Category Archives: Spiritual Formation
Many years ago I was chairing a committee that was tackling a complex problem. As far as committees go, it was a good one, well stocked with highly intelligent people and united in our purpose. It didn’t take too long before they came up with a very clever approach to overcome the problem. “Well done! Sounds like a great way forward,” I said.
The next month we met again, and to my surprise the problem hadn’t been overcome. “Oh, I said, did it prove to be more difficult than we thought?” But they assured me it wasn’t, and in fact it wasn’t very difficult at all. They laid out the series of simple steps needed and again I said “Go for it.”
After another month you’d think that this brilliant committee would have knocked it on the head, but once again there was our problem, undented. “Well this one really is mocking us, isn’t it? We just can’t seem to win,” I said. But again they assured me that this problem would really be no problem, no problem at all. Then it began to dawn on me. “Could it be,” I asked, “That you’ve found a great plan for solving the problem, and it’s not that the steps are too hard for you, but rather that they’re too easy?” Their eyes brightened. You see, this group of great thinkers were not great doers. The actual steps, once found, required little thinking, and thinking was their thing.
And it got me thinking about mission, because, well, everything does. Does the mission of our largely white, educated, middle class movement suffer because our task is too difficult? Or is it too easy. People like us – like me – enjoy a good puzzle, a good debate, the wrestling with ideas, but not so much the wrestling with a lawnmower. If there’s a process, and it’s simple, then it should be automated. Done by robots. Or just by ‘others’. Once we’ve thought up a good way, well, the rest is boring.
There are a lot of good books and conferences and discussion groups about mission, but the truth is that the way the Lord has given to us isn’t rocket science. It involves taking an interest in others, sharing meals, asking questions, serving, praying, and the talking needed is hardly ever hifalutin. It’s labour-intensive. God wants to reach out to each person, to connect personally with them, through people. That will take many of us, even for a small suburb, but we prefer to fantasize about God ‘sweeping his hand across the suburb’ and getting it done without anyone having to get their fingernails dirty. But that’s not his way. I’m not saying we should stop reading, or doing great thinking about mission. But if we’re dreaming that our lab will suddenly mass-produce a vaccine to automatically Christianise everyone, we need to wake up. And attend to the patch that the Lord has assigned to us. There’s someone at hand that you can visit, call, share a meal with, share God’s love. Too easy, eh?
The Korean pastor handed his business card to me, and immediately two words jumped out from his vision statement: Powerful church. I found myself recoiling, the words grated on me. ‘How arrogant!’ I thought, judging before even thinking.
“You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you,” says Jesus at the start of the Book of Acts, “and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” If Pastor Park was arrogant in his vision for a powerful church, then how much more Christ himself?
It’s interesting and wonderful how it takes believers of other cultures to see the ways in which we have sold out to ours. Australians value humility. We really value it, and are at our most powerful when we’re pulling down someone who’s up themselves. We hate pride and arrogance, and sometimes so much that we forget to love God.
You see, we tend to draw a straight line from strength and success to pride and arrogance, so much so that we often can’t tell the difference. Someone who’s successful is obviously proud. And therefore, one way that we can cleverly avoid that deadly sin is to not be successful. To not strive, nor pursue excellence. The words “powerful church” grate on us, because we can make a virtue out of our churches being weak, disorganised and unfruitful. We congratulate ourselves, agreeing that “we’d rather be like this that like one of those try-hard churches.”
Yes, churches and Christians who make efforts to love the Lord their God with all their heart, all their soul, all their mind and all their strength are obviously doing it wrong! Believers who study the Scriptures hard, pray regularly and work on sharpening their ministry are clearly mistaken and trying to build up Brownie points with God. Don’t they know we’re saved by grace, and our Master loves it most when we bury our talents to show our trust in him?
Sacred agents, let’s try to recognise this idiocy when we see it and repent from it. God is calling us to step up and grow up, strive forward (1 Co 9:24-27), and actively seek his empowering. “Strengthen your feeble arms and weak knees,” says the writer to Hebrews “…so that the lame may not be disabled, but rather healed.” In Christ it is perfectly possible to be both strong and humble, powerful and noble, excellent and gentle. Worth a shot, despite what the Aussies around us will say?
For more on the pursuit of true humility, rather than pride-in-shame, see Dan Kent’s provocative little book Confident Humility. And while I’m plugging books, keep an eye out for Taking the Plunge: Baptism and Belonging to Jesus. Coming soon!
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?
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.
Ten years ago, the driving idea behind this blog Sacred Agents was to remind ourselves that to be a Christian is not merely to be a follower of, but also a representative of Jesus. We’ve looked at how he called his followers apostles (sent ones), not just disciples (learners). Charles Spurgeon has chipped in with “Every believer is either a missionary or an imposter.” I’m constantly saying that in God’s kingdom you get a guernesy, not a season-ticket. We’re players, not spectators, right? All of us ministers, and all of heaven watching.
But let’s grow in our understanding of this. It’s wrong to think that God is active and we are passive (‘We can’t do anything, only God can do things, so let’s get out of His way’). But it’s just as wrong to flip to its opposite (‘We have to do everything, and God does nothing but watch and evaluate’).
To be a sacred agent is not just about doing things for God, but with Him. Active together. We are active precisely because God is always at work. It’s a Pharisee thing, not a God thing, to load people down with heavy burdens and not lift a finger to help.Lk11 You can lift two fingers to that view of God!
Instead, let’s press into actively seeking God’s perspective, God’s presence, and God’s empowering by the Spirit on a daily and situational basis. Let’s look for how God has and is going ahead of us in every conversation, and seek to be on cue when the moment comes for us to play our little part or say our little lines. Let’s not merely be inspired by Jesus, but ‘carried along by the Spirit.’2Pe1
For real movement in our movement, we must avoid both the apathy of ignoring our calling on the one hand, and the exhaustion of trying to fulfil it alone on the other. Both grind us to a halt. ‘But those who hope in the LORD will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not be faint.’Isa40 So in our prayers, let’s not merely ask ‘What do you want me to do?’ but ‘Spirit fill us, surround us, and flow through us. Give us wisdom to know the best path, and also power to make ground along it. For this is your will, and we too are willing.’
PS: Support the Crossover Easter Offering! It’s the sole income for Crossover, the national Baptist organisation that’s “Helping Australian Baptists Share Jesus.” See crossover.org.au
How can I put this? That’s the big question of every sacred agent, every missionary, every evangelist. We have such good news, such a wonderful kingdom to represent and invite others into. Such good news, and yet … how do we put it?
It should be straightforward – everyone everywhere should check out Jesus. But so many are oblivious, blinded, suspicious, resistant, biased, distracted and deceived. We have a bit of a go but can quickly get disheartened, feeling that ‘I blew it.’ Especially if the response to our message wasn’t just a cold shoulder but a hip-and-shoulder.
It’s tempting then to retreat back into a ‘gospel lab’, doing mental research-and-development over and over to find the perfect way to share the message of God’s kingdom that will surely succeed. Fail-safe. Fool-proof. Irresistibly alluring. (Let’s pause here to think of youth pastors put under pressure to produce a program that will keep 100% of young people in the church.)
In short, we want to be better evangelists than Jesus. Because if there’s a way of putting the message of the kingdom that will meet with nothing but acclaim, then Jesus certainly never found it.
All sacred agents must either go insane, quit, or grasp this truth: Whenever the gospel is put, there is a double-revelation. The kingdom of God is revealed – you’re giving people a peek at it. But the message of the kingdom also reveals the hearts of the hearers. If you tell the story of the Prodigal Son, not only will an incredibly, scandalously loving Father be revealed, but also the extent to which your hearers are ready to ‘come to their senses’ like the pig-feeding prodigal.
A rejection-proof message that doesn’t reveal hearts is safe, but short of being real evangelism. It’s the difference between saying ‘I like you’ and ‘Will you have dinner with me?’ If people can merely shrug and say ‘That’s nice to know,’ have we really shown them a God who deeply longs for them?It’s not failure to share the inviting love of God and be rejected. But it is failure to not share it in case of rejection. We definitely need some ‘lab time’ so that our ministry is appropriately thoughtful and respectful. But – how can I put this – the fear of causing offense, and desire to represent the kingdom in a suffering-free way – these put us in danger of offending the One whose opinion matters most of all.