Friday, 18 June 2021

Pyjama Christians

Zoom and other web technologies have helped us all through the pandemic. Churches were applauded for their adaptability and creativity in 'going online' at very short notice last year. Who knew the church could react and change so quickly!

But now conversations between church leaders run along these lines: do we want to keep streaming? The additional people engaging (connecting / viewing) with our services is encouraging ... but are we just putting out a kind of Christian entertainment? Are we forming real community? And what about real discipleship?

We know the term 'Rice Christians' - a negative term used to describe the (bad) scenarios where people seem to show allegiance to the Christian faith in order to receive aid (e.g. rice) in some far off land where access to food is an issue. Yet now, especially in the West, we are in danger of producing 'Pyjama Christians'! Of course it is easier to just click 'View' on the cusp of the meeting start time (or any time thereafter). Yes you can engage from the comfort of your own home, cup of coffee in hand ... take a break whenever you need or want.

All these increase the 'accessibility' of our church gatherings - which is sort of a good thing ...

But Jesus commissioned us to make disciples (Matthew 28). That means challenge, hard decisions, and life-on-life learning together in the Spirit. It suggests changing out of your pyjamas and dressing ready for some hard graft.

The teachings of Jesus (which we are commissioned to teach people to obey) are in many ways wonderfully simple ... and yet hard to live out. On the contrary our plethora of online content risks being sophisticated & complicated ... yet easy to consume.

Maybe simply looking to Jesus gives us a clue on this topic. For Jesus is God come to earth, born as human, living flesh and blood (aka incarnation). In Jesus we see that God is not remote or virtual! Of course the Spirit can work through our remote technologies ... just as the Spirit has worked through pen-friend campaigns and long distance short wave radio ministries in the past. Yet there is something about the together: real and physical that Jesus has already modelled for us. Maybe we were given physical bodies for a reason.

Tuesday, 4 May 2021


Many are sensing, hoping or expecting that the Spirit is stirring for a fresh season of God's special activity in our land. The 'revivalist' in me certainly hopes so too! But more than just wishful thinking, I am grateful that on my radar there are one or two snippets that suggest that the Spirit is indeed stirring. This encourages me to pray that simple but classic charismatic prayer: 'More Lord'!

It has come to my attention that God seems to have given a handful of people I have the privilege to work amongst 'spiritually significant' dreams in recent weeks. One gets my attention because of the accuracy of detail the person has seen in their dream regarding another person - details that they could not possibly know. Another is also a detailed dream which suggests God is revealing deep stuff within the life of the family. Others are clear encouragements and show God-given possibility.

This encourages me that God is on the move. He is concerned with family life, He is concerned to bring healing and transformation. He wants to open things back up. He will empower us to come against specific things that are bad.

The other interesting thing about these dreams that I am aware of, is that several of them have been granted to people who are very young in the faith. These are not people 'experienced in the spiritual gifts', or people with many years of long established deep prayer life, but rather people starting out. May God graciously reveal - regardless of individual's spiritual pedigree!

I have not had any significant dreams myself (I'm not sure I have ever had), but I am taking it as significant that God seems to be moving in this way.

Joel 2:28!

Tuesday, 8 December 2020

Disciple Making

One aspect where the pandemic has helped us as Christians in churches is appreciating the distinction between 'attendance' (or 'connecting') at whole church services and ongoing depth of discipleship. For too long we have paid attention to attendance at the expense of sustainable discipleship, and that deficit has been clearly exposed in recent months.

It may help us to assess where people are at by using two axes: depth of discipleship and attendance (where the latter might be connecting electronically to our online gatherings during this season) - as shown in figure 1.

Figure 1

That creates 4 quadrants. Those in the upper-right bring cheer to any pastor - they have discipleship (growing more like Jesus), and are connecting! Conversely the lower-left are a cause for concern. The other two quadrants bring worry but for different reasons. The lower-right may be doing quite well in themselves, walking well with Jesus - though at the risk of feeling isolated or disconnected from the body (a cohesion issue). The upper-left are visible in the body, but lets be honest: we lovingly want them to go deeper with Jesus and become more mature in their faith. These different categories are summarised in figure 2.

Figure 2

Now let's make an interesting observation. Our not-yet-Christian friends/enquirers start out in the lower-left quadrant. This is not their fault - it is simply the starting point. Our typical western model is to then invite them to corporate events - be it a carol service, a seeker service/event etc. This is good (and God blesses it!), and on our graph it takes people up into the upper-left quadrant. By God's grace they hopefully come to faith and cross the line into their own growing discipleship (upper-right), a journey shown in figure 3. I wonder, though, how many in reality get stuck in the upper-left?

Figure 3

What if our model was depth of relationship and developing discipleship from the outset? We would invite people to stuff of course, but the emphasis is moving towards Jesus rather than simply to the good stuff a church can lay on. The journey may prove to be more like figure 4, with its different shape of curve. The destination is the same (with Jesus, mature discipleship and well connected in the wider body), but the route to get there different. Yes I guess there is a risk of becoming stuck in lower-right ... but I wonder if this route might actually be better in our context today? Maybe it is more suited to inviting first to the smaller group / expression of Christian community where faith and discipleship can be explored more personally ... but still with connection to the wider body ultimately in mind?

Figure 4

Either way, if you are forced to choose between the axes then making disciples should have the priority - for that was the primary commission Jesus gave us.

Friday, 27 November 2020

Can't see fruit for the tress

Sometimes we just can't see the fruit for the trees! God is doing something among us, but because we are in a certain fixed mindset we seem to be unable to fully go with it.

For example I heard someone share the other day, and they described how they are at a very small church (small in number, and very senior in age). A strength that they have is a building in a very good location in the centre of their town. The person was lamenting the fact that with so few of them they weren't sure that they would be able to host any event this Christmas (further complicated by all the restrictions, of course) - so the classic 'invitational event' like a carol service seemed out of reach for them.

Yet in the same sharing the person also told how one of the senior members had felt led to ensure the building was open for private prayer each day in recent weeks. Their prime location meant that passers-by were in fact popping in, leading to some good conversations. In fact, they said, one visitor even made their step of faith and commitment to Christ through one of these conversations!

So there is the fruit! There is activity of the Spirit of God right there among them, through the utility of their building, and through the openness & faithfulness of the person opening up and being available.

Why not make those open drop-in times the focus of the small fellowship for this season, and not worry so much about their inability to hold a 'church service'? After all, which of the two did Jesus actually call us to do? Wasn't the commission to 'make disciples', with no mention of 'maintain regular / traditional services at all costs'!

Our mindset of 'Christian faith = regular fixed service' can do us a dis-service and stop us from seeing (and rejoicing in and going with) the fruit of God's activity among us. Its not that none of us should hold services, or gather people for worship, or hold invitational events ... its down to a question of perspective and being clearer on what Jesus is (or isn't) actually calling us to do.

Rather than staring into a forest of things we can't do, why not concentrate on the fruit-bearing plant (however small it seems) that is right before us ...

Friday, 21 August 2020

Scattered Means Scattered

Recently I had an interesting conversation with a Christian who is both prayerful and keen on action (a great combination!). They mentioned a potential initiative around where they lived, which geographically is very much on the periphery of their local church. Having described that they quickly went on to canvass me for ideas and input on possible activities that geographically were central to their local church.

I realised I had to press the pause button. The 'central' ideas were great in their own right, but I asked why they were trying to give priority to those rather than the equally great idea they had mentioned in passing: the one that was 'far off' geographically. The conversation revealed a potential sense of false-guilt self-projection: the Christian was at risk of feeling guilty for not doing something centrally. This was ironic given that they potentially had a real leading of the Spirit for a new activity in their local area.

These lockdown times have forced us to think more of 'church scattered' than 'church gathered'. Virtually all 'central ministries' cannot happen because of the restrictions and difficulties caused by the pandemic. Frustrating though that may be, it gives opportunity for the Spirit to lead us into potentially new avenues scattered across our different locations of home, work or play.

If we are to embrace this 'scattered church' mentality, then we must learn to work out what that means in practice. Surely it means that as leaders we bless and release people to do look into opportunities they have out in their locality, even if that is geographically some distance from the traditional sphere of local church activity? It means we should help those activists not feel guilty about this geographically peripheral activity - in fact we should celebrate it, for they are putting 'scattered church' into practice.

It means us learning that 'scattered truly means scattered'! The work of the local church is now the union of the various dispersed activities - even if that is harder to visualise or quantify compared to the traditional central ministries.

Monday, 29 June 2020

Don't Turn the Magnetic-Field Back On

Coming out of lockdown I am repeatedly asked "When can we get back to church?". Of course this is the wrong question from the outset, since we never stopped being church ... so it is not possible to 'go back'! But I also must admit from a personal perspective that in many ways I don't want to go back ...

Yes I want us to gather together as the extended family of Christ-followers. Yes I want us to join together in an expression of worship with each other, a gathering into which we can invite God to speak to us together. Yes I very much want to gather into an environment where the Spirit is free to move and we see ministry among us. And yes I basically want to see, chat, have coffee with and generally be alongside my fellow believers. I want all these things and I miss them like many others.

But I don't want the inadvertent magnetic-field that I worry can go with such regular gatherings, wonderful though they are. The force that turns us inwards, that captures our attention and our focus, that risks making us 'building-centric' or 'sunday-centric'. The pull that stops us from looking out to the incredible, exciting (but also very risky!) things that can happen in our missionary discipleship out there in the periphery. The power-house that tempts us to rely on it rather than paying proper attention to our own rhythms and diet of personal discipleship, discipleship done with trusted partners - discipleship journeyed in the rough and tumble of life.

All these out there things some of us (I hope many of us) have experienced and explored because of lockdown and our inability to gather centrally. We've had over 3 months of the magnetic-field abruptly turned off: it has been difficult, it has brought many challenges (not all overcome), but it has also brought a healthy re-focussing of how we live and grow in our faith, alongside fresh mission endeavour. Yes we have lost many things, and it has raised many questions, but I have seen much blessing and what I believe are healthier for the long term habits arise.

So yes I would dearly love for us to be gathering again - as soon as we meaningfully can - but please don't turn that magnetic field back on!

Tuesday, 28 April 2020

I Love Rainbows

A rainbow seen in the sky always looks both pretty and a thing of wonder: whether it is against murky rain clouds or the brighter sky poking through, to see the arc of different colours of light always lifts my spirit.

Interestingly in our lockdown times the rainbow has become a symbol of support for the NHS, and seems to have been naturally adopted by children as a universal symbol of thanks and hope. Walk through the housing estates and you will see home-make rainbow posters alongside the 'thank-yous' for our NHS and carers.

This seems to me to be appropriate: the rainbow is also the sign of God's covenant promises - a covenant made with Noah for all humanity and indeed all creation. It is a covenant of hope - of withholding forces of destruction, of limiting judgement. It is of course the covenant God declared to Noah after the receding flood (see Genesis chapter 9).

The rainbow is a symbol that reminds us that God would prefer mercy than wipe out.

In recent years the rainbow symbol has given at least some Christians a bit of a conundrum, because it has also been adopted by the LGBT community, its advocates and activists. Some may have been offended by this, perhaps seeing it as a hijacking of a Judeo-Christian symbol.

Yet it needn't be quite so problematic: I had noticed a trend for it to start to signify more than the LGBT labelling - broadening to respect diversity of many kinds. A kind of encouragement for each person to afford basic human dignity to every other person.

This broader usage surely also resonates with the covenant purposes of God: that whoever you are, wherever you are, God would prefer mercy for you along with the whole of humanity and creation rather than wipe out.

The rainbow sits deep in the Christian story, establishing a covenant that points to and connects with that other important Christian symbol - the cross - where justice and mercy meet, where wipe out is exhausted by grace.

So as Christians let us love rainbows! Wherever we see the symbol used, maybe it could prove to be a useful conversation starter about an greater topic.