Category Archives: Church

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. 

We Come in Peace

“Don’t be afraid!” It’s the most frequent command in the Bible. God’s messengers – angels and other agents – are all ultimately on a peace mission.

It’s remarkable how many Bible passages about gospel proclamation also mention peace: How lovely on the mountains are the feet of those who bring good news, announcing peace… (Isa 52); When Jesus sends his disciples on mission their first words are to be Peace to this house! (Lk 10); All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation (2Co 5); we’re to have feet fitted with the readiness that comes from gospel of peace (Eph 6). And plenty others.

Sacred agents do well to meditate on this. We can often think of the world (and specific individuals) we’re sent to as hostile; let’s bear in mind the fear so closely linked to that hostility. Our challenge is to be faithfully present to them, neither buying into their hostility with a ‘fight’ posture nor withdrawing timidly with a ‘flight’ reflex. It’s not easy. But cheek-turning, enemy-loving, open, vulnerable witness to God’s kingdom opens up amazing possibilities for powerful transformation.

We could all do much worse this Advent than to memorise 1 Peter 3:8-16. It outlines a community life dedicated to peaceful witness in a hostile world, determined to take the stance of Christ and sharing about his coming kingdom with the gentleness and respect that’s worthy of him and most likely to win over those he loves.

For a ministry of reconciliation will never be effective from a safe distance (flight) or a position of strength (fight). Instead, we share the vulnerability of Jesus, his heartache and his joyful reward. Let’s not be afraid to come in peace!

Measuring Mission

I meet a lot of down-hearted Christian leaders – passionate for Jesus and his kingdom, diligent in sharing the gospel message, but saddened and bewildered by “hardly any response”. Let’s talk about evaluating gospel ministry, for their sakes and for those to whom they’re accountable.

It’s hard to measure mission, but we must try anyway. Hard, because of time-lag between sowing and harvest, and because it’s not in the power of missionaries to generate responsive hearts. We must nevertheless try, because stubborn, unreflective, unaccountable ministry wastes so much time, energy and resources.

So how to measure mission? Here’s one suggestion: Look for the potency of response, not just the amount of it.

The NT – the whole Bible – makes it clear that there’s a whole range of responses to God. Rarely do you see a message shared, and 100% of the hearers respond appropriately. If you feel like you’re speaking, but hardly anyone is listening – well, welcome to Jesus’ world. Welcome to the world of the prophets. Jesus sums it up in the Parable of the Sower, but also elsewhere where he speaks of the kingdom working like yeast through dough.

God’s kingdom transforms a family – a neighbourhood, a city, a nation – not usually though instant, en masse responses, but through a small-but-power-filled minority: the yeast. If just 2% of the farmer’s seed falls on good soil and produces “30, 60, 100 times what was sown” then the farmer will be in profit!

If you only reach one person for Christ, and they turn out to be a Mother Theresa or Billy Graham, isn’t that better than getting a thousand empty ‘decisions’ or ‘Jesus likes’? So before getting too downhearted, or indeed uphearted, perhaps let’s ask some better questions: If only a few are interested, Who are they? How can we water what IS growing? What is their potent-ial? Who are they, in turn, connected to? And also ask Is there a reason why the message connected with them and not others, apart from simple heart-responsiveness?

It’s all part of discerning wisely What is God doing here? Believe me, it’s never nothing!

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!

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?

%d bloggers like this: