Category Archives: Spiritual Formation

Preparing the Village

A remarkable thing happens when a grandchild arrives. The house needs to be “baby-proofed”. It’s been quite comfortable for adults for years, even decades, but suddenly it needs to be looked at with a different set of eyes altogether! Parts that have been comfortable and convenient for adults are realized to be hazardous or inappropriate for a little person.

A house that on one level is “perfectly adequate” gets a necessary transformation, all determined by the weakest, smallest family member – who perhaps hasn’t even arrived yet! It might be bemusing, even bewildering. It might be frustrating, too – oh, the things we suddenly need to fuss about! But deep down we know it’s right and good and also exciting.

Our churches need to be regularly “baby-proofed” for spiritual children – even those we haven’t yet seen. Many churches are predominantly filled with those who have been Christians for decades. And until we deliberately look – even seeking outside advice – we can be quite blind to how ill prepared we are for new believers.

From time to time I hear people say they would “never” invite an unbelieving friend to their church. I always press them to think specifically about just what it is that would be unhelpful to an enquirer. Sometimes it’s one big thing, sometimes it’s fifty little things. But they need to be named, and they need to be attended to.

A great (and brave) question for leaders to ask congregations is this: “Is there anything we’re doing, or not doing, that keeps you from inviting a friend?” These little ones – immature, messy, noisy, demanding ones – perhaps ones we’ve not even met yet – these are the VIPs of God’s extended family. Not only must we ask “What hazards need to be removed?” but then also “How could we make this place wonderfully welcoming for children?”

It takes a village to raise a child, it’s said. Nowhere is this more true than in the task of spiritual parenting – of making disciples. Christians grow through exposure to the whole body of Christ. It’s not realistic to raise children in isolation until they are ready for the village. The village must get ready for them. How ready is yours?

Knocking the Knockers?

I had a rude awakening last week. It was the height of the December rush, work was incredibly busy, the kid’s end-of-school week was just done and renovations were underway at our house. Read: stress.

It was just as I was grappling with a kitchen installation that I saw through the window a young man striding up our driveway, clipboard under this arm.

My heart sank. I hate doorknockers. My single thought as I approached the door was “How quickly can I get rid of this guy?” And sure enough, before his opening sentence offering re-roofing was complete, I’d packed him on his way. I was firm and kind – though probably not in equal proportion.

Actually I was fuming. Who buys a roof that way?! I screamed inwardly. If I want a new roof then when I am good and ready, I will research companies on the net and in my own good time I will make the call.

And right then came an Advent moment – I realised that Jesus is a doorknocker. He comes when he is ready. He breaks into our world in his own way in his own time. (And he will again.)

Boy can he be inconvenient! When he called his first disciples on the beach, they could have said “Look mate, can’t you see we’re in the middle of a shift here?” But instead they drop their nets, and some good fish rot, and some good customers are lost – because the kingdom of God has come by.

Jesus doesn’t just come to town, he comes through town and some people drop everything and follow while others – people like me? – just can’t fit him into their schedule and agenda. Jesus never fits into anyone’s agenda. You can’t fit him into your life. But you are invited to fit into his.

“Here I am, I stand at the door and knock,” he says in Revelation 3. Will we truly receive him or send him packing? But furthermore, what does this say about our roles as sacred agents – ‘doorknockers’ on his behalf? Are we prepared to risk the irritation and ire of those who aren’t ready?

PS Doorknocker, quite possibly angel, I’m sorry! I skipped the reroof but got the reproof.

Walking Taller

Anyone who takes seriously their role as a sacred agent – a representative of God’s Kingdom in the here and now – will know the feeling of being outnumbered and overwhelmed. The media, the government, local institutions seem to show very little regard for Christ. Compounding the pressure, we see friends, neighbours, even close family members ignoring or rejecting outright their need for Jesus.

The trap for us, who feel these pressures very acutely, is to become defensive. When we feel threatened, whether by Islam or Oprah or Dawkins, an instinct can be for us to recoil into a stance that is not Christ-like and works against our very own mission. We can be fooled into fight (pushy debating and lobbying and power plays) or flight (retreating from the world into our own little safe corner) and each of these can be to shoot ourselves in our beautiful feet that our meant to bring good news.

Fight and flight postures each keep us from being in that peaceful, joyful zone where we are open to God’s Spirit and ready for opportunities to engage creatively with the world around us in the name of Jesus. Think of Jesus himself when his opponents were actively setting traps for him. Neither fight nor flight, but brilliant thirds ways that were wonderful demonstrations of God’s kingdom.

For me, a key thought I choose to bring to mind when the world looms large is that Jesus will certainly triumph in the end. As bad as the scoreboard seems now, we know how this game ends. Like the masked man in The Princess Bride backed up in a sword fight to the edge of the cliff, we can still smile to ourselves and indeed to the world. We know a secret. We know we are perfectly safe and nothing at all can separate us from Christ’s love.

The world will give us all sorts of trouble, but we must actively take heart – Christ has overcome the world. Let’s neither pull our heads in nor thrust our chins out. Let’s walk taller – not with an arrogant swagger, but with the noble gait of those who will turn the other cheek, wash feet, and with Christ be overcomers.

Easier to Flee Than Follow

They say that we all need heroes, and I suppose that’s true. But in many ways we seem also to be motivated by anti-heroes – people we definitely don’t want to be like. I think this might be especially true for Australians.

In the gospels, we have a true hero – Jesus. And we have several anti-heroes, particularly the Pharisees. Now as long as we keep our theology childish and not just child-like, it’s easy to place Jesus in the blue corner, and the Pharisees in the red corner. It’s Jesus versus the Pharisees! And then it follows that if we are as unlike the Pharisees as possible, then we must be like Jesus. Right? Right? Terribly wrong!

Here’s the thing: It’s easier to flee than follow. If you’re fleeing something, you can run down any street, run in any direction, run wherever. But following – following takes discipline and attention. It’s constraining.

If representing Christ means just being “non-pharisaical” then there are just a few things to “not be”: Judgemental, preachy, proud. Flee these and chances are people will consider you a good Christian. But I fear that the Christian life doesn’t mean fleeing the Pharisees, it means following Jesus. Easy enough to be non-pharisaical. Hard to be Christlike.

Jesus didn’t tell the Pharisees to abandon their diligent study of the Scripture, or their attention to detail, or their passion for obedience to God’s reign. He told them to also practice justice, mercy and the love of God without neglecting the rest. He didn’t tell them to leave everyone else alone. He told them to deal with the plank in their own eyes so they would be able to see clearly to remove the speck from others’ eyes.

They are two huge challenges for sacred agents. Dealing with our own plank AND being those who still dare to meddle with other people’s lives. Thats a narrow path to carefully and prayerfully tread. What happens, you see, when following Jesus requires us to be just a little bit preachy?

Sunday Morning Evangelism?

Last century many Baptist churches offered two services each week – usually Sunday morning and Sunday night. The morning service was weighted towards nurturing believers (of all ages), and the evening service weighted towards evangelism (especially of youth). It balanced churches’ priorities: Get fed on Sunday morning, bring your friends Sunday night.

But with the demise of the second service the choice of nearly every church has been to retain ‘feeding the flock’ as a corporate practice, leaving evangelism as an individual one (perhaps with the exception of occasional courses such as Alpha). What would it look like if a church chose the other way?

The building up of believers would need to utilize mid-week meetings of big and/or small groups and individual spiritual disciplines to a greater extent. Believers wouldn’t be able to use Sunday services as a weekly Quiet Time!

But the big difference might be the opportunity for the church to witness corporately, bringing the whole combination of spiritual gifts of the body to the task. Jesus said “By this will everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”(John 13:35 NIV) If this is such a key aspect of our witness, why do we gather in relative privacy, and do our public witness individually? Are we hiding our lamp under a bowl?

What might it look like to open our weekly meetings to the neighbourhood and send strong signals that visitors, seekers, doubters, explorers, everyone is invited, indeed expected? On the inside this might mean more testimonies and less in-house notices, more preaching to the back row and less preaching to the choir. On the outside it might mean flags, banners, A-frame signs and the like to say “We’re here, we’re on, we’re open and we’re expecting you.” You only need to look at businesses and other public buildings to see how that is standard signalling in our culture.

There’s so much to be said for corporate witness, and churches could do worse than to experiment with this by at least designating some Sundays or a season of Sundays as evangelistic. (Although regular, ongoing witness has many advantages over the one-hit event.) It takes time for a church to learn to do it well, and for the neighbourhood to notice, but might it not strike a better balance?

Does Exercise Work?

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?

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