Category Archives: The church

The Reality of Work Life Imbalance – Part 3: The Implications

imagesCA1NAP2NIn this final instalment, I would like to consider what each of the four groups can give to the local church and what each of them need from the local church, before closing with some thoughts on why I have chosen to address this challenging topic.

Sweet Spot (top left)

What they need: Opportunities to serve.

What they can give: The fact that their work demands are low means they have energy and time to give to serving the church. Along with the next group, this group is most likely to take the leadership positions in the church, as they have the time available to give. Those who are particularly successful in their business may also have talents and experience that they can use in building bridges between the church and the community.

Passing Time (bottom left)

What they need: Social interaction – their work offers little satisfaction, they may be looking to be part of something more meaningful. They may also want company if they have lots of time and little challenge at their work. They find their ultimate meaning in their faith, but they may want to have things they enjoy doing outside of work.

What they can give: Availability, attendance. They may well be at every meeting, every social activity, forming the glue that binds the group together, being the reliable ones that are always there. First to get there and last to leave.

work life balance.bmp-001

Slave Labour (bottom right)

What they need: Lots of encouragement, understanding and support. They need these things even more than those in the top right hand quadrant, as they have little job satisfaction that could help confirm their calling and motivate them to continue.

What they can give: They have little time and energy, they can give very little to the church. They may need to be emotionally carried and supported.

Labour of Love (top right)

What they need: Affirmation, understanding, encouragement. They may know that they are where they should be, but may feel isolated and misunderstood. Their motives for sacrificing so much may be questioned and they need to know their church is right behind them.

What they can give: 2 hours once a week, maybe more, but sometimes that is all. Some can give more, but may well be sporadic, depending on work level and travel.

Work Life Imbalance Implications

One important point is that their expression of commitment to the local church from each of these groups will look different to external eyes. For some with fewer demands (left hand side) it may be that “time = commitment”. For those on the right hand side it may be their “convictions = commitment”. They may only seem to give two mites worth of their time to their local church, but like the widow in Luke 21, it may be everything they have to give.

I hope these are helpful lenses to look at ourselves and try and understand what different people in the workplace need and what they can give to the local church. I realise this is an over-simplification. In the real world, people’s lives are messier than these neat definitions. The amount of time we have to give to things outside work depends greatly on our family and health situations. There are seasons when our family responsibilities can turn a Sweet Spot job into Passing Time, because of what is happening outside work. Indeed, some jobs mean we oscillate between two or three of these categories.

I would like to close out these three posts with some thoughts on why I chose to talk about such a tough issue. Some of the points I raise are painful to hear, highlighting frustrations with what I have seen of how the church responds to the issues that the workplace throws at us.  “Why risk being misunderstood, why risk causing offence? Why not rather always say things that everyone will appreciate and like?” I have struggled with these questions, and have searched my own conscience.

The first question I ask myself, “Is it what I see really true?” However, even if it something is true, sometimes we do not say things that are true to each other because of the law of love that covers over a multitude of sins. Therefore, the next question I ask myself is “Is it helpful?” Sometimes what is most helpful in the long run is also most painful in the short term. Ultimately, I need to decide if I believe the issues I am raising are so important to me, God’s people and ultimately to God himself, that I am prepared to be unpopular with people I dearly love.

I often ask myself what the difference is between being opinionated and prophetic. Strong opinions in themselves do not justify being shared and I realise I risk being labelled as such. Prophetic words are equally challenging, but within them we sense something of the call of God to his people. By being prepared to try and walk this knife-edge, I inevitable risk missing the still small voice of God and offering unauthorised fire. But I am up for the challenge because I believe that God has placed a passionate burden on my heart for his people, the lost and his word.

I am prepared to challenge fuzzy thinking among atheists and bear their wrath. Why? Because I genuinely love them. I also have the amazing privilege of being authorised to challenge the assumptions and preconceptions at my work, in order to make our business and strategy more robust. I risk being misunderstood by senior business leaders, but I continue to challenge the business because I care deeply about our future success. I am prepared to challenge false assumptions in the church, why? Because I love it too much to consider my own popularity of more importance than its purity. Through it all my deep desire is that my words would be prophetic rather than opinionated. You and God are the judge of that.

The Reality of Work Life Imbalance – Part 2: The Strain

WorkLifeFor too long the church has viewed the workplace as the space between the church service and the midweek prayer meeting. There may be the occasional sermon or book on the theology of work, and how it pleases God for us to work hard and fair and to do your bit for your family and society. However, this approach misses the subtlety of the changes that have occurred over the last two decades in the modern workplace. Too many Pastors have only a distant memory of what secular work was like and little understanding of the complexities of the modern workplace.

No longer do we have one job for life, no longer do we leave our responsibilities in the office when he head out the door, no longer do we live our lives working our whole lives at the local factory or office just around the corner. No longer do we mix with our work colleagues socially at the weekend and get to know their kids. Maybe it never quite reached this nirvana (particularly as the social benefits were often outweighed by financial struggles) but work has undergone a seismic shift in both nature and pace.

The modern workplace is transient, distant (both emotionally and often physically) and all embracing. The modern worker will move jobs every couple of years. They may have to re-locate their home numerous times, unless they live in a large city hub. Modern communications means they are contactable 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, even during weekends and holidays. Responsiveness to emails is a pre-requisite for success as important as punctuality to formal meetings. Add into the mix the increasingly global nature of business and, working for an international company can mean frequent long haul travel. Put it all together and you have long hours, frequent out of hours interruptions, pressure, stress and exhaustion.

All of this inevitably leads to pressure on those closet to us:  our wives and our kids. Work puts a strain on families; it can disintegrate friendships and cause health problems. Marriages fall apart, families are fractured, homes are split. And the church looks around and wonders where all the committed men are? Perhaps you have heard someone say “Where are the men who (in my day) would do a hard day’s work and then be out at the prayer meeting? Men are not just committed enough these days.”

Dear church, newsflash for you – we are fighting to survive, we are straining under phenomenal demands from our work and the consequences of a broken, splinted society. We are putting our limited energy into protecting those that are most precious to us and God – our spouses and our kids. We recognise that we don’t have a perfect work / life balance, in fact, we struggle, and fight to minimise the imbalance. This is the reality that we live with.

I recognise that not everyone in the workplace has such demands on them, or to such an extent. My argument is that the church should take the time  to understand where people are at and not treat everyone in the workplace as a homogeneous group, dispensing generic advice to all and having the same expectations of all. In my first post on this subject I split the workplace into four categories that are generalisations of the various types of demands work places on them and the rewards it gives (read Part 1 here). In this post I’m speaking as someone in the top right hand box of that quadrant. I admit that these are generalities and sterotypes to some extent, but by their very nature models are simplifications of reality. Good models help us understand reality better.

My point is that we need to stop measuring someone’s commitment to God by their attendance, or lack of it, at church meetings. For those that have been put in a position of responsibility and pressure – our modern day Daniel’s and Joseph’s, we need to stop asking, why aren’t they here at our meetings, and start asking, what is God doing through them there? It’s interesting that we never read of Joseph or Daniel undertaking any activity at the local Egyptian or Babylonian synagogue. Their entire ministry was played out in front of the most senior secular leaders of their day…and what an impact those two men had.

In the providence of God Joseph saved an entire continent from starvation, Daniel stood true to Jehovah in the heart of the most powerful nation on earth. His testimony brought the most powerful kings of his day face to face with the living God, causing two pagan kings to proclaim the power and majesty of the only living God (King Nebuchadnezzar in Daniel 4.34 & 35 and King Darius in Daniel 5.26 & 27).

And so, why do we do it? Why not give it all up and get an easier job, a less stressful life? There are many reasons, but the one I want to mention is one that I have come to realise over the last few months. It starts with a question: which of the four quadrants (see Part 1) is hardest to reach with the truth of the gospel? Both “Sweet Spot” and “Passing Time” have jobs with low demands and are looking for things outside of work to give them meaning. They are more likely to be open to forming new friendships and attending evangelistic courses. Those in “Slave Labour” are more likely to be desperate for something meaningful in their life. Getting time with them may be a challenge, but there is likely to be some interest there, if they are not too disillusioned with life. The real tough ones to reach are those in “Labour of Love” – they have extremely demanding lives and very rewarding work. The only way to reach this group is to run as fast, as hard, for as long as they do. They are not looking to form friendships through clubs, they do not have a wide circle of friends. Often their work is their life.

So, if God puts you in that top right hand quadrant and you start to build relationships with people that very few people are able to meet even as acquaintances, you feel incredibly honoured. As you see God working in their lives, you start to think that maybe you should stick around. You start to see your work life imbalance as less an admission of failure, but rather as a ticket of entry. Entry into the lives of a quadrant that the church will never reach through standard evangelistic techniques and methods. It almost feels like you are undercover! Except you are hiding nothing. But you are there on your own, no support team, no backup plan. The church may not understand or affirm your calling, but you know deep inside that God has his hand on your life and those around you.

Be blessed all you Josephs out there…you know who you are!

The Prophet, the Parchment and the People

A Call to Cultural Re-engagement Part 5.

If you have been following my previous posts on cultural re-engagement, I expect there is one question that is at the forefront of your minds and that is: “it’s all very well saying that the church should affirm, then connect, then challenge, but most of the time church leaders don’t have the luxury of the time required to build engagement before needing to challenge. What do you do then?”

Those of us who work or live amongst those outside the reach of the church do, on the whole, have the time required (if we choose to use it) to develop meaningful, real relationships that are the foundation for cultural engagement. Those who are in positions of leadership in the church often do not. They are required to stand for truth at the risk of being misunderstood, misrepresented and misinterpreted. Their’s is the prophetic call to the nation to turn back to the living God, to hear what he says to a lost generation and warn them of the consequences of their rebellion. Can these two approaches be reconciled? Should they be reconciled? Importantly, is one more faithful to biblical principles than the other?

h-richard-niebuhr2I have come across many theories that seek to provide a universal approach to cultural engagement for the church. One of the most famous theorists is Richard Niebuhr, who outlined the following categories in his 1951 book Christ and Culture. In it he proposed five models for understanding our approach to culture:

  1. “Christ against Culture. For the exclusive Christian, history is the story of a rising church or Christian culture and a dying pagan civilization.
  2. Christ of Culture. For the cultural Christian, history is the story of the Spirit’s encounter with nature.
  3. Christ above Culture. For the synthesist, history is a period of preparation under law, reason, gospel, and church for an ultimate communion of the soul with God.
  4. Christ and Culture in Paradox. For the dualist, history is the time of struggle between faith and unbelief, a period between the giving of the promise of life and its fulfillment.
  5. Christ Transforming Culture. For the conversionist, history is the story of God’s mighty deeds and humanity’s response to them (Source: Wikipedia)”

There are other ways of categorising the approaches but they can be broadly put into one or more of these categories. Church leaders are taking their churches down one or two of these approaches, depending on their denominational roots, church tradition and individual perspective. My question to the church is this – “is it possible that God would have different (biblical) roles for his leaders and his people?”

Could God have purposed that there would be some individual Christians who would stand against the culture as a prophetic voice? Could God have purposed that others would be so immersed in society that their work would transform their town, community or nation? Of course he could. A clear example of this is seen in Jeremiah’s letter to the exiles in Jeremiah 29.1-7. In this passage Jeremiah, a prophet of God, is in defeated Israel writing to those who had been taken captive to Babylon.

As the tearful prophet sits down to write on this piece of parchment his manifesto to the people of Israel in foreign lands, here is the perfect opportunity to call the people to rise up against the unbelieving, sinful country they were living in and call them to account for their pagan living. Is that what Jeremiah does? No, instead, under the inspiration of God, he commands them to settle in their country, build, plant, prosper, seek its welfare and work for the good of the land they are living in.  Here is God telling his punished people to work for the good of their culture – to cultural engagement in Babylon.

And yet, only a few short chapters later Jeremiah (in chapter 50.1-5) strikes up this judgement of Babylon, again at the command of God. Here is the prophet pronouncing judgement and standing against the culture and land of Babylon. So we see that it is not either / or, but rather both/ and. We need to stop trying to shoehorn everyone into one, or only two ways of approaching culture as if God only ever worked through one means.

We need to recognise that God can, has and will raise up leaders like Joseph (to lead culture), Daniel (to transform culture) Noah (to stand against culture). George Muller,  William Wilberforce and Dietrich Bonhoeffer, respectively, are modern day examples.  Today we, equally, need those who will speak a clear voice of biblical truth against our godless culture, we also need those who will get stuck in to working alongside our society to make it a genuinely better place. And we need to recognise the importance, value and God-honouring vocation of all these callings.

es-rock-climbing-01What strikes me is that God commanded the Israelites in Babylon to work for the welfare of the city, even while there was a coming judgement against the city. Amazingly, Jeremiah was the means of providing both the mandate to renew the city, and the message leading to the razing of the city. God cannot be put in a nice easy category, his purposes are too diverse, his means too manifold. All we can ask is “what would you have me do Lord, with this small life that I give to you wholeheartedly?” Obedience is of utmost importance, for few of these people, when they set out on their journey could have ever imagined how God was going to use them.

Finally, this passage in Jeremiah 29 is just before that famous verse where God says “I know the plans I have for you…” which we love to apply to ourselves. But before we do that we must remember the primary application of these verses is to the exiled Israelites, struggling to know the will of God in a foreign land. Not knowing whether to acclimatise or resist, to fight it or fit in. Remember this – God’s plans to bless us are for an alien people in a hostile land, working for the good of this land. Why? Because God has called us to it and promised to be with us and bless us. This is my call to people and prophet alike – fulfil your unique role in this desperate land before it is too late. What are we waiting for?

A Call To Cultural Re-engagement – The Model

The results of the 2011 census were released this week for England and Wales, they revealed that 59.3% of the population claim Christianity as their religion. Although this has decreased since 2001 when it was 71.7%, it still represents a clear majority. The next largest religion was Muslims at 4.8% (up from 3.0% in 2001), representing a huge gap between the first and second most prominent religions. The number of people saying they have no religion has increased from 14.8% to 25.2% during the last 10 years. Clearly the nations’ beliefs are changing and the causes, implications and (Christian) response remain the subject of much discussion. Some have concluded that the data represents a pluralisation, more than a secularisation of the nation. It is also important not to look at the data in isolation and to differentiate between people’s behaviour, their sense of belonging, as well as their beliefs.

Whatever the reason for the change, in this post I want to suggest a model to understand the shift that has taken place and propose a model for re-engagement.

In broad terms, the UK in the mid 20th century was a country with the following characteristics:

  • Largely biblical foundations even if not everyone went to church
  • Generally accepted moral standards and ethics
  • These standards were largely uniform across society
  • They were strengthened by a strong nuclear family bond and community structures
  • Both private and public messages were largely pointing in the same (predominantly biblical) direction, thus, mutually reinforcing each other
  • The minister, surrounded by his church, were at the centre of the communityCultural distance_before

When we turn to 2012, the picture is completely different:

  • The church is largely ignored and the minister is often perceived as irrelevant
  • A disengaged society continues to push the church further away (especially in the media and political spheres)
  • Apart from a few exceptions, our voice in the public square has effectively been removed and whatever contact remains often becomes confrontational
  • The policies and laws are changing to reflect modern secular and pluralistic beliefs
  • The church struggles to engage and either focuses internally (and becomes a ghetto) or overcompensates and loses distinctiveness
  • Church members struggle to live in two opposing worlds, resulting in them sometimes compromising their beliefs, or separating their private beliefs and public lives
  • Nevertheless, at the grassroots some individuals and churches are re-engaging the community – whether that be in the urban or rural environment and/or within the family, workplace & church

Within this new societal order there is a line of engagement where Christianity and culture contact each other and interact – positively or negatively. As Christians in an increasingly anti-Christian society, we may ask ourselves the question “Are we persecuted?” No, not directly. But if we ask “Are we marginalised?” Yes! Definitely.  The easy response is to resort to unthinking jibes and insults that only act to reinforce the polar extremes.

Cultural distance_afterThe urgent question of the day is “How should we approach our increasingly anti-Christian culture?” Do we see our role (as the church and individuals) to be mainly against what is bad in culture? Is there anything we can affirm? How do we gain an opportunity to have our voice heard if we do want to affirm something? Do church leaders have a different role within society to their congregations? (I’ll specifically explore this in my next post).

So the question is: How will we respond? Is there anything those of us who spend 90% of our time amongst non-Christians in the workplace can do to influence our culture? As Bill Graham once said: “I believe one of the next great moves of God is going to be through the believers in the workplace”.

A Model for Re-engagement

Against this backdrop, Christians are responding in a number of ways to re-engage with those on the edges of their family, community, work and church circles. For some this is natural and easy, for others it is harder, and new mechanisms are sometimes needed to enable relationships to be built. For those in the business community the pressure to conform can be very high and the opportunities to engage in meaningful conversation are often few and far between. I believe the challenge to equip believers with a deep theology of work; teach them how to be exemplary employees; and know how to share their faith in the marketplace has largely been neglected by our churches. Nevertheless, some new structures have emerged and there are some examples of best practice in creating new organisational structures to allow gospel conversations to flourish. They are generally following a pattern of:

Affirm >> Connect >> Challenge

Affirm

  • Celebrate the good things in creation & culture (affirm the good, contribute to arts, professions, community life)
  • Seek the good of society & culture (contribute something tangible)
  • Build others up in areas of shared interest
  • Be good at what we do – excellence in our professions

Connect

  • Establish connections within culture (find our contact points)
  • Being purposefully & intentionally holistic in our serving – both helping and heralding
  • Loving and serving people holistically – word and action, not seeing them as a spiritual project or notching up conversions. Can we do both / and rather than either / or when it comes to word and action?
  • Not limiting our engagement to the purely spiritual arena – we will never engage with them by throwing verses over the chasm or through the silos.
  • Aim is to take the church to the people

Challenge

  • Where can we affirm culture and where must we challenge our culture?
  • How do we hold these both in tension?
  • Have we figured out our theology and response in areas we are challenging or do we react?

The goal is a rediscovery of a holistic faith, sometimes this will lead to new structures / models of church and para-church organisations in order to re-engage our society. The challenge we face is to create a generation of aware, engaged, holistic disciples in the workplace.

Some questions to consider:

  • Do you find this model helpful? Do you agree that this is the shift that has happened, or at least that it describes where we are heading?
  • What examples of good cultural engagement have you seen or been part of?
  • Where would you place yourself on the model?
  • If you spend most of your time within the circle of society, do you feel you are equipped to thrive in this environment? How could your church help you in the challenges and opportunities you face?
  • If you spend most of your time within the circle of church, what steps can you take to begin to connect with those around you, outside of the church? What changes might you need to make in order to affirm the culture around you? How can you better understand the challenges faced by those in your church within the society circle?

Let me know what you think…

A Call to Cultural Re-engagement – The 3 Chasms

Cultural Distance in the UK

When I had more spare time, I used to lead many Alpha and Christianity Explored courses. The first talk on the Alpha course is always: ”Christianity: Boring, Untrue & Irrelevant?” In order to engage we need to first understand where people are. This talk seeks to engage the pre-conceptions and misunderstandings that people have in order to re-engage them with Christianity.

I believe Alpha’s first talk was true to the questions people were asking a few years ago, but now, I believe, UK society has moved further away. Let me say that I’m a big fan of both Alpha and CE and I have used them both many times in the past. However, I believe we have underestimated both the size of the gap between us and society and the depth of the problem. 

As I watch UK culture, I believe that religion is no longer seen as something misguided but benign, but rather something that is actually harmful to an enlightened society. The case is being made by prominent secular humanists, parts of the media and some political figures that religion is actually a source of corruption and a dumbing down of our natural intellect. It is explained as a vestigial coping mechanism that might have had a use in giving us a misguided comfort before science removed our need for false hope in gods and superstitious fear of ghouls. It is now redundant and primitive.

As I was thinking about these things, I was studying Acts 26 for a message and it hit me the difference between Paul standing before Agrippa and us standing before our society today. Standing before Agrippa Paul could rely on three levels of common ground – general revelation (nature / creation), special revelation (biblical revelation) and shared cultural values (those of the Jewish nation).

My proposition was that all these three have been removed in our day, so I titled my talk: “A Reasonable Faith: Christianity: Unscientific, Corrupt & Intolerant?” I believe these three areas describe the areas where society is questioning the integrity of the Christian faith. I recognise that it is a spectrum of views – not everyone is thinking like this, but many are and they are asking questions that we, on the whole are not answering.

  • Unscientific? We now face a credibility gap where science is seen to have provided the answers and we are holding onto out-dated ideas. It has removed the shared ground of General Revelation – a common understanding in our origins.
  • Corrupt? With the increasing confidence of authors such as Dan Brown and the decreasing biblical literacy, false information and inaccurate historical claims can easily sway public opinion. We now face a reliability gap when the historical reliability of the New Testament is assumed to be a matter of personal opinion. The church is thought to have re-interpreted or even edited earlier versions to suit their own political purposes. This has removed any remaining Special Revelation common ground, so that biblical authority is an oxymoron.
  • Intolerant? As the faithful believers continue to hold onto biblical truth and society’s moral standards diverge from these truths, our stance is seen as being intolerant of other positions. We now face a compassion gap, where we are seen as intolerant bigots for not allowing everyone a right to have their views accepted. This has eroded our common ground of Shared Cultural Values so that we can no longer assume or expect others to share or even understand our ethical views.

Do you agree that this is a fair assessment of where our society is at, or perhaps at least, the direction it is heading? If so, then the question we need to ask ourselves is whether we are bridging the chasms in our cultural engagement or throwing well-intentioned homilies into the abyss? If people really are thinking this way, how do we leap across the chasms to speak something meaningful to them?

Paul himself explained that God was the creator, sustainer and saviour of the world to the mainly Greek audience in Athens is a way that would engage their cultural antenna – referring to their poets and influential thinkers of the time (see Acts 17.22 and following). He explained the good news of Jesus using the language and concepts of the Athenians – sometimes seeking to build common ground, at other times directly challenging it. But the important thing is that he had clearly thought through the challenges and adapted his style to his different audiences. Have we thought through the challenges these chasms present and come to a position that we can articulate? Are we prepared to think the hard thoughts that possibly our current ways of communicating are simply lost across the chasm because we are assuming a common ground that no longer exists? These are the challenges that face us in engaging with our culture. Tools such as CE and Alpha are still vital as we live in a heterogeneous society with the remnants of a Christian heritage, but we cannot rely on a one-size-fits-all approach.

Or perhaps you are on the other side as you read this – an atheist, agnostic or you prefer not to label yourself. How do you see things from the other side of the chasm? Reach out and let me know. I’m listening.

A call for cultural engagement – the mandate

According to a recent poll the number of atheists in Britain has risen from 14% to 42% since 1963. While the sample size of 1,749 people represents only 0.0027% of the UK population, few would argue that our country has become increasingly secular. Moreover, while the steady decline in church attendance seems to have finally bottomed out in the last couple of years, the church in the UK has been increasingly marginalised. As a result we now sit on the margins of society.

However, as with many institutions, the church is a broad…well…a broad church, of various groups and the picture is not the same across all the denominations. Indeed, there are encouraging pockets of growth in some areas.

What is interesting is that what you find when you look within the sub-trends where the church is particularly weak – fewer men, fewer young people, more people believing without belonging, fewer poor people. According to one source, in the last 20 years 49% of men under 30 left the church.  How do we respond to these challenges? Can we engage with and influence the forces shaping our culture? How do we reach those beyond the fringes of our church activities?

As someone who has spent the last 10 years working every day in this culture alongside people completely outwith the reach of the activities of the church I have seen first hand their changing views on the church. I have also seen first hand how the business world impacts professional men and women and the pressures it puts on them that make church involvement harder and harder. Others will be better placed to speak about issues impacting the poor and the young, but I want to share some ideas for how I see the world in the UK marketplace.

Over the course of three articles I want to illustrate how UK society has changed and how we need to respond to that change. I believe we need to better understand and engage with our culture before thinking that we are able to speak into it. The articles also seek to provide a high-level context of some of the main cultural shifts that have taken place over the past few decades as society has moved away from its Judeo-Christian roots and towards secular humanism. It is in response to that changing landscape that our traditional concept of what ministry is and how we do ministry within and without the sphere of influence of the church must change. The challenge for our generation is to take the eternal, unchanging truth of God into a rapidly changing, anchorless and disintegrating society.

Salt and Light

I believe the need of the hour in the UK is to reconnect our faith with the workplace. What does it mean to thrive as a Christian in our secular employment? First we must remind ourselves of God’s perspective:

You are the salt of the earth; but if the salt loses its flavour, how shall it be seasoned? It is then good for nothing but to be thrown out and trampled underfoot by men. You are the light of the world. A city that is set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do they light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a lampstand, and it gives light to all who are in the house. Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven.” Matthew 5.14

This is the original mandate to the Church – to be a city on a hill for all to see. It is about our POSITION – to be somewhere where we are visible and effective. I want to try and show that through the barriers and silos that have been put up we have largely been hidden from the eyes of popular culture and the wider society. It is not enough anymore to open our doors and expect people to come in; we must go out to them in ways that are meaningful to them.

We must think again at how churches, organisations and individuals can re-establish connections with the culture around them. The majority of Christians are in the working world for the majority of their time – what does that mean for us? How do we become that city on a hill? Can we find a vehicle / mechanism that enables us to be more exposed?

However, it is also about PURITY – the second illustration Jesus uses is the salt of the earth. This is a personal challenge. If God increases our visibility, it is with the end goal of glorifying Him through our actions – would shining a light on our lives lead to the glory of God?  Are we ready to be used? We must address this challenge first. God is looking for those individuals who have cleansed themselves and are clean vessels, ready to be poured into by His Spirit.

Sometimes winning means you lose everything (part 2)

As I read Eric Metaxas’ biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer during an intense two-week period of travel, I slowly came to feel like I knew the man. It was almost as if he was travelling with me, sharing his stories, describing his adventures. That was until the last page was turned and I finished his story. The power of that journey is still with me and as I reflect on my few days with Dietrich Bonhoeffer a number of important lessons spring to mind:

  1. The two paths for God’s people – the path of adversity and the path of prosperity. Bonheoffer’s adult life was marked by adversity: he was misunderstood by his fellow pastors, opposed by the established state church, suspected and finally imprisoned by the Gestapo, separated from his fiancée and martyred for his part in the conspiracy against Hitler. Yet though it all there was a peace and a confidence that he was doing God’s will. Those of us who live in times and places when we are fortunate enough to regularly walk along the path of prosperity need to remember that this is not the normal experience for the Christian. God, in his grace, may allow us to be very blessed materially, but many of our brothers and sisters only ever know the path of adversity. Our momentary visitations or swift passage across this path are nothing compared to living every day on it.
  2. He was always ahead of the pack – he saw the danger of Hitler’s version of Positive Christianity before any of the other church leaders; he saw the pitfalls of the impotent Confessing Church as it finally took a stand against the “German Church”; and he saw that German had to lose the war if Christianity in Europe was to be reborn. “Bonhoeffer advocated a Christianity that seemed too worldly for traditional Lutheran conservatives and too pietistic for theological liberals. He was too much something for everyone, so both sides misunderstood and criticized him” (page 248). Often he was so far ahead of others that his logic was misunderstood and his appeals ignored. Yet he faithfully proclaimed and lived out his prophetic message. It reminds me that there will always a part of prophetic insight that means the prophet will be lonely, by the very fact that they see things earlier and speak more clearly than most people are ready for.
  3. He was holistic in his life and ministry. He blended the best of academia and culture, Christian community and intellectual rigour. He loved music and the arts, trained as an academic, lived as a pastor, discipled others by teaching, example and exhortation. He was a holistic person who believed the scriptures should not, indeed could not, be studied without daily prayer and meditation. He sought to build a living Christian community but rather than become isolationist, they purposefully discussed the most pressing issues of the day and Bonhoeffer pushed them to understand the times.
  4. He was a true anti-celebrity. Not only in the way he lived his life, but also in what he wrote, Bonhoeffer saw through the mirage of success and fame. “In a world where success is the measure and justification of all things the figure of Him who was sentenced and crucified remains a stranger and is at best an object of pity. The world will allow itself to be subdued only by success. It is not ideas or opinions which decide, but deeds. Success alone justifies wrongs done…The figure of the crucified invalidates all thought which takes success for its standard (from his book Ethics)”. Metaxas’ adds his own postscript that Bonhoeffer realised that “God was interested not in success, but in obedience” (page 363).
  5. The Christian life must be modelled. For his students he would seek not just to impart knowledge, but a way of life, he always wanted to model what he believed the Christian life and Christian community should be. “Bonhoeffer’s interest was not only in teaching them as a university lecturer. He wished to disciple them in the true life of the Christian. This ran the gamut, from understanding current events through a biblical lens to reading the Bible not just as a theology student, but as a disciple of Jesus Christ” (page 128).
  6. The challenge of direct action. When evil surrounds and it is your nation’s darkest hour, what direct action would your conscience allow you to take? More to the point, what does God require of you in that situation? Bonhoeffer was prepared to enter unchartered territory, arguing that he followed a God who “demands responsible action in a bold venture of faith and who promises forgiveness and consolation to the man who becomes a sinner in that venture”. Metaxas’ again sums up the issue “here was the rub, one must be more zealous to please God than to avoid sin” (page 446). In the mayhem that was Germany in the height of World War II, Bonhoeffer challenged people to rethink their scruples: “Who stands fast? Only the man whose final standard is not his reason, his principles, his conscience, his freedom, or his virtue, but who is ready to sacrifice all this when he is called to obedient and responsible action in faith and in exclusive allegiance to God – the responsible man, who tries to make his whole life an answer to the question and call of God” (page 446).
  7. The willing embrace of death. Unlike our anaphylactic reaction to the topic of death, Bonhoeffer often considered what it meant to die well; he was ready to die for a noble cause. “We hardly dare admit that we should like death to come to us, not accidentally and suddenly through some trivial cause, but in the fullness of life and with everything at stake. It is we ourselves, and not outward circumstances, who make death what it can be, a death freely and voluntarily accepted” (page 447). 
  8. The affirmation of a redeemed humanity. In the midst of enormous suffering, horrendous violence and world war Bonhoeffer fell in love. His engagement to Maria gave him a greater appreciation for, and affirmation of, God’s earth. Bonhoeffer “was constantly trying to correct the idea of a false choice between God and humanity, or heaven and earth. God wanted to redeem humanity and to redeem this earth, not to abolish them…Bonhoeffer was trying to reclaim everything for God.” He understood the blessings of marriage and argued that “the “desire for earthly bliss” is not something we steal from behind God’s back, but is something that he has desired that we should desire. We mustn’t separate that part of life and marriage from God, either by trying to hide it from him as belonging to us alone or by trying to destroy it altogether through a false piety that denies its existence” (page 457).

Bonhoeffer was passionate about figuring out what it meant to be a disciple of Christ in one of the darkest times in world history. However, he was not only committed to academic excellence, but also devotional living. He was prepared to model, and die for, what he believed. This is his challenge to me – to model what I believe God is saying to me in these days. I feel like I have much to learn in each of the areas highlighted – but I am seeking to understand how this works itself out in today’s church and society.

Through it all Bonhoeffer stands as a man who overcame adversity, temptation, doubt and fear. Even the Gestapo could not defeat him, they could only remove him. The same picture played out in the church; God was using the persecution to refine his church. Ruth von Kleist-Retzow commented to Dietrich “We live in strange times, but we should be eternally thankful that poor, oppressed Christianity is acquiring greater vitality than I have ever known in the course of my seventy years. What testimony to its real existence!” (page 295). God was winning. Even though his people were losing everything they had, they were overcoming their enemies. We too live in strange times; oh that God would renew and revive his church in this day to demonstrate its true vitality to a sceptical world.

(For part 1 of my review click here.)

Sometimes winning means you lose everything (part 1)

A review of Eric Metaxas’ biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer (part 1)

In the hit TV series 24, Jack Bauer is a counter-terrorist agent seeking out threats to national security and doing whatever is necessary for the greater good of saving the American people. In his high-octane adventures, Jack is no stranger to taking the law in his own hands and facing impossible life and death decisions. His no-nonsense attitude considers no risk too great if only he can save his country from its deadliest enemies. His is a utilitarian philosophy of life – making decisions based on what he considers the greater good; reasoning that it is better for him to kill one criminal than for thousands of innocent people to die.

It’s switch-off, escapist telly that has no real bearing on normal life, certainly not for the Christian who would never be found in such extremely dangerous or complex situations. Or would they? How would a Christian behave if they, by some strange circumstance, find themselves in such situations? What if they were in a situation where to act could mean sinning, but not to act would certainly mean compromising your faith? Would it ever be right for a Christian to kill a tyrant to save thousands, or millions, of people’s lives? What if that tyrant was Hitler?

What would you do, when doing nothing was the most unacceptable alternative?

This was the very real dilemma for Dietrich Bonhoeffer and those around him during World War II. Bonhoeffer was a German Pastor who during the war was the key figure in leaking information about the Nazi atrocities to the West, and was part of the inner circle of conspirators seeking to assassinate Hitler. He was one of the people prepared to stand up to the Gestapo and was eventually killed for his part in the conspiracy to kill Hitler.

However, before we get to his dilemma, a bit about his background.  Bonheoffer had a warm and loving upbringing, full of music, the outdoor life and strong relationships. His family were among the most cultured and intelligent in Germany at that time; his father was an eminent scientist and his brother a famous lawyer. Dietrich was always an earnest young man, sincere, intense and thoughtful. His interest in Christianity was always very personal and real, and finally led to him studying theology and becoming a minister.

As a leader of the church in Germany, Bonhoeffer was a prominent and outspoken opponent of the emerging Nazi government. Until he was strong enough to crush it, Hitler first attempted to woo the established church and deceived many of its leader through flattery. Bonhoeffer was not one of these, he was far too perceptive to be taken in.

Bonhoeffer was ruthless in his search for truth, “he accorded theological ideas the same respect that his father accorded scientific ideas…questions about the Bible, and ethics and theology must be treated with the same rigorousness, and all cant “phraseology” must be identified, exposed as such and cut away and discarded. One wished to arrive at answers that could stand up to every scrutiny because one would have to live out those conclusions” (page 127).

But his clarity of thinking and confrontational views often brought him into conflict with the other more-moderate leaders and his piercing prophetic expressions led to him often being misunderstood. Ironically, it was with leaders outside his native country that he found most like-mindedness. His trips to the UK and USA established strong connections with other church leaders and brought him to the attention of the world scene.

Back in Germany the war was about to start and Bonhoeffer was torn between returning to his homeland, where almost certain death awaited him, and staying in America where his increasing fame meant a secure lecturing position and a prosperous future. Ever the anti-celebrity, Bonhoeffer chose to go home and sailed back to Germany, not knowing what awaited him. He would say later on that “he had been “grasped” by God; that God was leading him, and sometimes where he would prefer not to go” (page 70).

However, once back on home soil Bonhoeffer faced a moral dilemma of either joining an army in a war he morally disagreed with, or to avoid conscription, become a conscientious objector and face the firing squad. In the midst of his dilemma, and seeking to retain a useful role within the church, he took a job as an informer with the German secret police reporting on church activities. In a typical Bonhoeffer move, he actually worked as a double agent, secretly helping the church while pretending to inform on them. Only those close to him knew his true motives and allegiance and his duplicitous role caused many in the church to become confused. But these were confusing times, when loyalties to the state, the church and the family that had been intertwined for centuries in German culture were being pulled apart.

The life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer stands as a symbol of truth against an avalanche of lies. It is the story of the power of right to overcome wrong. In his fight against evil he held nothing back – neither his own desire for happiness or his fear of a painful death. In the end he lost everything he had, his family, his fiancee, his promising career and finally his life. Any yet, as we look back from our vantage point we can see that in the final analysis he won. With some Christian leaders you learn from them mostly through their teaching, others teach you through their lives. For Bonhoeffer his life and devotion add greater depth to his teaching for it cost him so much.

Finally, a word from Bonhoeffer about what drove him: “It always seems to me that we are trying anxiously in this way to reserve some space for God. I should like to speak of God not on the boundaries but at the centre, not in weakness but in strength, and therefore not in death and guilt but in man’s life and goodness” (page 467). God in the centre, God in life. This is what Bonhoeffer was passionate to see lived out, and this is his legacy for us who follow after him. May we found strength to be willing to lose everything in order to win Him who is worth more than life itself.

Part 2 of my review can be found here

14 Lessons from the Crucible

 14 Lessons from the crucible – walking with the Lord in the furnace of secular employment

Warning: I have written this in the pressure of intense work situation and am still working through some of the issues raised. It’s pretty raw, be patient with me if you are further along the path my brother or sister, I am just a beginner on this path asking questions. Also, forgive me if it’s more personal than my usual reflections, I believe we need to debate some of the issues I raise in a mature and godly manner, I am seeking to do just that in this piece. I welcome your comments and additions.

Let me cut to the chase: in my early 20s I thought I was going to be a missionary, in my late 20s and early 30s I became convinced I was being called to ministry of the word, thinking that the pastorate was ahead. In my mid to late 30s I have finally realised that God is wanting me to stop planning my future, but instead be his slave in the present, in this place, for his purpose. Whatever might happen in the future it is up to him to use me as he decides, whatever and wherever that might be.

As I grew up I imbibed the unspoken assumption that full-time vocational Christian ministry was God’s best for me, and for anyone else for that matter. I subconsciously, and sometimes consciously, sought to direct my life towards that goal. It was not hard to seek this path, as I have found this principle to be assumed and encouraged by the vast majority of our Christian books, sermons and teachers. However, at each stage of my life I have experienced the various means of God’s guidance to pull me back to the workplace.  Sometimes it was circumstances, sometimes it was a growing inner conviction that this was where God wanted me, sometimes it was the conversation with godly Christian friends and family. Yet, through it all, as I spent year after year in the workplace I still had the underlying assumption (and hope!) that one day, in some way, God would finally release me to serve him “fully” and glorify him more completely by devoting some, if not all, of my time to Christian ministry. This was particularly the case as I didn’t “feel” called to the workplace, rather the opposite, I felt called to ministry.

However, over the last 18 months the more I have tried to serve God the less time he has given me to do it. Or so I thought. I had to step back from responsibilities at church, reduce my preaching commitments and dedicate myself more fully, completely to my work. The little time I had left was given to trying to protect time for my wife and young family. I have not been there for friends, I have not been there for the prayer meetings nor the bible studies nor the evening service. I am only at church on Sunday mornings and I wait for them as an oasis of Shalom; the beauty and peace of fully dedicated time to be in the Lord’s house with the Lord’s people. These times have become ever more precious to me.

So, last year I wrote what I was learning about ministry of the word within a mundane job.  How things have changed in 12 months! Now I am at the opposite extreme –responsibility, pressure, flat out and exhausted. I have finally started to realise that God has made me a certain way, for a certain purpose and that this is to do strategy and to preach the word. For these two things I exist on this planet.

Slowly, imperceptibly, God has broken this assumption in me. No longer do I see a spiritual vocational hierarchy when I look through God’s eyes. I see people, made in his image, with his variety of gifting and capability, made to serve him in a multitude of ways, across every vocation and discipline. I see those that have searched their heart and fulfilled their calling and those that are yet to find it. I now see that the most menial of tasks, done for the glory of God and in obedience to his call, can be the highest form of service that you or I can offer him (if that is his will for us). I know we say we believe this, but in reality do we?

Obedience is the key, it is the secret jewel of Christian usefulness and confidence. It is better to obey than sacrifice the ancients said and Jesus repeated. It is most blessed to obey – the most blessed path possible, wherever that obedience leads you.

Here are 14 things I have learnt and am continuing to learn, but before you read them please consider what I am not saying. I am not saying that “it doesn’t matter what you do, because all activity is equally worthy”. Neither am I saying that full-time Christian vocational ministry is not valid, needed, necessary and absolutely God’s best for many of us. I have too many pastors, pioneer missionaries and evangelists for friends to be unaware of the mighty responsibility and urgent need of this awesome calling. Don’t think I am wanting to swing the pendulum the other way and say we don’t need anyone full-time. What I am challenging is the assumption that this is always the best way for all of us (particularly those involved in word ministry) to serve him and other paths are second best. Perhaps you never had this assumption – praise God!

  1. Obedience is more important than any perceived increase or decrease in ministry effectiveness. For some the calling of God can actually mean they move away from opportunities for direct Christian service, for others it will be the opposite. We should not automatically equate either direction with increasing faithfulness, sacrifice or obedience. The meanest and most mundane work can be our most glorifying service when done as an offering to the Lord.
  2. For the many Christians, their highest calling will be the workplace and home. This should be recognised, affirmed and encouraged. They are as much called to their jobs and homes as the mission field. But it is not a competition between vocations – each in its uniqueness and splendour is treasured by God.
  3. The calling to the workplace is as valid, important and God-honouring as the calling to the pastorate or mission field. For some their highest calling will be to guard the theological strongholds, translate tribal languages and protect the flock from continuous attacks from without and within. But the calling to the workplace is not a lesser calling, or God’s second best. The workplace can lead to incredible usefulness in God’s hands – e.g. the construction supervisor Nehemiah, the civil servant and administrator Joseph, the beautician and model Esther, the government official Daniel, the politician William Wilberforce, among many others…
  4. My cross-cultural ministry begins on Monday morning and finishes on Friday evening. I am immersed in a pagan society all day every day, seeking to live counter-culturally without retreating into a ghetto or being weird in order to be noticed. Every religious habit or sacred ritual needs to be examined to see if its  essential or a cultural barrier. Every character trait is laid bare, examined and tested in real time by a watching world.
  5. The best way to glorify God with your life is whatever he has gifted and called us to do. For some this will be vocational Christian mission and ministry, for others it will be the workplace and home. Are we willing to spread wide the application of the challenge to glorify God with our lives? Are we prepared to affirm the calling of those who have little time to give to church meetings?
  6. The desire and gifting to do Christian ministry do not constitute, in themselves, a call.  I believe the internal call of God must be married with an external call from without. Both a calling to be his vessel and a calling to a location, resulting from the right doors opening at the right time.
  7. There is no spiritual vocation hierarchy. It is perhaps not said outright, but there is no doubting its presence – there are those in our churches who do ministry with a capital “M”, and then there are the rest of us. What does our definition of “ministry” include? Is it restricted to word ministry (preaching, teaching and evangelism) or maybe we also include service to the poor, sick and suffering (pastoral)? Yes, we also include those who serve as professionals abroad in some distant land. But, what if you see yourself as a professional in a cross-cultural, anti-Christian community in your homeland? Is that really ministry? Yes, some vocations require greater sacrifice and others bring greater earthly rewards, but through it all it is the obedience that is important not the activity. However, the majority of the application from Christian books and sermons gives the impression that working for the church or missions (either paid or voluntarily) is superior in God’s sight to working in secular employment. The impression is that service to God begins when one engages on church work in the evenings or weekends.
  8. Post-Christian countries like the UK will only be reached when this truth is finally believed by the church and impacts how it trains, equips and supports those in the workplace. This generation will only be reached when we intentionally present and affirm the workplace as a valid, important and glorifying to God vocation to our best young men and women – our most promising leaders. We will only affirm it if we really believe, not just say we believe it.
  9. For secular, anti-Christian cultures, bivocational ministry may actually the best possible model to reach society. I believe that being in full-time secular employment gives greater opportunity for cultural interpretation, insight and engagement than being in full-time Christian employment. New models for ministry training and church leadership are needed to reach, train and commission the next generation of church planters and leaders from those within the workplace.
  10. There is no such thing as “lay” ministry, no sacred / secular divide, no clergy / laity division. Yes, there is such a thing as people being appointed to a particular role and function within church leadership, nevertheless, uniting everyone is the priesthood of all believers and each believer is a holy temple called to their own role and place of influence.
  11. The role of a pastor is the absolute highest calling for pastors. The role of a teacher is the absolute highest calling for Christian teachers. The vital thing is to know for sure in our hearts that we are in the calling we are meant to be in.
  12. There has never been more expected of employees, more asked by employers and more penetration of people’s private lives by the pressure to always be “online”. The training, equipping and encouraging of leaders in the workplace has never been more difficult, with long hours, long commutes and little spare time. Yet few churches really see this as a vital ministry ground or are set up to support and affirm those in this position.
  13. The prayerful assessment of our true calling and our purposeful obedience no matter what the cost would overwhelm our mission agencies and pulpits with new candidates. There is a desperate need in our nation for the next generation of pastors. There remains an ever-present black abyss of millions of people who have never even heard the name Jesus all over the world. I am convinced that so few really examine their own calling that a wholehearted affirmation of the importance of all our callings would lead to a great increase in those stepping forward for pioneer missionary and pastoral leadership.
  14. We do not choose our calling – we only choose to fulfil it or not. Our calling may be a fulfilment of our (God-given) desires or it may be a restraining force on our desires – compelling us to submit to the Lord and follow him despite what we would like to do. Like David who desired to build God’s temple,  we can have good desires to serve God, but they don’t always mean we will see them fulfilled.

I say all this, not as a dispassionate observer, but as someone who has wrestled with their own calling for so many years. It was CT Studd, that great missionary who said: “Only one life, ’twill soon be past, only what’s done for Christ will last.” What does our inner mind say to ourselves when we hear this? Is it only preaching, bible translating, pastoral visits, bible studies and evangelism that CT is talking about here? “Whatever you do, do it with all your heart, as working for the Lord and not men” was what the apostle Paul said. Are we brave enough to really believe that this includes ALL of life?

I have been a reluctant servant for so many years, wishing God would free me up to preach, when my time was being soaked up by work. I now see that I must obey his plans for me no matter how much my heart yearns for another path. I am serving him as he wants right now. I can either serve him fully where I am now, or continually fight against it.  I do believe one day that things will change, but I am no longer seeing the present as (only) “preparation” or a means to an end. I am resigned, submitted, my will is defeated, whatever path I am led on…I am his slave in the present, in this place, for his purpose.

Father, help us know the path you have for each one of your children, lead us on those straight paths and use us in whatever way you deem fit – not our will but your will be done. Remove our stubborness and pride and self-sufficiency. Make us truly humble and submissive to your Soverign will, for we know it is the best possible journey and leads to the most blessed destination – unity with our maker now and forever,  Amen.

The Missional Church Part 3

Missional Church (part 3) – The Model Sending Church – Acts 13-15 (word doc available here)

In this third study in our Missional Church series we look at a model sending church in order to learn how it planted new churches and overcame the challenges that resulted.

1.     The key to being a spiritually influential sending church is to be “Spirit-led and Word-centred”.  Spend a few minutes summarising how this demonstrated itself practically in the Antioch church. How does it show itself in our lives and in the life of Central Baptist Church?

2.     The Antioch church had a number of gifted leaders, for them “it wasn’t a status thing, or a political thing, but a spiritual thing”. How would these different motivations reveal themselves in leaders? Are we intentional in our developing of leaders? How can we be more proactive in identifying and training godly new leaders?

3.     Jim reminded us that “if God entrusts a work to a church, that church needs to be tuned in”. How spirit-led are we in our daily lives? What would our prayer life reveal about how important we consider it to abide in Christ? Are we ready for God to entrust us with His mission?

4.     In Acts 15v5 a wrong understanding of the law (in the form of circumcision) threatens to wreck the new church. What are the false gospels that come against the true gospel in our day (Galatians 1v6-8)? How has the church, as a whole, responded to these challenges? Are we able to demonstrate the error of these false gospels from the bible?

5.     Jim warned us that “Satan’s strategy is to get God’s people fighting each other, rather than fighting him”. How does he manage to get us fighting each other? Is there anyone you are currently fighting against, in word or thought? Make a promise to yourself to speak to them before the end of the day.

6.     If our individual grasp of biblical doctrine is key to discerning truth from error and defending the true faith, why is it that so many see theology (the study of God) as dry and boring? How are we growing in our doctrinal understanding of the faith? What steps can we take to increase our understanding of Christian doctrine?

If a sending church needs to be Spirit-led and Word-centred then that means each of us, not just the leaders, must be replicating this pattern. In a world of competing demands and distractions it is the call to a deep-routed relationship with God that daily feeds off his word and listens to his Spirit. It is the call to engage in deliberate spiritual warfare for the cause of Christ. May God grant that we will be those who make the sacrifices required to develop such an intimate knowledge for the greater reward of sharing in his kingdom work.

“Finally, be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power. Put on the full armour of God, so that you can take your stand against the Devil’s schemes…Take the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit, which is the Word of God. And pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests.” Ephesians 6.10-18