Wednesday, 28 November 2018

Three Phases of New Initiative Gestation

We can learn by taking a step back and observing some patterns. They can inform us for the future, and hopefully help others. One of the patterns we have seen concerns significant new outreach initiatives.

Good ideas are not necessarily that hard to come by - but waiting on God to see if they are God ideas, and the timing He has for them, is more of an art than a science. Yet in each case some clear phases can be identified.

The first, stemming from a good idea and a desire to pursue it, is the Pray and Research phase. Of course prayer factors all the way through, but there comes a point where you have to gather data, know-how, visit others doing something similar and so on. It helps build a picture of how the idea may become reality, and confidence grows as various 'how would we do that?' questions get at least attempted answers.

The second phase is the Pray and Wait. Eventually enough data is gathered, but God has not given the 'go ahead' yet. The waiting time is indefinite, i.e. as long as it takes! This is where the most spiritual depth is required, because of course any 'keenies' will want to press ahead but rushing will not bring achievement. Learn to 'sit light' with the whole idea - maybe this is not the God idea for your community after all! If it isn't, better to let the Spirit gradually erode it away than force it. Assuming the idea and desire endure, then keep praying ...

The third phase is the sense that it is now 'Green Light'. It may well be through an earthly 'compelling event' that the green light comes - but it will become obvious because God will give it a natural momentum. That which God commissions quickly feels like a freight train - it is not going to stopped easily! There may be rapid growth or just the simple ability to keep going, perhaps against the odds. In either case, of course keep praying!

Of course the third phase generates alot of activity and things can happen quickly ... but don't let yourself become so busy that you are unable to step back a bit, reflect, and start to observe the patterns. Maybe you too will conclude that along the way there have been discernible phases not unlike the above.

Tuesday, 20 November 2018

Military Language, War and the Gospel

As our 100-year anniversary of the armistice at the end of world war one recedes, and our remembrance activities give way again to everyday activities, it is worthwhile reflecting on the categories of war and war related terminology used in the Christian faith.

People take part in acts of remembrance for many reasons - honouring the endeavours and personal sacrifices made by those in generations before us is one. Ensuring that as a society we remember the harsh reality of physical war and hope that it serves as a lesson to us and our descendants is another. Neither of these is hard-set against the gospel message, though in the light of the gospel hard questions about war naturally arise.

Yet Paul used military-like terminology, claiming we are in a spiritual battle (2 Corinthians 10 verses 3 to 5). He talked of weaponry and armour (Ephesians 6). Yet it is also clear that Paul saw this very much as a spiritual struggle and in no way advocated anything remotely close to the physical (and military) struggles that the people of his own heritage had undertaken (characterised chiefly by the book of Joshua).

Paul experienced push-back and opposition. He saw this in spiritual terms and was not reluctant to describe these in terms of dark forces (e.g. 1 Thessalonians 2 verse 18).

We see that Paul wanted advance - but it was gospel advance, not human-force or human-power advance. Yes he wanted to be persuasive and compelling ... but all in the spiritual sense targetting heart, mind and spirit. This means ultimately the advances would be advances of God loving people -  demonstrating Kingdom which would mean setting people free rather than any coerced compliance.

So whilst in society we might rightly remember those fallen in conflicts, and whilst we might usefully use (like Paul) military metaphor or imagery to help awaken us to the importance (and difficulty) of the spiritual task before us, we must not confuse war as generally understood by society with the gospel.

Recently a friend posted this quote by Spurgeon, writing in Victorian times (therefore before the great wars, yet still in a period of various military campaigns and expression of military might):

'The great crime of war can never promote the religion of peace. The battle, and the garment rolled in blood, are not a fitting prelude to 'peace on earth, goodwill to men'. And I do firmly hold, that the slaughter of men, that bayonets, and swords, and guns, have never yet been, and never can be, promoters of the gospel. The gospel will proceed without them, but never through them. "Not by might." Now don't be fooled again, if you hear of the English conquering in China, don't go down on your knees and thank God for it, and say it's such a heavenly thing for the spread of the gospel – it just is not.' (C.H. Spurgeon, in a sermon preached 1857, during the Indian Mutiny.) h.t. Mark Woods

This captures it well for me. Some may believe that physical war or military action becomes necessary in some circumstances (people will differ on this point). Yet as Christ-followers we cannot believe that it will ever rightly bring the gospel of peace.

Wednesday, 14 November 2018

Cultural Translation

One of the questions that we must keep returning to is this: 'What words and images can we use to effectively communicate the message of Jesus, the cross and the resurrection to today's people?'. Given that culture, language and its idioms constantly change, are we updating ourselves adequately to continue reaching people?

Note that this is not about re-thinking the theology of the cross, about abandoning previous understandings or thirsting for new models of the atonement. It is ensuring that we use words, expressions and forms that speak into people's own worldviews in ways that they can understand, so that their eyes are lifted God-ward in Christ. We don't want our message of the cross to effectively be like Japanese to the English speakers of today or tomorrow!

Thankfully we do not necessarily have to be deeply studied theologians to assist this task - we just need the Spirit to be at work and to take notice. I read yesterday that a young person had had their attention caught by Christ and wrote this to Christian leaders by way of their own thankyou: ".. Jesus was put on the cross for us so we don't have to put the blade to our own skin ...".

Brilliant - straight to the point and right there in the vernacular of current youth culture.

One sad characteristic of current youth culture is surely the number (near epidemic proportions?) of people self-harming, somehow caught up in a belief that harming (typically cutting) oneself will cover mistakes, or feeling of 'bad inside', or senses of loneliness or emptiness - as if the cut(s) will somehow atone for and remove them. Of course, as each person discovers, it is a fleeting feeling and only hours or days later proves to be a hollow relief - those negative feelings return all too quickly.

Somehow in our 'enlightened society' something (spiritual?) has convinced people to turn on themselves. In religious terms it is no better than the primitive behaviour of the prophets of Baal who slashed themselves (see 1 Kings 18) to invoke or please their (false) god.

Yet this young person has realised all this is false and because of Christ is unnecessary. Whatever may make us think we have to turn on ourselves is wrong ... because Jesus has suffered enough already, in our place. Our mistakes: dealt with by Him; our 'bad inside': probably quite real, but in any case dealt with by Him; our loneliness and emptiness: met by Him who has suffered to take and resolve it all.

We do not have to be cut ... because He has been cut for us. No more need for our own blades.

Thursday, 27 September 2018

From Angst towards Kingdom Best

We can all suffer from angst. Any single day in ministry can present us with a shed-load of angst inducing items be they small or large, and worse still these accumulate day on day.

The writer to the Hebrews says we 'do not see everything subject to them' (Hebrews 2 verse 8), i.e. we do not see everything as it should be. Those of us in ministry would want to shout out 'you can say that again - what we see is trouble and obstacle here there and everywhere!'.

Thankfully the same writer bids us to look up. 'But we see Jesus' follows in verse 9. He is crowned with glory in the heavenlies, a place we are invited to. A place where God's purposes find their completion.

So this week, with our list of angst seemingly running at a seasonal high, I hit on a spiritual exercise with my most valued partner in ministry. We decided to list out each angst, and against each one we then expressed what the 'Kingdom Best' might look like relating to that scenario. Some were niggly, e.g. 'that people reply to emails in a timely fashion to enable ministry plans to be well-made', others were bigger - 'that reconciliation might be possible between such and such people'. We then methodically prayed through each one: as we looked to Jesus, risen and glorified, we voiced the Kingdom Best for each scenario, a process that helped us let go of the angst, or at least see it in a new perspective.

Somehow the next day our mountain of angst didn't seem to be quite so large!

Monday, 13 August 2018

Grace Shadows

In Acts chapter 5 things rise to such a point that merely the shadow of Peter has to fall on someone for them to have the possibility of healing (see verse 15). Crowds gathered and pressed in to be part of the action, resembling the times when Jesus moved among the crowds and ministry took place.

An interesting feature of these episodes (both with Jesus and with Peter / the apostles) is that the healing / relief / comfort brought came liberally, seemingly with little head-knowledge interaction or stated belief. And with virtually zero doctrinal formula (except, when Peter did speak, the words 'In the name of Jesus ...').

So where was the repentance on the part of the recipient? Where was their prayer of commitment? In these incidents they seem to be missing.

Instead we see grace simply swiping across people, much as a shadow might swipe over someone as a person passes by. That is enough! God is at work, grace is being marvellously and liberally poured out.

The grace comes first ... things change ... living in a new way (lifestyle changes) hopefully come later (but note it is not guaranteed).

The religious establishment - the guardians of orthodoxy and 'correct' interpretation of scripture - couldn't seem to get their heads round these events. Their reaction was jealousy and (foolish) attempts to curtail.

Foolish because - as we all know - you simply cannot grasp hold of a shadow!

Thursday, 9 August 2018

Rain, Wells and Springing Up

The recent weather has made us sit up and take notice. Yes we do depend on the weather, and so yes we do depend on God - His grace and provision. It is not simply a case of continuing on as normal.

Promises in scripture suggest the same might be true of salvation - that is of seeing whole waves of people discovering the grace of God. Isaiah 12:3 talks of our joy of drawing water from the wells of salvation. This comes in the middle of a song celebrating God's ability to save - something to be made known to all the world.

Just as we have longed for a relief in the hot weather and particularly for rains, let us long for God to open new wells of salvation that we may be able to draw up from in our mission contexts.

Later in Isaiah 45:8 it says 'heavens above rain down my righteousness ... let the earth open wide, let salvation spring up'. A bit more of a curious passage here, since God says he will use a foreign king to advance his purposes. Yet again in the middle is this marvellous promise that with God showering His righteousness, it will be like salvation simply springing up from the ground. In other words popping up here and there without much intervention from us!

Let us wait on God, looking for another new wave where His work enables salvation to occur around us. Let us revel in the unpredictability of it - for it will be His doing rather than our programme.

Lord God, may you open new wells of salvation. May we see it spring up from the ground!

Thursday, 26 July 2018

Staying True to What the Father is Doing

Early in the ministry of Jesus as recorded by John there is a dispute with leaders who questioned what Jesus was up to. Jesus' reply holds a deep truth: 'The Son can do nothing by himself, He can only do what he sees his Father doing' (John 5:19).

Friday, 29 June 2018

Christian Mission in a Secular State

In his collection of essays 'God for a Secular Society', theologian J├╝rgen Moltmann argues that a 'secular' state with full freedom religion is the logical consequence of Christians calling for religious liberty. That liberty must be granted to those of other faiths and none, if it is to be enjoyed for yourself in your own faith. Moltmann goes as far as claiming it as a 'religious achievement', not an 'irreligious evil' (page 212).

The early baptists understood this principle, and in England petitioned the king on the subject in the early 1600s. As well as calling for freedom for themselves (which at they time they did not enjoy), they recognised it must be afforded to those of other faiths.

The principle is surely a Christian one, since for God to be love must allow for those who will reject and go their own way, however sad and painful that may be. On several occasions the gospels record people turning or drifting away from Jesus. They were not forced to remain.

The irony in this freedom is that over time the free/secular state may shift to a point where it starts passing laws that threaten to undermine the very religious freedom it eventually granted. Many would argue that this phenomena is happening today, and claim that the UK is now effectively 'moving backwards' in regard to freedom.

That may sadly prove to be true, but it nevertheless does not change the fundamental task of Christian mission that has hopefully remained the same throughout: namely to preach Christ crucified, raised as Lord, and His Kingdom. For whatever the politics or prevailing cultural winds, this call to life in God made possible by Jesus, to see God's kingdom 'on earth as it is in heaven', is the universal call whatever the nation or prevailing earthly ideaology.

Moltmann asserts this call to the Kingdom as the church's universal interest (p220). The church is not there for its own sake, but for the Kingdom. Voices from the church into public debate must therefore be careful not to simply appear to be clinging to power for the church as an institution, because in Kingdom terms it should never have had such power in the first place!

The missional-prophetic cry into the public arena will therefore be a nuanced voice that argues positively for what releases life in Christ, and give reasoned warnings against things that would otherwise undermine such life.

Monday, 25 June 2018

When God Gives a Vision

When God gives a vision, a natural momentum builds.

When God gives a vision, He will see it take shape, grow and flourish.

When God gives a vision, He will provide the resources, be they financial, people with skills and gifts, or whatever other form required for the vision to move forward.

When God gives a vision, our job is to discern, wait on Him, and go with it as He determines and sets the progress.

When God gives a vision, impossible things become possible ...

We go about our myriad regular tasks for mission: doing the routine, the normal, the textbook, the 'seems sensible and right for now in our context' ... all this is valid and right to do.

But let us also keep an ear open for when God simply gives a vision, out of the blue, out of the ordinary, the not so obvious. For when God does that, and we learn to humbly go with it ... its like a whole different gearing system has been found in the mechanics.

That was the experience of a friend of mine who some 15 years ago felt God give a vision of a Christian Healing centre in her home town. Starting from nothing she set about praying, waiting, and acting which led to seeing God work. Now today the ministry is running in a permanent purposely adapted building near the centre of town. God is at work healing people, with Kingdom works drawing people to faith in Him. Many obstacles have been overcome, including considerable financial ones.

It all started with God giving a vision, and led to God making impossible things become possible.

The Well Healing Centre - Leamingon Spa

Friday, 25 May 2018

Open Air Evangelism ... Not Quite!

The ferry across to the Freetown peninsula in Sierra Leone was an interesting experience. As we sat waiting for the boat to depart a wide variety of people started to come round selling things. From biscuits, to sweets, to DVDs, to just about anything they could carry and offer!

Then some people assembled with a big speaker and a guy stepped forward with a loud-hailer. He announced something in the local language, but we quickly worked out that he was calling on the passengers to pray with him (for the boat to get across the water safely, we wondered!). Interestingly Christian and Muslim travellers alike joined in what we recognised as the Lord's prayer.

I thought "Fantastic, we are going to have an open air service and preaching right here on the boat!", and listened intently to see how it was going to pan out.

Yet the announcer seemed to then go into a long spiel, which became punctuated by him holding up different medicine type products. His accomplices started to fan out among the passengers offering these for sale (just like the biscuit sellers and the like). It dawned on me that the whole thing was a sales exercise for over-the-counter medicines, creams and lotions (including some stuff that we looked as if it belonged at the more exotic end of the market).

So we had a curious scenario of 'spiritualised' medicine selling. I never worked out why they did it this way. Perhaps the sales-people felt it gave them credibility - to start in the spiritual and then go on to their worldly medicines. Of course for us Westerners we often do it the other way round: start with medicine and then call on God later.

It also made me think about how we do our evangelism. Though we might not want to admit it, but is our style to start with the spiritual yet in reality we are then effectively trying to 'sell' some kind of pre-prepared package?

I was disappointed that it wasn't a true open-air preaching occasion, which would have been great. But it was educational, making me thing how in an open air event we would truly encourage people to look heavenward, rather than in subtle ways be actually more like these people from the drugs company.

Friday, 27 April 2018

Faith and Beauty in the Dirt

My recent trip to Africa reminded me of two things about mission that we can learn from in the West. The first is naturally living out principles of Incarnational Mission, the second is the powerful effects of visionary social entrepreneurs.

'God made his dwelling among us' is read by ourselves each Christmas, and seen played out in the life of Jesus as he did his mission among the people, in their locations and contexts. We know it in the textbooks in the West. But in Africa they get on with it (perhaps without even knowing the term 'Incarnational Mission'!) because it is the natural thing to do - working amongst the people in their locality and context.

The projects we visited typically had a centre where people they were helping would be (by necessity of their condition) resident for a while, but that plus any outreach work in the city was the mission focus rather than a traditional church building or any kind of 'worship centre'. Instead the physical centre of worship was in the centre of their work!

Whereas we might start with a church building and then (perhaps) ask 'where might we go out from here', they instinctively go to people in need and then, if necessary, ask what physical facilities might be necessary to further this work.

The development of the projects and the facilities almost always seems to come about because there is a visionary figure who is crucial to the project. The person proves to be a social entrepreneur, willing to take risks, to enter in partnerships, to do ministry deals and so forth to overcome challenges and see genuine development. These are long term operations - one lady had been working at it for the best part of 30 years. The facilities she had were by Western standards pitiful, but in the dirt was a care for children not easily found elsewhere in that country.

Everyone who visits Africa knows that there is dust and bare dirt just about everywhere - the ground around a project building is probably yet another 'patch of dirt' ... but because these social entrepreneurs stick to their God given vision, and persist with a deep Christ rooted faith to work among the people they serve, we find that in the dirt there is not just faith but also beauty.

Thursday, 22 March 2018

Wake Up to Who is our Head

Ephesians chapter 1 makes great reading, packed with all kinds of goodies that make a rich and dense introduction to the letter. It builds to the risen and ascended Jesus, far above all rule, authority, power and dominion (in other words: everything!). Whether now or the future all things are under his feet. You don't get much more superlative than that!

Yet amongst all that incredible greatness - and it is mind-blowingly incredible, we can miss an important detail that should change the way we see ourselves as a group of believers (i.e. a church).

For in v22-23 at its peak Paul writes '(and God) appointed him to be head over everything for the church ...' (NIV translation). Its the 'for the church' that struck me.

First its hard to make sense of it. Surely God was going to make Jesus above all and head over all things anyway, church or no church. Jesus deserves this status and is given it full stop. God doesn't see the church and then think 'Oh I know, I'll give Jesus authority over all - it will be a good thing for the church ...'. The NLT translation almost conveys this thought ('for the benefit of the church')!

So with a little digging the Greek wording used can mean 'given' (or even possibly betrothed), so the sentence might read something like 'God gave him as head over all to the church'.

Now we know (from these same verses and elsewhere) that the church is his body on earth, and Jesus is the head of that body. So the thing I think these verses call us to realise is that we as the church don't just have any old head as our head, we have the head, the one who is head over all with everything else subordinate to it.

Or to put it another way, as a church we relate straight to the top!

So let us wake up to who we are (as a church) - we are those that relate straight to Him who is head over all, everything else under his feet, whether rule, authority, power and dominion now and future etc. etc.!

That should kind of influence how we pray as a church shouldn't it?

In a bind or up against malevolent rule or authority in any way? Then lets to the head who is already head over those things.

Frustrated with any kind of oppressed spiritual atmosphere or anything what we perceive gets in the way? Then lets to the head who is already head over those things.

... and so on. Let us wake up to who is our head, given to us who are his body on earth, and pray accordingly!

Wednesday, 7 March 2018

Identity Crises

Identity crises and/or a lack of confidence of who we are seems to be a widespread issue for many people these days. Young people with a range of anxieties, adults struggling too. Even many Christians seem to have trouble accepting that they can find their true identity in Christ - which surely hampers them in their everyday lives as well as their discipleship.

For me Jewish rabbi Jonathan Sacks puts it brilliantly when he says 'The face that is truly ours is the one we see reflected back at us by God' (Not in God's Name, p138). He asserts that this is the meaning of the Aaronic blessing 'May God turn His face towards you and grant you peace' (Numbers 6:26).

On this logic, discovering ourselves therefore lies in gazing on God, and discovering that He is gazing on us. In that way our faith and salvation is more than a mere transaction. It is an intense and prolonged look into the one who created us, the who who has died for us, the one who now lives and intercedes for us ... and realising the 'for us' is not some doctrine that is generically applied, but is actually personal and direct to you as an individual fearfully and wonderfully made.

Mary was struck by this personal significance when in the garden outside the tomb (John 20). At first she looked at Jesus without realising who he was. It took just one word: "Mary", for her to look again and realise. Jesus was looking at her, and called her by name. Immediately she was affirmed and could walk away confident.

Let us invest ourselves in gazing on God. The return gaze will change us for ever.