Category Archives: Church Revitalization

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.


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?

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.

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!

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.

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