Category Archives: Leadership
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?
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….
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?
I’m a fan of the 19th Century missionary William Carey – to the extent that we named our son after him. (I now realise that was a step beyond getting a tattoo of him – but the boy is such a fan of wicketkeeper Alex Carey that he doesn’t mind.)
Carey (the misho) was a doer. Not one one to swallow the “Only God can do things and it’s kind of an insult to try to do things that only God can do” pop-theology that is still too prevalent today. He got that God wants to work through us and not just around us and invites us to step up and get in the game. His famous motto was “Expect great things from God; attempt great things for God.” If I was the tattooing type…
But if you carry that idea not merely on your skin, but deeper, you find yourself in a certain stance. The stance of a sacred agent. Looking both to receive a lot and to give a lot. It’s good. The down-side, though, is that in the looking for ‘great things’ to get and to do, you miss the little things. And God so often does big things through the little things.
So for a while I’m trying out a variation of the motto. Instead of “Expect much, attempt much”, how’s this: “Expect often, attempt often”?
This is the sacred agent’s discipline of being faithful with small things. It reminds me to expect our generous Father to be giving me things-for-others often, more than daily. In fact, for the grace of Christ and the power of the Spirit to be at work in and through me continually.
From time to time there may be a grand epiphany or an exciting project. But a simple word of kindness; glass to the thirsty; invitation to church, or lunch, or both; a quick encouraging text – am I ready for that kind of ministry? Are we?
Lord, how can I be of service today? is a great morning prayer. I’m sure it was Carey’s too, and for a lot of mundane mornings.
…Speaking of a great number of things, this is the 100th Sacred Agents post. Many thanks to all who have followed, commented, made suggestions, and taken the bad with the good!<AT>
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?
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.