Category Archives: Church
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.