Category Archives: Church
I need to exercise. Power walking, riding, exercises, weights, even (gasp!) running. Nearly all of us need to take time for exercise – and it’s become a huge industry. The most recent City to Bay Fun Run was entered by no less than 30,000 people. Have you ever wondered why our grandparents and great-great-grandparents didn’t do that sort of thing? No, it’s not because they’re really, really old.
It’s because they worked. Physical work. Standing up work. At least, a lot more than we do today. I need exercise because I spend so much of my time doing what I’m doing right now – sitting in front of a screen. I have machines to do hard labour for me. But exercise isn’t real work. It’s simulated work. It’s play-work.
I read with fascination an interview last year with Adelaide Crows fitness coach, Stephen Schwerdt. He attributed a plummet in the Crows’ injuries that season to a new approach to training. They spent less time isolating certain muscles on fitness machines and more time in general wrestling and boxing, to become more rounded athletes and more closely simulate their match-day work. In other words, they got real.
It got me thinking about churches. And mission. How much of what we do is real gospel work, and how much is exercise? Do we talk (and blog/read – look, right now you and I are equally guilty) about evangelism so much because we do it so little? Don’t get me wrong, there’s a place for planning, training, reading and debating. But it needs to be real. It has to be connected to real doing.
It’s one thing to be keen on fishing, to read fishing magazines, to buy fishing equipment, even to go fishing. It’s perhaps another thing to get good at getting fish. This may be true not just of evangelism, but also of our worship, our fellowship, our discipleship. Are we fit and strong for the real thing, and from the real thing, or just buff from exercises? Do we have the burns and scars from real-world mission, or just a spray-on tan from talking about it? Is play-working a way towards real work for us, or a way out of it?
It’s been 4 years since Kevin Rudd dropped the phrase “detailed programmatic specificity” to bamboozled translators in Berlin. But I still can’t get it out of my head – such an wonderfully incoherent call for clarity.
Many a sacred agent could really use some… …let’s just say DPS. The mission of God is such a vast, vast adventure that anyone who tries to narrow it down sounds like a heretic. God loves all people, everywhere, all the time. But we can’t. We’re not called to. So narrowing down is a must. Although a captain in a war does not understand the global strategy, still s/he is responsible to get a clear sense of local orders and tactics and be able to report of specific progress. This is my mission. This is what I’ve attempted. This is how it’s going. This is what needs to change. This is what’s needed going forward.
I’ve attended many church meetings in my years and barely ever has there failed to be a finance report. It’s unacceptable for a treasurer to stand up and say “Our finances are OK. They’d be better if we all gave more and spent less.” No. We want the details – printed reports detailed to the last cent are standard. But to what extent do we report on our mission as a church? And if so, do we ever get past generalized motherhood statements about us all needing to pray more and to shine the love of Jesus everywhere?
A sub-conscious avoidance of accountability is often behind a lack of specificity. If we don’t clearly define any goals, or report on any particular activity, we can’t be seen as failures. Just try that in the world of finance or in the army! Yet we sacred agents are entrusted with a mission that far outweighs that of bankers or soldiers.
Might we not learn to communicate as specifically as possible our sense of calling – “particularly to these 1500 people”, our current endeavours – “this year we have been trying this” and to be open and frank with one another about our success or otherwise? Or in fairness could we relieve our treasurers from counting cents if we won’t count souls?
Some Christians have been thrown to the lions. Some disciples have been burned at the stake. Some sacred agents have been imprisoned unjustly for years. And some … some have had it suggested to them that their small group might multiply.
Why is it that multiplying small groups causes so much division? I’ve had some great conversations with leaders about this recently and many find the process long, hard, and very painful. Is it really worth the agony?
Yes! If you’re a mature believer there’s approximately 100% chance that a significant part of your spiritual formation has developed through participation in small groups. I think I’m yet to meet a strong believer for whom this isn’t true. So here’s my question: If small groups are absolutely essential for making disciples, how can we possibly multiply disciples if we don’t multiply small groups? That’s right, we can’t. We either put more believers into existing groups, making them no longer small, or we must multiply the groups.
Why is smallness important? It can, I think, be boiled down to this: With a microphone, you can speak to 10,000 people at a time. But we don’t have the technology to listen to 10,000 people at a time. We can only listen to one at a time. It’s a key part of disciple-making and can readily be seen in the practices of Jesus himself. He too had a small group … that multiplied.
What can we do, then, to ease the pain? Well, a fair bit of the grief, pain and resistance is necessary. Group multiplication is a key occasion for stretching and growing, and that hurts a bit. But what we can do better is to normalise the process so that it comes as less of a shock and that groups become less entrenched in the first place. Keep reminding small groups that fruitfulness (literally) means reproduction and that the pain of reproduction is worth it. Prepare groups earlier – from their start if possible – for multiplication. Don’t wait for groups to hit ‘full’ before having ‘the talk’. And finally, it’s a myth that groups divide perfectly in two. More often it works best when the leader hands over leadership and takes just a few others to go and commence a new group.
What’s your experience been? Easy? Painful? Worth it?
The mission of God is, wonderfully, a team sport. Jesus is never recorded as sending out his disciples individually. And yet somehow so many sacred agents feel like they are going it alone. What have we forgotten?
Mission is the work of the whole body. Our mission, to multiply disciples of Jesus, is something that the whole church is called to, together. Each of us is endowed by God’s Spirit with different gifts and capacities; none of us are equipped to continue the ministry of Jesus solo. There’s an enormous amount of stress felt by agents who want to be missionaries but feel unable to live up to the mythical image of the lone ranger evangelist. Yet the work of the evangelist is just one (vital) part of mission. Only some are gifted for it, and they – desperately – need everyone else to be playing their part in turn.
In an army only a minority hold guns and work on the front line. Behind them are a host of cooks, drivers, nurses, even librarians. But crucially, all see themselves as being part of the army and part of the campaign; all are trained for basic front line service if needed; and the rear serves and resources the front, not just itself.
Teamwork is itself a witness. Jesus said “By this will all people know that you are my agents – if you love one another.” When we do mission individually, we give people no chance to observe Christian community in operation. We work at expressing love for the people of our context, and of course that’s essential, but Jesus said that our love for one another would have profound influence in the world. What opportunities do the people you’re sent to have to see rich Christian fellowship in practice?
Teammates keep you on track. A group of like-minded friends is essential to sustain persevering, fruitful mission. Mission teams make time to rest, pray, plan, reflect, celebrate, and train. Members of great mission teams have the strength and grace to speak the truth to one another in love, enabling constant sharpening and deepening.
How can we drop the lone ranger myth and find ways to build and strengthen effective missional communities?
Can people get into your church?
Bear with me. I am aware that mission is not just about getting people to come to your church. It’s about taking the signs and message of God’s kingdom to people where they are at. But what happens next? What if, God don’t forbid, people respond?
Inherent in the Gospel is the invitation to join the family of God. A person getting baptised is not only submitting themselves individually to Jesus and coming to personal peace with God. They are also joining the Church.
So I see four options for a Sacred Agent who is taking the signs and message of God’s kingdom to people: (1) Assume there’ll be no response. Go fishing without a bucket. Panic if you catch something. (2) Recommend churches other than your own to people who respond to the Gospel. Throw your fish into other people’s buckets and let them clean ‘em. (3) Plant a new church around each new person who responds to the Gospel. (4) Or, (gasp!) invite them to your church.
But can they get in, even with an invitation? Just as you might do with your church buildings, give thought to how accessible is your church community.
Does the church bus drop people right at the entrance, or six blocks down the street? Does your church have ministries that move people from disinterested to interested, but none that move people from interested to in?
Are there clear pathways to the entrance? Does your church have obvious places for those who need to start at the start – like Alpha courses or other spaces where people can ask their questions and be led to Jesus?
Is the door unlocked? Is it openly and explicitly agreed that your church will, in Jesus’ name, welcome and share hospitality with tax collectors and sinners?
Are there clear signs that newcomers and inquirers are welcome? Are the signs of welcome on the faces of your people? Does our embrace of trembling new believers reflect the one received by the Prodigal Son? Are they emphatically celebrated and assured of their place in the family?
Agents, our commission is not just to share the Gospel, but to make disciples. That happens in Christian community – if people can get in.
The headlines screamed “Australia Loses Faith”. But is that what the recent census data really tells us? I had a conversation with Sacred Agent Eric Love, a brilliant statistician, to get at the story behind the numbers. Here’s what I found out…
- The number of Australians identifying themselves as Christians has increased by 500,000. Only 9,000 of that increase has been in SA.
- This growth has, however, not kept pace with population growth. percentage of Australians identifying themselves as Christians has continued a long steady decline, now down to 61%. That’s still a strong majority of Australians. If one of our political parties won an election with that proportion of the vote, they’d declare it a major mandate.
- The decline of the proportion of people self-identifying as Christian is not merely due to aging population. It is seen in nearly every age bracket, with a particularly sharp fall in my generation (35-44).
- Bucking the trend, however is the 15-24 age-bracket, which saw an increase in the percentage who identified themselves as Christian. Bravo, children’s and youth workers and those who support them!
- It’s obvious that only a fraction of those who identify themselves in the census as a Christian are active believers – only about 9-10% of Australians attend church. It is almost certain that we are not seeing a wave of people giving up on active faith. We are, it seems, seeing nominal Christians giving up the façade. Which is probably a helpful thing. This dynamic is most starkly noticeable in Tasmania.
- So what about the active Christians? How are we doing? Well, it’s hard to tell definitively without better church statistics. But there are very positive signs: The group of protestant denominations that are more evangelical than traditional (including we Baptists) has seen significant increase. 200,000 more Australians identified themselves with these churches over the last 5 years – an increase of 19%. Yes, nineteen. Allowing for population growth, it’s still a 9% increase – from less than 5.5% of Australians to more than 6.1%, in the last 5 years.
Australia increasingly abandoning Christianity? It’s a myth, probably reinforced by we Christians as much as anyone. Chins up, agents!