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?

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