Category Archives: The church

A brief history of civilisation

As we near the end of the City of God something of its epic ambition is really starting to hit me. It is a phenomenal book, charting history, philosophy, Greek gods, the rise and fall of Rome, the repeated conquering of the known world.

As we near the end (Book 18 of 22), you expect the pace to slacken off, easing into the final straight. Instead the 80 pages of Book 18 are encyclopaedically expansive. We are treated to a view from Augustine, probably writing in 426AD, of the entire history of human society since the founding of cities to his present day. The reigns of rulers and kings are recorded from Augustine’s extensive records and compared with the equivalent sequence of events in the history of Israel.

Rather than recount all that here, I want to focus on two key themes that emerge and have striking relevance for today. Firstly, our intrinsic desire to deify ourselves, and secondly the purposeful intermingling of the heavenly and earthly cities. These two themes shed light on the difference between the two cities.

In charting the origins of many of the so called Greek Gods Augustine shows how people elevate others who achieve some spectacular feat, incredible military victory of undertake some form of quest. He notes that “ceremonies in honour of false gods were established by the king of Greece” during the time of Joshua.

The recurring theme is that people want to be more than human. Whether it is an origin story like Romulus & Remus being raised by a she-wolf, or a mythical tale of “Gorgon with serpent locks and turned to stone those who looked upon her” there is the repeated desire to ascend from this mortal body and live forever among the gods. Often on pain of death societies would reinforce the divine nature of these ascended super-humans as they wrote plays and invented ceremonies to celebrate and replay the legends to rapt audiences.

It got me thinking how we still have this desire to ascend. It is perhaps expressed differently today but the impulse is still strong. Just today there was a football match where a successful player was retiring and the eulogies had religious undertones – how this legend would never be forgotten by the fans, effectively living forever, immortal in their collective consciousness.

Similarly hosts of actors are effectively immortalised through the silver screen by their work to live on beyond their years as downloadable content for fans not yet born. We cannot escape the human attraction of becoming like God, even after all these centuries since that false promise was made in the Garden of Eden. Then, as now, it is an empty aim, disappearing as quickly as grasping the morning mist. We just can’t lift ourselves up to become more like God.

By contrast the City of God is all about a people who are not being lifted up to possess unnatural abilities, but are being pressed down to experience pain and suffering as they go about their very human pilgrimage to heaven. This is our second theme. The intermingling of the two cities leads to the church suffering from outward attack:

In this wicked world, and in these evil times, the Church through her present humiliation is preparing for future exaltation. She is being trained by the stings of fear, the tortures of sorrow, the distress of hardship, and the dangers of temptation; and she rejoices only in expectation, when her joy is wholesome.

XIII.49

And inward division from false teachers:

There are those in the Church of Christ who have a taste for some unhealthy and perverse notion, and who if reproved – in the hope that they may acquire a taste for what is wholesome and right – obstinately resist and refuse…they become heretics and, when they part company with the Church, they are classed among the enemies who provide discipline for her.

XIII.51

This is profound teaching, and as someone who grieves for the state of the visible church in the west, I am greatly encouraged to read:

The dearer this name (Christian) is to those who want to live a devout life in Christ, the more they grieve that evildoers within the Church make that name less beloved than the hearts of the devout long for it to be.

XIII.51

It is ok to grieve for the state of the church – Augustine sees this as part of our persecution in this world – and have our hearts broken by the sinfulness within the church. Reading this book, I realise there would probably be something wrong with us if we didn’t care about the purity and health of the church. The key is to balance this with the the comfort of God and to draw deeply from the wells of salvation so that we can say with the psalmist “you’re consolations have gladdened my soul” Psalm 94.19. This will ensure our sufferings are redeemed for our good.

“Learn to see” – my prayer for 2021

Father, help me to see the church as it should be

Not as it is now, but as you see.

No longer regard people from a human point of view

See with God’s eyes how we will be made anew.

See the bursts of glory all around

Exchange the errors for the profound.

See the potential in others; sin in myself

Forgive, forget, restore back to health.

“Bless others”, He says, “as you have been blessed”

“Unconditionally, relentlessly, indiscriminately”, I confessed.

The world in front of you is nothing like the world behind you

If there is one book that has incapsulated the journey I have been on in the last 15+ years it has been Canoeing The Mountains by Tod Bolsinger. I only read it three years ago, but little did I realise I had been experiencing the reality of its challenge long before Tod articulated it for me.

It was the summer of 2017 and I was sitting in Cafe Nero riveted to Tod’s description of explorers Lewis & Clark. They set out in 1803 to map the western part of America, an expanse previously unknown and assumed to hold a water course to the Pacific Ocean. Tod interlaces this analogy of exploration with the steady marginalisation of the church in western civilisation.

The beauty of what Tod does in this book is that he is able to draw insightful parallels from their unexpected adventures in the wilderness with the monumental shifts that have taken place in society’s relationship with the church.

The gems in this book are too rich to summarise in a soundbite, they reward the thoughtful. This book deals with how to lead transformational change within an organisation when all around us is shifting. In the military they call it VUCA – volition, uncertain, complex & ambiguous. How do we lead change in a VUCA world?

What kind of leader do we need to be in order to both care for people and lead them into uncharted territory?

I have found its wisdom has remained with me these last few years. It calls us to not remain in the shallows but cast out for deeper waters abandoning our preconceived assumptions of what life would hold. Complete surrender is the goal, letting go of the need to gain approval or acceptance.

Stepping in to the unknown will mean we let go of our human resource to find all sufficiency in God’s provision – often in the unlikeliest of places & the least listened to people.

Reflecting on this book helped me to see two things clearly that I will be forever thankful for:

I need to care less about what people think of me – I surrender my need for approval

I need to care less about the problems causing the decay – I surrender my need for control

This is the fifth book review ahead of Thrive Scotland 2020, a catalyst conference starting on 9th September for encouraging Christians in the workplace.

The father’s heart for authentic living

A review of Unravelled by Jon Peterson

Unravelled is the fourth book in my Recommended Reading ahead of Thrive Scotland conference in September 2020…and it is the most hard hitting so far. This book is part manifesto for a renewed vision for a 21st century way of being church, and part guidebook to experiencing unshakable spiritual security in the Father’s love.

This book came to mind as I was doing some amateur stone dyking in my garden. I wanted to jump straight to rebuilding the wall and filling in the gaps…but before I could do this I had to do the hard, boring, dirty work of removing soil, weeds and small stones from the collapsed section.

In exactly the same way Jon expertly deconstructs our false thinking about leadership, authority and spirituality in western church culture. As a master surgeon he splits our skin with his scalpel in order to extract the tumour. And some of it is close to the bone as a result – this is a deep examination of our motives and hidden drivers for how and why we do ministry.

If we would see churches and workplaces transformed by the power of the gospel some deep surgery may be required. We all know churches have individual characteristics that express the gifts and flaws of their family makeup…are we ready to put ourselves on the operating table in order to become more like Christ together?

One of the key questions I have found this book making me ask myself is how do shift from “attending” to “belonging”?

The first authentic step I found fairly painful was to examine my own heart and realise that I was putting the vision of what I thought God was calling me to do before the people I was doing it with. This vision-first dynamic creates dividing lines and weakens the family bonds.

The second step was realising I needed to deliberately put myself in a place of weakness and vulnerability to hear what God was saying to me through others. This Stumbling Edge, as Ken Janke (one of our Thrive speakers) calls it is the place of faith, failure and growth. Eventually, we can even come to enjoy our feet not being able to touch the bottom as we learn to live beyond the illusion of control.

There are many more lessons within these pages for those with the courage to walk this path with Jon. It was a blessing to meet him and Ken Janke in March 2019 – and then read some of Ken’s story in this book. My prayer is that God uses this book to help us become more humble, more real & more secure in the Father’s heart. Enjoy!

This book review series is in anticipation of the Thrive Scotland conference coming in September.

Embedding whole life discipleship into your church’s DNA

A review of Scattered & Gathered by Neil Hudson

This is my third book review on our Thrive Scotland reading list. If the first book (Thank God it’s Monday) helped us understand our work as a joyous calling to kingdom living, and our second book (Every Great Endeavour) helped deepen our biblical basis for whole life discipleship, then this book is our manual for embedding these truths in our churches.

Neil writes with warmth, sensitivity and empathy, learnt no doubt through years of helping church leaders wrestle with these meaty topics. He uses his experience to gently unpack our established expectations of church – what it means to be a gathered community.

Throughout this is a book of encouragement and exhortation for church leaders, who Neil wants to spur on rather than drag down. This is not a book selling a new formula for quick fix discipleship, or a list of new initiatives to do on top of our current activities.

Instead it is a realigning of what we are already doing across a broader canvas and with our frontlines in sharper focus

Each chapter starts with a reframing of testimonies from biblical characters – shedding fresh light on some familiar stories. After delving into key topics such as worship, preaching, small groups and fellowship from a whole-life perspective, he then identifies helpful examples of how it might look in practice, alongside advice on making a start on incorporating a wider kingdom perspective into our church rhythms.

This is a timely and practical book for church leaders keen to equip their church for life on the frontline. For those who have sought to create a church culture more supportive of our scattered lives, but seen it remain a fringe issue, this book provides the blueprint to moving from gesture to posture, for…

“Gestures are fine and are appreciated when offered, but a posture is permanent“

This series is in anticipation of the Thrive Scotland conference coming in September.

Calm in the storm?

For many of us this moment in our life could well be the most uncertain and fearful we have ever been. Not only is there an oil price shock destroying global markets, but much of the world is sitting it out in the their living rooms, hoping and praying they stay safe and health. I remember living through the oil price crash in 2014/2015 (my first one), and the massive impact this had on people. What we are facing is on a totally different level.

We all deal with fear and anxiety in different ways. Before I was a parent I used to be very laid back, but now I know that their is a time to panic!! (I still remember the feeling of seeing one of my kids uncontrollably vomiting due to an unknown allergic response, and when they wandered too close to a flooded river at the bottom of our garden.) Some of us are natural worriers, others more stoic. Being alone for a long time is probably not helping us to remain positive, as our fears often grow when we are alone too much. I don’t have the cure to such problems, but I do believe this crises could change us for the better, if we allow it.

This lunchtime a small group of us within Wood were praying for our company, the employees and our leadership. We shared examples from history in how God has helped in the midst of previous disasters, reminding ourselves that we are not alone. One of the team shared this insight:

Faith and fear have one thing in common – they are both concerned with things we cannot see

It got me wondering whether the forces that shaped our society – materialismconsumerism and individualism, that I have grown up with for four decades, could now be on the brink of crumbling? I know people are grabbing toilet roll like its going out of fashion, but underneath the legalized looting I also see communities reconnecting in ways that they haven’t done for years. I see people stepping up to serve their neighbours, and WhatsApp groups springing up so people can still touch each other digitally.

Could these seemingly invincible forces be infected with a new perspective? Is it possible that this societal shock could enable us to break from our past, to create a different future? All my life I have lived in a society where we have assumed more is better, where my choices out-trump everyone else’s needs, and only the latest phone upgrade is good enough. We have been given a chance to hit the pause button. What story will play out when we hit record?

On Friday 6th March I was at a McKinsey meeting on Climate Risk & Response in London. At that meeting the speaker said this was “the decisive decade“. (Maybe he should have said the decisive month!) As he talked about the impact on the world if we take no further action to reduce our emissions he focused on systemic thresholds where we reach points of no return and experience catastrophic failure of infrastructure, agriculture and the human body.

At one point he asked the question “what defines a crises?” Little did we realise that we would find out by the time I had logged into my computer on Monday morning

After the presentation I was reflecting on the urgent need to change our lifestyle in order to try and deal with the climate emergency we face (seems like a distant memory now!). This is what I wrote down that day as I asked myself if the world could finally be ready to make the necessary changes in our shared mindset that are required to write a new narrative:

  • From being focused on the the needs of “my” people (in the wealthy west), to also considering the needs of the foreigner (in the exposed east)
  • From being focused on the desire to create wealth for myself, to the desire for creating wealth for my children’s children
  • From living as I want as long as I don’t hurt anyone, to living with the knowledge that every choice has unintended consequences
  • From using our good intentions as a cover for sloppy choices, to every choice and decision being accessible (and Tweet-able!)
  • From authenticity being a choice, to a world of digital transparency

It was Winston Churchill who said “never waste a good crises“. This is certainly a bad crises, but it still presents an opportunity for systemic change. Perhaps I am fortunate that I am used to exercising the muscle of faith. As a Christian you are used to going against the flow and believing the (seemingly) impossible.

Could this global reset be an opportunity for more of us to start believing that change is possible?

There is no vaccine for fear, but one thing I know, the only way we will ever accomplish what needs to be done is by first believing that it is possible to achieve it. For the first time in a long time I can see the powerful forces that have shaped western society for decades are crumbling. What happens next is up to all of us.

This post was published on my LinkedIn account yesterday, you can access it here.

Why I love the church

Recently I asked myself the question “why do I love the church?”…this was my answer:

1. The outsider is the centre.
Those that are on the outside are the ones that we want to care for; people will labour for those who they have never met, for those that are not seeking God.

2. The least are the most
The needs of the one who is the least influential are prioritised over those that are the most involved. The special needs of the few are sought to be met if possible, even at the expense of the comfort of the majority.

3. The unrequested is provided
What is not expected, what is not demanded is given freely, willingly, instinctively. When one person sees a need they take the initiative to meet that need, without being asked or asking someone else.

4. The needy are the needed
Those that have nothing to offer, those who nobody else has time for or wants are the most precious to Christ…and the most precious to his church.

This was all brought home to me at my home church recently. We are a small rural church of 40 or so adults and a dozen kids. Over the course of a few weeks my Dad distributed 3000 gospel leaflets round our town. In response to one of those leaflets a group of East European young people came to church. They started coming to the morning services, and without even asking, our people on the audiovisual system put up the bible reading in their own language, alongside the English. At this moment I realised again afresh, that I love the church! People going out of their way, without being asked to help those new to our church feel at home…what a great place!love-the-church

We are not ashamed

Losing my religion and finding my faith. Part 3: Fear and shame

In my first post I explored UK society has changed and how it’s view of the church has changed over recent years. In my last post I considered ways in which Christians can and should be a positive influence in society. The key question we must ask now is “How do we respond to a world that doesn’t want to hear about the light?”  Today Christians up and down our country are being pressurised to be silent about their beliefs, relegating them to the private sphere. We do not live in an open and respectful environment. So many are afraid of causing offence that we live in fear and silent compliance with society’s beliefs and values. In this post I have some ideas for how to stay undetected and not cause anyone to be uncomfortable…

1. How to protect society from the offence of the gospel:
Believe what you want but keep it to yourself
Pretend that what you have is not that important
Pretend that everybody is fine as they are
Pretend that every lifestyle choice is equally valid and equally meaningless
Never break the pretence of all of the above
Be totally committed to Jesus in your house and church building, but keep your mouth shut outside of those two places

2. How to protect our kids from the offence of the gospel:
Pass on your embarrassment of your faith to them so that they become automatically self-conscious whenever it is ever mentioned
Make sure they blend in to the background and fit in the social groups
Tell them about the love of God but never about the consequences of rejecting God
Don’t teach them a Christian worldview, especially avoid creation, sexuality & materialism
Apologise to their teachers whenever they bring up their faith at school
Leave them to make up their own minds about what they believe when they are old enough
Avoid any hint of indoctrination by never discussing spiritual truths
Never let your faith cost you anything – they might see that and realise it is a dangerous thing to believe
Always put their needs and desires above those of God, making sure that their every whim is met, while bathing them in the aroma of the God of Comfort

3. How to protect the church from the offence of the gospel:
Be self-apologetic: “We are nice people really if you get to know us”
Avoid talking about those parts of the NT that speak about judgement. Definitely avoid preaching on the OT law
Explain how we are much more refined now than those primitive times
Focus only on Jesus’ words, but only those words of his that are comforting & affirming
Never discuss the rejection passages or examples of spiritual darkness

4. How to protect God from the offence of the gospel:
Don’t mention his behaviour in the Old Testament and if it comes up by accident be apologetic and diffident
Explain that he is much more refined now and people back then were naive and ignorant
Explain that he didn’t really mean what he said about hell, human sexuality, judgement, punishment, sin, eternity…
Always present him in a positive light. Emphasise his grace, love, compassion, mercy, patience (it’s a long list of positive traits after all), but never his discipline, anger, wrath, punishment, judgement or justice.
Never teach, mention, preach about or discuss any of these latter points and they will die out from neglect, thus removing them from our vocabulary
Be apologetic before and after reading out any passages highlighting the latter characteristics
Teach that in order to be good,  God must mirror our values, or we won’t recognise his goodness

stand-out-from-the-crowdObviously the suggestions above are intentionally sarcastic. What people forget is that the more they tell us to be silent, the more they pressure us to conform, the more they stoke our fire of passion for real truth. Yes, many may comply, but the few who stand will stand taller, brighter, stronger, for longer. Brothers and sisters, we need to remember that we don’t need to deny a truth for it to die out, we just need to neglect to proclaim it for a generation and that will be enough. Let us proclaim the full counsel of God with love, mercy, compassion and tears, but just let it be the full counsel.

When the enemy shall come in like a flood, the Spirit of the Lord shall lift up a standard against him.” Isaiah 59.19

Whoever is ashamed of me and my words, the Son of Man will be ashamed of them when he comes in his glory and in the glory of the Father and of the holy angels” Luke 9.26

Lord, give us the ability to love people enough that we are prepared to be unpopular; ready and willing to be depised and rejected. Your heart was full of love for people Lord Jesus, you always chose honest love over comfortable compliance. Help us to stand strong alongside you until that final day. Amen

So then how shoud we live?…Connected and Compassionate

Losing my religion and finding my faith, Part 2. Connected and Compassionate

So how do we respond to this decay in our Christian heritage (see Part 1)? I suggest there are five things we must do. In a world where good and bad have lost their absolute reference points and become synonymous with helpful and unhelpful, we must give people a living portrait of what absolute goodness means.

1. Strive to do good – in a land of exile it is not enough to only tell people about the truth, it is not enough to only argue at the theoretical or logical level. We must demonstrate our love in real ways to a lost world. We must find ways of touching needy people, of restoring broken lives, of healing bruised bodies. Only by living amongst people and loving them in practical ways will we ever create a hunger for ultimate truth. Society is too sceptical, cynical and secular to be convinced by rhetoric alone.

  • Are our words and actions balanced?
  • Do we spend as much time in practical service as we do in gaining knowledge?
  • What are we doing, what is your church doing, to tangibly serve its community?
  • Are we making a difference to the community we live in?
  • Would they noticed if you moved your church to another location?

2. Strive to be good – if our ghettoisation is the main cause for our ineffectiveness amongst society, then our lack of godliness is our Achilles’ heal once we make contact. Unfortunately our in-fighting and apathy, our self-seeking and pride fuel anti-Christian sentiment in anyone unfortunate enough to get close. We cannot continue to make excuses and expect people to be drawn to Christ. If we proclaim that Jesus has changed our lives, and show such weak evidence of change, are we surprised people are not hungry? Our compassion should be our hallmark, as much as our orthodoxy.

  • Are we top heavy with our passion for truth vs our mercy for sinners who oppose that truth?
  • Where do we make excuses for our lack of godliness?
  • What do we need to repent of and put to death?
  • Where do we need forgiveness and healing?

3. Affirm what is good – if you listen to what we communicate about society, all too often it is overwhelmingly negative. We disagree with this, we are horrified by that, we lobby about the other. I’m not saying that we shouldn’t do all this preservative activity. Our saltiness should seek to prevent decay in society. My question is, is there anything positive we can say about society? Is there anything we can affirm as good? What can we celebrate in modern culture? Can we complement our pronouncements with some encouraging, affirming messages?

  • What can we say about our culture’s approach to creativity, innovation, equality, the poor, the workplace? Is there anything beautiful in all of this that we can endorse?
  • What can you think of that you really appreciate about culture & society? What can you privately and publicly celebrate about our culture?
  • What can you do to encourage your politician, social media network or friends about the good things in our society?

4. Love unconditionally – we have become so familiar with God’s unconditional love for us that it sometimes loses it’s shock value. To love someone unconditionally leaves you wide open to abuse, being taken advantage of, being used as a door mat. We love conditionally because it protects us from damage. Unconditional love requires no reciprocation, it does not say “I will love you if…”. It just loves. We have been shown this greater way. A love of no holds barred, no safety net, no damage limitation love. My prayer is that we Christians would realise that this is what God is calling us to do, not just for each other, but for our neighbours, colleagues, friends and family who don’t know Christ. In the past I have been guilty of seeing them as projects to be saved and won for God. I still long for everyone to come to know him, but now my end goal is love. To love them without any conditions, not so that they could become something, but because they already are something. Loved by God and precious to him. This is how God viewed us before we were saved. He came to save us while we were his enemies.

  • Are we prepared to love with no thought for hitting targets?
  • Who in society needs unconditional love the most?
  • Who else in this world could love the unlovable?

5. Sacrifice pre-emptively. Nevertheless, even if we strive to do good, and be good, and love unconditionally, there will be those who will reject our love. We should love despite our motives being questioned, we should love whether that love is returned or not, we should continue to offer the hand of fellowship, even if that hand is struck down. The response of the beloved will not determine the actions of the lover. At some point the cost of continuing down this path will escalate. We do not get to choose the cost of our devotion, only how much we are prepared to sacrifice to be obedient. Let us not wait until we are in the crucible to set our priorities.

  • Are we prepared to be unpopular, to be social rejects?
  • Are we prepared for our compassion to cost us our legal status as charities? What about losing our jobs?
  • Are we prepared to lose everything we have been blessed with, if doing so is the only way to remain faithful?
  • Have we rejected the god of popularity or are we still seeking to serve two masters?

f378ebca96aec2f12bc40fbd1e73f6b0As John Wesley said many years ago…

We must regain this wholistic view of life if we are to translate our compassion for people into a deep connectedness. Many individuals and churches are taking up the challenge, may God grant that we would all see our part.

Total Forgiveness

Amish-women-mournLast Sunday I spoke on the subject of biblical forgiveness from Matthew 18. The message is available to download here or listen online here.

The main theme for the sermon was how can God ask us to forgive everyone and yet, he requires reconciliation before restoring relationship, i.e. why do we have to say sorry before we can become part of God’s family? I also used the Amish shootings to try and understand what happens when someone doesn’t ask for forgiveness? Should we still forgive? The article I refer to at the end that was written about the incident can be found here.

We also touched on some of the practicalities of how this works in the church in the midst of our messy lives and unfinished characters. How can we live in unity whilst not overlooking areas of sin in the church family? It was a tough subject and worthy of much deeper study, but ultimately a vital issue to understand as forgiveness is one of the chief characteristics of a genuine faith. It is the litmus test of the reality of God’s grace in our lives. I pray it will be a blessing to you.