Category Archives: Church Revitalization

A New New Deal?

Monument to the New Deal, Washington DC. Photo Jim Bown (flickr.com)

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.

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?

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?

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