Category Archives: Church

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?

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?

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’.

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?

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