Category Archives: Culture

Taking the Plunge

Let’s get the shameless plug out the way – I’ve a new little book coming soon. It’s called Taking the Plunge: Baptism and Belonging to Jesus, and it’s a guide for enquirers and new believers. Keep an eye out for it!

Have you noticed, though, that for many people, baptism is coming a long time after the decision to entrust themselves to Christ? In Scripture we see people being baptised quite immediately upon receiving Christ. In fact, it’s presented as the way of receiving Christ – faith and action, mind and body together.

A similar shift has happened with weddings, that other ceremony of initiation, and I think there’s a cultural correlation. Many used to marry in their early 20s, or even teens, but now wait much longer. Marriage is no longer seen as an initiation into a relationship, but the culmination of it. So what’s happening? Why the mass outbreak of gamophobia (fear of commitment)?

It may be the fear of failure. Divorce is so painful and costly. Why not wait to be sure that your partner is the right one, and that you yourself have the strength to make it work, before ‘sealing the deal’? At one level it’s understandable. It could even be seen as respecting commitment, not just fearing it. But it’s worth us resisting this trend – particularly with baptism. People will never have a better option than Jesus. It’s a pathway we can encourage without reservation, its difficulties notwithstanding.

I like to tell this story: A young woman had a medical condition that made her hands shake continually. She was told that it could be cured, but would require brain surgery. Disturbed by the thought of such an invasive step, she put it off continually and just put up with the shakes. Eventually in later life, she came to her senses and had the surgery. And she was cured! Suddenly some new hobbies were possible for her. But one thing she’d missed: The possibility of becoming a brain surgeon herself and helping others like her. So don’t spend your life deciding whether or not you’ll be in with Christ. Not only is it disrespectful to expect a bridegroom to wait decades at the altar for you, even if he does, you’ve also missed out on some incredible, noble, adventure with him.

FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out) should rightly overcome KOOO (Keeping One’s Options Open), and people should take the plunge. There is no fuller or freer life than wholeheartedly belonging to Christ, so encouraging people to whole-body-and-heartedly decide is rightly a part of our gospel.

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.


Are You Expecting?

It’s the question no man should ever ask! But the season of Advent just sidles up and drops the question shamelessly. Sacred agents, are you expecting?

Me: What? Who? Me? No. Of course not.

Gabriel: Why not?

Me: How did you get into this conversation, Gabriel?

Gabriel: I get around. Now tell me again about how you’re not expecting. God has big plans, you know. Don’t you want to be part of them?

Me: You know I do.

Gabriel: Well then, it’s time to get moving. Your relative Elizabeth is already … oh, hang on, hang on, wrong script. Your brothers and sisters around the world are already busy with kingdom work. So let me ask you again – are you expecting?

Mary: Yes, are you expecting rulers and thrones to be brought down and the humble lifted up? The hungry filled with good things and the rich sent away empty?

Me: Mary?!

Gabriel: Are you expecting empires to crumble while the kingdom keeps growing? Nations and cities to be transformed? Are you expecting churches to thrive? Are you expecting your neighbours, family and friends to be powerfully changed as Christ is birthed and formed in them? Are you expecting King Jesus himself to return in triumph and glory and justice and vindication?

Me: Wow, well … truth be told? I’m not expecting, I’m just a little overweight….

Where Do I Even Begin?

It’s wonderful to receive the good news of the gospel. But we get to be bearers of it too. What an honour … and how daunting. What if we don’t get the message right?

If you’re worried about making a mash of the message, remember that no-one nails it. You can never tell the whole gospel, not if you talked for a thousand years. Read all the gospel-speeches in Acts and note how much each one leaves out! In Athens, Paul omits to mention Jesus’ death! So sacred agents are never telling the whole truth … simply because we can’t! It’s not our calling to tell everyone everything.

So where do we start, then, and what do we say? In his helpful book Beyond Awkward, Beau Crosetto outlines four major components of our news about Jesus. With admirable alliteration, he points out that Jesus offers:

Pardon – He is the Son of Man with “authority on earth to forgive sins”, and “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world”.
Power – He is the Stronger Man who outmuscles the “strong man” holding us captive under sin, injustice, evil and death. The gospels show Jesus continually rescuing people from hopeless situations.
Purpose – He calls his followers to a grand adventure, to participation in a story of cosmic proportions and to real responsibility as ministers in his government. Sacred agents, even.
Presence – He is Emanuel – God with us. He presents to us a Father who numbers the hairs on our heads, cares for every sparrow and us even more, and promises “surely I will be with you always”.

Crosetto is not saying that every gospel message should cover all of these memorable points. He says we should start by being present with people, asking questions and listening well. In doing so we’ll likely find that one of the four ‘P’s is a need keenly felt by our neighbour, and therefore a great starting point for sharing about Jesus.

Pardon is very good news, and might be what your neighbour needs to hear first. But it’s not the only news. The other three ‘P’s show how Jesus is good news not only for the guilty/ashamed/underperforming, but also for the stuck/addicted/out-of-control, the wandering/drifting/groundhog-dayed and the lonely/abandoned/marginalised. If your neighbour is lonely, you don’t need to begin with convincing her that she’s guilty.

Each ‘P’ is a way into a gospel conversation, and each has a wealth of wonderful stories behind it. (There’s a good group exercise.) But ultimately all four are things we all deeply need, and no matter which way in, four aspects of an enormous and enormously good message.

We’ve been given so much to give. Truly as Jesus said, teachers who have been instructed in the kingdom are like a rich person who constantly pulls out of their storehouse new and old treasures to share!

PS We’re building a Gospel Sharers Network here in SA. To join us visit sabaptist.asn.au/evangelism

Frank Reflections on the Graham Tour

On February 21st nearly 10,000 people overflowed Titanium Security Arena here in Adelaide to hear Franklin Graham’s message. About 400 responded to his altar call. I was one of the thousand or so watching on the big screen outside.

After a Planet Shakers worship frenzy to disconcert the unchurched, and a short set by Crowder to re-concert them, the 66-year old American in a suit took the stage.

Now I’d heard the chatter among some thinking Christians about the Graham Tour, and there’s much I agree with. Here’s a summary of their concerns:

  • He has identified too strongly with right-wing politics in general and Trump in particular.
  • Flying in an American to sweep across Australia in a whirl-wind, pre-packaged stadium tour breaks just about every rule of missiology. (I don’t remember him even using the name “Adelaide”. It was just “your city” – sigh.)
  • His ‘old school’ gospel message overplayed the Penal Substitutionary view of Christ’s Atonement (focusing on sin as our moral failure before a Righteous Judge) as opposed to other biblical facets of the gospel such as our being lost and in need of a Finder or captive in need of a Rescuer. In ‘old school’ evangelism, awareness of guilt is a key step on the way to Jesus, and the sins he gave time for special mention were selective … the classic ones.

All these things unsettle many Christian thinkers – but do you know what drives us most crazy? That 400 people nevertheless responded, saying that they want to be reconciled to God through Christ.

I turned these things over in my mind as I drove home and have come to this conclusion: The only type of evangelism that works is the evangelism that actually gets done. If any of us think that we can do it better, then we really should. We really must.

I’m convinced there’s still a place in our day and our culture for ‘event evangelism’, where a Christian community combines its many gifts to create a hospitable experience for enquirers that culminates in a gifted and well-prepared evangelist sharing the message and calling for a response. We do it in small ways when a church runs Alpha or an equivalent. We do it in medium ways, for instance through Easter Camps. Event evangelism stands on the shoulders of everyday witness and has the great advantage of creating a moment-for-decision that calls out a response.

So if God can use a Trumped-up sexagenarian regurgitating a 1950s version of the kingdom message with a ‘Merican accent, then what might He do through you and me?

PS If you have the noble task of sharing the gospel with others, either conversationally or through prepared messages (spot talks, devotions etc), please join our new Gospel Sharers Network. First gathering is Tue April 2nd 7pm at Trinity Baptist. For those who aren’t in Adelaide … why aren’t you?

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