Tuesday, 25 April 2017

Church Planting: Bring your coffin...

Church is about relationships.  The story of the universe is about the relationship we were made for it's ruin, it's redemption and it's final perfect realisation and enjoyment.  It should therefore be no surprise that relationships matter.  But it should also be no surprise that the ruin of the fall marred relationships and continues to mar relationships.  It should also be no surprise that church is about relationships.  Every "one another" in the Bible is predicated on relationships which are significantly developed and committed enough to enable that one anothering to happen.

But our society is increasingly moving away from relationships, certainly on anything more than a superficial level.  Ask yourself honestly how many people are you truly friends with?  How many are committed deeply to your well being?  So deeply that they will put themselves out for you in times of crisis?  Who rejoice with you, mourn with you, sit with you, listen to you?  Whose very presence brings comfort even in silence?  How many of your friendships are like walking through a puddle rather than swimming in the depths of an ocean?  If we're honest these relationships are few and far between.  Increasingly sociologists tell us they are becoming scarcer, the number of those deep committed friendships we experience has reduced some suggest by as much as half.  We settle for superficial friendship whilst longing for something deeper.

There is another facet of this change.  As our society has become more fluid, more temporary, more mobile so our commitment to a place, to people, to community and to church has shifted.  In the 1960's many people would attend 1 or 2 churches in their lifetime.  Now many of us have attended more than that before we leave home because we have moved with our parents work.  That mobility subtly influences the way we think of church and in turn impacts the churches we plant and their effect on the area evangelistically.

When we planted I asked people who were coming with us to commit to a minimum of 5 years.  How do you feel about that?  About right?  Too great a commitment?  I now think that was a totally wrong expectation to set.  Instead I should have said bring your coffin with you.  Come with me for life.   Missionaries in earlier times often took their coffins with them because they didn't expect to return home, it was a sign of their commitment to the people they were going to reach with the gospel.  How about us?

Pastor is that your expectation about your current pastorate?  How long do you plan to be there?  5, 10, 15, 20, years?  Is that a biblical expectation or a worldly one?  Is that careerism or calling?  Church member is that your expectation?  Are you there until something better comes up or until the next promotion comes available?  Or are you called too?

I particularly think that in working class and deprived communities being there for life matters.  Committing to that early on matters because you will want to give up.  You will experience push back, you will experience set backs, you will experience slander, you will experience unexpected barrier after barrier to the gospel.  You will find that the slightest perceived slight or failure will bring the shutters that have taken so long to raise up crashing back down.  You will find preconceived misconceptions about church, that surface and have to be refuted again and again.  But you will also find a harvest field that is ripe for harvest amid the hardships and hard hearts.  So church planters bring your coffin.

Tuesday, 4 April 2017

It's not just Cadbury's...

As usual there has been something of a fuss made of an organisation taking the word Easter off their eggs.  I have to say something like that just doesn't bother me.  The sooner we wake up and realise that we live in a post Christian culture the better.  Christianity is an increasingly small part of our nations thinking, it plays little part in moulding national policies and laws or in people's everyday actions.  So why does this sort of thing surprise us?  Why do people protest this?

What is the correct reaction?  Easter gives us a prime opportunity to tell people the gospel, not moan about the word being removed by a secular organisation from their publicity or products.  Easter is good news to tell people, yet if that isn't know or realised then surely that is our fault for not making it known.  Surely this just shows us again the scale of the need for us to go and tell people all about the great news Easter marks.

The result of Jesus resurrection was a spirit filled, passionate and galvanised community that revolutionised the world as they told everyone the good news of Jesus and the redemption now available in him.  Sadly we seem to be more interested in writing a letter of complaint than talking about Jesus to our neighbours or our community.  Do we get as het up about people's eternal destiny as about Cadbury's packaging?  Someone is unlikely to buy a chocolate egg see the world Easter and drop to their knees in repentance in an aisle in ASDA.  In fact when scouring my Bible I can't find that evangelisation strategy in there.  And yet, again and again, in scripture when a friend, or even a stranger, in love shares the gospel with someone they turn to Christ.  Perhaps we ought to redirect our efforts.

While I'm here let me mention another bug bear of mine.  Why, oh why, do christian organisations put conferences on during Easter?  Seriously?  Why not use a half term?  As far as I'm aware, unless I'm missing something, there are no obvious evangelism opportunities in October or February and May half term.  But Easter.  Easter is a time when we ought to be telling friends, family, neighbours all about Jesus.  When local churches ought to be on mission in their communities, inviting friends, family and neighbours to a service, making the most of every opportunity.  And yet this is when thousands of Christians leave their home church and gather in holiday centres away from those who need the gospel.  (I know the teaching helps, I know the arguments for such conferences, it's the timing I'm bemoaning.)

I wonder is it just Cadbury's who are missing the good news of what Easter is all about?

Tuesday, 14 March 2017

Why Mission and therefore Church Planting matters Part 3

The final part of three on why mission and therefore church planting matters from Acts 1.

So the mission of God to glorify himself by bringing people to know and enjoy him as they were made to do has not changed.  And the need of men and women to know God through Jesus and be saved from a lost eternity has not changed either.  I wonder how that makes you feel?  

It's both thrilling and terrifying? But ‘I can’t do it’ we think, ‘it’s too big’, ‘where do we start’, ‘how do I choose who I share this good news with’ ‘where would we as a church seek to reach and how’? ‘I’m not an extrovert or a public speaker...’ Jesus anticipates and demolishes every potential excuse the Apostles and we might make in(v8) of Acts 1.

Jesus says two things to them regarding timing of this massive mission: Wait and Go.  

The disciples aren’t sent out straight away, they’re commanded to wait(4). They’re to be Jesus witnesses but they can’t do it themselves, and Jesus doesn’t send them alone. What are they waiting for? (5)“you will be baptised with the Holy Spirit.” (8)“you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come on you, and you will be my witnesses...”

Often we think wrongly about the Apostles and the early church. We read the stories and assume they were rocket fuelled extrovert types, naturally charismatic powerful speakers, who were brave and fearless and loved living life on the edge. You know the sort; adrenaline junkies who in their spare time relax by base jumping, free climbing or snowboarding. By thinking of them like that we excuse ourselves from witnessing because that’s not me, so we limit witnessing to Jesus as just for the extrovert or the adrenaline junkie.

But Luke in his gospel has shown us they aren’t like that. They‘re just like us; prone to avoiding confrontation as they slip away from the mob in the garden, prone to worry and anxiety in the face of a storm, prone to want their comfort as they try to send the 5,000 away rather than feed them, prone to saving their skin rather than standing up for Jesus round the fire in the courtyard.

So what changes? How come these men and women turn the world upside? God doesn’t change their personality type, if you’ve been praying for that you’ve been praying for the wrong thing. These men turn the world upside down because Jesus keeps his promise and he sends them the Holy Spirit. They aren’t alone as they go to witness to Jesus, God the Holy Spirit fills them enabling them, and us, to know God and enjoy new life in Jesus. He helps us know we are loved and share in the Father, Son and Spirit’s joy and delight in each other. And he causes that love and delight to overflow into our words and actions as we witness to Jesus as our Saviour and Lord.

He says wait for that to happen and then GO.

Do you see the significance of this? This isn’t mission impossible, the message doesn’t self destruct in 10 seconds. The Apostles aren’t sent out alone. Neither are we, but unlike them we don’t need to wait. When we trust in Jesus for forgiveness, when we repent of our sin and ask him to be our Lord he promises and gives us the Holy Spirit. And by that empowering God equips us to be his witnesses; to take on his mission for his creation to delight in and enjoy life lived with Father, Son and Spirit. God doesn’t give us a character transplant to make us extroverts! He calls, equips and empowers us to witness to him as he has made us.  We are to witness to who he is and what he has done for us and in us.

The mission can seem vast, it can seem overwhelming, if we take our eye off who God is and who he has given us.

Only one power exists on this planet, in this town, in this community that can bring lasting change. Only the love of Jesus Christ that conquers sin, wipes out shame, heals wounds, and reconciles enemies can change the world one life at a time. And God has given that message to his church, to us, filled with his Spirit to bring others into his kingdom while we wait for that kingdom to be fully realised.

And notice one last thing. (10-11)The angels come and prod the disciples, don’t stand around waiting staring up into the sky, he’ll come back, yes, but don’t wait for it. Live in the light of it. God’s unchanging mission is for his people to witness to him. To break new ground with the gospel, see the lost saved and churches planted to disciple new believers.

Mission matters and therefore church planting matters as we establish disciples in every city, town village and suburb that are reaching out to others with the gospel.  The church is the visible embodiment of our mission to witness to Jesus.

Monday, 13 March 2017

Why Mission and therefore Church Planting matters - Part 2

This is part 2 of 3 posts on why we should be engaged in mission and how that necessitates church planting in all its forms from Acts 1.

Part 2: The world still needs to hear the gospel(6-8, 10-11)

The kingdom is both now and not yet. The kingdom has come because Jesus is God’s anointed king, the Messiah. His people enjoy living under his rule as a result of his rescue. But (10-11)he’s going away, and his kingdom will only be fully realised when he returns. The disciples (7)live in the now but not yet time of the kingdom.

It’s a bit like pregnancy. When you’re pregnant you know you’re having a baby, you’re waiting and getting ready. Things have changed and are changing and yet the real change is still to come. Until the moment when the child is born are you a mum or a dad? Well, both yes and no. You are already a parent but you haven’t yet realised your parenthood.

We live in that same time, between Christ’s comings. We live in the kingdom, preparing for it, enjoying the reality of it, but awaiting the full realisation of it.

And Jesus gives his disciples a task between times; to be his witnesses. To tell others about him, as they stake their lives on who Jesus is and what he’s done. Luke 24:46-48 tells us what they witness to “Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things.” Jesus will bring about the kingdom through them, as they go to the nations and tell others who Jesus is and what he’s done because otherwise they face a lost eternity.

You might be thinking ‘yes but that is the Apostles’ job, it’s given to them.’ As you read through Acts we see that they teach and witness to others who come to faith and automatically start teaching and witnessing to others, who come to faith and automatically start teaching and witnessing to others, and naturally churches gather and are formed. Acts isn’t just about the Apostles, this isn’t just their responsibility. For every Peter and John there’s a Dorcus, Cornelius or Philip. For every Paul there’s an Apollos, Priscilla or Aquila.

Acts 1:8 isn’t just the Apostles’ mission it’s the mission of every believer. Turn to Acts 28:30-31, read it, (yes you right now, unless you've memorised it that includes you, read it) it feels a bit unfinished doesn’t it? Paul is witnessing in Rome, lots of places have heard the good news about Jesus, but it hasn’t yet reached the ends of the earth yet. We are left thinking what happens next? It is deliberate because the mission still stands. When we trust Jesus as Saviour he becomes our Lord and his mission becomes our mission, his glory becomes our concern as we enter the family business, the world needs to hear the truth about Jesus.

Someone, I don't remember who, said the world needs the gospel because for believers this world is all the hell we will ever know, but for unbelievers it is all the heaven they will ever experience.  The sheer lostness of the lost must compel us to take the gospel to them.

There’s no-one the gospel is not for. It is for all classes, all races, all genders. And it isn’t just about leaving wherever some is and going to the ends of the earth, though it may mean that for some, it’s about witnessing where we are. Will you be a witness right now right where you are? And in Acts we see the Apostles strategy for doing this is through the church. Not lone ranger evangelists, but believers gathered together on mission to reach and disciple the lost together. It’s about churches looking at the places around us where the gospel doesn’t currently reach and thinking creatively and boldly and outside the box about how we witness there. It’s about looking at where churches are struggling to reach out and witness and revitalising and re-energising them with the gospel so they can witness.

As you think about your city, town or village this morning, where are those unreached places? Is it the council estates that are bounded by neighbourhood relationships? Which we drive past but at the moment aren’t reaching? Is it some of the surrounding towns or villages which are very much self contained units?

Only one power exists on this planet, in this town, this community that can bring lasting change. Only the love of Jesus Christ that conquers sin, wipes out shame, heals wounds, and reconciles enemies can change the world one life at a time. And that message has been given to God’s church, to us.

Why Mission and therefore Church Planting matters - Part 1

I'm going to post three short posts about why mission and church planting matters from Acts 1.

Part 1: The Unchanging mission of God(1-8)

When you remove the key leader often companies or movements struggle. Think of Manchester United since the retirement of Sir Alex Ferguson, or the concerns about Apple without Steve Jobs.

When they crucified Jesus the Jewish leaders hoped that’d be the last they heard of him. That his disciples would drift back to their normal lives and Jesus and his works would become a fading memory. But on Easter Sunday Jesus rose again, death wasn’t the end, (Luke 24:46)just as the law and prophets promised. Jesus proves it conclusively to his followers(3). But now, here in Acts1, Jesus is about to go away, (2)he’s going to be taken up to heaven. The question is what will happen to the disciples without him? Will they go back to their fishing boats and tax booths? Will Jesus become a forgotten footnote in history?

Fast forward 30 years after Jesus’ ascension and the good news of Jesus has turned the world upside down. Jesus who never left the area surrounding Judea is known, worshipped and followed across Asia, Europe, Africa and elsewhere. How and why did that happen?

That’s the story of Acts. The explosion of the gospel from the backwater of Palestine across the world. And in his opening verses Luke wants Theophilus, and us as we read over his shoulder, to see why. (1-2)“In my first book, O Theophilus, I have dealt with all that Jesus began to do and teach, until the day he was taken up...” Luke’s gospel is about who Jesus is and what he did before he ascended to heaven, Acts is the account of what Jesus does after his ascension. Jesus isn’t done when he ascends; Jesus is alive and reigning at God the Father’s right hand. And he isn’t distant; an isolated, pampered prince. He reigns and intercedes on behalf of his people and Acts will show us how. Acts isn’t the Acts of the Apostles. It’s the continuing Acts of the risen reigning Jesus at work by the Spirit in his people.

And that hasn’t changed. What is true in the first century is true this morning. Jesus is alive and reigning right now at his Father’s right hand. That’s the lens through which we view the world. All the chaos; the fractures caused by sin, the pain and hurt which is the result of rebellion against God, the evil which comes from wanting to rule ourselves is painfully real. But Jesus Christ is reigning over all. It doesn’t knock him off his throne. That’s our confidence, just as it was the church’s confidence in Acts as they faced external persecution and internal challenges, as they went to a hostile world with the gospel, Jesus reigns and rules.  He is still on mission.

Jesus reigns, right now this morning, he will be reigning tomorrow as you go to work or school or home. And he is at work, it may be small and hidden, but he is at work.

You can imagine the disciples’ excitement can’t you? Like Christmas, birthday and bonfire night all rolled into one. Jesus is alive, raised to life again by God so now he’ll bring the kingdom he’s been teaching about into being. His rule will begin, his enemies will be defeated and everything will be amazing. So they ask “Lord, will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?” You can imagine the excited glances, smiling expectantly, like children waiting for the cake at a party as they ask the question.

They expect Jesus to bring his kingdom right now. But (7-8)Jesus wants them to understand the nature of the kingdom, the timing of the kingdom and their role in bringing the kingdom.

They ask about the restoration of the kingdom of Israel. But God’s plans have always been much bigger than one nation. Jesus has been teaching them about (3)the kingdom of God. God’s kingdom has never been exclusively to one nation. Father, Son and Spirit have planned from eternity to reconcile, redeem and reunite all humanity. Jesus says “you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.”

God’s plan has always been to reach and win the world. In Genesis 12 as an embryonic Israel is in promise form, the promise is of people, place, and protection but also God’s plan that “in you all families of the earth shall be blessed.” Throughout the Old Testament we see glimpses of that plan as Joseph blesses the nations by providing food, as Solomon’s wisdom impacts nations beyond Israel’s borders. As Rahab, Ruth, and others join God’s people by faith, as Jonah and Nahum are sent to the Assyrians, as Daniel and friends witness in Babylon. As the prophets cast a vision of God’s people as a light to the nations who flock to know God.

God’s plan has always been for people from every nation to enter his kingdom through faith in Jesus. To know the king, follow him and live enjoying his rule.  And God invites, no he commands his people to share the family values.  Mission not an option it is a necessity.  Therefore planting churches, communities that hold out the gospel - not are inward looking and naval gazing - is an absolute must if we are to play our part in God's mission.

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.