Wednesday, 8 February 2017

The power of simply sticking at it

Will you still be here in 6 months?  A year?  2 years?  5 years?  10 years?  That is a question churches need to ask leaders and congregation as they plant and are planted, especially in less affluent areas.  In many working class and deprived areas people have been let down again and again by those who have promised commitment but then upped sticks and left when things got hard.  Social workers, GP's, teachers, other support and caring professionals are no longer rooted in a community and often move on (fairly frequently in the case of social workers) meaning that support changes, new relationships need to be built and often previous progress and shared history is lost.

The same has been happening with help offered to families from children's centres and the like.  The initial promise looked good but then the funding was cut, the case load piled up, promises were made and broken simply because there was so much to do.  And now many of these centres have shut with nothing realistically in their place within the locality.  Another promise of support that was no more than a promising castle quickly washed away by the tide.

The church must be different.  It must both launch, learn, and relaunch but also anchor itself within such communities and commit for the long term.  It must both change and adapt and yet stay and remain.  We must expect suspicion about how long we will last, we must be careful to promise no more than we can deliver, and we must commit to loving no matter the initial rejection (which so often is just a fear of being let down again when you move on).

Gospel ministry, especially in hard to reach or Yorkshire places, needs stability and that stability starts with the leadership.  Pastors are you called to ministry within that area or just to the ministry?  Will you still be here in 15 years or be off when a bigger church comes calling?  That's a question I would ask all pastors, not just planters.  Elders, are you committed to the area and the people?  Will you move here and commit your family to living in and among this community?  Will you turn down a promotion if it means a move across country away from the church or are you only here until something else comes along (if so I'm not sure how that fits with biblical eldership)?

I wonder if there is also something else we need to think through in terms of planting off the back of this.  If neighbourhood based communities need long term stickability I wonder if they need churches that are planted into permanent buildings rather than rented accommodation.  Rented accommodation does not say commitment and stability it says short term and changeable even if that is not what our plan is.  I wonder if, in those communities, having a building would go some way towards making a statement about commitment and perseverance?  Almost saying I'm all in.

So what does this mean for church planting?  It means we need to plant where we can into buildings. That raises the bar in terms of resourcing church plants if we need to buy a building or it means we ought to look for where existing gospel resources are.  Either revitalising an existing but dying church or entering into a coalition with us that gives us use of the building.  Both of those have their struggles and complexities but they also come with the bricks and mortar that offer opportunities and permanence.

Tuesday, 17 January 2017

CiYP: Church in Yorkshire Places

Contextualisation is vital.  Missionaries spend time learning a language and a culture so that they can share the gospel effectively and plant God honouring churches that disciple people well given their particular context.  I wonder sometimes whether we tend to forget that lesson in the UK.  Simply assuming because something worked somewhere else it will work here in just the same way.  But such an approach is dangerous and flawed because our regions have distinct flavours, histories and influences.

In fact it is one of my concerns as I look at the church in Yorkshire, the county with the lowest church attendance in the country, a church attendance on a par with Japan.  We simply haven't spent enough time thinking about how we reach Yorkshire people with the gospel.  We have tended to just do what everyone else is doing.  Partly that is skewed by church planting in university towns where the majority of students and a significant chunk of the general populace are not from Yorkshire.  Sheffield, Leeds, and York are not the norm in Yorkshire, though I wonder if even there churches are reaching the indigenous Yorkshire men and women or just the interlopers?

So what would it look like to contextualise?  Yorkshire is not the South of England.  Yorkshire people don't think like people from the home counties.  So how do we reach them with the gospel?  What would it look like to contextualise?  To do Church in Yorkshire Places?  Here are a few thoughts:

A Passion for Jesus
Middle Class (Southern) Evangelicalism tends to prize rational argument over passion.  Yet spend time with Yorkshire people and you realise they are passionate and driven.  A raised voice in conversation is not a sign of anger or loss of control or rationality but of concern and love and commitment.  Our passion for Jesus must match that of the fan for his club, or the Yorkshire man for his county.  Preach and proclaim the gospel with passion.

Working class mentality
If you ask a Yorkshire man what class he is he will look at you like you've gone mad.  What class would you want to be, 'Of course I'm working class I'm from Yorkshire.'  Being a Yorkshire man or woman defines your class not your occupation and it is historical not changeable.  Many have been to uni and have traditionally middle class jobs but still define themselves as being working class, in fact many will resent the implication that they are middle class.  They have working class values and virtues and we need to address those and think through how they have been shaped by gospel values, and how sin has warped them not simply value, assume, address and preach to middle class issues.

Local not national
Yorkshire people are passionate about being from Yorkshire, what other county devised it's own medal table for the Olympics.  They care passionately about local issues.  It is not that national or international issues don't matter but that local comes first.  How do we in our engagement, evangelism, preparation, and preaching reflect that?

A suspicion of interlopers
There is an ingrained suspicion of outsiders, especially if you speak with a posh accent (unless you are from Harrogate).  We have to work hard to overcome this, how? By accepting, loving and engaging with Yorkshire and it's quirks and eccentricities.  And we must commit to long term listening engagement and friendship with our communities if we are an interloper.  Listening matters, otherwise we reinforce the idea that we arrogantly presume to come in with all the answers.  We don't.  We have loads to learn and value and we will be richer for it.

Defined by hardship
Many communities in Yorkshire have had it hard.  Do your research?  Read local history about the miners strike and the loss of other traditional industries and understand how this has shaped, and is still shaping, communities.  Read local history and talk to and listen to local people about the church in that area.  People tend to define themselves by struggle and hardship.  Which in turn can produce a can't do attitude and or a resentment of others who have 'had it easy'.  In some cases we will find church has added to this hardship.  We need to wrestle with how the gospel addresses and reshapes this?  How do we plant and pastor churches that reshape this with gospel realism and thankfulness?

Mistrust of big project/society/organisations
Many have been let down by big promises made by big organisations or left disenchanted by unfulfilled promises and visions.  This leads to a sense of mistrust of the big and of grandiose visions and plans.  We need to plant and pastor churches that overcome this by being realistic, only promising what we can do and by being quick to admit mistakes if and when we have let people down.  Working hard to win back trust through sheer love and commitment.

This is only scratching the surface of what is a very complex issue but one we need to face and think more deeply about as we pray and plan to evangelise Yorkshire for the glory of God by planting churches across this great county.

Thursday, 22 December 2016

A mistake we might regret

We need to do everything we can to ensure that the church does not lose its buildings.  As I drive round Doncaster I see former churches everywhere, some are glaziers premises, some are carpet show rooms, some are houses, some are derelict.  All of them would be better, as would the area they are in, for a thriving gospel witness in them.  And so that leads me to think that we ought to be looking, and planting, so as to ensure the church does not lose buildings.

This is especially the case as it is predominantly in the less affluent and middle class areas where we are losing them.  I can think of three places off the top of my head in Doncaster, gospel needy places, where churches either have or look like they are in danger of shutting their doors in the next 10 years.  Once that land and those buildings are lost how will we plant into those areas again?  How will we get a permanent foothold and presence in those areas?

As a church we've been looking for premises for a while and it's not easy, there is not much around an the prices, where we are, are astronomical.  We'd love there to be a derelict church building to run things in and use as a base to serve the community.  Yes, there would be draw backs and compromises, but old wooden pews are nothing a quick prayer and a flamethrower couldn't solve.  In too many areas churches are struggling and will close and building and land will be lost, and this seems to disproportionately be the case in the more working class and deprived areas.  And once lost how will we reach those areas and those people.  Location matters more than ever in those sorts of communities because the community and connections are built around neighbourhood not network.

I think all this needs to impact our church planting strategy.  How?  We ought to be asking where are there buildings we could plant into?  Where are the gospel needy areas in our towns and cities where we could run an afternoon service in an existing church building whose congregation meets in a morning?  Where are the areas which we cannot reach from our network churches because they are neighbourhood areas which can only be reached with a neighbourhood church?  Where are the churches that are on their knees, not in prayer, but in despair and in terms of numbers which we can approach about revitalisation or a replant?  What networks can we build so that if the worst happens and a church has to close its doors they approach others who can start a work there so the land and building and gospel witness are not lost?

Not getting on the property ladder

Grace Church has now been actively looking for a permanent building for a little over 6 months now. Those who know the area we are in will know as a former RAF base all the land was sold to Peel Holdings and there is precious little land in the area owned by anyone else.  We've spent the last 6 months enquiring as to the availability and cost of various pieces of land or property.  We have so far drawn a total blank.  Peel have nothing that is suitable for us.  The vacant, for sale, piece of land next to our house, which has been a car park of sorts for 12 years is for sale at offers over £1.2million (slightly beyond our budget)for an acre and a half.  We enquired about properties for rent or sale on the various business parks only to be told that they would not let or sell to a church because the owners want them to be business parks.

More recently we have been in contact with the council about any land available as part of the building of the new airport road (FARRRS).  But have heard this week that they are only compulsory purchasing the land required to build the road and so there will not be any land available to buy or build on.  The former local post office, that would be less than ideal but is vacant is being developed as further office space.  And the area of land, empty and disused, owned by South Yorkshire Housing Association they want to hold on to and will not sell.

It leaves us with few places to go.  We are very blessed in that we have a great working relationship with the school we hire, and there is no pressure from them for us to leave.  However, due to building work at the school we have had to stop our coffee morning and are just meeting there on a Sunday morning.  We are also limited as to what we can offer to serve and meet the community by not having our own building.  We remain convinced that God is good and sovereign and that though his ways are not our ways he will build his kingdom.  We are sure what he has in store for us is better than we can imagine even if we cannot see what that is yet.  And so I'd ask you to pray with us and for us.

Tuesday, 13 December 2016

Christmas: where dreams die

I don't know if you've noticed but Christmas is incredibly costly to those involved in it.  As Mary, after her visitation by the angel, says "I am the Lord's servant, may it be to me according to your word." it costs her.  The first Christmas is not about Mary's dreams being fulfilled, it is about Mary's dreams dying so that she can be part of something bigger.  All of Mary's dreams; of a white wedding, a joy and excitement filled lead up to her wedding to Joseph, her reputation in the community as a godly young woman, all of those die as she submits to God's word to her.

She will no longer be the godly young woman she is the teenage harlot who just couldn't wait, or who went behind Joseph's back.  Those rumours would follow her into Jesus adulthood.  Imagine the cost to her relationship to Joseph, he has in mind to divorce her, and takes an angelic visitation to change his mind.  As Mary bursts into God honouring praise in the Magnificat it is because she has wrestled with the death of her dreams and accepted that God's promise and plan is better.

Christmas asks us whether we have wrestled with that very issue?  Have my dreams died in order for me to follow Jesus?  Accepting Jesus as Lord means the death of my worldly dreams in order to be involved in God's greater plan to save a lost world through the good news of his Son.  And it is not a one off wrestle.  Proclaiming Jesus as Lord means bowing the knee, submitting to his way not my way, daily.

All our dreams of significance, ease, wealth, achievement need to be given over to Jesus and they may well die in order for us to do what he has for us to do in pursuit of his glory.  Our society calls us again and again and again to adopt and pursue its dreams.  Christmas challenges us with the call that following Jesus means submitting to him, even our dreams, and echoing Mary's words "I am the Lord's servant, may it be to me according to your word."

Monday, 5 December 2016

Reminded of the Gospel need

I've been reminded again of the gospel need of Doncaster.  A family connected with our church, who has shown considerable interest in the gospel at various times and have many questions but who are yet to come to faith are about to move.  Not by choice but because they have to.  Due to the nature of rehousing their home will by some 9 miles away on the other side of Doncaster.   They don't drive so driving half an hour to meet with us isn't an option, there are no direct buses, and a round trip of over an hour to pick someone up for church is impossible when we already transport a number of other people.  So I've been desperately trying to find a Bible teaching church for them where they will hear the gospel and be loved, but so far I've drawn a blank.

It reminds me again of the gospel need of Doncaster.  It drives me to pray that God will raise up people who see the need and come and help us reach Doncaster with the gospel.

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?