Monday, 4 September 2017

Reflections 10 years in...

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, 17 July 2017

Change is...

Sometimes in the evangelical church it can feel intimidating trying something new.  We feel a little bit like Oliver as he embarks on the long walk to the front and asks for more as we present something new or tweak something existing.  I am very grateful to God that Grace Church has bought into the idea of change as a good thing and as the norm, that people are willing to try something different.  As churches gospel flexibility is a must if we are to grow and reach those around us.

So what's the change?  Nothing earth shattering.  But we are going to be adding an extra service to Sunday's from September.  Not because we've grown and now need two Sunday morning services, that's not problem we have to face, though it is one we'd love to face at some point in the future.  We are going to be launching a Sunday afternoon service from 4-5pm.  At a time when many churches are only having one service and as a small church this feels counter intuitive but we want to try it for a number of reasons:

1. It will provide us with another opportunity to meet, hear God's word and one another one another.  We need one another and one of the fruits of our Gospel Group series on the one another's has been a growing conviction I've had that we just need to be spending more time together to help us do this well.  So as part of the service on Sunday afternoon we'll be eating together to facilitate that as well as singing together, reading together, praying together, and listening and applying God's word together.

2. It provides an opportunity for those who teach the children to be taught.  Our Sunday School teachers work incredibly hard to teach the Bible faithfully, interactively, and innovatively to the young people we have coming along on a Sunday morning.  Often at the expense of being taught themselves.  We want to provide an opportunity for them to be taught as a way of honouring their sacrificial service.

3. It opens up a new avenue into church.  Many of the families in our local area are heavily involved in Sunday morning sport and so an invitation to church is often met with 'Sorry, but I've got...'  Hopefully this second service opens up an opportunity for those involved there to come along.  I'm not naive enough to think we'll be inundated, but God willing it removes another barrier for a few.

4. It flies in the face of consumer culture.  In our consumer culture we take what we want when we want it, that is a danger for the way we approach church.  Hopefully by having this second service people will think come along not just because they want to but to support others.  It provides a very practical expression of love for others, I will go to support those who couldn't get there this morning, or who were teaching my children and so on.

5. It provides a way for our children to see their parents engage with the Bible.  The Sunday afternoon will see everyone in together for the whole service.  Our children will get to see their parents engage with the Bible, discuss it with others and pray through its implications.  This will be messier and noisier and a bit more chaotic.  But our prayer is that as the children see it modelled they will better transition into church themselves and that God would be at work by his Spirit through his word that is as applicable and relevant to an 8 year old as to an 88 year old..

Those are just some of the reasons why we're giving Sunday afternoons a go, there are others, but I'll leave it at that.  We'd love your prayers as we begin in September, for the preparation of the book of James, for unity in the church, for outreach in the community.  But above all for God to be at work through his word in his people by his Spirit to bring himself glory.

Tuesday, 20 June 2017

An ordinary Sunday transformed

Sunday began like any ordinary Sunday, time in the office, final prayer and prep, then down to set up and pray together.  The service was ordinary, the preaching was ordinary, the coffee was ordinary.  But I was reminded again that God is at work in the ordinary and everyday to bring about the extraordinary.

As a church we were already planning for a baptism on the 2nd July.  But by the end of the service we were planning for five.  Five very different people with very different life stories, ranging from teens to experienced, as well as across the socio-economic background all asking to be baptised to publicly declare that they have repented of their sin and trusted in Jesus and found new life in him.  Not that they trusted him on Sunday morning, for some it was months and even years in the past but now finally they wanted to be baptised.  Inevitably there was a sense of thankfulness to God and a bit of a buzz as we packed away the ordinary and everyday components of a church service in a school hall.

But God was not yet done.  I received a phone call in the afternoon to say that one of our congregation was soon to be called home to hear her Saviour's well done.  It was particularly apt because that morning, in God's timing, we'd been hearing his word from Ecclesiastes 7.  I arrived at the hospital just after God had called our friend home and was able to pray with the family and provide what support I could by bodily being there.

It was a day that reminded me of the privilege of the pastor's call.  To teach God's word and see people come to faith and apply God's word as they live life following Jesus right though life until they are finally called home where Jesus will wake and welcome them.  And amazingly all of it looks so ordinary so mundane, so everyday.  And yet God is gloriously and mysteriously at work to bring glory to himself precisely in the ordinary.

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.