice how isolated and disconnected from the people of God she has become.  As all the rest of God's people mourn in sackcloth and ashes Esther is not.  And when Esther hears of Mordecai's actions she doesn't join him in mourning instead she sends him clothes to put on.  On the surface it sounds callous.  But the real problem is that Esther doesn't know what is going on.  She knows nothing about the threat to God's people posed by Haman's decree.  Keeping her nationality hidden means no-one knows that this concerns her and Esther's compromise with the world leads to isolation which in turn leads to disconnection from the people of God.  In fact so disconnected is Esther that she seems to feel she'll be OK, shielded by her position and palace life - hence Mordecai's rebuke.  It takes the encouragements and challenges of Mordecai to make her stand as one of God's people.

As I studied the chapter it occurred to me that this pattern is a recurring one in the bible.  In Genesis 38 Judah isolates himself from his brothers and goes to stay with Hiram and basically lives as he likes, sleeping with what he assumes is a shrine prostitute.  David, isolated from his men because he stays at home in the palace, sees, pursues, and commits adultery with Bathsheba and then murders Uriah.  Peter finds himself isolated by the courtyard fire and ends up denying he knows Jesus.

Isolation and disconnection for the people of God is dangerous.  It is hard to live in the world but not be of the world on our own.  Which is why we are not on our own.  Esther needs Mordecai to challenge and encourage her.  Judah needs Tamar's actions which act as rebuke to make him realise how far he has fallen.  David needs Nathan's prophetic challenge.  Peter needs Jesus' loving restoration into the church.

Why would we be any different?  We need one another and God knowing that gifted us the church.  So invest in the relationships you have there.  Connect don't just attend.  Be discipled and disciple others don't settle for being a consumer because disconnection is dangerous for the people of God.

Tuesday, 20 September 2016

Praying for us to obeying our calling in our community

On Sunday we responded to God's word to us as a church by praying this prayer together, it is borrowed from the Redeemer New York service I was at 9 months ago.  
Minister: In a world filled with brokenness, confusion, darkness, mourning and loneliness, God has called His people to bring the healing light of the gospel into every sector of our town through every profession, institution and calling.  There is no inch of this town where his gospel cannot redeem.
All:           We repent of how we have overlooked this great calling we have been given.  The Spirit is waking us to see this mission in God’s world.
                 We surrender all that we are to serve you, O Lord, our Rock, and King.
                 We pray for your power, renouncing our selfish pride, to serve our town with excellence in our respective roles, jobs and professions.
                 We rest in your unfailing love, which dissolves all bitterness, fear, anxiety, and resentment, so that this world will know we belong to you.
                 We ask that you would open our eyes to see how the gospel is powerfully at work to transform hearts, communities, and the world.
Minister: And I heard the voice of the Lord saying: “Whom shall I send, who will go for us?”
All:           Then I said, “Here I am! Send me.”
Minister: Go into all the world: work, build, design, write, dance, laugh, sing, create and care.
All:           We go with the assurance of God’s great commission.
Minister: Go into all the world: risk, explore, discover, and love.
All:           We go with the assurance of God’s abundant grace.
Minister: Go into all the world: believe, hope, struggle, persevere, and remember
All:       We go with the assurance of God’s unfailing love.  Amen

Wednesday, 14 September 2016

Joy filler or killer, which are you?

Hebrews 13:17 is a fascinating verse.  "Obey your leader and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your soul, as those who will have to give an account.  Let them do this with joy and not with groaning, for that would be of no advantage to you."

We have two choices when it comes to what sort of people we are in church, we are either burdensome making leadership hard and groan filled or we are a joy to lead.  But what does that look like?  How do I make leadership a joy for those in leadership in my church?  Let me make some suggestions:

  1. Be there.  Your presence is a blessing and an encouragement.  It conveys commitment and that you appreciate all that they do and take your spiritual wellbeing as seriously as they do.  And that applies not just on Sunday's, endeavour to be part of a gospel or home group, be at prayer meetings.  As you do so you are inviting and enabling the leadership, and other people, to know you and care for you well.
  2. Be engaged.  Engage with what the leaders are teaching from the Bible, ask them questions about it (leaders aren't afraid of this, they love it when people want to explore God's word, or even be clear in their minds on something that is just a bit vague after the sermon or bible study).  Engage with the direction the leadership are taking the church, question them about why they are making the decisions they are making and what they hope the outcome will be - convey that you have confidence in them but want to understand and support and get onboard.
  3. Be Growing.  If you asked what leaders of churches want it is for people to be progressing in their faith, to be growing and changing as they wrestle to apply the gospel to every area of their lives.  If you want to make your leaders leadership a joy, to encourage them to keep going let them know where and when you are wrestling to apply God's word, or when it has encouraged you or challenged you and what you are praying the outcome would be.
  4. Be giving.  Be giving financially to support the work of the church, the Bible calls us to do just that as an act of love in reasons to the gospel.  And not tight-fistedly but as generously as Christ has given to us.  Why not start with the tithe as a bare minimum and then challenges yourself to give more when you review it after 3 months?  Give of your time and gifts too, this shouldn't be done in lieu of financial support but alongside it.  Where can you serve, how can you be involved, how can you support, who can you encourage?  
  5. Be fishing.  Be engaged with taking the gospel to your work colleagues, friends, family and neighbourhood.  Be that by starting an Uncover Bible study, bringing friends to services, serving the community in act of practical love or in any number of other ways.  But make Jesus mission your mission, not just the leaders.
Perhaps the negative is helpful.  How could I fill a leaders life with groaning?  Let me again make some suggestions:
  1. Be sporadic.  Be infrequent never really committing so that no-one every really knows whether you are committed or not.  Be busy so that you dash in late and have to hurry away afterwards.  Be too busy to attend a home group and ensure that your children are so busy they can't really be involved or build good relationships.  That's bound to make your leaders nervous and concerned.
  2. Be disinterested.  In part this will show in number 1.  But you can also be present but disinterested.  Approaching the pastor straight after the sermon finishes to ask him about his Fantasy football team, or to tell him of the interesting anecdote his first illustration made you think of is not encouraging.  Neither is texting, updating your status on Facebook, or playing clash of clans during his sermon.  Disinterest can also take the form of criticism or cynicism, that says no matter what you do I'm not inserted in following.
  3. Be static.  Be totally uninterested in changing.  Show no interest in applying what you hear to life.  Or alternately if you are changing don't tell anyone or share what God is doing.
  4. Be a consumer.  Don't support the church financial, or if you do make sure it's just a token offering.  Don't give anything whilst making the most of every opportunity you can to leech as much as you can from the church.  Give nothing by way of time and support.  Consume the teaching, send as many kids as you can to the youth work.  Criticise and tell the leaders of programmes other churches are running that fit just what you need and pressure them to start one just like that - though of course you're too busy to help with it.
  5. Be insular.  Don't engage with the outside world.  Don't bring anyone to church ever.  Don't go along to support guest events let alone take anyone.  Don't be welcoming to visitors.  And if every you're asked let your leaders know evangelism is their job after all it's their church.
They are just a few ways we could encourage or discourage our leaders, I'd love to hear others if you have them.

Monday, 12 September 2016

Our churches first million pound signing?

Another quick update on our search for a more permanent home for Grace Church.  We've continued praying and pushing doors, though so far all are remaining firmly closed.  Peel Holdings say there is nothing suitable for us in their portfolio of land and properties.  And so last week we contacted an estate agent about the acre and a half of land on the corner of Hayfield Lane and First Avenue to ask if they had any details of the site and a potential guide price.

It's an acre and half which is compose of an old car park and some wild grass land and trees all in an L-shape.  It's much bigger in many ways than we need but would allow us to provide the community with a park and outside play area which it is currently lacking, and provide scope for our youth work as there is no local park to do things at.  It is also one of the few sites available for sale.  Maybe I was being naive but I was utterly shocked by the reply I received.  In terms of guide price we were told that they were looking for offers in excess of a £1,000,000.  That seems to be the going rate for land in and around this area, due in part to the development at the airport and the existing and upcoming airport link roads.

How are we reacting to this?  Well, some people have said that kills any thoughts of pursuing that piece of land, others have said maybe we should start fundraising, our God is sovereign after all.  We need to take some time to stop and pray and think though exactly what it is we want to do and what is feasible.  We are a small church, working in a predominantly not wealthy area, though with new estates rising rapidly, and more proposed for the near future, that is beginning to change.  What is feasible?  What is right?  And what our vision is?  Seem to be key things we need to stop, pray and think through.  As ever we'd value your prayers.