Friday, 13 April 2018

Throwing in the towel?

I think honesty matters.  So I thought I'd blog about some of the frustrations of ministry which I've been experiencing over the last few months.  I'm hoping it doesn't come across as venting, that's not the aim, I'm hoping rather that it will encourage others that they are not alone.  I'm also not after sympathy, it has driven me back to old truths which I hold precious, I'm hoping rather to share what I have found helpful in the hope that it may provide some encouragement to others.

How do you deal with discouragement?  It's a question every pastor has to answer because we all experience it.  It is a question every church should have an answer too as well because it will come, probably again and again and again.  There are lots of discouragements in ministry: The couple who leave church because they want their kids in a better school and so are relocating.  The person who quietly points you to a better Tim Keller, or John Piper, or John MacArthur sermon than the one you just preached at the door after the service.  The person who regularly emails the whole church with any issue rather than coming to speak to the leaders.  Being told you can no longer use a venue because of what you teach.  The other pastor who discourages people from moving to serve in your church because you just can't offer what they can or because there is no one like them.  Being told that the church does not have a class problem in Britain.  Abusive and aggressive responses to either sermons or blogs that accuse you of being too liberal, too conservative, of being in danger of losing the gospel to social action, or of being a preaching church/pastor not a caring one.  Being stymied in your every attempt to buy a building or land.  Seeing little fruit in terms of the lost won for Christ.

Most of those are discouragements I've experienced, many of them repeatedly, others I anticipate facing.  How should we deal with them?  There is a danger that we go into hedgehog mode, we ball up at the slightest sign of discouragement and become prickly towards any and everyone - rejecting both help and harm.  Or at the opposite extreme we wall ourselves off, develop a Teflon coat, and resolve not to care/listen so that we don't get hurt and redouble our efforts in an 'I'll show them' recipe for burn out.  Neither of those are helpful, neither are godly.

I love and repeatedly come back to the story of Elijah post Carmel in 1 Kings 19 when I'm feeling discouraged.  I love the tenderness with which God treats him, I love the care you see lavished on him.  I also love Elijah's passion for God's glory that we see restored.  I think too there is much for us to learn from this.

We are meant to care about our ministry.  For those who charge Elijah with an unhealthy focus on himself.  Be honest with yourself, if we care passionately and invest in the ministry God calls us to, if we care for people and see them want to follow Jesus and grow as disciples then we are emotionally involved.  When someone we've been sharing the gospel with, or our children, reject Christ, or someone in leadership or in the church falls away, as Israel have, we do feel our ministry has been a waste of time.  It is Elijah's passion for God's glory that leads to his discouragement.

But God knows and God does something interesting.  What does Elijah need in this situation?  Notice God's wisdom he provides him with food and rest.  So often part of our discouragement is exhaustion, tiredness and that in busy seasons of ministry, intense pastoral situations, we don't look after ourselves very well.  God knows that spiritual warfare is exhausting and so he recharges Elijah's batteries with sleep and food (also a remind of past provision in difficulty).

Then God calls him to come into his presence and God's question "What are you doing here, Elijah?" It isn't a rebuke, it cannot be he has just led him there.  It is an invitation to speak his discouragement to God.  Elijah tell me what has led you here?  Too often we stew on our discouragements rather than pray to God about them.  God invites Elijah to speak and he listens.  And then God reminds him he is part of something bigger(v15-18) and gently corrects him, he is not alone, his passion is not misplaced, and God will be glorified and he will save.

Discouragement is real.  How will we deal with it?

Monday, 9 April 2018

It's not a competition but...

If you talk to most people who know me they will tell you that I am quite competitive.  Be it at board games, football, or a pizza eating competition with my teenage sons at a Pizza Hut buffet.  I guess most of us are competitive at something, be it competing against ourselves to beat that time, be fitter, read more books than last year, or competing against others at any or everything.

But our competitiveness is deeply damaging when it comes to ministry and I know because I've felt the need to compete.  'How big is your church now?' is the question that most people who have planted churches face most regularly in some form or another.  It is spectacularly unhelpful.  It sets up an us and them.  The successful versus unsuccessful.  It brings a weight of expectation which can become a burden.  It plays to all our competitive and comparative instincts and mitigates against partnership and gracious honesty and mutual care and prayer.  And it totally ignores the different socio-economic, planting strategies, team strengths, environmental factors, geographical and demographic quirks which have a huge influence on those things.

As I've mused on this issue it strikes me that our competitiveness creates its own problems.  It seems to me to be a clever ploy of Satan to keep us driven or proud or disappointed and disparate rather than united.  Here are a number of areas which are impacted by competitive ministry:

1. My kingdom focus not big kingdom focus
Read through Acts and look for competitive evangelism or church growth and you won't find it.  Instead theirs is a whole kingdom focus that frees resources, generously gives, and graciously and joyfully celebrates growth everywhere.  Yet too often we are focused on my church, my numbers, my mission field, comparing and contrasting it with others and then feeling either proud or crushed.  This simply shouldn't be.

2. Competition negates rejoicing
Too often we see ministry growth elsewhere as a threat or as highlighting deficiencies in ours.  That simply is not so.  And such thinking means we will not grow beyond being stunted spiritual pygmies.  It means the gospel has not really penetrated our hearts and is not likely to.  It also means we may take an unhealthy joy, though we'd never show it, in another ministries struggles.

3. Keeping our slice of the pie
There is only so much funding for ministry so if we are competitive we will jealously guard what funding we have access to; looking to ring fence and protect, or grow our revenue streams using a business model.  We will want to invest in our ministry, our church, gain funding for our initiatives, ignoring the fact that it may be at the expense of others.  The Biblical model seems to be a bit different.  Funding flows where the need is greatest not where the wealth is.  So initially most mission is funded by the Jerusalem church.  But when the Gentile churches are healthy and well established and there is a famine in Jerusalem they gentile churches generously send money back to Jerusalem.  They don't want to keep their slice of the pie, they don't hoard resources because they are concerned for the kingdom and their brothers and sisters and so they give.

4. Hoarding not providing
I've done a whole blog post on this but this is another area where competitiveness causes gospel blockage.  If we're competitive we will focus on growing our ministry and our staff team rather than on providing workers for the kingdom where ever they are needed.  Instead ought we to be training up leaders and preparing them for service in other parts of God's kingdom, rather than training up to hoard.  When was the last time your church trained up a leader you would love to have kept but deliberately sent on somewhere else to serve?

5. Competition creates isolation
Let me speak personally to pastors.  Many pastors are lonely.  Not in the sense of having no friends but in terms of creating expectations of themselves that are unhealthy and lead to isolation.  Admittedly some of those are caused by unhealthy church cultures, but increasingly I think that is a tiny minority.  Our competitiveness means we don't want to show the very people who could most help us our vulnerabilities be it because of the fragility of our ego, fear of how other pastors may judge me, or simply because of pride.  How many other pastors are you really honest with about how you are doing?  Not in terms of your church but in terms of our own personal walk with Jesus, our love for God, our pastoring of our families, our theological doubts?

There are lots more ways our competitiveness hinders our ministries.  I'm pretty sure than behind many pastoral burn-outs and moral crash and burns lies an unhealthy, gospel denying competitiveness.  I'm also sure it is behind much of the pastoral loneliness and isolation people feel.  Only in applying the gospel and fighting our sinful pride saturated competitiveness will we know the joy of gospel partnership, love and kingdom growth.  It's a battle that I am increasingly aware I must fight to avoid all those dangers listed above and many others.

Thursday, 8 March 2018

Are you a hoarding church or a healthy church?

I was privileged to grow up in a small church.  There was no music group, no rapid growth, some teens but not a huge peer group.  But what there was in the church was a gospel generosity that was healthy and outward looking and consistently gave away people to mission and ministry elsewhere.  As I look back on that church, not perfect by a large stretch of the imagination, that healthy generosity is what really stands out for me.  It is no surprise that for a small church it has produced a disproportionate number of pastors who lead churches elsewhere across the country.

It is only as we planted a small church and as we labour in it where the growth is slow that I now realise how amazing that gospel generosity really was.  The temptation as a church and as a church leader is to hoard people, especially good people, especially if you are situated in an area without a regular influx of newcomers.  It is immensely costly to give away your people to other ministries and other churches.  It feels painful and costly and can make something that is already fragile feel even more so.

In the books they tell you that such generosity provides an opportunity for someone else to step up, and yes it does, but let's be honest, off the page, that doesn't always (often) happen.  But I am convinced that gospel generosity is right.  As I read Acts I'm struck again by the generosity of the church in Antioch in who they send out on mission, it's not the developing leaders, it's not the people with potential, it is key leaders.  The challenge as I read that is to have that same gospel generosity in the way I think about church and those God has given us to disciple.

The temptation is to hoard.  To focus on our needs.  But we are called to a bigger focus, a kingdom focus.  It is costly to train people up and send them out.  It is costly for the pastor and for the church.  It is particularly so for a small church but if we get the big vision of need and kingdom and see ourselves as stewards how can we not.  It's a good question to ask ourselves as churches and as leaders - are we a hoarder or are we healthy?

Tuesday, 6 March 2018

Church on Sunday: optional, advisable or essential?

I've been musing for a few weeks on something that is increasingly bothering me and I can't quite put my finger on why.  I don't want to be thought legalistic - who would - but at the same time I'm aware of some growing trends in churches that long term worry me, so here goes.

Time is the ultimate pressure point of our lives.  There is seemingly so much to do and so little time to do it in.  And that means we cram our schedules fuller and fuller.  Weekends are rarely quiet times of the week, often we cram in everything we just haven't had time for during the week.  And increasingly this is as true of Sunday as Saturday.  Interestingly the Bible's pattern of rest and work is 1 day of rest, 6 of work.  Our pattern is supposedly 2 and 5, though I wonder how much that means we abandon 1 and 6 because we allow bleed across the weekend of 'work'.  Because I think as Christians a 1 and 6 pattern would make us really stand out and do us good.  Anyway that is a subject for another ramble

Over the last few years I've become increasingly worried about the way we are coming to think of church.  Now there are lots of good reasons to be away from church on a Sunday, as families move for work and become more geographically distant weekend visiting becomes a familial obligation, and a good loving practise.  Similarly with friends, sometimes a weekend with good friends can be an oasis of calm and a great time for reflection aside from the chaotic maelstrom of everyday life.  Such times of deliberately stepping out of life normal patterns is good and such relationships are restorative.  If our family and friends are Christians we attend church with them and that too is a blessing, seeing other believers, other fellowships and other ways of rejoicing in Christ and spurring one another on is good for us.

But here's my concern, so many other things now vie with Church for our time and commitment on Sundays.  We've had to make decisions regarding Sunday sports with the boys because they clash with church, not just church on Sunday morning but increasingly football is 2 nights a week, Saturday and Sunday morning and sometimes afternoon.  We've had to make similar decisions about Martial Arts and competing.  But it's not just sport.  Cubs, scouts and other uniformed organisations are increasingly running events over Sundays.  School play rehearsals and the like are often on Sundays.  Music groups, orchestra's, choirs etc also run so many things on Sundays.  Alongside that so many courses and events for adults run on Sundays, from sailing clubs and sewing groups, to singing groups.

Here is my concern, what are our actions conveying to our others about the importance of the gospel, our faith and the necessity or otherwise of church?  What does it reveal about the way we really think of God's people?  I am not legalistically arguing for slavish attendance at church every Sunday.  But I wonder if the trajectory we are on is doing more damage than we realise to our churches and especially to our children as they learn the lesson that church is just another optional activity to be fitted in when there are no higher priorities.  What will that mean for them as adults and as parents themselves?

I wonder if you asked your children how important they think church is on a scale of 1 to 10 what they would say and why?  What about what they would say about how important they conclude you think church is?  Is it a nice option, is it advisable or is it essential?  How do we really think about it and how does that show in our lives?

It's easy for us to drift into patterns of non-attendance before we realise it.  To be away this weekend visiting family, that weekend visiting friends, this week we are at Scout camp, and so on.  In part that's why we're running an afternoon service alongside our mornings.  So that for those who are away or visiting family there is a second opportunity to worship God and gather with his people to be both encouraged by others and an encouragement to others.

The New Testament pulls no punches we NEED church.  Yet I wonder if we really believe that?

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?