Sacred Agents

Sacred Agents

Welcome to
Sacred Agents

Learning to represent the great Kingdom of God in the everyday world is an amazing adventure. But it sure isn’t easy. If you often feel more like Maxwell Smart than James Bond, then this site is for you! Join in the conversations and we’ll fumble our way forward together…

New book by Andrew Turner

Taking the Plunge

Baptism and Belonging to Jesus

A guide for those responding to the gospel or coming of age. Discussion questions included and priced so that pastors, youth leaders and evangelists can always have some copies on hand!

Fruitful Church

A Manifesto for Sending

What is real success for a church? If it’s all about size and health, then why did Jesus curse that big, healthy-looking fig tree? Could it be that we are growing churches that will impress everyone but him? What does a truly fruitful church look like?

We raise our children to mature, leave home, and start new households. Why is this the norm for families, but the exception for churches? What might it look like, if we saw ourselves afresh as a sent and sending people? 

Recent Articles

 

Welcome to the Sacred Agents blog. Learning to represent the great Kingdom of God in the everyday world is an amazing adventure. But it sure isn’t easy. If you often feel more like Maxwell Smart than James Bond, then this site is for you! Join in the conversations and we’ll fumble our way forward together…

When Too Easy is Too Hard

Many years ago I was chairing a committee that was tackling a complex problem. As far as committees go, it was a good one, well stocked with highly intelligent people and united in our purpose. It didn’t take too long before they came up with a very clever approach to overcome the problem. “Well done! Sounds like a great way forward,” I said.

The next month we met again, and to my surprise the problem hadn’t been overcome. “Oh, I said, did it prove to be more difficult than we thought?” But they assured me it wasn’t, and in fact it wasn’t very difficult at all. They laid out the series of simple steps needed and again I said “Go for it.”

After another month you’d think that this brilliant committee would have knocked it on the head, but once again there was our problem, undented. “Well this one really is mocking us, isn’t it? We just can’t seem to win,” I said. But again they assured me that this problem would really be no problem, no problem at all. Then it began to dawn on me. “Could it be,” I asked, “That you’ve found a great plan for solving the problem, and it’s not that the steps are too hard for you, but rather that they’re too easy?” Their eyes brightened. You see, this group of great thinkers were not great doers. The actual steps, once found, required little thinking, and thinking was their thing.

And it got me thinking about mission, because, well, everything does. Does the mission of our largely white, educated, middle class movement suffer because our task is too difficult? Or is it too easy. People like us – like me – enjoy a good puzzle, a good debate, the wrestling with ideas, but not so much the wrestling with a lawnmower. If there’s a process, and it’s simple, then it should be automated. Done by robots. Or just by ‘others’. Once we’ve thought up a good way, well, the rest is boring.

There are a lot of good books and conferences and discussion groups about mission, but the truth is that the way the Lord has given to us isn’t rocket science. It involves taking an interest in others, sharing meals, asking questions, serving, praying, and the talking needed is hardly ever hifalutin. It’s labour-intensive. God wants to reach out to each person, to connect personally with them, through people. That will take many of us, even for a small suburb, but we prefer to fantasize about God ‘sweeping his hand across the suburb’ and getting it done without anyone having to get their fingernails dirty. But that’s not his way. I’m not saying we should stop reading, or doing great thinking about mission. But if we’re dreaming that our lab will suddenly mass-produce a vaccine to automatically Christianise everyone, we need to wake up. And attend to the patch that the Lord has assigned to us. There’s someone at hand that you can visit, call, share a meal with, share God’s love. Too easy, eh?

Hey Let’s Be Powerful

The Korean pastor handed his business card to me, and immediately two words jumped out from his vision statement: Powerful church. I found myself recoiling, the words grated on me. ‘How arrogant!’ I thought, judging before even thinking.

“You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you,” says Jesus at the start of the Book of Acts, “and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” If Pastor Park was arrogant in his vision for a powerful church, then how much more Christ himself?

It’s interesting and wonderful how it takes believers of other cultures to see the ways in which we have sold out to ours. Australians value humility. We really value it, and are at our most powerful when we’re pulling down someone who’s up themselves. We hate pride and arrogance, and sometimes so much that we forget to love God.

You see, we tend to draw a straight line from strength and success to pride and arrogance, so much so that we often can’t tell the difference. Someone who’s successful is obviously proud. And therefore, one way that we can cleverly avoid that deadly sin is to not be successful. To not strive, nor pursue excellence. The words “powerful church” grate on us, because we can make a virtue out of our churches being weak, disorganised and unfruitful. We congratulate ourselves, agreeing that “we’d rather be like this that like one of those try-hard churches.”

Yes, churches and Christians who make efforts to love the Lord their God with all their heart, all their soul, all their mind and all their strength are obviously doing it wrong! Believers who study the Scriptures hard, pray regularly and work on sharpening their ministry are clearly mistaken and trying to build up Brownie points with God. Don’t they know we’re saved by grace, and our Master loves it most when we bury our talents to show our trust in him?

Sacred agents, let’s try to recognise this idiocy when we see it and repent from it. God is calling us to step up and grow up, strive forward (1 Co 9:24-27), and actively seek his empowering. “Strengthen your feeble arms and weak knees,” says the writer to Hebrews “…so that the lame may not be disabled, but rather healed.” In Christ it is perfectly possible to be both strong and humble, powerful and noble, excellent and gentle. Worth a shot, despite what the Aussies around us will say?

For more on the pursuit of true humility, rather than pride-in-shame, see Dan Kent’s provocative little book Confident Humility. And while I’m plugging books, keep an eye out for Taking the Plunge: Baptism and Belonging to Jesus. Coming soon!

Taking the Plunge

Let’s get the shameless plug out the way – I’ve a new little book coming soon. It’s called Taking the Plunge: Baptism and Belonging to Jesus, and it’s a guide for enquirers and new believers. Keep an eye out for it!

Have you noticed, though, that for many people, baptism is coming a long time after the decision to entrust themselves to Christ? In Scripture we see people being baptised quite immediately upon receiving Christ. In fact, it’s presented as the way of receiving Christ – faith and action, mind and body together.

A similar shift has happened with weddings, that other ceremony of initiation, and I think there’s a cultural correlation. Many used to marry in their early 20s, or even teens, but now wait much longer. Marriage is no longer seen as an initiation into a relationship, but the culmination of it. So what’s happening? Why the mass outbreak of gamophobia (fear of commitment)?

It may be the fear of failure. Divorce is so painful and costly. Why not wait to be sure that your partner is the right one, and that you yourself have the strength to make it work, before ‘sealing the deal’? At one level it’s understandable. It could even be seen as respecting commitment, not just fearing it. But it’s worth us resisting this trend – particularly with baptism. People will never have a better option than Jesus. It’s a pathway we can encourage without reservation, its difficulties notwithstanding.

I like to tell this story: A young woman had a medical condition that made her hands shake continually. She was told that it could be cured, but would require brain surgery. Disturbed by the thought of such an invasive step, she put it off continually and just put up with the shakes. Eventually in later life, she came to her senses and had the surgery. And she was cured! Suddenly some new hobbies were possible for her. But one thing she’d missed: The possibility of becoming a brain surgeon herself and helping others like her. So don’t spend your life deciding whether or not you’ll be in with Christ. Not only is it disrespectful to expect a bridegroom to wait decades at the altar for you, even if he does, you’ve also missed out on some incredible, noble, adventure with him.

FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out) should rightly overcome KOOO (Keeping One’s Options Open), and people should take the plunge. There is no fuller or freer life than wholeheartedly belonging to Christ, so encouraging people to whole-body-and-heartedly decide is rightly a part of our gospel.

When the Walls Close In

We’re becoming familiar with confinement – in one way or another all of our worlds have become smaller. Our wings have been clipped, options limited, movement restricted and circles tightened. Most of us long to be beyond this, past the labour pains of this confinement, and birthed into the new. But what will that new look like?

For better or probably worse, what Christians are most distinctively known for is going to church. Gathering together has been fundamental to, and the main measure of, our faith. Now for worse or possibly better, all that has been pulled from beneath us, shaken up to reveal what cannot be shaken.

When churches are able to regather in person, the “One per 4 Square Metre Rule” will effectively mean that all our church buildings have effectively shrunk. The chapel that used to seat 100 is now good for 30. The 500-seat auditorium will now hold only 125. When church walls are closing in on us; what room does it leave for our movement?

Given we don’t know yet whether these restrictions will be temporary, permanent or intermittent; here are three thoughts:

1. If we’re broadcasting, we might as well do it online. Where our ministry has been stage-focused, with attendees mainly observers, it’s been relatively easy to transport this online in a kind of ‘verch church’. Don’t get me wrong, this has and can continue to be a significant blessing. The making of strong disciples requires effective Bible teaching, where most of us need to shut up, listen and take notes. We will always need to tune in to gifted teachers and truly prophetic leaders.

2. We need other things as well, however: Interactive spaces where each one can be known and heard, questions asked and lives shared. This necessarily happens in smaller groups (we have the tech to talk to many people at once, but can still only really listen to one at a time). Home groups are great for carrying much of this, but also have their limitations: They can be hard for many to access, and struggle for quality control.

3. During restrictions at least, what if we kept the big-long-talk online, acknowledging its value (edifying for adults, with good English, Christian background and attention span, less so for others) but no longer centre-of-worship? Some churches may piggy-back on the teaching of others. And what if we kept the prayerful intimacy of home groups with all they offer? But what if we also offered medium-sized services with a short homily, sure, but a stronger focus on communion – and concomitantly on the child, the newcomer, the migrant and the struggling? They could be simple, 45 minutes perhaps, and repeated as needed.

Imagine the discipleship benefits of small, medium and large-format ministries spread across our weeks and across our land? Might these closed-in walls actually open up some wide new possibilities?

Chaos, Tumult, Upheaval and You

Often the life of a sacred agent is simply ‘a long obedience in the same direction.’ (Eugene Peterson) There’s much to be said for faithful perseverance. But what about when the world gets turned on its head? What do good representatives of Christ do in times of upheaval? Here are some preliminary thoughts, given that the heaval is still currently on the up:

Be Still -When everything’s blown apart by a storm, and there’s so much to check up on and so many loose threads to tie down. It’s tempting to go into ‘heroic’ mode, and some of us need to – for instance medical and essential services workers. But weirdly, this particular crisis is calling for the majority to stay put and slow down, which is very hard for heroes. But it can be a great gift to those around you to stand firm, to be still. If this season allows you some rest, take it. There’s no doubt there’ll be much to do before long, needing many good people who are refreshed and ready to go. Sit with Psalm 46 for a bit.

Be Constant -Many people are feeling like the rug’s been pulled out from under them. When everything’s shaking, people look to hold onto something that’s not. Are you able to be unshaky? Keeping to good rhythms, and particularly your spiritual disciplines (holding to One who is unshaky) will help not only yourself, but also those around you.

Be Wise – I wonder whether owls are associated with wisdom because their eyes open so wide. It’s not becoming for sacred agents to be in denial, or to bury our heads in the sand or our hands. The shrewd manager in Jesus’ parable(Lk16) saw what was shifting in his life and made adjustments. If God is using this time of shaking to shake off of us stuff that’s been holding us back, let’s cling to it no longer. Keep seeking wisdom, which is to say, God’s perspective.

Be Kind – Under stress, it’s easy for people to go into survival mode and become ruthless, selfish and sharp. We, whose ultimate survival is guaranteed, need not be drawn down that path. More than ever seeking the Spirit, let his gentleness, peace, joy and love flow through us. We will shine especially bright when we’re determined to respond to unkindness with kindness. Our God fights fire with water.

Be Confident – Sacred agents may well weep and lament alongside the suffering, and in our own suffering too. But we do so still knowing that Jesus’ kingdom will ultimately triumph in a renewed creation. This calls us to be hopeful, and hopeful in a way that is more than wistful or wishful. We should plan. Plan banking on Jesus winning. What might mission and ministry and church look like on the other side of this? Perhaps we were blind-sided by the storm; let’s not be blind-sided by the calm after it!

It’s not downhill from here till the lights go out. No, even in the pitch black, we sacred agents look to the East.


Working for Jesus?

Ten years ago, the driving idea behind this blog Sacred Agents was to remind ourselves that to be a Christian is not merely to be a follower of, but also a representative of Jesus. We’ve looked at how he called his followers apostles (sent ones), not just disciples (learners). Charles Spurgeon has chipped in with “Every believer is either a missionary or an imposter.” I’m constantly saying that in God’s kingdom you get a guernesy, not a season-ticket. We’re players, not spectators, right? All of us ministers, and all of heaven watching.

But let’s grow in our understanding of this. It’s wrong to think that God is active and we are passive (‘We can’t do anything, only God can do things, so let’s get out of His way’). But it’s just as wrong to flip to its opposite (‘We have to do everything, and God does nothing but watch and evaluate’).

To be a sacred agent is not just about doing things for God, but with Him. Active together. We are active precisely because God is always at work. It’s a Pharisee thing, not a God thing, to load people down with heavy burdens and not lift a finger to help.Lk11 You can lift two fingers to that view of God!

Instead, let’s press into actively seeking God’s perspective, God’s presence, and God’s empowering by the Spirit on a daily and situational basis. Let’s look for how God has and is going ahead of us in every conversation, and seek to be on cue when the moment comes for us to play our little part or say our little lines. Let’s not merely be inspired by Jesus, but ‘carried along by the Spirit.’2Pe1

For real movement in our movement, we must avoid both the apathy of ignoring our calling on the one hand, and the exhaustion of trying to fulfil it alone on the other. Both grind us to a halt. ‘But those who hope in the LORD will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not be faint.’Isa40 So in our prayers, let’s not merely ask ‘What do you want me to do?’ but ‘Spirit fill us, surround us, and flow through us. Give us wisdom to know the best path, and also power to make ground along it. For this is your will, and we too are willing.’

PS: Support the Crossover Easter Offering! It’s the sole income for Crossover, the national Baptist organisation that’s “Helping Australian Baptists Share Jesus.” See crossover.org.au

Better Than Jesus?

How can I put this? That’s the big question of every sacred agent, every missionary, every evangelist. We have such good news, such a wonderful kingdom to represent and invite others into. Such good news, and yet … how do we put it?

It should be straightforward – everyone everywhere should check out Jesus. But so many are oblivious, blinded, suspicious, resistant, biased, distracted and deceived. We have a bit of a go but can quickly get disheartened, feeling that ‘I blew it.’ Especially if the response to our message wasn’t just a cold shoulder but a hip-and-shoulder.

It’s tempting then to retreat back into a ‘gospel lab’, doing mental research-and-development over and over to find the perfect way to share the message of God’s kingdom that will surely succeed. Fail-safe. Fool-proof. Irresistibly alluring. (Let’s pause here to think of youth pastors put under pressure to produce a program that will keep 100% of young people in the church.)

In short, we want to be better evangelists than Jesus. Because if there’s a way of putting the message of the kingdom that will meet with nothing but acclaim, then Jesus certainly never found it.

All sacred agents must either go insane, quit, or grasp this truth: Whenever the gospel is put, there is a double-revelation. The kingdom of God is revealed – you’re giving people a peek at it. But the message of the kingdom also reveals the hearts of the hearers. If you tell the story of the Prodigal Son, not only will an incredibly, scandalously loving Father be revealed, but also the extent to which your hearers are ready to ‘come to their senses’ like the pig-feeding prodigal.

A rejection-proof message that doesn’t reveal hearts is safe, but short of being real evangelism. It’s the difference between saying ‘I like you’ and ‘Will you have dinner with me?’ If people can merely shrug and say ‘That’s nice to know,’ have we really shown them a God who deeply longs for them?It’s not failure to share the inviting love of God and be rejected. But it is failure to not share it in case of rejection. We definitely need some ‘lab time’ so that our ministry is appropriately thoughtful and respectful. But – how can I put this – the fear of causing offense, and desire to represent the kingdom in a suffering-free way – these put us in danger of offending the One whose opinion matters most of all.

Are You Expecting?

It’s the question no man should ever ask! But the season of Advent just sidles up and drops the question shamelessly. Sacred agents, are you expecting?

Me: What? Who? Me? No. Of course not.

Gabriel: Why not?

Me: How did you get into this conversation, Gabriel?

Gabriel: I get around. Now tell me again about how you’re not expecting. God has big plans, you know. Don’t you want to be part of them?

Me: You know I do.

Gabriel: Well then, it’s time to get moving. Your relative Elizabeth is already … oh, hang on, hang on, wrong script. Your brothers and sisters around the world are already busy with kingdom work. So let me ask you again – are you expecting?

Mary: Yes, are you expecting rulers and thrones to be brought down and the humble lifted up? The hungry filled with good things and the rich sent away empty?

Me: Mary?!

Gabriel: Are you expecting empires to crumble while the kingdom keeps growing? Nations and cities to be transformed? Are you expecting churches to thrive? Are you expecting your neighbours, family and friends to be powerfully changed as Christ is birthed and formed in them? Are you expecting King Jesus himself to return in triumph and glory and justice and vindication?

Me: Wow, well … truth be told? I’m not expecting, I’m just a little overweight….

Are Autonomous Vehicles Safe?

It’s the question everyone’s asking. They’re asking it about cars, but I’m asking it about churches. The world’s been talking about autonomy for the last few years. We Baptists have been talking about it for over 400!

The Autonomy of the Local Church is one of the key ideas in the Baptist genius. It keeps us as a grass-roots movement rather than a top-down empire. It allows for flexibility and contextualisation instead of each church being a McFranchise. It provides the Body of Christ with something of an immune system: Bad ideas don’t automatically spread across the system, but can be challenged in each location. And there’s another huge one I’ll get to in a minute.

But the word Autonomy always sits awkwardly, doesn’t it? The idea of ‘completely ruling ourselves’ should always raise Christian eyebrows. Isn’t Jesus Lord? Imagine a vehicle that was truly autonomous and just drove wherever it felt like! Hardly useful.

So sometimes we say Independent, but similarly we must qualify it by affirming that the Body of Christ is actually interdependent. Imagine a vehicle that drove you from A to B without reference to all the other vehicles. Highly dangerous!

Another alternative we reach for is Competent. But can each church be pronounced competent to organise itself in one sweeping statement? Does every car run like a beauty? Are there really no lemons?

It surprises me, then, that we don’t just say Responsible. Instead of affirming that each congregation has ‘the right’ to do whatever it feels like doing, it would seem far preferable to affirm that each church has ‘the responsibility’ to discern how best to serve and represent Christ locally.

And this is the huge benefit I hinted at. It’s more efficient to simply receive the right answers and the right orders from some sort of HQ – but that leaves us as children. Having to do the work of discernment together, weighing up what’s wise and what’s dangerous, what’s Gospel and what’s fad, what’s fruitful and what’s a waste of time – these challenges form us and grow us up into responsible adults. At least they should. To represent Christ well, we don’t just need answers and instructions like robots. We need wisdom and grace.

When we affirm that all believers are priests, we are speaking not of a right to disregard others, but of the duty to live out the holy ministry that the Lord has entrusted into our hands. We can’t do what we like with it. Or let it run into disrepair. Each church needs to responsibly convey Christ’s kingdom to those to whom we’re sent. Sacred agents indeed.

A New New Deal?

We should measure spirituality by flow, not volume. It’s not “How much of the Holy Spirit do you have?” but rather “How much of you does He have?” Scripture speaks of God’s Spirit blowing like the wind, or pouring like water. He moves, he flows, he doesn’t merely inhabit. When Jesus invites the thirsty to come to him and drink, he immediately says that from those who do, ‘streams of living water will flow.’Jn7

So the question is not merely how much are we receiving, but how much are we giving? God’s ideal is for free flow: ‘Freely you have received, freely give.’Mt10 The servant put in charge of feeding other servants is in trouble if he considers himself rich rather than responsible.Mt24 The servant who receives mercy is in trouble if he doesn’t in turn pass it on.Mt18

So what happens when the flow stops? In the Great Depression of the 1930s a fascinating and awful spiral occurred. People stopped spending. Those with work greatly feared losing their jobs, and so instead of spending their income they saved as much as possible, living as frugally as they could. This meant that sales plummeted and firms making and selling things went out of business, and indeed people did lose their jobs, creating more fear, more self-preservation mentality, and round and round the spiral went. The flow of money stopped, poverty bit hard, and instead of a trusting, trading society it was each person for themselves.

If only people knew that they were going to be OK! If only the fear was overcome, the spiral could begin to reverse. Indeed the new US President Roosevelt famously told his nation “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”

The only way to reverse such a fearful spiral was for someone, somewhere to begin spending money with optimism they didn’t feel – in faith. It ended up being the US government, with a scheme called “The New Deal”. It borrowed enormous amounts to guarantee citizens paid work on massive infrastructure projects and bring hope and certainty.

How does that speak to sacred agents? I believe that fearfulness about the prospects of Christians and churches in our society is giving us a defensive and survivalist mindset. There is a narrative of Christianity in decline which is simply not true but widely believed nonetheless. Churches fear closing. We’re reluctant to take risks like adding staff, planting a church or commissioning members to service elsewhere. Even as individuals, when we privatise our faith and begin drawing on God ‘just to get through the week’ rather than to bless others abundantly – we’re continuing a negative spiral in contrast to God’s will.

How do we reverse this? It takes some courageous sacred agents to give more than they can afford to. (I’m not primarily talking about money – but not excluding it). When we give more than we can afford, it leaves us in deficit. But we then call on others to flow blessing to us. And on the Father himself to measure to us with the generous measure that we have used. Do we not know that we are going to be OK? Should we not be the most confident and least fearful of all people? Let us gospel ourselves once more. When we call on the Lord to “open the floodgates of heaven and pour out his blessing” – do we not realise that we ourselves are those gates, and that he is seeking to once again open us?

Great Number of Expectations

I’m a fan of the 19th Century missionary William Carey – to the extent that we named our son after him. (I now realise that was a step beyond getting a tattoo of him – but the boy is such a fan of wicketkeeper Alex Carey that he doesn’t mind.)

Carey (the misho) was a doer. Not one one to swallow the “Only God can do things and it’s kind of an insult to try to do things that only God can do” pop-theology that is still too prevalent today. He got that God wants to work through us and not just around us and invites us to step up and get in the game. His famous motto was “Expect great things from God; attempt great things for God.” If I was the tattooing type…

But if you carry that idea not merely on your skin, but deeper, you find yourself in a certain stance. The stance of a sacred agent. Looking both to receive a lot and to give a lot. It’s good. The down-side, though, is that in the looking for ‘great things’ to get and to do, you miss the little things. And God so often does big things through the little things.

So for a while I’m trying out a variation of the motto. Instead of “Expect much, attempt much”, how’s this: “Expect often, attempt often”?

This is the sacred agent’s discipline of being faithful with small things. It reminds me to expect our generous Father to be giving me things-for-others often, more than daily. In fact, for the grace of Christ and the power of the Spirit to be at work in and through me continually.

From time to time there may be a grand epiphany or an exciting project. But a simple word of kindness; glass to the thirsty; invitation to church, or lunch, or both; a quick encouraging text – am I ready for that kind of ministry? Are we?

Lord, how can I be of service today? is a great morning prayer. I’m sure it was Carey’s too, and for a lot of mundane mornings.

…Speaking of a great number of things, this is the 100th Sacred Agents post. Many thanks to all who have followed, commented, made suggestions, and taken the bad with the good!<AT>

Looking Down on Jesus?

They must have been difficult words for the Messiah to hear: “Are you the one who was to come, or should we expect someone else?” They imply, “We thought you were The Answer To All Our Problems – but now we have more. We thought you’d blow away our enemies – but they still have it over us. We thought… frankly we thought you’d be more impressive.” The words must have hurt all the more coming from John the Baptist, one of the very first to point Jesus out as the Christ.

But John is stuck in prison, and he won’t be coming out in one piece. So a fair question, maybe? We’re familiar with Jesus’ reply: “Go back and report to John what you hear and see: The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is preached to the poor.” But his last sentence has always rocked me: “Blessed is anyone who does not fall away on account of me.”

Think about that: Blessed are those who don’t fall away because of Jesus. Because he is not enough for them. Because he is beneath them.

When Paul wrote to the Romans “I am not ashamed of the gospel,” he wasn’t merely saying that he wasn’t afraid to speak up publicly. The gospel was causing a lot of problems for the Roman church, bringing together ‘those Jews’ and ‘those Gentiles’ and all sorts of ‘those people’ – the blind, the lame, the lepers, the deaf, the dying, the poor. That in turn meant layers of difficulty and tension. It certainly didn’t make life easy. Paul knew as well as anyone that Jesus can mess your life up. But he also knew this was the way God’s power works. It would bring salvation, upend an empire, change the world and lead to ultimate glory.

So I try to remember this when church is hard work, when ‘those people’ are frustrating, when progress seems slow and when God’s enemies seem to be winning. I hear Jesus saying “Blessed is anyone who does not fall away on account of me.” If those people and that path are not beneath him, they mustn’t be beneath me. Let’s keep learning not to look down on Jesus but to trust him and his way instead.

Where Do I Even Begin?

It’s wonderful to receive the good news of the gospel. But we get to be bearers of it too. What an honour … and how daunting. What if we don’t get the message right?

If you’re worried about making a mash of the message, remember that no-one nails it. You can never tell the whole gospel, not if you talked for a thousand years. Read all the gospel-speeches in Acts and note how much each one leaves out! In Athens, Paul omits to mention Jesus’ death! So sacred agents are never telling the whole truth … simply because we can’t! It’s not our calling to tell everyone everything.

So where do we start, then, and what do we say? In his helpful book Beyond Awkward, Beau Crosetto outlines four major components of our news about Jesus. With admirable alliteration, he points out that Jesus offers:

Pardon – He is the Son of Man with “authority on earth to forgive sins”, and “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world”.
Power – He is the Stronger Man who outmuscles the “strong man” holding us captive under sin, injustice, evil and death. The gospels show Jesus continually rescuing people from hopeless situations.
Purpose – He calls his followers to a grand adventure, to participation in a story of cosmic proportions and to real responsibility as ministers in his government. Sacred agents, even.
Presence – He is Emanuel – God with us. He presents to us a Father who numbers the hairs on our heads, cares for every sparrow and us even more, and promises “surely I will be with you always”.

Crosetto is not saying that every gospel message should cover all of these memorable points. He says we should start by being present with people, asking questions and listening well. In doing so we’ll likely find that one of the four ‘P’s is a need keenly felt by our neighbour, and therefore a great starting point for sharing about Jesus.

Pardon is very good news, and might be what your neighbour needs to hear first. But it’s not the only news. The other three ‘P’s show how Jesus is good news not only for the guilty/ashamed/underperforming, but also for the stuck/addicted/out-of-control, the wandering/drifting/groundhog-dayed and the lonely/abandoned/marginalised. If your neighbour is lonely, you don’t need to begin with convincing her that she’s guilty.

Each ‘P’ is a way into a gospel conversation, and each has a wealth of wonderful stories behind it. (There’s a good group exercise.) But ultimately all four are things we all deeply need, and no matter which way in, four aspects of an enormous and enormously good message.

We’ve been given so much to give. Truly as Jesus said, teachers who have been instructed in the kingdom are like a rich person who constantly pulls out of their storehouse new and old treasures to share!

PS We’re building a Gospel Sharers Network here in SA. To join us visit sabaptist.asn.au/evangelism

Frank Reflections on the Graham Tour

On February 21st nearly 10,000 people overflowed Titanium Security Arena here in Adelaide to hear Franklin Graham’s message. About 400 responded to his altar call. I was one of the thousand or so watching on the big screen outside.

After a Planet Shakers worship frenzy to disconcert the unchurched, and a short set by Crowder to re-concert them, the 66-year old American in a suit took the stage.

Now I’d heard the chatter among some thinking Christians about the Graham Tour, and there’s much I agree with. Here’s a summary of their concerns:

  • He has identified too strongly with right-wing politics in general and Trump in particular.
  • Flying in an American to sweep across Australia in a whirl-wind, pre-packaged stadium tour breaks just about every rule of missiology. (I don’t remember him even using the name “Adelaide”. It was just “your city” – sigh.)
  • His ‘old school’ gospel message overplayed the Penal Substitutionary view of Christ’s Atonement (focusing on sin as our moral failure before a Righteous Judge) as opposed to other biblical facets of the gospel such as our being lost and in need of a Finder or captive in need of a Rescuer. In ‘old school’ evangelism, awareness of guilt is a key step on the way to Jesus, and the sins he gave time for special mention were selective … the classic ones.

All these things unsettle many Christian thinkers – but do you know what drives us most crazy? That 400 people nevertheless responded, saying that they want to be reconciled to God through Christ.

I turned these things over in my mind as I drove home and have come to this conclusion: The only type of evangelism that works is the evangelism that actually gets done. If any of us think that we can do it better, then we really should. We really must.

I’m convinced there’s still a place in our day and our culture for ‘event evangelism’, where a Christian community combines its many gifts to create a hospitable experience for enquirers that culminates in a gifted and well-prepared evangelist sharing the message and calling for a response. We do it in small ways when a church runs Alpha or an equivalent. We do it in medium ways, for instance through Easter Camps. Event evangelism stands on the shoulders of everyday witness and has the great advantage of creating a moment-for-decision that calls out a response.

So if God can use a Trumped-up sexagenarian regurgitating a 1950s version of the kingdom message with a ‘Merican accent, then what might He do through you and me?

PS If you have the noble task of sharing the gospel with others, either conversationally or through prepared messages (spot talks, devotions etc), please join our new Gospel Sharers Network. First gathering is Tue April 2nd 7pm at Trinity Baptist. For those who aren’t in Adelaide … why aren’t you?

The Shame Spiral

For fourteen years Margaret from Accounts had admired Geoff from HR but felt unworthy. For the same fourteen years he felt she was out of his league. What a waste of a decade and a half! It was nothing to do with lack of attraction and everything to do with personal shame.

There’s a phrase I’ve heard a few times from people in my neighbourhood, about my church: “Oh, you wouldn’t want someone like me.” At first I took it as a polite way of turning down an invitation. Then I began reading into it, and got defensive, thinking: “What – do you think we’re a bunch of superior Pharisees looking down on everyone?”

Then finally, having heard it several times, I began to wonder about taking it at face value. What if it’s an expression of shame? What if shame is a major reason for people to avoid church and decline invitations? Then a big question: What if we hear the declining of the invitation and it brings out our own shame? Are our events not good enough? Is our music not musical enough? Is our teaching boring, our morning tea too mundane, our people too ordinary?

We redouble our efforts to put on an even better event next year, and the invitation is knocked back again. It’s frustrating. We stare across the sparsely-filled car park at the neighbourhood and silently wish we could somehow be good enough for our neighbours … who may be staring right back from behind their lace curtains, a bit bitter at the church that would surely reject them.

Where this dynamic is true, we have a different challenge in our outreach. Not to persuade people of Jesus’ magnificence or the church’s excellence, but of the enormous value of each person and how deeply wanted they are by God and us.

I remember receiving the business card of a Korean pastor. His contact details were small, but in large letters across the front was this simple sentence: “You are very important to God.” To those who say or think “You wouldn’t want someone like me” we need to find a way to respond with “Oh, if only you knew!” What a strange moment when Margaret from Accounts and Geoff from HR finally connected and discovered what had truly been going on all that time. The spiral of shame robs us all, but Christ has overcome it. As his agents, perhaps it’s time for us to be a little more shameless in reaching out? And more sensitive to the shame of others.

In Praise of Rosters

I love a good roster. There, I’ve said it.

I know many Christians disagree, seeing them as a necessary evil, a secret shame. “Rosters seem so artificial. Why have some people ‘on duty’ and others ‘off duty’ at a gathering? Shouldn’t it be more natural and organic? Can’t we all just follow the inner voice of the Spirit and be prompted into ministry in the moment? Isn’t ‘organised religion’ what puts people off the most, and what Jesus himself fought against?”

No.

If you think organised religion is ugly, have a look at disorganised religion. Everyone simply following the ‘inner voice’ of the Spirit sounds great but fails on two fronts: Firstly, we’re not good at distinguishing between the inner voice of the Spirit and the inner voice of ourselves. We can find ourselves only drawn to ministries and situations that we enjoy the most. We can confuse the way of Christ with the path of least resistance. Secondly, the Spirit also has an ‘outer voice’ – when He speaks to us through others. This is a massive way in which God works, but time and again we miss it because we think it’s just Helen asking us to help out.

A good roster helps us to be the body of Christ – all different parts, well co-ordinated under the Head. It reminds us to work together in harmony, to submit to one another, to take turns stepping up or resting while the whole body moves on. All of this can itself be a witness – by this will everyone know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.

So a good roster requires a lot of love, and not just from the coordinator. It’s a spiritual discipline to communicate promptly, clearly and humbly with the poor soul putting it together. Signalling flexibility, willingness for others to have turns at your favourite roles, and willingness to fill in other roles if needed; are just as important as making clear when you’re unavailable and the limits of your sustainable service.

Jesus wasn’t fighting against organisation and coordination, so that everyone might be free to simply be themselves and do whatever they want. That’s not the Spirit of Jesus, that’s the spirit of the age. One of the most radical things a sacredagent can do is to commit to a local Christian community and ask “What needs doing? How can I help?”

For discussion: (1) What was Jesus fighting against? (2) When some says they don’t like organised religion, what might they really be saying?

Responsibility Begins with Response

“In the unlikely event of an emergency, oxygen masks will fall from the ceiling.” If you’ve flown before, you know the drill. And the next part of the safety message: “Be sure to fit your own mask correctly before assisting others.” It makes sense, doesn’t it? The faster you get yourself sorted, the sooner you’ll be able to help others.

But it doesn’t seem to make sense to many of us sacred agents. When we share the gospel, we often forget that part. Calling people to a response – to ‘hurry up and get themselves sorted’ with God – seems a bit pushy to us. Aussies don’t like to be pushed. And Jesus isn’t pushy, is he? Is he?

Actually, the urgency of being reconciled to God is all through his teaching. “Reconcile quickly with your adversary, even on the way to the judge.” Won’t a king facing a stronger king “send a delegation while the other is still a long way off and ask for terms of peace”? And all those parables about being ready because we never know when we’ll face the Master.

Our news is not merely that God loves everyone. If our message can be met with “that’s good to know” or “that’s lovely to think about” then it’s much less than the gospel. Imagine Fred proposing to Helen over and over and getting that response … and then Helen’s agony when she sees Fred finally marry Susan instead! Jesus is not just the pilot announcing “It’s all going to be OK, go back to what you were doing.” He calls people to action – to come and belong to him and join his mission.

The people who do so – who emphatically and publicly say “Yes” to Christ in baptism,getting themselves quickly sorted with God – these are the ones who (masks fitted and breathing in the Spirit) will go on to help others also find life in Christ. For responsibility begins with a response.

“All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself in Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation … We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God.” (2 Corinthians 5)

The Justice of Evangelism

There’s two words you don’t see together very much: Justice and Evangelism.

Each of them is a buzz-word, a shibboleth (a word from the Book of Judges that helps you know who to kill and who not to).  If you go around using the “E Word” you’re this kind of Christian, and if you go around using the “J Word” you’re that kind of Christian. But sacred agents need to be savvy enough to rise above that false dichotomy.

Because the two are deeply, indeed perfectly, connected.

If you have plenty of water, and a neighbour is thirsty, is it justice to not give them some? (We get that, don’t we?) But if you know the source of plenty of water, the location of a Spring – is it justice if you don’t tell thirsty people where to get it? So with the Living Water we know comes only from Christ.

Justice calls us to evangelism. When we sit on the explosively great news we have, we’re not only doing the wrong thing by Jesus (who said “Whoever is ashamed of me and my words, the Son of Man will be ashamed of them when he comes in his glory”), we’re doing the wrong thing by our neighbours and the wrong thing by the world, which will never thrive whilst estranged from God.

And as justice calls us to evangelism, so our evangelism calls people everywhere to true Justice. Like Paul’s message to the Athenians, ours points people to a coming Judge, and therefore to a real repentance and new life that goes far beyond sitting around with our friends in delightful echo chambers. It calls people to follow Jesus and join his ministry among the poor, the marginalised, the oppressed and the overlooked.

No one wants change more than Jesus does. But He shows us that the world is not improved through nagging, shaming and propaganda. These things perpetuate the ‘fight’ and bring a self-satisfying sense of struggle, but they don’t result in the lasting just-peace people claim to be fighting for. Real, lasting transformation, from selfish to responsible living, comes when people meet Jesus, find peace with God, and have their hearts and minds transformed by the Spirit. Have we not known this for some time?

So if you love Jesus, or if you are concerned for this dying planet and its suffering inhabitants, or maybe possibly even both, then live by the Spirit and give as freely as you have received: openly point others to the Source of life and Key to lasting change.

Slowing Down for Faster Roads

I’m a frustrated commuter. In Adelaide it seems that around every corner is a new set of road works, and the dreaded signs telling you to slow down to 40 (by displaying the number 25*). Sometimes it feels like you just can’t get anywhere. Traffic jams can reach back for miles and run thousands of people late.

Why all these slow-downs? Because we’re making our roads faster. Why is it so hard to get anywhere? Because we’re making it easier to get places.

It’s counter-intuitive. What would happen if we stopped doing roadworks? It would be wonderful … for a few months. But after that, increasingly disastrous. So I’ve been using stuck-in-traffic time to do some theological reflection.

Sacred agents can be the most idealistic of people. We have a vision for God’s kingdom and we want to see it now. But there are the road-works of disciple-making. The frustration of ministry development. We dream of having a church entirely made up of mature Christians. Wouldn’t it be heavenly … for a few months.

But God is choosing to pave the road to his fulfilled kingdom with future generations of sacred agents and given us the glorious job of being his road-workers. Churches need to be training centres and not just teaching centres. We should ask pastors to be star-players less and coaches more. And whilst it’s counter-intuitive, more responsibility needs to be given to those who aren’t quite ready for it.

But this will only pay off if we’re intentional about it. The most frustrating driving of all is when you slow down for road works and find that there’s no actual work taking place. Fines now apply for road crews who do that. And if we just delegate ministry without deliberately and efficiently building up others, we too should be fined rather than rewarded.

So next time you’re stuck in a roadworks jam, bless a road-worker. And prayerfully consider the wisdom in a slower ministry that intentionally prepares a holy highway for many others.

*That was a joke. Sacred Agents should never speed.

Who is Your Evangelist?

Just the word ‘evangelist’ seems to spook so many people. We can handle some people being called pastors, elders, deacons, worship leaders and administrators … but the role descriptor evangelist seems especially loaded. It’s in sore need of some demystification.

Scripture calls God’s people the body of Christ. The ministry of Jesus, the mission of God, continues by the Holy Spirit through us collectively. We have each been entrusted by God with a unique role to play and contribution to make to the whole, which is why I’m constantly emphasising that there are no lone sacred agents.

It’s good for us to have the words to describe the different kinds of ministries and ministers of the body in order for us to operate together well. The evangelist, in simple terms, is the mouth. Evangelists are the spokespeople of the church to the world. They tell the good news. Again, I emphasise that the whole body is on mission, that we all are called to be missionaries together. We’re all called to demonstrate God’s kingdom, but we’re not all called to articulate it.

So how do you know who is? Here’s a simple test: If your church was having an Open Day and inviting the whole neighbourhood to come for a look-see, who among you would you choose to say a few words of explanation of what your church is on about? For such a day you have a sense for who is better to be positioned behind the scenes (equally essential) and who is better out in front. Good evangelists have a knack for speaking to those with little knowledge of God, using words and ideas that they can relate to.

Evangelists come in many shapes and sizes. Our Queen is one of the world’s foremost evangelists. But closer to home, take my test and jot down some names. Who would you ask to say a few words explaining what your church is on about? Do they need some encouragement, support and development? And do they need to be released from other duties to grow more in evangelism?

Being a Tool

I’ve been thinking lately about how our prayers give away our real theology. The words we use to God can say not only a lot in themselves (especially if it’s one of those long prayers), but a lot about how we view God and relate to Him.

Sacred Agents should talk to God a lot. I mean, we want to represent Him well, don’t we. We can’t be witnesses to something we haven’t experienced, so we want to know Christ well not only for our own sakes but also to be able to introduce others to Him.

But I’ve noticed how much my own prayers begin with “Lord, help me to…” Do yours? When we pray like that we’re really putting ourselves at the centre and seeing ourselves as the prime movers. And God as our helper. He is, of course. It’s definitely not wrong to ask God for help!

But so many of my prayers are shaped like this, I think it gives away that I see prayer as a tool to help get things done, and truth be told, I can treat God’s Spirit as a tool to power my mission. But it’s God’s mission. And far better for us to see ourselves as instruments surrendered to God for His use.

Am I just playing with words here? No, I think our words reveal our hearts. So a simple spiritual discipline for me as a sacred agent is this: To try to ask the Lord open questions. Instead of requests that basically require a “Yes Andrew” or “No Andrew” – or possibly “Wait Andrew”, I’m trying to ask Him questions like “Lord, how can I be of service to you today?” “Who do you want me to particularly notice?” “What are you wanting to teach us, Lord?” And hopefully, through the discipline of the words, the heart is gradually shaped.

Can you be a good sacred agent without being a complete tool? Well, not in that sense.

The Ministry of Inreach

You can’t reach those you don’t love. Sacred agents find this out sooner or later. If our calling was just to drop off a message from God, we could simply find a nice efficient way, get it done and move on. But we’re called to embody a message from God, to represent Christ to others. Like Jonah, we need to learn not only to obey and go, but also to actually care. Our mission is not just to win arguments, but to win people.

But all of this is Mission 101. Basic principles of outreach that most sacred agents get. But do we get that the same principles apply to inreach? Do we even think about inreach at all? What even is it?

Have you ever felt let down by your church family? That you’re on mission, alone in a massive harvest while everyone else stays in the farmhouse playing games and having petty arguments? That’s a picture of estrangement in need of reconciliation. If left to run its natural course, it turns into bitterness and abandonment.

Now here’s the thing: If you’re feeling abandoned by less-mission-minded Christians, I think you’re largely in the right. But you’re still responsible to help bridge that divide. I call it inreach. And you won’t reach those you don’t love, and you won’t win people over by winning arguments.

This might seem mightily unfair to not only face a daunting harvest but also to love and minister to those who should be relieving you! But it was good enough for Peter, who after the Gentile Pentecost in Acts 10 goes straight into explaining and debriefing with the believers in Acts 11. It was good enough for Paul, who worked hard to connect back all his mission work with the ‘home church’. And it was good enough for Jesus, who should have been able to take Israel’s support for granted as their Messiah, but reached in to the nation that should already have been on mission to the world.

So next time you sense the pain of that support-gap, don’t roll your eyes. Don’t let resentment grow. Love your church family with the patience, kindness and gentleness of the Spirit. You might be surprised how many become willing to have a go at the harvest with you.

Where Do I Sign?

It’s a massive decision to submit yourself to Jesus and become a Christian. Just think about the sheer magnitude of that event: It impacts one’s work and career choices, family and partner relationships, one’s finances, calendar, and deeper still, one’s very sense of identity. Indeed, If anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: the old has gone, the new has come!2Co5:17

As sacred agents move among those to whom we’re sent, we can sometimes despair that any of them would be willing to make such a giant leap. They seem so entrenched in their way of life. This week has reminded me that people do make giant life shifts, and more often than we think. A daughter of one friend is leaving home and across the continent to move in with her boyfriend in a new city. Another friend has a job opportunity on a Caribbean cruise ship and could fly out any day. And another friend (who knew I had three?) is eyeing off a career in the armed forces.

I’m not saying any of these are good choices. But they’re all giant choices. Leave-behind-life-as-you-knew-it choices. Each one is rather sudden. Each one is leaving family and friends scrambling to come to terms with this seismic shift. So I’m reminded that just because someone is entrenched doesn’t mean that they like their trench; many dream of a new start. In these three cases, the dream has come within reach, and they value it so highly that they’ll pay the price of giving up their old life. Cheerfully, even.

It’s all raised one more big question for me. In each of these three cases, the new life can be quite clearly imagined. They might be starry-eyed, sure, but they pretty much know what’s involved, what needs to be organised, and where to sign up. It’s challenged me, as a recruiter for a greater adventure than the military, a deeper peace than the Caribbean, and a better lover than the interstate boyfriend – do the people I’m reaching have a clear idea of the phenomenal thing that is a Christian life, and how to access it, and where to sign?

A Tale of Four Tables

Just as the Kerrigans at No.34 were sitting down to dinner, in that moment of silence before saying grace, a knock was heard at the door. Their eyes opened wide in surprise, and they looked to each other. “Did you invite anyone?” “No, were you expecting anyone?” Considering it such a rude moment for someone to interrupt the family, they decided to ignore it and continued their dinner.

The Ridleys at No.42 had just called their kids to the table, and they were jockeying with one another for their favourite chairs when the doorbell chimed. The youngest, Jenny, was still on her feet, having been beaten to the end seat by Simon. Tentatively going to the door, she opened it to find Josh, the teenager from two doors down. “Um, come in, I guess,” she stammered, and he stood in their kitchen, shifting from foot to foot. “Good thanks Mrs R,” he replied to the standard question that was put – although the mother’s eyes said to her husband’s, “Who drops in at this time?” Sustaining conversation with teen boys can be difficult at the best of times, and eventually some leftovers and scraps were put on a plate for him, and he picked at them while sitting on the kitchen bench, to the Ridleys’ further annoyance.

It was after dark before the Sampsons at No.23 finally sat down for their meal, and they too were startled by a knock. This will make us even later. It turned out to be second-cousin Ruby, from way out in the country. “Ruby, what a surprise,” said Mr Sampson. “We’re just having dinner, we can probably make some room.” After an awkward sideways shuffling of chairs, plates, glasses, cutlery and Sampsons, Ruby was perched at the end corner of the table with an almost-matching dinner set. The food was served, and politely, no one complained of the slightly smaller servings. “This really is a surprise, Ruby,” Mr Sampson reiterated. “What brings you here?”  “Oh, I’m sorry, she said, but remember, you’d said when I started uni to drop in any time? The front gate was jammed, and I see your outside light is broken. But I thought I recognised the house and luckily I was right … I guess.”

Hours earlier, at No.5, the Walters had enjoyed some quick toasted sandwiches together around the kitchen bench. They’d need the energy for the next few hours. “OK, are we all set?” asked Janet for the third time. “Yes Mum! Stop fussing!” said Darryl. “I’ve got the BBQ, Susie’s on drinks, Pete’s made the playlist and will watch the volume.”  “But we’ve invited so many. Do we have extra…”   “Yes Mum, extra chairs are in the storeroom, extra meat is in the fridge, extra drinks are in the mini-fridge. The front lights are on, and the balloons on the letterbox are still intact.” The whole family rolled their eyes as they saw Mum’s motto coming. “Hospitality is making your guests feel right at home, even if deep down you wish they were.” But deep down they smiled, knowing that strangely, these nights were when their family was closest.

Is your church family the Kerrigans, Ridleys, Sampsons or Walters?
God sets the lonely in families.
was a stranger, and you invited me in.
In my Father’s house are many rooms … I am going there to prepare a place for you.

The Smile of God

It can be pretty stressful being a sacred agent, a missionary, ambassador, priest or whatever you call it. Sacred agents are used to never quite having the right words for things, you see, it’s all part of the difficulty of being caught in between two worlds. Representing one kingdom whilst inhabiting another. Speaking two languages, never feeling like you’re quite pleasing anyone, caught between a Rock and a hard place. If that’s you right now, step back for a minute. I want to show you something. Two things actually.

Firstly, I want to show you a little smile. Travel with me to the future and see the faces of the people you’re currently serving. They are so grateful. Not now, perhaps, but in the future. If you don’t believe me, travel back to the past – take a minute to look back on the people whom God sent to you. Did you ignore them, take them for granted or even despise them? But now you consider their feet beautiful; you’re so glad for every step they took. (Why not tell them?)

But now let me show you a bigger smile. I want you to get a glimpse of the delight that God takes in you and His pleasure in your earnest efforts to represent Him. If you feel inadequate, never quite nailing it, or even a complete failure, you’re actually standing in a long line of God’s masterpieces. If you feel caught between a Rock and a hard place, I want you to remember that our Father is not that kind of rockcertainly not impassive. He delights in you. Your efforts and your sacrifices are an incense of worship to Him. Picture him beaming at you, so pleased that you would take the same hard road as His Son. Let his Spirit come alongside you once again and comfort and encourage you.

Be spurred on by the words “Well done, good and faithful servant! Come and share your master’s happiness” and indeed these ancient ones: May the LORD bless and keep you; the LORD make his face shine on you… Can you see it?

Walk tall, sacred agents. Even when you feel you’re wasting away, do not lose heart but be renewed day by day.

For meditation: 2 Corinthians 4

We Come in Peace

“Don’t be afraid!” It’s the most frequent command in the Bible. God’s messengers – angels and other agents – are all ultimately on a peace mission.

It’s remarkable how many Bible passages about gospel proclamation also mention peace: How lovely on the mountains are the feet of those who bring good news, announcing peace… (Isa 52); When Jesus sends his disciples on mission their first words are to be Peace to this house! (Lk 10); All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation (2Co 5); we’re to have feet fitted with the readiness that comes from gospel of peace (Eph 6). And plenty others.

Sacred agents do well to meditate on this. We can often think of the world (and specific individuals) we’re sent to as hostile; let’s bear in mind the fear so closely linked to that hostility. Our challenge is to be faithfully present to them, neither buying into their hostility with a ‘fight’ posture nor withdrawing timidly with a ‘flight’ reflex. It’s not easy. But cheek-turning, enemy-loving, open, vulnerable witness to God’s kingdom opens up amazing possibilities for powerful transformation.

We could all do much worse this Advent than to memorise 1 Peter 3:8-16. It outlines a community life dedicated to peaceful witness in a hostile world, determined to take the stance of Christ and sharing about his coming kingdom with the gentleness and respect that’s worthy of him and most likely to win over those he loves.

For a ministry of reconciliation will never be effective from a safe distance (flight) or a position of strength (fight). Instead, we share the vulnerability of Jesus, his heartache and his joyful reward. Let’s not be afraid to come in peace!

Measuring Mission

I meet a lot of down-hearted Christian leaders – passionate for Jesus and his kingdom, diligent in sharing the gospel message, but saddened and bewildered by “hardly any response”. Let’s talk about evaluating gospel ministry, for their sakes and for those to whom they’re accountable.

It’s hard to measure mission, but we must try anyway. Hard, because of time-lag between sowing and harvest, and because it’s not in the power of missionaries to generate responsive hearts. We must nevertheless try, because stubborn, unreflective, unaccountable ministry wastes so much time, energy and resources.

So how to measure mission? Here’s one suggestion: Look for the potency of response, not just the amount of it.

The NT – the whole Bible – makes it clear that there’s a whole range of responses to God. Rarely do you see a message shared, and 100% of the hearers respond appropriately. If you feel like you’re speaking, but hardly anyone is listening – well, welcome to Jesus’ world. Welcome to the world of the prophets. Jesus sums it up in the Parable of the Sower, but also elsewhere where he speaks of the kingdom working like yeast through dough.

God’s kingdom transforms a family – a neighbourhood, a city, a nation – not usually though instant, en masse responses, but through a small-but-power-filled minority: the yeast. If just 2% of the farmer’s seed falls on good soil and produces “30, 60, 100 times what was sown” then the farmer will be in profit!

If you only reach one person for Christ, and they turn out to be a Mother Theresa or Billy Graham, isn’t that better than getting a thousand empty ‘decisions’ or ‘Jesus likes’? So before getting too downhearted, or indeed uphearted, perhaps let’s ask some better questions: If only a few are interested, Who are they? How can we water what IS growing? What is their potent-ial? Who are they, in turn, connected to? And also ask Is there a reason why the message connected with them and not others, apart from simple heart-responsiveness?

It’s all part of discerning wisely What is God doing here? Believe me, it’s never nothing!

Detonator Touching

Sacred agents need to be alert and ready for action. This is the fifth and last in a series on having our senses heightened by God’s Spirit. So far we’ve discussed Peripheral Vision, Eavesdropping, Iocane Tasting and Rat Smelling.

As the episode comes to a dramatic close, we’re grateful for the thoughtfulness of the villain in putting a handy digital count-down display on the bomb. But which wire to cut? The red, the yellow, the green or the blue?

Whilst I’m not a professional electrician, I’ve seen enough TV to know the answer. You just wait until the display falls below 5 seconds, and then cut any wire at all. At least, no one’s ever told me that this advice didn’t work for them.

God’s kingdom is down-to-earth and Jesus is a hands-on Messiah. It’s a worthwhile exercise to follow his hands and list all the things he touches in the gospels. And as the episode comes towards a dramatic end … Pilate washes his hands and steps back while Jesus steps forward and grabs the cross.

Sacred agents are called to the same kind of courage and character. Lord Jesus, give us the mettle to grasp nettles, handle hot potatoes and defuse tensions in your name. Give us the grace to be hands-on in serving the sick, the troubled, the poor, the weak, all in absolute purity. Renew in us the power to lay on hands for the filling with your Spirit, that your kingdom may tangibly come.

Let’s repent of the whole Christianity-as-mere-philosophy thing and keep asking the Lord how we can be his holey hands and feet right here today. Are there situations in your coming week where you can be less Pilate and more Jesus?

Rat Smelling

Sacred agents need to be alert and ready for action. This is the fourth in a series on having our senses heightened by God’s Spirit. So far we’ve discussed Peripheral Vision, Eavesdropping and Iocane Tasting. Stay tuned for Detonator-Touching still to come…

There’s a lot more going on than meets the eye. Sacred agents, more than anyone, need to be alert to the fishy business that happens everywhere behind the scenes.

We’ve all seen movie scenes when a character takes a phone call and says everything’s fine, trying to keep their voice level and casual while a kidnapper actually has a gun pointed at them. Will the friend on the other end of the line smell a rat?

Nothing smells rattier than the phrase “Fine, fine, everything’s fine”, don’t you think?

If we only engage with people on a surface level, we can quickly get the impression that most people are “fine, fine” and not interested in God. We then attribute that straight to their character – they should be interested in God, and, well, I guess it’s their loss if they’re not. But t hey seem to be going along OK, so, well, shrug.

Don’t we smell a rat?

God’s rescue mission is not so simple and straightforward. People are not so free as they pretend to be. Powerful hidden forces are in play – ‘principalities and powers’ as Paul puts it; ideologies and paradigms too are in play that bind and blind the people God is seeking to set free.

So when our surface-level witness (let’s not give that up) seems to come to nothing, let’s not shrug and move on. Instead, what if we moved in closer and took a good whiff, asking the Lord to show us what’s happening behind the scenes and how he’s wanting to rescue that hostage?

Iocane Tasting

Sacred agents need to be alert and ready for action. This is the third in a series on having our senses heightened by God’s Spirit. So far we’ve discussed Peripheral Vision and Eavesdropping. Stay tuned for Rat-Smelling and Detonator-Touching still to come…

If you haven’t seen The Princess Bride, then you must immediately, not least for the classic Battle of Wits scene between Vizzini and the Man in Black. It’s a challenge: To the death! For the princess! Which of the two goblets of wine has been poisoned with Iocane Powder? (It’s odourless, tasteless, deadly, and apparently an Australian export.) *Spoiler alert* Our hero in Black prevails only because he has built up immunity to Iocane over several years.

I don’t have to remind you sacred agents that there’s a lot of poison going round. On your journey of rescue you’ll face many battles-of-wits, where the binary options of fight and flight look equally unpalatable. Do you keep your head down and avoid the hostility? That doesn’t seem like Jesus. But nor does weighing in with hostility of your own. That’s where we need to be alert enough to see and select a third option Jesus offers us.

This is the option of engaging with hostile people with radical love that turns the other cheek and goes the extra mile. It’s a lot easier for me to type this than practice it, because cheek-blows and pack-carrying are both quite painful. But it’s the only thing that will really progress our journey of rescue and redemption. It’s God’s chosen way to change the world.

If following Jesus means getting up close and personal with a fair bit of poison, then we need to build up our immunity to it. Our first battle-of-wits is unlikely to be face to face with IS terrorists or the panel of The Project (not to compare them). It’s in the small barbs we’ll face each day from those we live and work with that we can practice Jesus’ redemptive presence and gradually build up our immunity to evil. It’s as we take to God in prayer the insults and pressures we face that we’ll build the capacity to absorb more.

Every day we can build our cross-carrying muscles, and thus stay in the adventure to rescue the princess and see True Love prevail.

Eavesdropping

Sacred agents need to be alert and ready for action. This is the second in a series on having our senses heightened by God’s Spirit. Last month we discussed Peripheral Vision. Stay tuned for Iocane-Tasting, Rat-Smelling and Detonator-Touching…

My teenage daughter has a black belt in eavesdropping. She won’t come down for dinner when we yell for her, but lower our voices in the kitchen for an adult-to-adult conversation, and suddenly she’s hovering just nearby.

Our brains have a way of filtering out so much information, of excluding lots of sounds and voices. But it’s amazing what you can hear if you tune in rather than tune out. God, in his wisdom, seems often to speak in such a way that only those who really want to listen can hear. Sacred agents certainly need to practice this. Are we leaning in to God to the detriment of other voices, or is it the other way around?

But we also can learn – must learn – how to really lean in and listen to the people to whom God has sent us. What are they saying? And what are they really saying? People usually speak with more than one voice. There’s their clear, audible voice, of course. But sometimes they say something else with their body language, or with their actions – but do we hear it? Are we tuned in?

This is especially important because in our culture it is very difficult to speak directly about spiritual matters. You can talk about the weather, about sport, about TV, about politics even, but not about God. This doesn’t mean that if your friend or workmate or family member never mentions or asks about God, that He is the furthest thing from their mind. So often people are thirsting and all-but crying out for a God they do not know – but the cry comes in different forms and in other words. Even when a person says they don’t believe in God, what God don’t they believe in? If it’s an aloof or capricious or impersonal ‘force out there’, well, we don’t believe in that either.

This doesn’t mean we should twist or reinterpret people’s words in any way that suits us. But perhaps we can ask better questions and listen more carefully to understand the hearts and underlying stories of those we’re sent to. You hear me?

Peripheral Vision

Sacred agents need to be alert and ready for action. This is the first post in a series on having our senses heightened by God’s Spirit. Stay tuned for Eavesdropping, Iocane-Tasting, Rat-Smelling and Detonator-Touching…

Effective sacred agents need to have great vision, more than anyone else. Racing drivers? Meh. Heart surgeons? It’s right there under lights, the pumpy thing. Sports stars? Don Bradman had lousy eyesight. But sacred agents need constantly to know what’s going on around them. We need clarity of focus, and we especially need peripheral vision.

In the movies, an agent can be surrounded by eight thugs and yet win the fight because only one thug attacks at a time while the others usefully dance around looking aggressive. Real life isn’t like that. Agents have a lot going on all around them. And novices fall for the old look-over-here-while-I-attack-from-over-there trick.

We need peripheral vision to avoid such hits. We can get lured down the alley-way of debating what’s right and wrong, and suddenly realise we’ve been duped into Pharisaism. We can dive into serving the poor and only later realise we’ve unwittingly reinforced a cycle of dependence.

But we need peripheral vision in a positive way, too. Sometimes we wonder why God doesn’t seem to be doing much, but it’s just that he’s not moving where we’re looking (ahem TV & Facebook). God’s always up to something, but so often on the margins, among people we don’t even see and in ways we don’t even notice.

We need better peripheral vision to see and respond to opportunities and dangers all around us. Holy Spirit, heighten our senses! Prepare us for action!

Stop for a moment and think: Where are you looking? What are you focused on? What has taken up most of your attention this week? And then ask: Is there something else going on?

Social Focus is Your Frenemy

Many churches have two mission contexts: A local neighbourhood (mostly strangers who happen to live close to the church building) and a social network (friends, family and connections of church members, most of whom live a long way from the church). In my observation, churches have increasingly neglected the local and rested their hopes on the social.

Here are six reasons to pursue strong local connections – finding effective ways to be present with, partnering with and inviting in the local community.

  • It makes your church more Christian. If you love those who love you … do not even pagans do that? If your church is a church just for you and people that you like, it’s becoming a country club. Why pay a pastor when you could have a greens-keeper?
  • It keeps your gatherings public. If your church only meets in your suburb, and doesn’t interact with it, it will be perceived by them as a private group, and Sunday content will drift towards sustaining long-term believers, reinforcing a ‘members only’ culture.
  • It diversifies and so strengthens your church. A church where everyone else is the same ethnicity/wealth/education/personality is not heaven, it’s hell in disguise. God has something far better and far stronger in mind, but if you don’t love strangers you’ll keep Him out.
  • It builds local community. The church is meant to operate as one interdependent body, which is hard when you’re spread all across the city, doing ‘life’ over here during the week and ‘church’ over there on Sundays. Facebook’s OK, but we’re called to more than just comment on our neighbours’ meal or lawn. The Word became flesh electronic and lived liked among us?
  • It grows your church by conversion. Churches that deliberately reach out to, love and invite strangers grow by conversions. And And social invitations. Ironically, members are more likely to invite a social contact to a church that is focused on welcoming locals.
  • It sifts your leaders for you. You want your church leadership to be more of the pull-over-to-help Samaritan type and less of the swerve-to-avoid Levite type. When a church focuses locally, the difference between those who roll up their sleeves and those who turn up their noses becomes obvious!

Flat Pax and Take-Away Nuggets

We have lived through an era of unusual peace, compared to the rest of human history. These patches of peace across history have usually occurred when a superpower looms so large that no-one dare rebel. We’ve had Pax Romana, Pax Britannica and more recently Pax Americana.

During Pax Mongolica a common saying was “A maiden carrying a nugget of gold on her head could safely wander throughout the realm.” Whilst a beanie may have been more practical, that short saying does reveal how the fruit of lasting peace are prosperity, security, trust, freedom of migration, freedom of women, and gap years.

But these empires come and go. Each seems invincible and permanent at their climax (before being undone by little things like germs and Facebook). It all reminds me of Nebuchadnezzar’s dream of a great statue (another fruit of empires) and Daniel’s interpretation. The statue represented a succession of empires (Babylonian, Persian, Greek and Roman) – and the prediction that none would last. A tiny rock “not cut out by human hands” would strike the feet (Romana), reduce those empires to dust and “become a huge mountain and fill the whole earth.” A very different superpower would emerge, and now has.

So amidst all the consternation that peace, security, justice, freedom and prosperity are all teetering, sacred agents have a role to remind people that these treasures have never been reliably built on the sand of military empires. It’s been a dream all along. Only when the lasting Pax Christi conquers our hearts and dissolves our violence will our daughters be truly safe to hitchhike in cash fascinators.

But it is happening. Still the mountain grows. It will outlast Americana and whatever faux pax comes next. And its borders are open now.

Whose Side Are You On?

We live in a barroom brawl. A time of big arguments. Old assumptions are being challenged, and some old challenges to even older assumptions are being re-challenged and basically there are a lot of strong opinions flying everywhere. Politics. Sexuality and gender. Immigration and refuge. We can find ourselves surrounded by a lot of clenched jaws and fists. How can we be sacred agents in the middle of all that?

We each have our own opinions on all these issues. We tell ourselves that we got them from Jesus, but so often it’s more to do with where and how we were brought up. So the first snare to avoid is recruiting Jesus to your side of an argument without really discerning what He is saying.

But perhaps the biggest snare is in only being able to see two polar positions (us and them), or just a two-dimensional spectrum (black, white and shades of grey). What about colour?! Is there something else, something different, something bigger that God is doing that we’re not seeing?

When Joshua (all set for battle) encounters an angel, his reflex question is “Are you for us or for our enemies?” The answer was surprising “Neither, but as commander of the army of the LORD I have now come.” That sure must have messed with Joshua’s assumption that he was the commander and Israel the LORD’s army!

When Jesus is brought a woman caught in adultery, it’s him they’re really trying to catch. They want him to define his position on Roman law and Moses’s law. Come on Jesus, are you Liberal or Conservative?! But Jesus bends down and writes in the sand. When asked by a man to “tell my brother to split the inheritance with me,” Jesus doesn’t bite.

Jesus does have opinions on sexuality, economics and justice, don’t get me wrong! But he sees that so often the wrestles we tie ourselves up in are more about game-playing and posturing than helping anyone or solving anything. And importantly, they blind us to what heaven is doing. No, Jesus doesn’t always side with the poor. Sometimes he goes to Zacchaeus’ house for lunch … and a lot of the local poor benefit.

As sacred agents let’s practise our sand-writing, lunch-going and listening-to-angels. Let’s step back from the swinging barroom fists enough to call “Drinks are on Jesus!” (John 7:37-38)

Learning Greek Learnt Me to Learn

I’m clearly no scholar, but many moons ago at Bible College they tried to teach me New Testament Greek. Twice. I haven’t retained a whole lot – apart from being an alpha male with who enjoys a good pi. Still, one little thing my teacher mentioned has really stuck with me.

There’s a lot of vocabulary to learn of course, so we made hundreds of little flash cards to go through every day, with the Greek on one side and English on the other. “Here’s a trick,” my teacher said. “When you get a card right, put it in a pile to your left. When you get a card wrong, put it in a pile on your right. When you finish, leave the left pile, but pick up the other one and go through them all again, with the same method. Keep going until they’re all on your left.”

OK so perhaps that’s not revolutionary. But my teacher pointed out that we humans have a penchant for going over and over the things we already know (because that feels good), and avoiding the things we don’t know (because they make us feel inadequate). So many students waste precious swat-vac time revising over and over things they already know. By disciplining yourself to focus on what you don’t, you can learn a lot and very quickly. Did I take it to heart? All I’ll say is don’t take me on at Trivial Pursuit Genus I edition.

But it makes me wonder how we go about learning to be sacred agents. “Come follow me,” says Jesus, “And I will make you fishers for people.” The good news is that the Lord will teach us. The question is: Are we really wanting to learn?

When I hear Christians talking about what it means to be on mission, I hear us rehearse again and again – and again – and again the things we already know. We conspire to keep the conversation in a safe place. But what if we pressed into the things we don’t know and aren’t being effective in? What if one agent could say to another “I just don’t know how to…” or “I’m just getting nowhere with…”? What if our collective prayer was “Lord, forgive our slowness, but please, please, teach us to represent you to our neighbours in a way that really matters. We’re obviously missing something, probably plenty. Open our hearts and minds and eyes and ears and would you go over it with us one more time?”

How Not to Change the World

In a boat, on a lake, Jesus leans over to his disciples and tells them to be very careful. It’s a captain’s safety warning, but it’s not about life vests, and it’s not, as the disciples first thought, about the supplies. ‘Be careful,’ Jesus warned them. ‘Watch out for the yeast of the Pharisees and that of Herod.’ It’s a warning for all who would set sail with Jesus on his mission. But what does it mean?

In a nutshell, the ‘yeast’ is a simple, little idea. But it spreads through a group and forms a culture it changes everything. The yeast of these groups were two different kinds, but both concerned with how to rule the world. Well, how to get everyone to behave.

The little idea of the Pharisees seems to be that ‘You can get people into line by shaming them.’ Point out people’s mistakes, make a public example of a few, and people will be too mortified to step out of line. This idea hasn’t run out of steam, we see plenty of it today. It’s the major weapon of our comedian-prophets who try to reinforce a particular framework of values by lampooning those who don’t share them. People who don’t fully support same-sex marriage are constantly shamed, for example. And does it work? Does shaming transform a society? No. It’s a powerful weapon, but at the end of the day, not an effective one.

The Herodians had a different little idea: ‘You can get people into line by coercing them.’ If you have the political power, you can set the rules and police them, and so just make people behave, punishing those who don’t line up. This is another familiar idea. Many people today seem to think you can shape society by getting the numbers in parliament to pass certain laws – say to legalise or illegalise abortion. But when you get the laws you really want, do you then get the society you really want? No. Coercion is another tool that so many clamber for, but in the end it doesn’t build what you want to build.

Jesus is setting out with his disciples to change the world, but it didn’t – and doesn’t – happen through shaming or coercion. Both of them breed elitism, hypocrisy and resentment. Watch out for those little ideas! As sacred agents, we’re not to use them on others or stress when they’re used against us.

And it all raises the big question: What is Jesus’ yeast? Discuss.

Just Common Scents

Jesus sure asked some tough questions. But he also asked some really easy ones, like “Do people pick grapes from thornbushes, or figs from thistles?” Of course not. Even kids know that you get grapes and figs from the IGA.

When occasionally I’m tempted to despair as a sacred agent, I find myself repeating this over and over: “They don’t pick grapes from thornbushes. They don’t pick grapes from thornbushes.” When the media increasingly derides Christianity and lauds secular humanism, what hope do we have of reaching people? Well, plenty. Jesus was pointing out that the difference between good and bad philosophy comes to light through the kind of communities they produce.

Over the last decade, during which Christianity has faced very hostile press, parents have been falling over themselves to enrol their kids in Christian schools in unprecedented numbers. Why? Because when it comes to the crunch, when it really matters – such as your own kids’ future – people have a good nose for good fruit.

It happens very locally. Many Australians hate the idea of Christian chaplains in public schools, but love the actual chaplain in their own local school. My kids’ first school firmly resisted chaplaincy and any whiff of Christian input. The result? Parents were constantly asking us whether their kids could attend our kids club at the church next door to the school. Those parents had a nose for what’s stale and what’s fresh. It’s just common scents.

Which hints to me a tangible way forward for mission in Australian culture. If we don’t despair, but live fresh, distinct, communal lives invigorated by God’s Spirit, and simply be visible to and smellable by others, the ‘aroma of Christ’ will do its thing and many prodigals will come to – and follow – their senses.

“Everyone will know you are my disciples if you love one another,” said Jesus. Is your church that kind of community? And do you have ways for the neighbourhood to get a whiff of it?

Speaking of the Spirit

If you were asked to explain the good news of the kingdom in one minute, would the Holy Spirit get a mention? What if you had two minutes? Five? The ‘traditional’ (habitual) evangelical snapshot of the gospel has been shown to have many serious flaws (NT Wright and Scot McKnight are very helpful on this) but significant among them is this: We might talk about the Father sending the Son, but we don’t mention the Spirit. Here’s the result:

  1. We omit the good news of transformation. The life-transforming power of God is replaced with inspiration at best – “realising” that God loves us is implied to be what makes the difference. We reduce Christianity to a philosophy and that’s a massive reduction. We are meant to be inviting people into a thoroughgoing transformation – to become a new creation! To be born again! Not just to be moved by some ancient story.
  2. We omit the good news of community. When we don’t mention the Spirit we don’t talk about how God knits us together into a new humanity, into the body of Christ, diversity in unity. If we’re not sharing about the Spirit, there’s every chance that we’re sharing an individualistic message that looks more like our culture than God’s kingdom. We leave out the Spirit of adoption that calls and enables us to live as brothers and sisters in the family of God.
  3. We omit the good news of the present reign of Jesus. When we don’t mention the Spirit, we don’t talk about how God is presently at work in us and the world. God is absent – Jesus has gone to sit at the right hand of the Father and we’re left just waiting.
  4. We imply a new legalism. If we don’t talk about what it means to live by the Spirit, what do we leave people to live by? To try to follow Jesus’ teachings instead of or as well as the Old Testament law? It’s one thing to try to follow Jesus as an aspirational admirer, but you just can’t keep up with him! To be baptised with the Spirit and with fire, though – that’s what Jesus has in mind for us and all who will come to him.

The good news is big news, rich news, and I know you have to start somewhere and often can only say so much. But the Spirit is not God’s afterthought, so nor should He be ours.

Mending Our Nets

We don’t think of fishing as a team sport. When I think about fishing, the image that first pops into my head is someone standing alone out on a jetty holding a fishing rod and trying to keep themselves warm. At most, they nod and grunt to other individuals who are doing the same thing nearby. Often we imagine fishing for people in the same way.

When we think of worship, we imagine Christians together in something approximating harmony, but when we think of evangelism so often we imagine ourselves (or someone else!) performing a solo. This is to our enormous detriment, and not what Jesus has in mind. The ‘you’ in ‘I will make you fishers for people’ was plural, and he was talking to fishermen familiar with the importance of teamwork. Right at that moment they were mending their nets, and it’s time for us to mend ours.

Teamwork is vital in mission for so many reasons. Jesus said “everyone will know you are my disciples if you love one another.” That’s hard to do alone. Effective mission also involves all the parts of the whole body of Christ. Fruitful mission needs spokespeople (evangelists), yes – but also hospitality, mercy, service, encouragement, teaching, stewardship, pastoral care and leadership. In teams we can each bring our God-given strengths and cover one another’s weaknesses. Teams – at least good ones – tend towards mutual accountability and regular reflection and feedback. Teams can allow a continuity of mission even as individual members move in and out. Teams are the perfect environment for new members to have a go and be developed.

Show me a church where baptisms are common, and I’ll show you a church that organises for team mission. And yet, do many? Even in churches where we feel that most of us are called primarily to individual witness – do we seek the help, support, intercession and coaching of others? Or are we alone out in the cold, happy that at least there’s no-one else to see our empty bucket?

Cat Whispering

I have worked my cat out and I’m just trusting that he’s not reading this. Whenever I call Ossie he goes in the other direction as a matter of principle. This is a simple power struggle. The only exceptions to this firm rule are if I have been away for at least 3 days, or am visibly offering ham. He has been training me for nearly three years now in understanding my place.

If I seek him outside he will head down the street. Not over a fence, not under a car, but always just out of reach. He is taking me for a walk to give me some exercise. If I seek him inside there will be ten minutes of dashing from under the table to under the stairs and back.

But, fellow humans, the revolution is beginning! I have realised that if I simply sit down on a step (inside) or in the gutter (outside) and look in a different direction, he will come and rub against me within 30 seconds. It’s simple cat whispering. The only key elements are getting down to his level and looking in a different direction. The only surprise is that it’s taken me three years to work this out.

But I wonder whether we’ve worked it out as missionaries? In Australia, talking directly about religion is a cultural taboo. People tend to withdraw, and then if we follow them they withdraw some more. But this doesn’t mean that Australian’s aren’t interested in Christianity or drawn to Jesus. It is culturally acceptable to set up spaces within our culture where religion can be discussed. For example, in a church building on a Sunday morning, Australians would be surprised if it wasn’t.

And there are other, simpler such spaces that also can be set up. A Bible study in the lunch break at work. A Christianity Explored course at someone’s house. A youth (or ex-youth) camp. If it’s not done in complete secrecy – if gentle signals are sent that enquirers are welcome to join – then you may be surprised by how many get curious about this group that is right there at their level, but looking in a different direction.

How Does It Go Again?

Some things are very difficult. Ranking right up there with licking your elbow and contacting a government department is this: Trying to remember a tune while listening to a different one.

Sacred agents live with a similar difficulty 24/7. If the world into which we are sent was merely cacophonous, it wouldn’t be so hard. But it tends to play a particular song of its own, while we are called to march to a different beat. If that makes you feel and look a bit unco then you’re no Robinson Crusoe. So how do we do it?

I like to think of Daniel and his amigos. Somehow they sustained that art of living with one’s feet in Babylon and heart in Jerusalem – the double-life of a sacred agent. How did they cope? By hitting Pause and hitting Play.

None of us can claim to have more responsibilities or a busier life than Daniel, yet paused three times a day to physically open his windows to face Jerusalem and pray. It was a conscious act of reorientation which he needed 21 times a week. How many quiet times can I afford not to have? Or am I stronger than him? Daniel switched off the Babylonian lullaby that constantly sought to spiritually pacify him and tuned in to Radio Jerusalem.

And they pressed Play. If they weren’t the authors of Psalm 137 then it was someone with the same heart: By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept when we remembered Zion … How can we sing the songs of the LORD while in a foreign land? / If I forget you, O Jerusalem, may my right hand forget its skill / May my tongue stick to the roof of my mouth if I do not remember you, if I do not consider Jerusalem my highest joy. They never wanted to forget the heavenly tune of God’s kingdom. They needed to be able to whistle it even in (especially in) the direst of trouble.

What are your practices of pressing pause and play, of tuning out and tuning in?

What Dennis Rodman Taught Me About Evangelism

When I coached my daughter’s basketball team, the first thing I wanted to teach them was how to get rebounds. Having the ball makes a lot of difference in most sports. So I told them what I’d learned from watching Dennis Rodman in the Chicago Bulls’ glory days. I asked them ‘What makes the most difference in getting rebounds?’

Being tall? No, that’s the 4th most important factor. I saw Rodman constantly outdo much taller players. Being skilled? No, I’d say that’s the 3rd most important. Even the cleverest players would come up empty handed when Rodman was nearby. Was it getting in the best position? Well, I’d say that’s the 2nd most – and very – important. But I still saw Rodman pinching rebounds that taller, more skilful players were in the prime position to get. So what makes all the difference?

Far and away the biggest factor is simply wanting the ball. Watching bad-boy Rodman on TV, it was really obvious. No one wanted it like he did. Quite short for a power forward, he lead the NBA in rebounds seven years in a row and his team won five championships.

It also got me thinking about evangelism. If there’s one thing we could work on, what should it be? Do we need people ideally shaped by God for evangelism? Yes, but it takes more than that. Do we need to train people in the skills and techniques of evangelism? Absolutely, but that doesn’t make it happen. Do we need to position people in just the right place, working, befriending, eating and drinking with sinners? Definitely. We’ve worked on all those things and I hope we continue to.

But my question is: Do we really want the lost sheep like the Shepherd does? Is the bottleneck to evangelism not so much in the skills of our hands and the knowledge of our heads but in the desires of our hearts? Do we talk and pray about this honestly? Because if deep down we prefer our warm fellowship not to be disturbed by outsiders, what will happen is this: We’ll go through all the motions of attempting the rebound – wanting to be seen to be trying in the eyes of the Coach – but never coming up with the ball much.

Meanwhile, God uses the Dennis Rodmans of our churches – often uneloquent, amateur odd-bods –  to win people for the kingdom. And their point of difference is just this: They have in their hearts God’s heart for the lost that he fervently loves.

The Story of Hiramais Endmie

When we think about church planting there’s often a particular story that plays in our imaginations. It goes something like this: A church has a terrific pastor or pastoral team and grows to a place of real strength and vitality. It senses God’s call to multiply, and finds a young emerging leader around whom to build the plant – perhaps the youth pastor or an intern. Other young adventurers rally around as the excitement builds for this radical adventure!

Does it sound familiar? I’ve lived that story, and sometimes it ends well. But I wouldn’t mind editing it a little. Here are my concerns with that particular plot:

Firstly, we send lambs out among wolves. Church planting is generally the most challenging of pastoral leadership assignments, and we give it to novices. We ask members to rearrange their lives, even relocate their families, backing (and supported by) a leader who is quite unproven. We ask individuals, churches, denominations to place significant financial resources in the hands of a rookie and wonder why the response isn’t enthusiastic.

Secondly, and just as concerning, is what happens to the sending church. It loses a cadre of emerging, innovating leaders, whilst retaining its existing senior, settled leadership. This creates a greater gap between the senior leaders and the next layer of nascent leadership.

Would it not be a stronger model, a more compelling story, for churches to send their best? A mix of ages by all means, but what if more senior leaders put their hands up to go? They would take a lot of leadership credibility, theological depth, and financial experience into the plant. And it would be a smaller, more natural step for younger leaders in a church to step up to take the helm of a ship with which they are familiar.

This was the story in of Parkside Baptist which in 2013 released their Lead Pastor David Smith with a small team to missional adventure. But should it be more the norm more than the exception? Is church planting really just something for those young guns? Or what about the story of Hiramais Endmie? You’ll find it in Isaiah 6:8.

Embryonic Church

We all lie about our age. Since we only count our years since birth, rather than conception, those first 9 or so months of our life end up hidden in more ways than one. We make out as if we suddenly popped out into existence in a single day, when our mothers know there was much more to it than that! Why doesn’t our gestation period count?

It seems to be the same with new churches. Is it because we tend to use the word ‘planting’ rather than ‘birthing’? In doing so we greatly downplay the role of the mother church and the patient work of parenting. Either way, we can fall into a myth that new congregations suddenly appear in an instant, and we don’t give nearly enough thought and attention to the critical process of church gestation.

New Christian congregations form in different ways, but there is enormous strength in a model when a new community forms gradually, initially within the body of a mature church. It may begin as a missional home group, become a congregation of the mother church on site, and develop its own leadership team and structures before moving off-site and becoming visible to the world as its own identity. Even then it may come under the governance and financial and logistical support of the mother church for some time before reaching self-sufficiency.

(That said, why is ‘self-sufficiency’ or ‘independence’ so often the ultimate goal for a church plant? Far better would be to aim for “others-sufficiency” – not simply being less dependent on the mother church but becoming dependable as a mother church in turn.)

When church planting is rushed it can be very much like a premature birth – just surviving is a huge challenge. We look for stereotypical ‘church planters’ – heroic leaders with superpowers to sustain such a vulnerable creature singlehandedly. I can’t help but wonder whether so many more churches could be formed by ordinary communities, not requiring super-leaders, if we simply paid attention to and committed ourselves together to the long, patient process of intentional church parenting – both sides of the celebrated ‘birthday’.

That Perfect Opening

One of the thrills of being a sacred agent is knowing that any moment may be an opportunity to represent Jesus. For me, some speaking engagements are booked well in advance and I have the luxury of careful preparation, trying to get the message ‘just so’. But other speaking opportunities arrive out of the blue, with barely any notice, and I need to be ready for them too.

Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect…” 1Pe3

Indeed, I want to not just be passively ready in case it happens, but actively looking!

“Be wise in the way you act towards outsiders; make the most of every opportunity. Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone.” Col4

Which has got me thinking. There are many relationships where we look for ‘just the right opening’ for a conversation about God’s kingdom. And I’ve realised that what I’ve been looking out for are moments when someone seems particularly sympathetic to, or approving of my Christianity. I’ve been imagining moments when people say, “Andrew, what is it about you that makes you just so terrific?” As you can see, I have a very good imagination!

But Jesus paints a different picture of the perfect opportunity to represent God’s kingdom.

“But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you… If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that?” Mt5

In fact, both Peter and Paul’s quotes above are written in the context of suffering and opposition.

So what if the ‘perfect witnessing opportunity’ is not when the people around me love me and my faith. What if it’s when they despise me and scorn it? That’s when Christ’s grace, gentleness, respect and love can really shine. But are we ready for that?

Where’s Wally Jesus?

OK so here comes Christmas. Do you love it? Or like me do you sometimes dread December? Fighting your way through traffic, through crowded shops, through awkward gatherings of colleagues and extended family? And fighting the culture wars over whether Christ should be taken out of or put back into Christmas?

Then let’s do something different. Let’s play a game. It’s called Where’s ­Wally Jesus? First I’ll say why, then how.

Why? Well, firstly, we need to relax. Jesus is a big boy, the Great King in fact. No one’s ever going to erase him. Secondly, if there’s one thing Christians shouldn’t be doing, it’s fighting. If we’re serious about representing the Prince of Peace, we need to unclench our fists, jaws and buttocks; that’s why I’m serious in saying let’s play a game. Thirdly, we don’t get to take Jesus out or put him in anywhere. Turns out we’re not in charge of him. But what we can and do get to do, is to spot him. We get to see where he is and where he’s at work, and to point him out to others. It’s called witnessing.

Here’s how to play: (1) You can’t play it alone. Report to and challenge others –  in your family, home group or on social media with some hashtag like #ThereHeIs. (2) Here’s the tricky bit: You can’t rush. With so much red and white everywhere, you never find Wally Jesus if you’re just scanning the page. (3) You need to be onto His tricks and disguises. You might find him in the frazzled shop assistant. Or in the improvised shelter of a homeless person. Have a close look at the overwhelmed young mother and the lonely old man and the wide-eyed child.

This is actually the ancient sport of Advent. Are your eyes sharp? There’s Herod on his pathological power trip. There’s the crowd of religious folk busy with their duties. But over here in the corner are the winners – dear old Anna and Simeon, watching carefully for the coming of the kingdom, and calling out when they spot the King.

So when you see him, bless him, welcome him, point him out, join in with him. Those with eyes to see will notice that he is alive and kicking, and still doing wonderful things. Even in December.

Halloween – Diabolical Trick or Missional Treat?

Suburbs can be tricky places for mission. Neighbours barely know neighbours. Families are securely locked up behind high fences and no one sits on their front porch to interact with passers-by. But in my suburb, all that changes on one evening each year. Families and gangs of partying kids roam the streets and dare to actually knock on doors – it’s Halloween. Ten years ago it was something we only saw on American TV, but its Australian apparition is undeniable.

For many Christians, including me, this has been an unwelcome and uncomfortable development. Do we really need more American culture? And any more celebration of death? What is a sacred agent to make of it?

On the one hand, there is the outright rejection. When the neighbourhood kids knock on the door you could refuse to open and simply yell out “I’m a Christian, I don’t do Halloween!” On the other hand, you could dress up as the Grim Reaper and join right in. I don’t think either makes for good mission. Is there a better option?

What if we were well prepared for this terrific opportunity to interact with our neighbours? What if we had plenty of the best sorts of lollies? And to go with them, what if we printed up small ‘collectable’ cards that on the one side carried our church logo and details and said:

Did you know? Halloween began as a Christian festival – when we remember heroes who have gone before us and set great examples. This year our church Smithville Baptist is remembering Francis of Assisi – a real legend. We’ll be telling his story this Sunday.

On the other side could be a picture of St Frank himself and a brief kid-readable biography. A good quote to cap it all off might be John 10:10 “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.”

On Halloween, there’s no need to join the dark side, but nor is there any excuse for being dull. There’s a long Halloween tradition of using humour and ridicule to confront the power of death. “Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting? … Thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.”

Beyond Aspirational

Every church says it’s a missionary church. The mandate for outreach will be right there in the Core Aims section of the constitution. But in practice? For many it’s mainly an aspiration. It’s what we all agree is our absolute top priority … once we’ve got everything else sorted.

If we agree with Charles Spurgeon that ‘Every Christian is either a missionary or an imposter’, then it follows that every church is either a missionary church or an imposter church. How can we break out of the “mission as aspiration” pose and make real ground towards being real? Here are some practical, do-able suggestions:

1. Get Accountable: Have a set agenda item at every members meeting where you report on the church’s mission over the previous months, and outline future plans. Don’t you always have a finance report, even if (especially if!) no one’s giving? Be as specific as possible. How many people are now following, or closer to following, Jesus because of God’s work through us?

2. Look Right Under Your Nose: Yes, there are many people around who aren’t interested in Jesus. But there are people in your life and around your church who are. Make a list – yes, an actual list – of the names of the non-church people you know who are interested in Jesus. Your church leadership can keep and update that list, pray over the real names (for privacy some may be truncated e.g. “Jim F”) and remind the church how many there are. “Church, we have 37 people around us wanting to know about Jesus.” We need our eyes opened to the harvest. In aspiration churches such people are invisible.

3. Preach to the Choir: Have a “Gospel Spot” in church every Sunday, where someone is asked to share their testimony or to briefly and creatively share the gospel. Often in church there’s more than the choir present (‘invisible’ people!), and even if not, (a) it’s good practice; (b) it gives members confidence that if they invite a non-church friend, there’ll be something at their level; and (c) the gospel is the great call to worship.

4. Fill the Tub: Have regular baptism classes, perhaps every 6 months. Plan, announce and advertise them even if no-one is requesting baptism. You may be surprised. And if no one comes, turn it into a prayer meeting, and don’t lose the courage to do it all again 6 months later.

That’s four quick ones off the top of my head. Do they spark more and better ones in yours?

Moby Dick Mission

Imagine a room. There’s a table, there’s nearly always food, and it’s a safe, friendly place for people. There’s often laughter. It has a special purpose: It’s where Christians and inquiring non-Christians can talk together about Jesus, the Kingdom of God, and all the most important things in life. Sounds good, don’t you think?

Many such spaces exist. You’ll find them in kids’ clubs, nursing homes, Alpha courses and cafes. And it’s not too hard to open up new ones. I get to talk to people all around the country who are doing just that. And consistently, they tell me the same shocking thing.

They tell me that it’s much, much easier to get inquiring non-Christians into the room than it is to get the Christians in.

The idea that “Australians are not interested in Jesus” reverberates around churches so often and so loudly that it usually goes unquestioned. But it is a myth, and it needs to be named as such. Like all myths, it serves a purpose – to excuse ourselves from mission. We tell ourselves that evangelism is like force-feeding someone who’s already had a gutful, shoving unwanted stuff down people’s throats.

But many people who are doing evangelism say that it’s much more like trying to feed lots of hungry mouths out of one small kitchen. Over and over I hear them quote “The harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few.”

So which is it? Is our mission in Australia weak because of low demand for the gospel, or low supply?

One thing that can blur the picture and reinforce the myth is this: We pick certain people that we want to become Christians – friends, family members, people like us that we’d quite like to have in our church. When we sense their resistance to the gospel we assume that applies generally. But there are other people, not of our choosing, who would LOVE a bite of what we’re trying to shove down our friend’s throat. Often they’re overlooked: Children, seniors, immigrants, the poor, the injured, the marginalised.

Jesus said that the work of the Kingdom is like fishing with a net, you spread it wide, and then draw it in and see what you’ve caught. Do we sometimes chase one particular fish with a spear, brushing aside many others as we go? Does Moby Dick mission blind us to what God is doing? If your line’s slack, is there someone nearby buckling under a heavy net that you could help?

It’s true that many Australians aren’t currently interested in the gospel. But there’s plenty that are! They’re entering the room where Jesus feasts with sinners. The big question is: Are we?

To Infinity and Beyond!

Why is it so hard? Reaching Australians with the great news, I mean. Every sacred agent knows more than a few people that just seem a billion miles away from “getting it.” How do we make sense of this, and what can we do?

Has the gospel lost its life-transforming power over the last few decades? No! Have we just lost the guts to tell it enough? No, I think it’s more than that. It’s that we no longer “speak the same language” as them. By this I mean much more than just the use of Christianese jargon. What I mean is that many of the people we meet don’t just have different opinions to us. They have different paradigms, different world-views.

Once we could just “tell the message” and people could “receive it” because society still had a Christendom way of looking at the world. Those were Billy Graham’s days (and he did great!). But now we seek to tell our message and experience a huge disconnect. It’s not just like people speaking a different language – it’s like they live on a completely different planet!

But take heart. Jesus has given us, indeed demonstrated for us, an interplanetary vehicle that can bridge such vast differences. What is this interstellar supervehicle Jesus used? It’s not actually rocket science.

It’s story.

Think about it – Jesus knew very well the frustrations of trying to communicate with people who were on a significantly different wavelength. First century Palestine was a melting pot of all manner of Martians and space cadets – Pharisees, Sadducees, Essenes, Zealots, Romans. But stories – little stories – were an incredibly efficient vehicle that could go such a long way.

Arguments change opinions, but stories are what change paradigms and cultures. In the current “culture wars” it often seems that the enemies of Christ are effectively using story (casting Christians as haters) while the church responds with argument.

If we could rediscover this art, this interplanetary science, we’d be far better equipped to bridge the paradigm divide and take the gospel to infinity and beyond!

When Mission Goes Pear-Shaped

Sacred agents have a great message. The good news of God’s kingdom stirs us, Christ’s love compels us, and sometimes … our wonderful uplifting message goes down like a lead balloon. What went wrong? And what happens next?

What went wrong? Quite possibly, nothing – at least on our part. If our measure of success is that we are always well received, aren’t we attempting to be better agents than Jesus? On hearing his message, some went out and plotted how to kill him. “A servant is not greater than their master,” he reminds us. “If they persecuted me, they will persecute you also. If they obeyed my teaching, they will obey yours also.” So we should expect nothing more than the mixed results that Jesus himself received.

It’s a massive mistake for us to take only those opportunities for witness that are guaranteed to be well received. There’s the obvious negative reason: It’s selling out our mission. If we filter out all the parts of the gospel that Western culture doesn’t agree with, what’s left is western culture. We will no longer be distinct in any way. We’ve lost our saltiness and should hand in our agent’s badge. “If anyone is ashamed of me and my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, the Son of Man will be ashamed of them when he comes in his Father’s glory.” But there’s also a big positive reason: What can happen next…

What happens next? How we respond under abuse, under rejection, under fire, is perhaps THE MOST powerful form of witness we will ever get to make. History has proven again and again that Christians’ cheek-turning, extra-mile-going, blessing-the-cursers love for enemies has enormous missional impact. It’s how the west is won.

But are we willing to have enemies at all? To suffer rejection at all? And when we do, instead of departing the scene with tail between legs, beating ourselves up for “putting people off” – can we sit peacefully with the tension and respond in a Christlike way?

When we’re not well received, we should reflect on it honestly, because there is also the possibility that we were clumsy. But when mission goes pear-shaped, it just may be an early sign of really good fruit.

For the One Who Has Everything?

Abraham Maslow was an American psychologist most famous for developing his “Hierarchy of Needs.” Often presented as a pyramid, it says that our most basic needs (at the base) are for the body – food, water and shelter. Once those needs are met, we next desire safety, then love, then esteem. And once we have gotten ourselves all these, at the top we seek “self-actualisation” – to become all that we can be. It’s in this last category that many people put spirituality and religion. It’s a rookie mistake theologically, but we westerners fall for it over and over.

Scripture presents God’s kingdom as laying at the very base of our needs, and vitally connected to all the others. “Humans don’t live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from God’s mouth”, Jesus quotes Moses. “Anyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks the water I give will never thirst again”, he tells the woman at the well, whose pyramid of needs has become a pile of rubble.

Jesus is the foundation, not the decoration! God’s kingdom isn’t the icing on life’s cake – it’s the yeast that makes it rise in the first place! Yet people continue to think of Jesus as the gift for “the one who has everything,” and Christians as folks who have their lives in order and then play religion with their leftover time, energy and money. (Do we prove them right?)

If we present Jesus as “the final piece in the puzzle” to those who have tried every other form of entertainment/stimulation/inspiration and found them wanting – well, they’ll soon find him wanting too. He just won’t fit as the final piece, he won’t be chaplain to our self-actualisation. To the one who had everything, Jesus said “Go and give all your possessions to the poor; then come and follow me.” Jesus is the gift for the one who has nothing, surely.

What does this mean for sacred agents? Firstly we must denounce the distinction between spiritual and physical. “Offer your bodies as living sacrifices” says Paul. We must rediscover the all-of-real-life Jesus who works powerfully in and through the mundane.

Secondly, if Jesus is foundational, the danger of silent service is that we help people build a tower that won’t stand. Why give someone a car and then walk away with the keys in your pocket? If Christ is the real key to lasting transformation then we cannot keep this secret or leave it till last.

Catchment or Catching Churches?

How do you feel about a new church opening just a kilometre from your church? We all like the idea of church planting in general – just “not in my back yard.” How can we make sense of this? How do we ensure that a spirit of territoriality doesn’t block the extension of the gospel?

Let’s think about how we think about church territory. If we assume that there is certain number of “church likely” people in our city, a fixed number (say 144,000!), then the more churches that are planted in our city, the less share there’ll be for each church. It’s like rainfall. If you have a large catchment area, you can gather a lot of water into your dam. If someone else builds a dam upstream, they’re robbing you, because there’s only so much rain.

But I don’t think the gospel works like that. Churches aren’t meant to sit there expecting streams of people to flow into them. What if we thought more like farmers than water barons? What if we saw that our viability rests not so much on how much land we have, but on how well we work it?

When churches think about their “area of influence”, they usually draw a circle on a map representing a 20-minute drive to their building. If you step back and look at all the circles drawn by all the churches, it appears that Adelaide is well and truly covered! But driving time is not influence.

Each church should draw another circle – the area in which it is actively engaging its local community. Where is your church regularly prayer-walking? Where are you letter-boxing or door-knocking or active in the local school? If we did that, most churches would draw tiny circles, and we’d see how much room there really is for more pro-active gospel work.

So when a church plant is mooted and a nearby church cries foul, my question is this: When was the last time your church really engaged that particular neighbourhood? Are you thinking catchment instead of going catching?

We don’t need more catchment churches, but God’s always raising up catching ones. The issue isn’t how close that new church is, but what sort is it? And what sort is yours?

Are the Fish Biting?

I remember the stares and smirks on people’s faces as we walked past. It was the middle of the day, I was about 12 years old, and we were on holidays at Penneshaw on Kangaroo Island. My friend and I were bored and decided to go fishing. We grabbed our gear and began the walk around the bay to the jetty.

Most of Penneshaw is built looking over Hog Bay and it’s always easy to know when the fish are biting: You just look out your front window and see how many people there are on the jetty. Hence the smirks and shakes of the heads as we trudged past houses on our way – the jetty was completely empty.

Still, it was something to do. We walked out along the jetty and fumbled around with our lines. I’d never liked fishing and had little idea what to do. So it was pretty surprising when, not five minutes later, we’d caught a fish! And then another. And then more – almost as fast as we could reset our lines a new fish would jump on. Within a few hours we’d caught 81 fish (81 more than we knew what to do with), and you guessed it, most of the town were out there on the jetty getting their share too.

I won’t say that I learned to fish that day. But I did learn this: If no-one’s fishing it doesn’t mean no-one’s biting.

One of the myths that holds us back from effective mission is the idea that no one’s interested in God any more. It’s just not true. But if we believe it to the point where we stop fishing for people, we’ll prove ourselves right – in a way. I guess it’s true that fish won’t bite if you give them nothing to bite on.

So I wonder are you willing to walk that “walk of shame” to the jetty, and have a go even if you’re no expert? Like my friend and I that day, you might catch fishers as well as fish!

Where Do the Evangelists Go?

“What would you do if Jesus came to Hawthorn?” read the sign outside an eastern Melbourne church in the late 1960s. Graffiti soon appeared underneath: Move Peter Hudson out to centre half forward.

Let’s take a moment to think about church like a coach thinks about a football team. Imagine the names of all your congregation members on magnets on a whiteboard, able to be moved around and tried in different positions. (Just like a footy team, different members have different strengths: some tall, some short; some slow, some fast; some skilled, some Port players.)

Where do we put the evangelists? Yes, your church has evangelists! Or at very least people called to “do the work of the evangelist”. They might be ordinary looking, they may not be fully developed – but I’m talking about those in your church who by God’s Spirit are best shaped and most effective in announcing, explaining, and inviting people into God’s kingdom.

(They are communicators. Some will say “There’s much more to evangelism than talking!” but I think they mean “There’s much more to mission than evangelism” and I agree. Mission is the work of the whole team, evangelism is a vital part and the specialty of some team members.)

But my question is – where do we put those players? It seems the white-board in the imagination of most people has the church gathered in the centre and the evangelists deployed out on the frontier. We hope they will engage with the world, fish for people, and bring them back to us – preferably nicely cleaned. No wonder so many with that gift feel so incredibly lonely, sent to the front to fight a war alone and expected to bring back trophies!

What if we moved the magnets? What if nearly the whole church was sent to the perimeter to witness to the kingdom (words and much more) and we actually positioned evangelists behind the front lines, to work with interested people we bring to them? What if we all had our lines in the water and evangelists were there to help us when we have a wriggly one hooked?

A Multiplying Method

The Hope Chapel movement has planted 700 churches over the last 40 years, so they know a thing or two about multiplying in a Western context! Here’s their beautifully simple method for multiplying home groups, and why I particularly like it:

Each group has a leader (A) and assistant leader (B), but they don’t stop there. Informally, they identify the two next-readiest leaders (C) and (D). Of course every home group is different, but their principles are:

  1. Don’t meet in A’s house. It centres the whole group too much around Leader A.
  2. When the time comes to multiply, A takes D and they commence a new group elsewhere. Perhaps 1 or 2 others will go also. They become the A and B of the new group, and the B and C of the old group become its A and B leaders.

So simple! It minimises the disruption to the existing group, which continues to meet in its current location with a slight leadership change. But here’s what I find truly genius about it:

Consider the pathway for leadership development: A person goes from

  1. Outside the group (perhaps a non-believer), to
  2. Joining the group and mainly observing, to
  3. Actively participating in the group (likely by this stage as a new believer), to
  4. Being identified as a D leader, given minor leadership responsibility, to
  5. Joining an A leader in commencing a new group and becoming its B leader with greater responsibility, to
  6. Inheriting an existing group in its current location, stepping up to become the A leader, to
  7. Pioneering a new group, to
  8. Identifying and mentoring other leaders

Each of these are manageable steps that are always taken with the help of others. What a great example of making and multiplying disciples!

Fruitful Church Front CoverPS My new book Fruitful Church is being released in early 2015. Grab your ten copies here! Introductory price for SA Baptists is $8 ea with free delivery. (Enter “SA Baptist” in the comments section of order form.)

Second Best Tomorrow

They are three words that changed the course of history. In the summer of 1940, Adolf Hitler was desperate to quickly subdue Britain and so be free to turn on his main goal – Russia. The British army had only just escaped at Dunkirk – and without its equipment. England was a sitting duck for invasion, and all Germany needed was control of the skies. Since the Luftwaffe greatly outnumbered the Royal Air Force in planes and especially in experienced pilots, this was not expected to take long.

Instead, it lasted nearly four months and was a decisive British victory. England lived to fight another day. Germany invaded Russia anyhow, and in the end could not sustain the war on two fronts. History looks back on the Battle of Britain as a key turning point. So how was the battle won?

Britain had a secret weapon – radar. It showed them when, where, and in what force the Luftwaffe raids were coming, well before they arrived. Efficient communications systems enabled the RAF planes to be in place and ready for them.

But here’s the remarkable thing: German scientists had also developed radar. What’s more, theirs was more advanced than the rudimentary British system! But here’s the critical difference: The British system was in the field, and the German system was still being perfected in the lab. Sir Robert Watson-Watt, leader of the British research team, used “Second Best Tomorrow” as a motto against perfectionism. Better a basic system in the field tomorrow than the perfect system next year (or the year after).

I wonder whether we could draw on that motto in evangelism and church planting. It’s tempting to plant the perfect church in our imagination. Or to hold off evangelism while we work out the perfect approach that no-one could possibly reject. Such great ministries are developing wonderfully on paper, right when they’re needed in the field! (In fact, that’s where they are far more likely to be truly perfected.)

The simplest of all Jesus’ parables is about two sons who were sent by their father to work in the field. One refused, but then changed his mind and went. His brother had all the right words in response, but never got around to going. Which one, Jesus asked, got it done?

The Things They’ll Say

How do we know when we’re doing our mission well? What’s our rule of thumb for “good evangelism” over “bad evangelism”? If we judge our mission by how it’s received we are navigating by very unreliable stars. If many people respond positively to a message we can easily think it was great evangelism, and if we offend many – indeed any – we can assume it was our mistake.

In fact, sometimes we can search and search – and search and search – for the perfect way to put the message of the gospel so that it will be guaranteed to succeed. We want a 100% success rate. But that’s not what we see in Jesus’ Parable of the Sower (Mark 4). Jesus points out there will be a whole range of responses to the same message. (If you do the maths, that farmer only needs a 2% success rate to make a profit.)

There is no perfect technique that will win over everyone we’re called to. If that’s our standard, we’re expecting to be better evangelists that Jesus himself. People were drawn wonderfully to him and had their lives transformed. Well, some of them were drawn. Others, like the rich young ruler, walked away.

And worse, the things they said about Him! People called him demon-possessed, evil, insane. People called Paul a fool, a babbler, a try-hard, a traitor. Do we think we should have a better strike rate than them? No, Jesus said if some will reject him, some will reject us. (And he said when they reject us they’re really rejecting Him and the Father.)

So which voices, which feedback do we tune into to evaluate our effectiveness in mission? The danger is that if we hold back the message until we find a way to offend no-one, the only one we’ll offend is Jesus himself. “If anyone is ashamed of me and my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, the Son of Man will be ashamed of them when he comes in his Father’s glory.” (Mark 8)

So how do we know when we’re doing well? Given the range of receptive soils, sowing liberally would be a good strategy. Enthusiastic receptivity is not necessarily a tick (think rocky soil). And vehement rejection is not necessarily a cross – well not in that sense! But if people are receiving and rejecting us for the same reasons that they received or rejected Jesus, perhaps we’re around the mark? And in line for the ultimate feedback “Well done, good and faithful servant.”

Making Disciples at the Speed of Life

It’s happening everywhere. In lounge rooms and cafes, along beaches and bush trails and in boardrooms. On any given day it may be unspectacular, but friends, it’s changing the world. Disciples are making disciples.

Intentional discipleship requires a framework of some sort. Regularity of meeting, for a start (every week rather than every now and then). From there, an agreement to focus the conversation, rather than merely chatting, moves the practice from something good towards something great. Disciple-making that’s, well, disciplined, is hopefully not too radical an idea. And time is of the essence. God is at work in real time, so every hour matters.

It doesn’t need to be overly-regimented, but a basic framework will make an enormous difference. In the past I’ve used four conversations around Loving God, Loving Neighbours, Loving Fellow-Believers, and Receiving God’s Love. They act as headers to explore all of Scripture and all Christian practices. But there’s a hugely important fifth topic that focuses the energy of the other conversations with laser intensity. It’s the conversation of Vocational Discernment: What is God preparing you to do?

Without a tailored conversation around each individual disciple’s unique shaping, gifting and calling by God, discipleship mentoring so often loses intensity in the following ways:

1. It gets lost climbing the asymptotic mountain of theoretical perfection. The trainee is measured up against a long list of ideals and spends huge energy trying to make 1% improvements towards an imagined ‘ideal Christian’ that God does not expect of any of us individually.

2. It wastes time and energy shaping the trainee into a body part they’re not made to be – often the part that the mentor is.

3. It gives a false impression of non-urgency where the trainee has their whole life to plod towards general ‘fitness’, rather than training for an event (or events) that God has entered you for in his great Games.

Ask the question What do you sense God is uniquely shaping you for and calling you to do? (And how, with whom, when, and where?) Keep coming back to it as a discipline. And hold onto your hat…

Missional Straightforwardness

One of the most challenging tasks of sacred agents is contextualization. (Oh the irony, I’ve used a 19-letter word and a 17-letter word already.) Contextualization is the challenge of translating the great news of God’s Kingdom, which reaches across all time, places and cultures, into a specific time, place and culture so that it can be understood. If you’ve ever looked at someone, scratched your head, and thought “how can I possibly put this wonderful hope in a way that you’ll be able to grasp?” then you’ve wrestled with contextualization. It’s tricky.

And of all of the trickiness, there’s the danger that it makes us tricky. It’s good for us to keep our finger on the pulse of societal trends and communication methods. In our dealing with the world we are to be as wise as serpents. But we’re also meant to be as innocent as doves.

If we follow too closely the PR approach to mission, never wanting to offend or repel anyone, loudly proclaiming the “upside” of following Jesus and fudging on the cost, we can end up being quite unlike Jesus in our efforts to represent him. There is a wonderful straightforwardness to Jesus, speaking the truth lovingly but also directly and clearly, and being up-front about the cost of discipleship.

(Selling Christianity as a lifestyle choice by highlighting how its benefits far outweighs its costs has problems in itself in leading to consumer Christianity where people “select” Jesus for his usefulness rather than submit and entrust themselves to him, but let’s discuss that later.)

Another form of trickiness comes when we make reconciliation to God an over-complicated process. When a person is 1,000 miles from God’s kingdom, sometimes we try to influence them towards a place just 990 miles from God. Nudge them a little bit closer, and feel that we’ve done some mission. But a person 1,000 miles from God is actually only one step away (hallelujah!), and we see many such people in the Gospels coming to Jesus and being wonderfully transformed. Do we inch people along the garden path sometimes instead of inviting them to come right on in?

What might it mean for us to be clear and straightforward as agents of the Kingdom? More wise and yet less sophisticated? Might it not be both truer to the gospel and refreshing and appealing to many in our time and culture?

Missional Proximity

Have you ever attempted the Coke-Can Challenge? The idea is to hold a full can of Coke (or indeed any other beverage that is willing to sponsor this blog) out in front of you at full arm’s length, for as long as possible. The can doesn’t weigh much, but (if you’re like me) you’ll find you’re in agony after a couple of minutes. But if it’s close to your body, you could carry it all day.

Surely the challenge of God’s mission is like that. The further you are from people, the harder and more painful it is. The closer you are to the people you’re sent to, the easier it is to connect meaningfully. Missionaries who live and move among a people group learn so much more about how to speak to them, and gain far more credibility to be heard. It’s Missiology 101. We see it in Christ himself: “The Word became flesh and blood and moved into the neighbourhood.” (John 1:14, The Message)

Our family has learned what a powerful and natural thing local witness is. Moving to West Beach church has meant moving home and changing school across town, but I think we would have done it even if called just down the road to Parkside, simply because of the difference proximity makes to mission.

But it’s not just about where we live. What does it mean to really draw near not just to residential neighbours but also to our neighbours at our work, school or club? Our message that “the Kingdom of God is near” has an existential truth in that we as agents of the Kingdom embody it. Who can think God is distant when one of His ‘angels’ is giving them a visitation?  We do the gospel when we practice hospitality to invite people into our space. And we do the gospel when, like Jesus, we are not ashamed to eat and drink in the space of those far from God. Far until we arrive!

When church is over here and life is over there, mission too easily ends up being neither here nor there. It’s too hard, we think. But is the coke can really too heavy? Or just too distant?

Bring Him Home

There are deep, strong, and many connections between evangelism and hospitality – far more than I can go into here. One of the most poignant images of the gospel is the embrace of the prodigal son by the Father. God’s deep longing for prodigals to be reconciled to Him means always looking out and always ready to welcome in.

If you want to come to my house you can probably find the front door and the doorbell, but the experience for you is vastly different if the light is on and my kids are peeping out the front windows eager for your arrival. In the same way, at my home church we feel we have some renovations to do. There are four doors at the front of our buildings, and none of them obviously presents as the entrance. If you really want to come, you can definitely figure it out, but it’s something short of hospitality.

But enough about buildings, what about the actual church? Does yours have a clear and warm point of entry? Do those without church experience get strong signals saying “Welcome! Start here”? Or do they get the feeling that this church is for regulars, not irregulars?

One church that welcomes well is Rostrevor Baptist. Banners all along their street frontage make quite clear that that church is geared up to help beginners, and the Alpha Course is the place to start. We can learn from them. Is there somewhere obvious on your church’s website where beginners can click? Is there a ministry clearly aimed at ushering people from curiosity to membership?

Many churches seem to have ministries that usher people from the Outer Hebrides to the Inner Hebrides (hostility to openness), but not ministries to welcome people ashore and settle them on the mainland. We move people from Pluto to Neptune and call it mission, but do we really want Martians here on Earth?

So our church is looking at a new entrance. But even more urgently, we’re looking at a weekly Sunday breakfast for enquirers where people can ask anything, begin just where they are, and discover all it means to belong in God’s family. Mission isn’t just running down the road, mission is bringing the prodigal home!

Are You Safe to Ask?

It’s a tricky game we’re in. As agents for God’s great resistance movement, just mentioning the movement is frowned upon by the cultural police, let alone openly recruiting for it! How can we possibly get away with it? Psst, just pretend like you’re reading a blog and let’s talk about it.

One of the problems with an underground movement like ours is paranoia – you come to believe that everyone else is against you. When we focus on our difficulty to speak out in a Christophobic society, we forget that there are others, too, who regret the Great Forced Silence: the sympathetic enquirers. They are open, even wanting to be recruited. They want to join the resistance, but they don’t know where to apply.

(You might think it obvious – apply at a church, speak to a pastor – but some are concerned not to expose themselves so obviously (think of those who like Nicodemus approached Jesus at night), and some are not even sure that any given church will connect them with the real movement.)

Such people want to ask their questions, they thirst for a spiritual D&M, but they are not sure where it’s safe to get it. Which leads to my point: Do the people around you know that you’re a safe person to have a spiritual conversation with? How can you hint that you are?

If you keep your Christianity privatised and use no hint or symbol in your everyday space, people will not be likely to approach you for the inside word. On the other hand, if you’re over-the-top in your continual gush about Jesus people may not consider you safe, either. I know people that I dare not ask about fishing without running the risk of losing the rest of the day lost in tackle-talk and spot-speak!

So even when we’re not in a position to make the first move, are there ways we can hint that we’re pro-resistance and safe to approach? I know some who keep a Bible in view at their work-station. Others wear a cross, or have a Bible verse on display in their home. And which verse? Or what other ways might be ideal signals for your setting? Discuss…

A Deaf Culture? Eh?

I came across someone this week who was talking about the kind of evangelism needed to reach “a deaf culture”. That phrase really got me thinking.

Imagine you’re talking to someone, and they’re clearly just not getting what you’re trying to say. It’s just a blank stare. If you assume that it’s because they’re a bit deaf, the tempting thing might be to repeat yourself, but a bit louder. And louder again, if needed. Can you picture it?

How embarrassing it would be to find out that they’re not deaf at all, it’s just that they don’t understand English! (More to the point, the problem is that you don’t speak their language.) Getting louder and louder is just making yourself look like an obnoxious fool.

I wonder if we sacred agents can be a bit like that in our endeavours to express the gospel to those to whom we’re sent. If we’re not connecting, it’s easy to put the blame on them. THEY’RE just not interested, we might tell ourselves and others. Or THEY just don’t get it. THEY’RE closed. THEY’RE deaf. But the truth might be that WE just haven’t done the missionary work of learning their language.

Could it be that we are the deaf ones – not taking enough time to listen to people to understand their world-view, their way of thinking, their language? It’s fascinating to me that God’s approach from the beginning (in the Garden of Eden) and Jesus’ approach to so many was not to open with “Have I got news for you” but rather with questions, drawing people out and being prepared to begin by listening.

I’m not convinced that our culture is deaf, or completely closed to God. It might be deafened by the incredible multitude of voices and messages that bombard it daily. In that case, raising our voices louder and increasing the din isn’t really a good answer. What if we found ways to give quality time to really listen with interest to people, all the while asking God’s Spirit for insight into just how His great news can best be communicated to them?

Evangelism does involve speaking. We do need to find our voice. But we need to find it in their language.

Is It Explosive?

When we think about what the gospel is, quite often we get fixated on the details of how people can be saved. How to get into the kingdom. The trouble is, there’s no point in telling people how to enter a place they don’t want to go. What’s the point in hailing down cars telling them how to get to the airport, when they don’t want to go there?

The how is important – it’s worth knowing and getting right. But we could, I think, swing more of our efforts to telling people the WHO and the WHAT of God’s kingdom – and they may well then ask us how to enter.

Many people seem to have the idea that God’s big dream is that everyone would behave themselves and attend church – a club, they think, where everyone is very careful to conform and pretend to be good, a club where the rules are explained over and over and the game is never played. Have we contributed to that impression? Do we continue to in ways?

God is so much more than a cosmic referee with whistle in mouth looking for people who are breaking the rules. His dream is not that people would stop sinning, but that they would be explosively transformed. Not merely that thieves would “stop thieving” – but become givers! Not merely that cursers would “stop cursing” – but become encouragers (Eph 3:28-29)! Our message is not merely that empty people can come and “be filled” – but come and be turned into fountains (John 7:38)! It’s a message of radical and good transformation! (Yes, for those fixated on how, not by our own efforts but by God’s grace and empowering).

Our message is not merely “Come follow Jesus” but also “…and he will make you fishers for people. He will enlist you in his incredible re-creative plot. He will transform you, and through you, the world!” Now that’s explosive.

The gospel of behavioural conformity has its roots as much in new-world-settler-western-imperialism as it does in Scripture. It’s an emasculating message that defuses people down to worker-bees. The biblical gospel, on the other hand, is explosive in releasing people as carriers of a viral goodness that will supplant the empires. One saps, the other inspires – which one are we conveying?

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.

Getting the Band Back Together

What’s the role of an evangelist? What do they look like and how do they fit in to the church? These are some of the most pressing questions facing us. To the last one, some say “They don’t!”

Evangelism is a vital part – but only a part – of the mission entrusted to us. With the demise of the (usually evangelistic) Sunday evening service many sacred agents are relatively unpractised in corporate mission – mission where the whole church works together.

God has shaped us to play like a band. Some are guitarists, some are better at keyboards. The tone-deaf can be drummers, the shy can be roadies, the nerds can work the mixing desk.

Now a few are lead singers. These are the evangelists. They bring the words to the music. They don’t mind being up front, and they have knack to interact with the audience and lead them along.

For too long, however, we have sent the evangelists out like solo artists and expected them to play all the roles – one man bands. Some do OK, but it’s just not the set-up you see in the New Testament. Jesus never sent out individuals on mission, and nor did the early church.

What would it mean in your context to get the band back together? To identify an evangelist and integrate their words with the music (deeds) of the rest of the church? The band might need some practise, but what a show it has to put on!

There seems to be a painful divide between the actions-without-words mission and words-without-actions mission. It’s true that actions speak louder than words. But words speak clearer than actions. When you put the two together you can be heard loud and clear.

How about it Elroy? Let’s get the band back together. We’re on a mission from God. And if mission is the work of the whole church, then I need you, you, you…

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?

Plan It Like a Robbery

I want to tell you about something God told me directly. Now, I’m not normally one to sprout “God told me this” and “God told me that”. Mainly I hear from Him through Scripture and through people filled with His Spirit. But I’ll tell you the story, and you can make up your own mind.

I was walking in my local neighbourhood several years ago, and vaguely praying. I looked at street after street and house after house and they all seemed so private and closed off and unreachable. So I prayed, “God, how can our little church even come close to connecting with these people? How can they possibly ever be won to you?” (Read into that my great faith!)

Immediately six words zapped straight into my mind, so clear and stark and, well, zany, that I knew that the thought was not my own. These were the words: “Plan it like a major robbery.”

Well, God knows how to speak to each of his children in a way they can get it, and this totally appealed to my manstinct for action and adventure. But the main point is that it got me thinking more deeply and indeed Biblically about the practice of local mission:

–          The people we are sent to are not merely “disinterested”, they are bound and blinded. Jesus spoke of his ministry as “search and rescue” and indeed as plundering the house of a strong man (Lk 19:10, Lk 11:14-23), and we are entrusted with the continuance of that same ministry.

–          To bring the people of the neighbourhood into the light is not something that I can do casually, easily, or alone. To plan it like a major robbery requires gathering an “Ocean’s Eleven” team of like-minded adventurers who will each contribute their unique abilities.

Those six simple words have stuck with me and remind me of the sacred agent’s need to be intentional, patient, daring, and most of all, aware of the incredible value of the people God longs to see returned to their rightful owner. There’s no heist movie that compares to the one we’re really in!

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?

Missional Specificity

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?

2013 Resources of the Year

The highly recommend Outreach Magazine has just announced its 2013 Resources of the Year. Here are the category winners:

Evangelism
Telling the Gospel Through Story: Evangelism That Keeps Hearers Wanting More  By Christine Dillon (IVP)

Apologetics
A Shot of Faith to the Head: Be a Confident Believer in an Age of Cranky Atheists  By Mitch Stokes (Thomas Nelson)

Preaching
Missional Preaching: Engage * Embrace * Transform  By Al Tizon (Judson Press)

Leadership
Center Church: Doing Balanced, Gospel-Centered Ministry in Your City By Timothy Keller (Zondervan)

Church Transfusion: Changing Your Church Organically From the Inside Out By Neil Cole and Phil Helfer (Jossey-Bass)

Culture
A New Evangelical Manifesto: A Kingdom Vision for the Common Good  Edited by David P. Gushee (Chalice)

Missional Church
Everyday Church: Gospel Communities on Mission By Tim Chester and Steve Timmis (Crossway)

The Permanent Revolution: Apostolic Imagination and Practice for the 21st Century Church By Alan Hirsch and Tim Catchim (Jossey-Bass)

Cross-Cultural
The Post-Black & Post-White Church: Becoming the Beloved Community in a Multi-ethnic World  By Efrem Smith (Jossey-Bass)

Global Outreach
The Future of the Global Church: History, Trends and Possibilities  By Patrick Johnstone (IVP)

Compassion and Justice
Compassionate Justice: An Interdisciplinary Dialogue With Two Gospel Parables on Law, Crime, and Restorative Justice By Christopher D. Marshall (Cascade Books)

The Global Orphan Crisis: Be the Solution—Change Your World By Diane Lynn Elliot (Moody)

Missional Living
The Art of Neighboring: Building Genuine Relationships Right Outside Your Door By Jay Pathak and Dave Runyon (Baker)

Biography
In the Land of Blue Burqas By Kate McCord, a protective pseudonym (Moody)

Small Group Curricula
It’s Not Too Late: How God Uses Less Than Perfect People  By Tony Evans (LifeWay)

Undaunted: Daring to Do What God Calls You to Do  By Christine Caine (Zondervan)

Pass-Along Resources
Empty Promises: The Truth About You, Your Desires, and the Lies You’re Believing By Pete Wilson (Thomas Nelson)

Children
The Action Bible Devotional By Jeremy V. Jones and Sergio Cariello (David C Cook)

Just a Minute: In the Heart of a Child, One Moment … Can Last Forever By Wess Stafford with Dean Merrill (Moody)

MEGA Sports Camp: Beyond the Gold By Gospel Publishing

Youth
The Jesus Survey: What Christian Teens Really Believe and Why By Mike Nappa (Baker)

Life in 6 Words: The GOSPEL Explored By Dare 2 Share

Personal Exegesis

If you’re a preacher or a regular afflictee of sermons, you’ll know what exegesis is. It’s the practice of very careful reading of the text, so as to truly hear what it actually says. Not what we want it to say, not what we’ve always assumed it says, but to receive it as it is actually given to us. Good exegesis yields remarkable insights, but it takes time. You can’t skim read a text deeply.

Effective sacred agents do this well, always coming back to the gospel, looking over and into it, constantly exploring its depths. It almost goes without saying – a messenger needs to know the message well.

Experts in mission also talk about cultural exegesis – the need for sacred agents to immerse themselves in the culture where God has placed them, to understand its rhythm and language and how it ticks. That’s good mission but it takes time. And like Biblical exegesis, it’s a skill that you acquire and sharpen. You learn how to look.

So sacred agents are messengers, ambassadors, priests. We need to know the message well and the recipients well to be able to convey the message effectively.

But let’s take this even further. As sacred agents we are sent not just to a culture, but to individual people.  If we know a person’s culture well but don’t take the time to know them individually we will make assumptions of what they are probably like, and quite probably miss the mark in reaching them personally. So let’s practice personal exegesis. We might be familiar with a person, but do we really know them? As biblical exegetes know, familiarity leads to skim reading.

What might result in our making a deliberate choice to take time to really read the individuals we are sent to and familiar with? To take time to ask better, deeper questions and to learn how to pay attention to their answers? To learn how to really observe? And in doing so, to constantly consider ‘What is God’s message to this particular person?’

It takes time. And it takes lots of us. With a microphone we can speak to 10,000 people at a time. But we can still only listen to one at a time.

O Soldier, Soldier, Will You Marry Me?

I remember learning this song in primary school choir, do you know it?

O soldier, soldier, won’t you marry me
With your musket fife and drum?
O no sweet maid I cannot marry you
For I have no coat to put on.
So up she went to her grandfather’s chest
And she got him a coat of the very, very best
And the soldier put it on.

The next three verses are the same, but it’s hat, gloves and boots instead of coat. Then comes the final verse…

O soldier, soldier, won’t you marry me
With your musket fife and drum?
O no sweet maid I cannot marry you…
…For I have for I have a wife of my own!

I’ve no idea why that song has stuck with me as opposed to more important parts of my education. But it keeps coming back to me as I reflect on our mission as sacred agents. What a sucker that sweet maid is! And what a cad the soldier!

It reminds me of a danger of what I call ‘generosity evangelism’. We lavish people with favour/s wanting to demonstrate the grace of God. And people are happy to receive them. Churches that stretch their resources to offer community programmes see it all the time. People are very happy to receive what’s offered, and often come back regularly, but don’t, at the end of the day, come to join the church and the One who loves them the most. You see, they are already wedded to someone else.

In the Soldier song, the sweet maid clearly hadn’t had a rather necessary talk with the soldier. At least, she hadn’t drawn out much of his story, had she? She just hoped that gifts would say and do it all. She’s left not only heart-broken, but empty-handed!

I wonder whether our tendency to attempt evangelism predominantly without words (the famous but mythical quote of Francis of Assisi comes to mind) leads us up the same naïve path? Discuss!

Time to Split?

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?

There’s No ‘I’ in Msson

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?

Making an Entrance

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.

Australia Loses Faith? Seems Not!

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!

The Road Trip That Changed the World – Book Review

Why is it that on some road trips, time slows down and you think you’ll never ever arrive, and on others you seem to blink and you’re already there? Perhaps it’s the company you have. Reading is like that for me, and I’m happy to say that I just blinked and arrived at the end of Mark Sayers’ new book The Road Trip That Changed the World.

And thanks to Mark, one lucky sacred agent will win a free copy of his book. Read on…

Sayers is a brilliant cultural exegete – one who effectively explains our culture to us. Just like when you listen to a preacher who is skilled in exegesis, you have a lot of “Aha!” light-bulb moments, when you see clearly things that are so obviously right in front of you but you’d somehow missed before.

This is a short but important book that’s worth your time. You will come away with a clearer window into our culture, and that is gold to any sacred agent. To describe our own culture takes real skill and clever tricks. It’s not sufficient to simply hold up a mirror to ourselves – all we will see is more of what we already see. So it is with the increasing amount of data and statistics we consume. They’re useful, they tell us what’s happening. But they don’t tell us why.

You won’t see charts and stats on the pages of Road Trip. It reads more like poetry, actually. Sayers weaves story and insight and personal experiences in a way that combines deep and thorough research with remarkable leaps of intuition. Very occasionally his insights seemed a long bow to draw. On the whole, however, he is on the money.

His apparent thesis – that one novel by one author 60 years ago has steadily ruined us – is, he openly admits, an over-simplification. But this is the trick of the exegete: He uses it as a very effective lens to focus us on not merely a snap-shot of our culture, but a trajectory – to makes sense not only of where we are, but how we got here. And that is more than convincing.

Anyone who tries to paint a picture must choose a point of perspective. This is a further key value of the book. Sayers unashamedly writes about Western culture from the perspective of mature Christian discipleship. This meant quite a lot of mental ‘Yay!’s from this sacred agent as I read along, and some moments too to pause and re-evaluate my own journey.

Thank you Mark Sayers for a significant and timely book.

Now about winning that free copy: Let’s practice some cultural exegesis, amateurs though we be. To enter, leave a comment on this post, naming a single book, movie or historical event that you think has influenced Australian culture. And, briefly, what that influence has been. It doesn’t have to be amazing – it’s just practice! The winner will be chosen at random on July 16th from those (any!) who simply have had a go.

Otherwise, it’s currently $10+postage at Amazon, $15 at Koorong, or $14 at Book Depository

A Fish in Hand…

Sue and Brett were fisher-people
Keen as keen could be
Spending every waking moment
With their net dipped in the sea

They’d been doing this a long time
And so thought themselves admired
For their fishing dedication
Though it often left them tired

Brett would throw some bait in
While Sue would hold the net
You’d see no better teamwork
Than to look at Sue and Brett

Their faithful juicy baiting
Always drew fish to their spot
And they would watch them feeding
For they loved those fish a lot

In fact, they knew their fish by name
Spoke to each one like a pet
It warmed their hearts to see them
Swim contented in their net

They couldn’t bear the thought
Of making any fish to flee
Perhaps that’s why they never pulled
Their net out of the sea

But Sue would scrounge yet more bait
While Brett became net-holder
And day by month by year these two
Grew weary, sadder, older

They wondered who would feed the fish
When they no longer could
Who’d give the fish such a safe place
And feed them all things good?

For Brett and Sue were fisher-people
Keen as keen could be
Spending every waking moment
With their net dipped in the sea

Sowing Seeds or Wild Oats?

How often have you heard it said about evangelism: “We just sow the seeds, and we’ll never know how they might grow. We may never see those people in our particular church, but that doesn’t matter.” It sounds noble and is usually said unapologetically. But it sounds like very poor farming to me.

Consider Evangelism as just one of four broad stages of our mission to make disciple-making disciples: Incarnation, Evangelism, Discipleship and Sending. When we fail to connect them together, when we fail to do one stage with a view to the next, we significantly hinder the broader process.

Consider a car assembly plant. One worker may be faithfully unpacking windscreen wipers, but if she is not stacking them within easy reach of the next worker who fits them, is she being effective? Or if the wiper-fitter is absent or slacking off, is it enough for her to simply keep unpacking and stacking more and more piles of windscreen wipers everywhere? No! Her specialty may be unpacking wipers, but the Boss doesn’t want her to just look busy doing that. The company’s mission is to assemble cars.

Or imagine a man who decides to reproduce himself by sowing his wild oats all around the district. He hopes that the children he fathers – though he may never know them – will be raised by, well, someone. That part doesn’t matter to him. Would any of us consider such a man to be truly productive? No, we would call him incredibly irresponsible. Fathering without parenting is not God’s style at all!

And yet how many of us practice evangelism without a view to discipleship – the long, hard journey of spiritual parenting? Without any real care for what might be next for the people we encounter? There’s much more to evangelism than “spreading the love” throughout the district. Who goes fishing and doesn’t bother to take a bucket?

Jesus’ call “Come, follow me” is Evangelism with a view to Discipleship. And it even has a view to Sending: “and I will make you fishers for people”. Sacred agents, let’s not dress up irresponsibility as faith. Real faith is truly mindful of our Master, His style, and His desired ultimate outcomes, in all our various actions.

The Curvature of the Earth

Here’s an easy little diagram I’m finding useful when trying to explain the kingdom of God – you might too…

This is the shape that dominates many people’s lives. Think of it as a graph. It starts at zero, it ends at zero, and in between is a brief window of non-nothingness.

That is how many people view the universe (once there was nothing, eventually the sun will run out of gas and we’ll return to nothing, life’s what’s in between). It’s how many people view the world (think peak oil, or world population, or non-renewable resources – we’ve developed as much as we can but it all looks downhill from here). And it’s how many people see their own lives (coming from chance, heading for oblivion, time’s running out so let’s make hay while the sun shines, maximize our experiences and enjoyment – let’s eat and drink, for tomorrow we die).

It’s not good news. Kids point out to me that it is the shape of a sad mouth. How apt. But there is a different story, a different path…

This green line is the shape of the kingdom of God. It’s the path Jesus took and invites us onto (See Philippians 2:5-11). It’s a path of servanthood, suffering, self-denial – and great, great expectation. It’s good news, and yes, a happy face. This is nothing more than the diagram of Jesus’ saying “Those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”

Have a play with it – a very simple diagram from which conversations can spring about life, death, our world, the environment, hedonism, Jesus, the cross, the resurrection, the ascension, origins, eternity, conversion and discipleship. Ruin someone’s serviette and make their eternity.

When There’s Nothing Happening

The life of a sacred agent isn’t like the movies. It’s a lot slower. (And more expensive.) Great Christians and great churches take a lot more time to form than it takes to read the books written about them. Our biblical heroes too, lived many a quiet, unrecorded, year.

So this one’s for all the sacred agents out there who are frustrated that nothing seems to be happening. You’re not seeing results. Your church doesn’t seem to be growing, and your unbelieving friends seem no closer to faith.

Now it’s possible that this is because you’re lazy, disobedient, low on faith and untalented. But it’s also quite possible that it’s not. What are we to make of the times when nothing’s happening?

Our theology reminds us that nothing happening is an illusion. God is always at work, though we might not see it. A farmer sows seed and it looks like she is litterally throwing away her wealth. In the dirt. There’s nothing to show for it – yet. Under the ground, out of sight, much is happening.

That’s all well and good, but what are we to do when nothing’s happening? Here are some suggestions:

(1)  Rest. As in farming, the harvest season is very busy and there are other seasons where it’s wise to go at less than 110%, so as to be well refreshed for when the rush comes.

(2)  Prepare. Those who are wise know that “it doesn’t rain, it pours.” It can all happen at once. The worst time for flood management is during a flood. Arks are best built before them.

(3)  Pray. Not just for “things to happen” but for your own preparation for “things”. You might not be seeing fruit because you’re not mature enough yet to bear much. People think that crises form character, but it’s more true to say that crises reveal character – the character that is formed in the quiet, unspectacular, everyday grind.

(4)  Think. Your mission may be barely developing, but it could be on an exponential growth curve. Just the flat, early bit. But that’s where the curve is formed, by wise decisions at the beginning. Twitter recently reported that it processes 1 billion tweets every week. But the first billion tweets took 3 years, 2 months and 1 day. And yet they were the crucial years when the platform was developed.

What’s worse that being a fired-up sacred agent when nothing’s happening? The realisation, when it all suddenly happens, that you were completely unprepared.

Popcorn Theology

Evangelism – articulating the gospel – might not the biggest part of our mission (remember 90% of success is showing up), but it’s certainly a critical part. ‘Reeling in’ may only be one percent of fishing, but it’s a pretty important one percent! Worth getting good at.

Some forms of evangelism focus mainly on the facts – what God has done for us in Christ, and what it means. Such evangelism comes across as a lecture or course, which is both a strength and weakness. People in our culture understand ‘courses’ and how to access information. The downside of laying-down-the-facts evangelism, however, is the risk of the gospel becoming a list of doctrines for people to agree with. The facts are vital, but there’s more to evangelism than the facts.

Other forms of evangelism focus mainly on the challenge. Think of the street-preachers. How awkward when this element is over-emphasized, too in-your-face with “If you were to die tonight” and “You’re under God’s wrath.” But there’s no denying that the personal challenge or invitation is an important part of evangelism. God is calling, appealing, proposing to people he loves, and through us!

But how do we go about informing the facts-resistant and challenging the action-resistant? Talk about daunting! Well, consider the brilliant tool used by Jesus and so many effective evangelists since: Story. Stories are incredibly powerful-yet-subtle carriers of both facts and challenge. The Gospels show Jesus as a master storyteller, and he said that (we) gospel-tellers are “like a rich man who brings out of his storehouse both new treasures as well as old.”

In our culture the most skillful story-tellers are in Hollywood. With semi-interested people, you can do much worse than to watch Les Miserables or The Matrix (or something more recent!) and draw out from them the incredible gospel parallels. I knew a church that had a regular movie afternoon and never failed, off the back of it, to have a great, deep, gospel conversations. They called it “Popcorn Theology.” Love it. What movies would you choose?

Ninety Percent of Success

This Sunday our church will commission our dear friends John & Amanda Bethell, with their family, to plant a church in Port Augusta. We’re excited, nervous, heart-broken, and thrilled. Who can say how it will all turn out?

But they have a great plan. I’ll let you in on some top secret, cutting edge, world’s best practice church planting strategy: They are moving there.

If, as Woody Allen said, ninety percent of success is just showing up, then by the time you read this they will be High Distinction church planters. It sounds so incredibly obvious, but let’s not take it for granted.

Actually, physically, personally, getting out there and among the people is what separates missionaries from the missionally-aspirational. Reading missional church books and discussing mission doesn’t make me missional. Subscribing to (or even writing) the Sacred Agents blog doesn’t make me such an agent – unless I go to those to whom I am sent.

I come across many people who wonder why their community doesn’t join their church, when their church has never really joined the community. How many in the church are members of a local sporting club or other community organization?

I remember one rural church telling me wistfully of a time when they were the centre of the community. I asked them, “What’s the centre now?” and with one voice they said “The football club”. “What connection does your church have to the club?” I asked. “Any players? Umpires? Volunteers? Could the church become a sponsor?”

They won’t come to you if you won’t go to them. That’s the very essence of mission. Missiologists call it the incarnational principle. Jesus calls it leaving the 99 and going after the 1. Woody Allen calls it showing up.

A church wanting to turn its missional aspirations into mission could do worse than to draw a map of just where, how, and with whom the church is actually connected. As for the Bethells, they’ll both be working as doctors in Port Augusta. What a great place to start work on the other 10% of success.

Christougenniadendraphobia

abc.net.auIt’s the fear of Christmas Trees. And it’s more serious than you think.

This week North Korea warned its southern neighbours against the erection of a giant Christmas tree on a hill near the border, where it can be seen from a North Korean city. Read the full story here.

North Korea’s official website labelled the tree “a mean attempt at psychological warfare”, saying “The enemy warmongers … should be aware that they should be held responsible entirely for any unexpected consequences that may be caused by their scheme.”

Now, see, that’s why we need to be so careful. That’s why it’s so preferable to say “Season’s greetings”, to sing Jingle Bells rather than carols, to display a Santa rather than a nativity scene. People get offended. Even by a Christmas tree (that most biblical of symbols), let alone a direct mention of, well, you-know-who. J—s.

So what do we Sacred Agents do with this, apart from rolling our eyes and making cynical comments to one another? (Like At least they didn’t offend environmentalists by using an actual tree, or Psychological warfare? If they’d wanted to do that, they’d have lit up a giant Westfield sign) What can we learn? Here are a couple of thoughts…

It Takes Two to Tango.
The picture of the giant tree brought this verse to my mind: “Light has come into the world, but people loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil.” (John 3)  Perhaps like me you wince in response to Christmas cards, songs and plays misquoting the angel as saying “Peace on earth, and good will to all men.” Many wince at the words “peace on earth” as if it is some sort of mistake in the Bible. U2 wrote a song about it. Where do we see peace on earth? Certainly not on the Korean peninsular this year. Many see it as a failure on God’s part.

But think about it. Peace cannot be imposed, only offered. It takes two to make peace.

Yet sometimes the offer of peace is not received in the spirit in which it is offered. Sometimes the offer of peace is rejected as “psychological warfare.” What a good thing that the official North Korean website doesn’t actually speak for the souls of all North Koreans!

“Peace on earth and goodwill to all men” is a terrible mistranslation of Luke 2:14. What the angel said is “(Glory to God in the highest and) peace on earth to people of goodwill.” It’s an announcement that, to the glory of God, peace is offered to people who will receive it. On God’s incredibly generous terms – the Saviour will bear the expense. The Bible isn’t wrong, it’s incredibly realistic – there will be many who are not of goodwill, who love darkness even in the presence of light, because their deeds are evil, and they fear exposure. Christougenniadendraphobia is just a symptom of christophobia.

Finding a Person of Peace Takes Courage.
In an excellent recent blog post, church planter Ben Sternke reckons he’s come across the key to finding “persons of peace” (Luke 10:6). I think he’s on to something.

The key, says Sternke, is the willingness to find persons of un-peace. Jesus anticipates this in his further instructions to his Agents. But do we?

If we’re looking for a missional strategy that offends no-one, that keeps all doors open, that doesn’t “put anyone off Jesus”, then don’t dare put up a Christmas tree, let alone mention the Birthday Boy. There is no such effective strategy. Our message, God’s offer, will be rejected. We as messengers will be abused. An agent is not above his handler; if they abused him, they will abuse us also.

This does not give us license to be arrogant, insensitive, or abusive ourselves. The medium is the message. But the message is not “God loved the world so much that he did nothing because he didn’t want to be perceived as manipulative.” The message is “peace on earth to people of goodwill.” And there are some out there, and those courageous enough to shine brightly in the darkness will find them.

Merry Christmas, grace and peace, Sacred Agents!

Can You Point To Your Country?

Former US Secretary of State George Shultz had a tradition for commissioning new ambassadors. He would call them into his office, stand next to a large globe, and ask them to point to their country. Invariably, the Ambassadors would put their finger on the country in which they were about to start work. Secretary Shultz would smile, put his finger on the United States, and remind them that “their” country, and the focus of their mission, was America.

When we talk about mission, and what effective mission involves, it’s easy to let our context (the people we’re sent to) dominate the discussion. Certainly, we need to pay our context a ton of attention. But it cannot become our sole focus. Effective missionaries pay enormous attention also – indeed firstly – to the God who sends them. In loving and serving others, we must never forget our first love and true Master.

Daniel in Babylon is a great picture for us. His feet are firmly in Babylon – right in the centre of Babylonian life, and he speaks their language and studies their literature and in involved in their politics. But his heart – it’s in Jerusalem, city of the Living God. And three times a day he reinforces this by opening his windows towards Jerusalem (though it was far over the horizon) and re-orienting himself to the kingdom of God.

How can we have feet in Babylon, but hearts in Jerusalem? If Daniel needed a thrice-daily tangible reminder, what might we need to keep us in alignment? How can we be effective ambassadors without forgetting where our citizenship lies?

Jesus had the regular practice of withdrawing for prayer. Practices of both personal and corporate worship shape us for effective mission. Remaining in the vine is the key to fruitfulness. And yet some who drift far from God spin it as being on mission. It doesn’t work that way.

As God says in Hezekiah 11, “Those who misunderstand and misquote me will never make decent Sacred Agents.”

Knowing the Gospel by Heart

Nearly all of us have trouble expressing the good news about Jesus. I’m often asked to recommend tools or to teach evangelism technique. There are handy tools (2 Ways to Live, Bridge to Life, Roman Road, etc) and useful techniques (i.e. focus on asking good questions and listening well). But learning the gospel by rote will only get us so far. We need to learn it by heart.

We know the gospel by heart when we are immersed in God’s word and it is working its way through us personally. When we feel the pain of dying to ourselves, the joy of salvation, and know well the long hard road of discipleship. If the gospel isn’t our experience, technique won’t get us far. In fact, discussing and learning evangelism techniques can be a distraction from the hard question “Why aren’t we noticeably different to others?”

Jesus said that those who have been “instructed in the kingdom” are “like the owner of a house who brings out of the storeroom new treasures as well as old.” When you know the gospel by heart, you know not only the old, old stories, but like Jesus are able to tell the gospel in new forms as well. Forms that fit the immediate situation.

A few months ago I was talking with a friend of mine in prison. He was greatly disheartened that his well-meaning letters seeking reconciliation with those he had hurt had been universally and emphatically rejected. “How can I be reconciled with God when I can’t even be reconciled with those I’ve only hurt a bit?” he asked me. I could have drawn 2 Ways to Live. It’s not bad. But from heart I was able to tell him about the God who knows exactly how it feels to have reconciliation thrown back in his face, who even now is “writing” to him, and longs for his response to be different.

By all means collect tools and tips. Learn the gospel well. Know it personally. And never underestimate the power of speaking – if falteringly – from the heart.

Getting the Message Across

There was a time when “evangelism” was all about getting some certain information across to people. It was the era of the tract – thrusting a message into people’s hands, or calling to them from a soap-box. In reaction to this, for the last two decades Christians have paid much more attention to building relationships, to incarnation (living in among), to demonstrating the gospel. If I hear Francis of Assisi’s quote “Go into all the world and preach the gospel, and only use words if necessary” one more time … I’m going to tell the quoter to stop using words and go into a different part of the world.

Our reaction has become an over-reaction. Evangelism has almost become anything but putting a message across. We’ve become great at building relational and community connections, but never been worse at getting the message of the gospel across. I know it’s very difficult. Talking about Jesus is a taboo in our culture. It’s far more acceptable to talk about your sex life that to talk about your religion. But nevertheless, the gospel does remain “news”. It is information. More to the point, it’s an invitation. And as long as we simply hang out with and love and understand people, and keep the invitation to ourselves, we are doing less than evangelism. Jesus put it quite clearly: “If any of you are ashamed of me and my words, the Son of Man will be ashamed of you when he comes in his glory and in the glory of the Father and of the holy angels.” (Luke 9)

Given this very challenging task, it surprises me that we neglect a fantastic method for communicating the gospel: Literature evangelism. I’m not so much meaning tracts, I meaning books (and video and web resources).

Often we feel like we have to be the ones who communicate the message. And it’s important to be basically equipped to do so – to know how to share the elements of the gospel, your own testimony, and an invitation to someone to receive Christ. There are methods such as Two Ways to Live, Bridge to Life, etc, that help with this. But in our Jesus-taboo culture, and in the 60-second window I get with a person that open or interested, why would I try to sketch Two Ways to Live on a serviette when I could put a great Christian book in a person’s hand and say, “You might find this very interesting!”

There are a lot of advantages to this method: Firstly, unless I’m a very gifted evangelist, my gospel summary isn’t likely to match C.S. Lewis’, a master Christian communicator. Secondly, instead of 60 seconds with me, they spend 6 hours with C.S. Lewis. That’s a whole lot more information that gets across. And thirdly, it allows me to be a “third-person” in processing their response to the book. I can say, “What did you think of that?” and their objections will be with C.S. Lewis, not me directly. This makes an ongoing dialogue about the gospel far more likely.

It makes a lot of sense to read these yourself, and make use of occasional specials to stock up and keep a supply handy! Good books to give away include:

C.S. Lewis’ classic Mere Christianity (now a little dated, still good for modernists)
Don Miller’s Blue Like Jazz (great for post-modernists) a movie is in production
Francis Chan’s Crazy Love
Tom Wright’s Simply Christian (for thinkers)

What others have you found useful? And what has been your experience of literature evangelism?

Stealing Your Identity Back

The value of identity of course is that so often it comes with purpose – Richard R. Grant*

Every church wants to be more missional. But how to go about it? Too often I think we try to approach it at the levels of teaching and action. Teaching – through more sermons about how God loves the lost, and action – by just getting people ‘out there’ and hoping they’ll catch the bug. I’m not against either of those, but I know many pastors who try them both and don’t see lasting change. To attempt missional transition, we’re dealing with a thorough-going systemic issue – one that can’t merely be dealt with at the surface. For lasting change we need to challenge paradigms,  And this means dealing right down at the level of identity. We need to talk about ‘calling’ – literally learning to call ourselves what God calls us.

At the core of the discipleship process is the discovery of a new identity we are given in Christ. Without a deep awareness of this, change in our behaviour goes no further than social conformity (learning how to speak and act churchian). The biblical characters (Abraham, Israel, Peter, Paul) who had their very names changed upon encounter with God were onto a good thing. Some Christian communities across history have picked up this practice, (a recent example being the Church Army). We have become a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation. Christians could refer to each other as “Prince” and “Princess” – because we are given a nobility that precedes and makes sense of the call to noble action. But the practice of calling each other ‘brother’ or ‘sister’ – let alone prince or princess – has become rare.

Most Westerners have their identity tightly bound to their occupation. That’s identity-theft. A person says “I am a hairdresser.” She might consider herself a “Christian hairdresser”, but the noun “hairdresser” remains the defining element. How might things change if believers considered themselves “a Christian” or “a missionary” first and foremost? Instead of being a Christian hairdresser, one becomes a hairdressing Christian? Representing Christ becomes core. Hairdressing becomes the way I serve Him at the moment.

As a pastor I often saw people transfer into and away from our city, as their employers moved them around the globe. The comment “Wherever my work takes me, I’ll find a church” sounds pious, but once again betrays the core of one’s identity. I’d rather hear “Wherever the Lord sends me, I’ll find a job.” We must recover the radical new identity to which the gospel invites us.

I remember struggling to get through to a group of teenagers that God’s plan for them was much more than to become neatly-dressed, clean-speaking church attenders. In frustration I blurted out “It’s much more like being a secret agent!” And from there, the label “Sacred Agent” has stuck with me and hence the name of this blog. Hairdressing is at best our cover. We have another story, a very exciting one. We are a part of a very big plot. And it doesn’t need to be secret.

For a church to become a ‘missional’ church, the only real way is for the majority of its members to see themselves as missionaries. Sacred agents. Ambassadors. Right from the start Jesus called his followers ‘fishers for people’ and ‘apostles’ (sent ones). When people reclaim this identity, their mission then comes from their very core, and their full creativity is brought into play. Without this, church members might ‘do mission’ – but only as another way of ‘helping out the church’, rather than being the church.

What do you call yourself? What did you put down as your occupation in the recent census?

*Useful quote, but does anyone know who Richard R. Grant is?!

Quote of the Week

“If I asked my customers what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.” – Henry Ford

Boogity! In Appreciation of Pastor Joe Nelms

If you have an internet connection (and I’m taking a stab that you do) it’s likely that you’ve seen this prayer by Pastor Joe Nelms before a NASCAR race in Nashville.

It’s become an internet sensation, getting songified by the Gregory Brothers (warning: it’s unbelievably catchy),

From this spawned further versions in Gregorian chant and hip hop. It’s got so deeply in my head this week that I can’t begin a prayer “Heavenly Father” without hearing a Tennessee accent in my head, nor end a prayer with “Amen” without thinking “Boogity boogity boogity.” I write this post as a kind of exorcism – perhaps I can get it out of my head by getting it into yours…

It’s an amazing scene. A pastor is asked to lead a crowd of 170,000 people in prayer, and he comes out with that! What was he thinking? We don’t know. But we do know:

(1) The prayer was surely “inspired” by this hilarious/outrageous scene from the movie Talladega Nights (warning: unsuitable for children, unsuitable for parents).

(2) The philosophical phrase “boogity boogity boogity” was the trademark of legendary NASCAR commentator Darrell Waltrip, who marked the start of each race with “Boogity, boogity, boogity, let’s go racing boys!”

(3) Interviewed since the prayer, Pastor Nelms stated that he didn’t receive a corporate cent for name-dropping thanks for Dodges, Toyotas, Fords, Sunoco Racing Fuels, GM Performance Technology, R07 Engines and Goodyear Tires (“which bring performance and power to the track”). He told the Christian Post that he was only trying to show the joy Christians have in Jesus Christ. “Our whole goal was to open doors that would not otherwise be open … There are a lot of folks who think churches are all serious people who never enjoy life and [who have] just a list of rules.” He added, “We who have been saved by Christ, we know that living has just begun. When I accepted Christ, that’s when I really learned what joy was.

So was Pastor Nelms’ prayer a silly stunt, a mindless sell-out to consumerism, and a mockery of Christian faith, as some have decided? Or was it a fine piece of contextualized mission, proclaiming in the middle of a hyper-commercialized setting that God is the giver of all good things? Was his ridiculous language (to most people) actually full of meaning to that particular sub-culture?

My point is this: We don’t know. And it’s hard to tell. That’s the (often unexpected) price of contextualization – the fierce criticism of quick-to-judge Christians towards whom the ministry is not aimed. It reminds me of “He eats with tax-collectors and sinners.” Those who step out to name Christ outside the church deserve at least our admiration for being there and having a go. To Pastor Joe and others like him I say Boogity boogity boogity!

A Laughable Gospel?

[I was called upon at the last minute to write an article for PRAC magazine about the use of humour in mission. I dashed out to the half-bakery for some ideas. I thought ‘It’s hard to be funny under pressure,’ and decided to use that as the first line. PRAC mag by Crossover is (otherwise) good – keep an eye out for it!]

It’s hard to be funny under pressure. Hey, it’s hard enough for some of us to be funny at all. So here’s a helpful little column to tell you that you absolutely must be funny if you are to reach Australians at all. Must. Or there’s no hope for you. You’ll need to minister in some other country – like Switzerland or Canberra.

So no pressure.

Humour in reaching Australians is important for three reasons, four of which I’ll outline here:

It’s disarming. And that’s pretty important to connect with Aussies at all, most of whom are increasingly guarded against Christianity. They expect us to be Pharisees, though they use other terms. So I heard of one church that put on its sign “Smithfield Baptist Church: Surprisingly Uncreepy”. Now there’s a motto that beats “Because You’re Going To Die One Day” hands down. Wish we’d thought of it before all that printing.

When you make someone laugh, you’re a friend, not an enemy. Unless they’re laughing at you.

It’s interesting. So many Australians live lives of desperate boredom. Tuning out from the millions of banal messages they are bombarded with daily, they search and scan even the pages of PRAC magazine looking for a half-decent column. (That bit was just to see if it gets past the editor.) When the medium is the message, we cannot afford to dress up the gospel in the form of a university lecture any longer. She’s worthy of something more eye-catching.

We intuitively do this in children’s ministry – make it fun! But little do we realize that adults’ attention span is just as short – they’re just better at pretending to look interested! On the inside they are climbing the walls. This is why I engineered a never-ending packet of Tim Tams, and have concealed accomplices under stages, in air-conditioning ducts, and baptisteries to make surprise entries. It’s also a fun way of torturing my claustrophobic friends. Don’t accuse me of stunts; I get others to do the dangerous bits.

It’s absurd. When you’re filling the bathtub with custard, it’s hard to keep the camels from escaping. Just think about that.

It brings perspective. This is actually how humour works. All good jokes (so I’m told) start off as serious stories, and have a surprising ending that suddenly puts the rest of the story in a new perspective. This is precisely what the gospel does. Particularly in a post-Christian culture, we are working right at the base level of paradigm, of perspective. We are saying “Ha! What you’ve thought was so important is not important at all, and what you dismissed is actually crucial!”

Even in these increasingly dark and worrying times, Christians should have a glint in their eye – a twinkle that says, like the Dread Pirate Roberts in The Princess Bride, “I know something you don’t know.” There is a different ending to what people expect. The gospel brings the laughter of people who have found riches only when they struck rock bottom, and people who won a prize only when they finally stopped striving for it.

Humour in hard times can be like rain in a desert. It’s for times like that that Eric Love and I wrote this song, promoting what we call “The Christian Swear Word” (‘Maranatha’ means ‘Come Lord Jesus’)

 

When your hammer slips and lands on the wrong nail
When you try to catch the final bus and fail
When your washing is exported by a gale
When you do your best, but all to no avail

When it all seems too much and you just want to weep
And you don’t know whether you’re Arthur or Martha
Don’t say ‘crikey’ or ‘blimey’ or ‘bother’ or [BEEP]
There’s a better word for it- say ‘Maranatha’

In the nightly news a litany of woe
And there’s nowhere in the world that’s safe to go
When disaster lands the poor a further blow
And relief is far too distant and too slow

When it all seems too much and you just want to weep
And you don’t know whether you’re Arthur or Martha
Don’t say ‘crikey’ or ‘blimey’ or ‘bother’ or [BEEP]
There’s a better word for it- say ‘Maranatha’

When the Lord says He’s preparing us a place
And a day when we will see Him face to face
And reward for those who persevere with grace
Be assured, it’s not just talk, but it’s the case

When it all seems too much and you just want to weep
And you don’t know whether you’re Arthur or Martha
Don’t say ‘crikey’ or ‘blimey’ or ‘bother’ or [BEEP]
There’s a better word for it- say ‘Maranatha’

 

But as I say, it’s hard to be funny under pressure, week by week. It can’t be cranked out. It’s the fruit borne naturally from deep roots of peace and joy in our wonderful, outrageous, hilarious God, who loves Aussies and whom Aussies will love.

The End of Church Planting?

In his blog “Reclaiming the Mission”, David Fitch recently posted this provocative article: STOP FUNDING CHURCH PLANTS and Start Funding Missionaries: a Plea to Denominations. The all-caps are his, and yes, it’s a provocative shout-out. The essence of his point is that it’s too difficult and too expensive and missionally ineffective to plant classic suburban congregations based around an entrepreneurial leader that will be financially self-sufficient in three years.

He suggests that instead, missionary teams of 3-4 leaders or leader-couples be sent to under-churched (often poorer) contexts, supported only short term and with only housing allowance and health insurance, with a view to a long-term (10 year) missionary engagement with the context that is supported by tent-making (all leaders having secular employment in the context).

This is a trend that is already strongly emerging in Australia – I see several groups of my friends doing precisely that (though usually with no financial support from the denomination). There is a LOT to like about Fitch’s recommendation. But like all provocateurs, he over-reaches a little. First, in thinking that this is not already happening (Start funding missionaries? What a new idea!), secondly in dismissing the entrepreneurial approach as impossible – some can still pull it off; and thirdly in considering this the end of church planting: He is, in my view, suggesting a more effective and affordable approach that still ends in sustainable Christian community.

In Christianity Today, Jason Hood writes an excellent, appreciative and balanced response to Fitch which is just as much worth a read: The End of Church Planting?

What I like about this conversation is that it is grounded in the realities of practice. What can we actually do – given the current limitations on our resources and the climate of the context to which we’re sent? I wonder whether churches with capital tied up in trust-deeds that demand it be used for “a place of worship” could buy houses to accommodate house-church planters, er, missionaries?!

Do read both articles – and then I’m very interested in your view!

Quote of the Week

The value of identity of course is that so often with it comes purpose.  – Richard R Grant

Do we see ourselves as Sacred Agents?

Structural Engineering for Churches

In 1943 Winston Churchill said “First we shape our buildings, and then they shape us.” How true. Politicians who moved from the cramped and crowded Old Parliament House to the new billion dollar House soon commented on how the building changed the politics. Members not having to share offices was a relief at first – and a good thing – but they soon noticed the reduction in collaboration and informal negotiation.

True also for churches. But I’m not here speaking about church buildings – I’d like to discuss the structure of churches. For some this might be a boring (or on the other hand stressful) topic, but I see how readily we can end up serving structures that are meant to serve us.

Planning a constitution or structure for a church should be done thoughtfully and prayerfully. It can be like designing an aeroplane – it needs to be both strong and light. Too heavy, and a church will struggle to really get off the ground and fly.  A church bogged down in committees and meetings and multiple layers of accountability quickly takes it eye off the ball of disciple-making. But if church structures are not strong enough, then poor accountability can lead to a low-discipline, anything-goes culture that sets a church up for dissipation at best and scandal at worst. Neither soars. Neither takes people from A to B. One is stuck on the ground, the other crashes.

We see this in the Simple-Church vs Complex-Church debate. Over-reacting to each other doesn’t help. We need to find structures that are optimal and that serve the mission that has been entrusted to us. It can be done, but it takes real wisdom and maturity to look for balance. Here are a couple of suggestions:

(1) If your structure takes stress from both sides, it’s a sign of balance. That is to say, if as a leader you’re taking heat from some who think the structure is too loose, and some who think it’s too tight, that might be a very good thing. If your church structure is only comfortable for mavericks, or only for actuaries and auditors, then I’d say you haven’t hit the mark. But what potential there is in a church that can hold both! A sense of adventure combined with attention to due process. Safe adventurers go further.

(2) As we move from a “building” image of the church (so 20th century) to an organic image such as  “extended family” (so 1st), we must realize two things: Firstly, organisms have structure – they’re sometimes quite complex! Throwing out structure and planning doesn’t get you to organic church. But secondly, the structures of organisms change as it grows. Buildings are designed to remain. Organisms to grow and multiply. So is there a dynamic in our thinking about church structures? Or do we still feel that the constitution we’re writing has to last for 50 years? A good constitution anticipates its own updating and allows a clear process for doing so.

Missionaries walk a tight-rope. To be in the world and not of it. Lesslie Newbigin put it this way: “Every missionary path has to find the way between these two dangers: irrelevance and syncretism. And if one is more afraid of one danger than the other, one will certainly fall into the opposite.” We need structures that keep us on the path.

What’s been your experience of church structures? For interest & comment, here’s my home church’s 1-page constitution, and here’s an outdated 14-page model constitution & by-laws I’m about to work on updating.