Tell ’em plain…

He’s on his way from misery to happiness… Ah, wrong film…

Disclaimer: Yes this is a post largely involving the First World War. Just count yourselves lucky it’s taken this long. Stick with it, there’s good news coming…

Last night I took a trip with a couple of mates from church to see 1917, Sam Mendes’ new film, set in…well you can work it out. The critics have been raving about it, and it looks like the luvvies at the academies will to. Those of you who know me know how much I love a good film, and the bus advert told me, ‘You must see this movie!’ And all adverts on buses must be true, right?! So off we went…

But those of you who know me will also know that, since my teens, I’ve been obsessed by the First World War. It holds a fascination over me that little else does. Since first watching Richard Holmes walk around France gently explaining the Battle of the Somme, and finding out my great-Grandad fought in that Battle and at Third Ypres (losing a lung to gas) among others, I’ve devoured anything I could get my hands on about the conflict. And I’ve been longing for a decent First World War film to show things how they were. So I was understandably a little torn as we sat down to watch (not to mention the fact that one of the mates I saw the film with has an MA in the First World War as well!).

If you’ve not seen the film yet I won’t spoil it. The cinematography is great, the first person camera that everyone’s been going on about is good (even if it made me feel like I’d just spent two hours playing Battlefield 1!), and George MacKay is as excellent in this as in everything else he’s been in. So the film buff was, in general, satisfied.

However…

The film buff didn’t get to enjoy that too much. Because the historian found the whole thing so utterly, utterly, stupid. The film is set (again, hopefully no real spoilers here) around the advance of the British to the German Hindenburg Line in April 1917. The basic plot follows two Lance-Corporals as they are tasked with taking a message to a battalion about to attack this new, formidable, trench system. Without giving too much away this battalion has arrived at their attack position, dug a remarkably JCB-like trench into the chalk of Picardy overnight, and is about to launch an assault all by themselves, without any support from artillery or armour. If you’re a First World War novice, that is about as likely and sensible as the SAS being dropped in a warzone with no weapons, or even clothes, today. I won’t reveal anymore, but let’s just say there were enough absolute howlers to keep myself and my MA-owning mate going on the drive home. Although it wasn’t as horrific as I expected given some of the interviews with director and cast I have seen, this was, at best, a buddy/journey film, that just happens to have a vague First World War aesthetic.

That’s an impressive feat in one night!

And the thing is that some of these inaccuracies seem to be put in on purpose, in order to make it more palatable to a 21st Century audience. One clear example was the attempt to make the film as diverse as possible. While it’s certainly the case that black troops did sterling service for Britain in the First World War (Walter Tull is one of my heroes), if the number represented in the two battalions or so seen here was representative of the army as a whole then hundreds of thousands of black troops would have fought on the Western Front. That simply wasn’t the case. Similarly the Indian Army solider who randomly turns up in a British Army unit. I understand why film makers make these choices (again, Indian Army soldiers performed great service during the 1914-18 war), but it does seem that the true situation is changed simply to appease modern sensibilities. To allow us to feel the tension of the life and death nature of war, without feeling the uncomfortableness of being transported to the different world and culture that these men fought in just over a century ago.

And it struck me as I thought it over again this morning (when I wasn’t raging!) that so often we make the same choices when we share the good news of Jesus with people. We’re all so scared of dragging people out of their comfort zones by talking about sin, death, hell, and judgement that we just stick to the nice bits. A whole vocabulary of meaning, satisfaction, and fulfillment has taken their place in the ways we often preach the gospel. We’re worried that if we confront people with the stark truth of reality as it is they might not stick with us. If we can just make the uncomfortable bits palatable enough, they might stick with the story. Now don’t get me wrong, we are all searching for satisfaction, meaning, and fulfillment, and those things really are only found in Christ. But I do wonder if we’re often tempted to use them instead of talking about wrath, sin, condemnation, and hell, rather than in addition to. Perhaps we’re guilty of trying to make Jesus palatable. Trying to fit him, as much as we possible can, into people’s existing worldview. To allow them to see the life that is in Jesus, with feeling the uncomfortableness of the death that we have chosen for ourselves.

And yet the gospel is the power of God to salvation. There really is a holy God who is angry at our sin. All have sinned and fallen short of God’s glory, and are running, laughing and cheering, to hell. But God has sent Jesus, to live the perfect life of obedience we couldn’t live, and to die in the place of all his people to bring them to his Father, by the power of the Spirit. People need to hear that. All of it. And, by God’s grace they need to repent of their sins and put their hope in this Christ, who took hell in the place of all who will trust him.

John Nelson was a bloke from round here in the 18th Century. He was saved after hearing John Wesley preach in London. He came home and went around sharing Jesus in our area, planting churches as he went. And he said this, ‘No preaching will do in Yorkshire except the old sort that comes like thunderclaps upon the conscience.’  In other words, tell ‘em plain. Don’t dress the gospel up. Don’t try it make it, or Jesus, more palatable. Give people the truth. Give them Jesus. It, and he, are actually far more impressive than your attempts to dress them up.

So get out there and tell people of Jesus. A Jesus who saves his people from the hell that he took on the cross in their place. That’s good news. It’s also the power of God to salvation.  Don’t dress it up, don’t soften it. Just tell ‘em plain…

(and if you’re at all interested in the real story of the First World War, then Gary Sheffield’s brilliant ‘Forgotten Victory: the First World War Myths and Realities’ is only 99p on Amazon at the minute. You can’t go wrong for 99p folks. Even if you’re a tight Yorkshireman…)

Melting the frozen chosen…

Last Sunday at Spen Valley Church we started a new sermon series working through Ephesians. I’m a bit daunted as we start. Ephesians has been my go to book for almost all of my Christian life. And some of the passages in it are just mind-blowing (not that the whole Bible isn’t, you pedants! You know what I mean!). It’s surely a book that stirs the emotions of all Christians, even Yorkshire ones.

But as I prepared to preach on the first two verses last week, it struck me that at points in my Christian life, and especially since I’ve been in full-time ministry, I’ve gone wrong precisely on that point. In fact, so often, I do with Ephesians, and the gospel as a whole, precisely what the Ephesians did with it.

Because Ephesians is a letter written into a very specific context. I want to think a bit more about the Jewish/Gentile thing next week, but for now let’s just remember that Ephesians was written in between Acts 20 and Revelation 2.

Loved a cuddle did Paul…

You know, in Acts 20 when Paul warned the Elders of the church to watch out for false teachers, to keep their doctrine pure, and make sure heresy was dealt with. And I’m convinced that’s one of the reasons why Ephesians is so doctrinally rich. Why he gives them so much of the truths of God’s eternal plan. Why he develops in such detail what lives lived out in obedience to that doctrine should look like. He’s reminding them so clearly of the truth, so that they might see heresy clearly for what it was and give it the treatment it deserved. And it worked, right? In Revelation 2, Jesus tells the Ephesians they’ve done a good job on doctrine. They’ve told the heretics where they can stick their nonsense, and given them the boot. Paul’s letter worked, right?

Apart from where it didn’t…

Because Jesus tells the Ephesians that they kept their doctrine pure right enough. But they’ve become the classic frozen chosen. Pure, knowledgeable, careful, clear…and loveless. They read the letter and thought, ‘Wow, that’s interesting. That’ll preach won’t it?’ But it failed to stir them up to love God and others.

Which, if I’m reading Ephesians owt like right, is the entire point of the letter…

And I reckon that so often I am so like the Ephesians. And so, probably, are you. Especially if you’re in full-time ministry. The constant round of sermon prep, one to ones, Bible studies, investing in people’s lives. We’re constantly applying the Bible to others, calling those around us to love Jesus more, find their joy in him, marvel and wonder at God’s eternal plan worked out in our lives together. And yet, if you’re owt like me, we so often forget to do that ourselves.

Over the last two years I’ve found preaching the unsearchable riches of Christ harder than at any other point in my Christian life. Because I’ve looked around and seen so little progress. Because it’s hard to believe that God could ever turn this little town upside down with the gospel. Because my heart believes the lies of what my eyes can see, rather than the awesome, eternal, certain plan of salvation Paul reveals in Ephesians.

If we want to serve the Lord, especially in hard, slow, contexts like ours, then we’re going to need the joy of the Lord to be our strength. We’re going to have to be continually blown away by the fact that the Father has brought us into his family, through his Son, by the power of his Spirit. And that he’s given us the unutterable privilege of being at the heart of that eternal plan to bring unity to all things in heaven and earth under Christ. At the heart of his means of bringing his people together in his Son, his church. And he’s given us the unspeakable privilege to declare these truths to those around us.

When I find myself struggling to keep going in ministry, it’s because I’ve forgotten that. I’m trying to find my love in numbers of people there on Sunday, or in preaching an awesome sermon, or in just having a decent kip. If I, if we, want to keep going, perhaps we need to come back and remember why we do this. To remember our first love. To remember just how awesome the eternal plan of God is. To remember just how awesome the eternal Trinitarian God is in and of himself. To refocus our eyes on Jesus. And to fix them there, on our glorious Saviour Jesus, that we might run with perseverance the absolute privilege of a life that our loving heavenly Father has marked out for us. Whether we’re in full time ministry or not…

Yet not I, but we/us/our in Christ…

We’re getting near to the end of our series in the Psalms of Ascent. Last Sunday was Psalm 133 & this week I’m busy working on the last one in Psalm 134. We’ve had a great time working through them. They’re just so honest about reality of life in a world opposed to the Lord, as well as being full of God’s awesome grace to us in Jesus. You can check them out here if you’re at all interested.

But the thing that really struck me this week is the way that they change as they go through. Gradually, as the people trek up to Jerusalem time & again, the songs they sing get less and less individualistic & more and more corporate, culminating in a full set of three rejoicing in the unity of God’s people under their anointed King, together as one.

As I preached through Psalm 133 last week it really hit home to me how much we, even as Bible people, have been infected and held captive by the individualistic air we breathe. How these pilgrims rejoiced to be together, to be part of God remaking his good world as he saves his one family in Christ, united in their great high priest. How they are refreshed and find God’s blessing, and even life itself, as they point one another to the Lord. It struck me how much this is the pattern of the whole Bible, from the one united family in Genesis 1 & 2, through to the one city/bride/people in Revelation 21 & 22. How Paul tells the Ephesians that we learn to grasp the length, height, depth, & breath of God’s love in Christ ‘together with all the saints’. It goes on, & on, & on…

And yet, it seems to me anyroad, that that’s not how most of us live our Christian lives, or maybe even disciple others to live theirs. How we’ve somehow made the most important part of evangelical piety sitting by yourself with your Bible on a morning. Perhaps more books are published on ‘how to read the Bible for yourself’, or ‘how to enjoy your Quiet Time’, than owt else. The Quiet Time, it seems, is sacred! That’s where we meet with God most, right? Get people having a meaningful Quiet Time, and they’ll grow like weeds! Right?

Now don’t get me wrong (& hear me clearly here!): Having time alone in the Bible is a good thing! It is! But, if it stops there, or even if that’s the place we see our primary interaction with God’s word each day, then as far as I can see we’ve missed the whole thrust of the Bible. You see, as I read my Bible, people grow, learn, mature, in community. With others.

And it’s not just the Quiet Time. I reckon it’s why the church is infected with the consumer mentality we all moan about all the time, at the same time as moaning about all the things we don’t like about our church. It’s why spending time together with God’s people outside of Sunday seems like a pain in the backside instead of a privilege. Why even prioritising turning up every Sunday seems a struggle for some! It’s why we so often don’t want to spend time socialising with those in our church, or praying together at a time that’s inconvenient to us. It’s why it’s so hard to find Christian hymns & songs (old or new!) that include words like ‘our, us, we’ instead of ‘me, my, & I’.

Let’s face it, when we sing Psalm 133 it goes summat like this: ‘How hard & inconvenient it is when God’s people live together in unity…’ (and before anyone points the finger, I’m as guilty as any!)

Because we’ve forgotten who we are. We’ve spent so long talking about what my identity in Christ is (again, no bad thing in & of itself), that we’ve forgotten that, biblically, our identity in Christ is far more important. That when God brings his people together as one he is remaking his world to be good again, as it was in the beginning. That pretty much all the pictures of God’s people in the New Testament are corporate: body, bride, temple, house, city. One of each, folks! That, as Paul tells the Romans, ‘in Christ we, though many, form one body, and each member belongs to all the others.’ (Rom. 12.5). That it is the highest of privileges to give of ourselves so that our brothers & sisters might know God’s blessing. That, in fact, it is one of our first priorities.

How good & pleasant would it be in our churches if we all got hold of this?! If our first priority on a Sunday, during the week, whenever, was to seek out ways to bless our fellow church members. If we took Hebrews 10.24 seriously & really did put some effort into considering how we might encourage others by spurring them on to love & good deeds. And then crack on & do it…

How good & pleasant would it be regionally & nationally if we all got a hold of this?! If churches worked together in real partnership, seeking to bless one another & help each other show people Jesus. If we had a real vision to help those getting stuck into areas where there’s not much opportunity to hear the gospel. If we worked for real partnership that enabled us to show how Jesus brings people together in one people…

How good & pleasant would it be in our communities if we all got hold of this?! If people around us saw us living radically corporate lives together as one. If we actually lived out our oneness  in Christ for all around us to see. If people around really were shocked by how much we loved one another, day to day, in the real world…

That might make an impact, might it? Jesus, for one, reckoned it might (John 13.34-35)…

Why I’m just not that bothered about Boris or Jezza…

I’m not really sure why I’m about to do this. Perhaps it’s just because I’ve not argued with anybody on Twitter for a bit. Perhaps I am just mardy for the sake of it. Perhaps I’m just fed up of hearing it 24/7. Whatever the reason, I’ve got what might be a potential hand grenade for some of you. So, here goes…

Whatever happens on 12th December, the Uk will remain pretty much the same. Whichever side wins, barely owt’ll change.

Now I don’t usually say much in public about politics (apart from the fact that I had my milk stolen as a kid!), and I certainly never declare my voting intentions (secret ballot, innit). So this might seem like a bit of a departure.

And, anyway, surely that’s just demonstrably wrong, isn’t it? Depending which side wins we could be in or out of Europe, Scotland (and in time Wales) could be in or out of the Uk, Ireland could be wracked by civil strife/war again, the apocalypse of public spending or funding (depending on your viewpoint) will be upon us, not to mention the apocalypse of…well, you know, everything else that people are doing their nut about pretty much constantly at the minute.

But all of that’s to miss my point. I’m not making a political point at all. If you want to know what I think, ask me privately. You won’t be surprised to know I have strong opinions, which might not always be what you expect. But that’s not really what I’m on about. It might be true that financially, economically, whatevercally, lots might be different. But the important stuff that really, truly, matters, will be exactly, 100%, the same…

We will be called to respect, honour, and pray for our leaders that God has appointed over us. We will be called to make disciples of all nations, teaching them to obey everything that Jesus commanded. We will be called to love, serve, encourage, and build one another up.

Crucially, over 99% of the people in my town (and probably yours too) will still be running, laughing and cheering, to hell.

And, over it all, Jesus will still be on the throne…

This is not just mardy, miserable, Yorkshire withdrawing from politics and saying we shouldn’t be bothered with it. It’s not me criticising anyone for being passionate about stuff. It’s not even me having a pity party because the political party I’ve most often gravitated towards doesn’t really exist anymore.

How many of these people know and love Jesus…and will spend eternity with him?

It’s just me saying that, if we do actually, really, believe that Jesus is Lord, then let’s just take the apocalypse level down a step or four hundred. Let’s stop moaning about the crisis of morals in a pagan nation. Let’s stop crying because pagan politicians don’t want to give us preferential treatment. Why would we expect any different?! In fact, let’s just stop with the end of the world nonsense.

Because, most likely the world won’t end on 13th December. And certainly not because of the election result. And anyway, the end of the world is going to be awesome (yes, even in the old school sense!). Because the only thing that will end the world is Jesus returning to finally destroy evil for ever, bring his people to himself, and remake his world without sin, shame, or tears for ever.

And eternally, it won’t really matter whether we’re in or out of Europe, the Uk, big business, or even our beloved NHS. The only thing that will matter is whether we’re in or out of Jesus. If all Jesus’ people made as much fuss about that fact, and even about him, as many seem to be doing about Boris & Jezza, then perhaps people might even get the impression that trusting Jesus makes a difference to who we are, how we live, and what we value.

So, just maybe, let’s just take a couple of chill pills on the electoral apocalypse. Jesus reigns, not the Prime Minister. And let’s concentrate on being excited about the real apocalypse that means eternity with Jesus. And on telling people that, outside of Christ, hell isn’t owt much to do with who’s in Number 10, but a horrific eternity under the just condemnation of a holy God.

I mean, if we did that people might even get the impression we’re more excited about Jesus than free broadband, or tax cuts, right?! That’d be good, wouldn’t it?! It’d certainly mean I shouted at my phone and computer a lot less. And I’d quite like that…

Help a brother out, eh….

Do you get it yet?!

I’ve always found it funny the way that the Lord sometimes takes the opportunity to beat a truth into my head repeatedly over a few days in different ways. Perhaps I’m just proper thick, but it seems to be that often, when I really need to learn a lesson, the Lord really hits me with it a few times in a short space of time.

That’s been the case for me over the last week or so. As I’ve pointed out a couple of times recently, the slog of church planting in an ‘average place‘ can feel like walking on through the drizzle. The temptation to lose heart can be strong. To get down about the slowness of the work, or the lack of quality, or perceived effect, of my preaching. The temptation to want to be anywhere but plodding along in the never-ending rain. To look for joy elsewhere than in daily denying myself, taking up my cross, and following Jesus. To dream of sitting in the sun with a book and a glass of Hoegaarden. Even to wonder very (very!) briefly if teaching really was that bad after all. (It is, by the way!)

But the Lord knows what he’s doing…

Last Wednesday I sat and listened to Andy Prime’s banging sermon on 2 Corinthians 4 at the FIEC Leaders Conference. Andy reminded us that while there are many reasons to lose heart in gospel ministry, there are more reasons in Christ to keep going. To keep trusting in Jesus’ perfect life, death, and resurrection. To keep finding joy, in the midst of difficulty, in God’s mercy and the beauty of his glory displayed in the face of Jesus Christ. To minister on, to plod on, in the all surpassing power of God, which is ours in Christ Jesus, by the power of the Spirit. To be reminded that the slog is not to be despised but is the normal pattern of ministry, because then God is glorified, not us. All stuff I knew, right? But summat I was in danger of forgetting as the rain seeped into my shoes…

Then, as I got back into real life last Thursday, I came across Luke 10.20 in my personal Bible reading. It hit me like a train. The reason the slog of ministry so often drags us down and steals our joy is because we’re trying to find our joy in it, rather than in Jesus. We lose heart because we rejoice that our ministry is awesome, or that we’re amazing preachers, or that God is using us to save people, or grow Christians to be ‘super-awesome effective disciples-making disciples’. But the problem comes that in the slog and the drizzle those things aren’t always happening. And because my joy is invested in those things being true, when they’re not I’m gutted. But Jesus reminds me, like he reminded the disciples, that joy is only found in him and his gospel, in the love the Father has lavished on us in him, through the Spirit uniting us to him. Whatever happens that ain’t going to change. Again, it’s not like I don’t know that. I preach it to our folks pretty much every week, in and out of the pulpit. But just perhaps the rain was in danger of washing my clarity on it away…

And then I turned up the passage for Sunday. Guess what? Psalm 131. Read it. Go on. Take some time and luxuriate in it. I’ll wait… Can you see why I laughed as I read it?! Why I told the Lord, ‘Enough. I get it!’ It’s not my job to know why ministry and life is great, or why it’s pants. It’s not my job to know why so few people have joined us. It’s only my pride that makes me think I can look down on the situations the Lord has given me for my eternal good, and the extension of his kingdom. It’s simply my job to rest in the hope I have in Jesus. To trust my heavenly Father and enjoy his embrace, as I rest in his goodness to me in Jesus, like that weaned child with its mother. To find my joy in the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ, as the Spirit shows him to me. And to call others to find this same joy as they hope in Jesus, both now and forevermore.

Perhaps you’re not the same as me. Perhaps this obvious lesson doesn’t need beating in to your head every day. If so, congratulations. But I reckon, for most of us, especially those in full time ministry, this is a lesson we need to learn afresh every day. To confess before the Lord, every day, that we have lost heart because we are proud, haughty, and think we deserve to know everything. Because we have failed to trust the Lord and find our rest in him. Because we have invested our joy in the spirits (or our church members, or unbelievers, or the culture) submitting to us, and therefore throw a pity party when they don’t. Because we’ve failed to delight in the glory of God in the face of Christ, failed to depend on the Spirit to empower us. Perhaps you, like me, need to repent of that, every day, and come afresh to the cross of Jesus. And ask the Spirit to give us afresh the joy of our Father in the face of his Son. And then, to get off our knees, and out into the world to show them a joy that cannot be defeated. Because Jesus really, truly, is alive…

So just let me be beside the seaside…

I spent the early part of this week by the seaside, Torquay to be precise, for the FIEC Leaders Conference. As always it was a great few days. I don’t have time this week for owt as pretentious as a full review (although you might hear some thoughts over in podcast land in the next few weeks), so here’s just a few thoughts.

On the positive side;

Ministry: I’ve always said that conferences don’t need to stand or fall on the quality of the ministry. Sometimes just the time away, and to catch up with friends, makes it worthwhile. But much of the ministry this week was very good. I didn’t go to every session by any means, but particular highlights for me would be Colin Smith’s sessions on the Profile of a godly leader, and the calling of shepherd leaders. I also enjoyed the seminar I attended on Titus 2 women’s ministry, led by Jonny Prime. It’s great to see more and more churches taking the need to train up women more seriously. The best session by far though was Andy Prime preaching 2 Corinthians 4 to us. And he preached it! He was realistic about the difficulties & temptations of gospel ministry, but pointed us to Jesus & why his gospel means we must not lose heart. Excellent stuff!

Music: A big shout out to Colin Webster, Phil Moore, and the folks from Cornerstone Worship, who led us in our sung praise. They were excellent. Full stop. Thanks guys! (And let’s not forget who they got to play the guitar!)

Shearer!!!!

Mission: I’m so grateful for the FIEC and the group of churches who make it up. To be reminded again and again, whether from the front or in conversation, of the mission we have to make disciples in our local areas was great. To be reminded that we can work together to reach our nation for Christ was top too. I love the fact that the FIEC are constantly thinking about ways to help local churches do that. Very encouraging.

Mates & Muppets: Always the best thing about this conference is catching up with people I don’t see that often, and meeting new guys. It’s always a laugh trying to work out if that guy over there is the person you’ve interacted with loads on Twitter or not. But times in the pub, over coffee, just chilling out with people from around the country who are on the same road we are was brilliant. I even spent some time with a few Welshman this year. Sacrificial love, folks…

Miles: Lots of people don’t like Torquay, or perhaps more accurately they don’t like the journey. Don’t get me wrong, it is a really (really!) long way, but once I’m there I love it. Just being away by the sea, miles from home, means this is a bit of a break for me in a way it probably wouldn’t be if it was in Brum or Manchester or wherever. The view’s certainly better. And even though the drive back up is a pain, it gave me and my fellow Elder, Mark, a great chance to chat over lots of what we’d seen and heard.

But this blog has it’s name for a reason, so just a couple of small gripes, which can probably be summed up in the word diversity (and maybe not in the way you think I mean, before anybody points me to next year’s speakers’ list!);

Diversity and Theme: More and more in recent years the conference has seemed to focus ever more closely on ‘the theme’. This year it was Leadership at every level. My small annoyance with that is that we get lots about leadership and not quite as much just preaching for our souls as in the past. In previous years, we’ve had guys preaching passages just for the good of our souls and because we’re battered up by ministry (Paul Gamston pulling down the curtains, or Jonty Allcock’s Winnie the Pooh anyone?). But over recent years the need to focus on ‘the theme’ has seemed to squeeze that out a bit.

Diversity and Context: Whether it’s just because the conference has got a lot bigger or what, I don’t know, but it seems the diversity of the contexts of the speakers at the conference has got smaller over recent years. It might be partly a result of it only being 48 hours, rather than 72. But, whatever the reason, it seems that the vast majority of speakers hail from large churches, in city contexts, from certain areas of the country/world. It’s not that I think people from different contexts have nothing to teach me, or others in similar contexts, but it might be nice to have more folks from smaller churches sometimes. As Carl Truman said, when he challenged our American brothers on this, ‘Preaching the gospel isn’t rocket science. You don’t have to pastor a huge church to preach faithfully to other pastors.’ And (regular readers will already be rolling their eyes) it was another national conference where the entire north of England seemed to be unrepresented on the platform (as much as we all love him, I’m not sure the bloke selling books counts in this context). For example, Yorkshire has the same population as Scotland, but I heard more Scottish accents in nearly every session at this conference than I’ve heard Yorkshire (or even northern) ones, or even people working in Yorkshire contexts, in my 8 years of attending. Just summat to think about maybe…

All that being said though, I loved this conference, the same as I do every year. I’m so grateful for the FIEC and all they do for us as a church and around the country. Long may it continue!

Medhurst Ministries: Mithering, ministry, movement…

It was great to get away as a family for a few days last week. We were up at the Jonas Centre, near Leyburn in North Yorkshire, for the inaugural (yep, I did just google that!) Medhurst Ministries Pastors’ and families’ retreat.

Genuinely taken last week at the Jonas Centre #VisitYorkshire!

Medhurst Ministries is a ministry of New Life Church Middlesbrough. It’s aim is to help plant and revitalise churches in council estates (and other ‘hard to reach’ places) in the North of England. They also want to support, resource, and train pastors and churches already working in those areas. These are very early days, but talking about what the future might hold was very exciting.

It’s was great to get away and out of the busyness of ministry life for a bit, and to enjoy the glories of a different part of God’s own county. The only disappointment of being there was not being able to find any Christmas Cake in the Leyburn Co-op, and therefore being unable to introduce the non-Yorkshire folk to the taste of Wensleydale’s most famous product as it should be enjoyed! It was excellent to be with others ministering in similar contexts, in a relaxed environment, and build friendships, share stories, and just enjoy being away.

I might reflect more on the week later, and you’ll certainly being hearing more about Medhurst Ministries in the coming months, but for now I just want to pick out three highlights. (My sincere apologies for the alliteration! I normally try to avoid it like the plague!)

Mithering: I wrote recently about the importance of being able to get together with others in ministry and be honest about the struggles, as well of the joys, of ministry. It’s very easy in a small church like ours, in a difficult context like ours (where there are very few Christians even by Yorkshire standards), to think we’ve got it worse than everybody else. To be tempted to despair at the lack of fruit or the length of time it takes to get a hearing for the gospel here. To be tempted to think we must be doing it all wrong because nothing (or at least very little) is happening. To be tempted to lose our nerve and try to change tack in our gospel proclamation. What was great to do this last week was to see (again!) that it’s hard everywhere, particularly in contexts like ours. To be able to chat with people, over an extended period of time, about the ups and downs of ministry life in the hard places of the North of England. To be able to commiserate together. To be able to encourage one another. To be able to express the frustrations of ministry life to people who totally get it. To chat with people at all different stages of this path we’re on, and be reminded that we don’t need to change tack, we’re not doing it horrifically wrong. It’s just that ministry in contexts like ours really is a long, slow slog. It was also brilliant to have some southerners among us, as Dan Green and family came up from Banstead Community Church, and hear about their desire to support ministry in the North of England. You can read about how they’re doing that here. It was so encouraging to hear of this church sacrificially serving the gospel in this way, and pray together for more to do the same.

Ministry: We met twice each day to look at some psalms together, while our children were brilliantly taught by the excellent team from New Life. As a result of circumstances, we ended up doing the sessions between a few of us, looking at some psalms that we’re preached recently in our different churches.  Although this was a last minute adjustment it actually worked out really well. We were reminded that, even in the hard slog of ministry in our contexts, the Lord is building his church. That our loving heavenly Father is sovereignly at work in all of our contexts, and hearts, to present his people as a perfect bride to his Son. And that that means we can keep going in the midst of the frustrations, hoping in his goodness and grace. It was a really encouraging time. Here are some of the highlights…

Movement: Before anybody gets scared, I’ve not turned too trendy. I don’t mean Medhurst Ministries has suddenly become some sort of ‘movement’ committed to ‘bestifying church planting in super-awesome-effectiveness’ or owt daft like that. It just struck me that there is starting to be some movement on some of the issues facing gospel ministry in the North of England that some of us have been pointing out for a while. As I said, it was so encouraging to have Dan and the family with us, and hear how people from a completely different context are sacrificially seeking to support gospel ministry in a ‘hard to reach’/average place in the North. It was brilliant to chat through what role Medhurst Ministries might have in working for the cause of the gospel across the North of England. It was great to hear of churches around the world interested in supporting gospel ministry here. It was top to start to think how our little church might play a part in that. By God’s grace, the future looks exciting!

It was an excellent week, and we can’t wait for next year. We’re so grateful for the work of everyone at New Life that made it possible. But for now, we are so encouraged about what the Lord could do in our part of the world in the coming years. Please pray that he would, and that he might get all the glory…

Why I’m just not that bothered about Tom or Kanye…

Over the last couple of weeks Christian Twitter has found a couple of new heroes. I assume lots of people are talking in real life as well. But certainly they keep coming up in my Twitter feed. And while there’s good reasons for lots of what’s being said, I reckon they point out a couple of problems within our evangelical culture.

Six months ago, probably the only Christians to know much about the historian Tom Holland were those of us who were sad enough to take more than a passing interest in the history of classical antiquity. He had written decent, popular level, narrative histories of the Roman world, and a big book on the rise of Islam. I’ve read a couple of the Roman ones over the years and enjoyed most of them. A few people might have seen him on the telly doing his own stuff, or on Dan Snow’s excellent 1066 docudrama. But you certainly didn’t hear much about him on ‘evangelical twitter.’

But now that he’s doing the rounds plugging his latest book, Dominion, he’s everywhere on it. From what I can work out, having listened to a couple of podcasts with him chatting about it, Holland’s basic point is a good one. The West’s value system comes wholly out of the Christian worldview, and is completely at odds with the values of the Greco-Roman world. True dat. But it’s not exactly new, is it? Jesus was counter-cultural, and we don’t really like infanticide or institutionalised slavery, or a system set up to benefit the rich and oppress the weak. The West has developed it’s value system through 2000 years of broadly Christian dominance of the culture. Really?! Wow! Who’d have thunk it…

But my problem’s not really with Tom Holland. He seems a top fella, and has some sensible stuff to say, especially about the utter banality of bishops talking about Brexit instead of original sin. But I just want to raise the question as to why he’s suddenly the Christian poster boy. Why do we have pastors on Twitter telling us what a great historian he is, as I saw this week. Is he? Or is he just making us feel better by saying what we want to hear. And how many of us are actually qualified to judge his qualities as a historian. I did hear Holland say that, as a historian, he’s not qualified to judge the authenticity of the resurrection account. That’s the job of theologians. Surprising how many theologians feel qualified to judge his qualities as a historian though.

The other elephant in the Twittersphere of course is Kanye West. And, before I start, I’ll declare my bias. As far as I can see he’s just a dude who talks over records. I mean, he’s no Hetfield, Grohl, or even Kelly Jones is he?! My radio is tuned to ‘the Uk’s only 90’s radio station’. I’m not really in his core target audience, am I?! But then neither are quite a lot of people who are going on about what a legend he is this week…

Now, don’t get me wrong, if Kanye West has trusted Christ for salvation, then praise God. If he’s using his working life to give glory to God, then let’s join him in glorifying his Saviour. When anybody moves from death to life it’s a miracle only the Lord can do, by his Spirit, through the blood of Jesus. But is it anymore newsworthy when he does it in a dude who just happens to make music for a living, and give his kids odd names?

You see, I wonder if the reaction of many Christians to both Tom Holland and Kanye West in recent weeks betrays that we’re just as celebrity obsessed in Uk evangelicalism as we laugh at our American brothers and sisters for being. We, deep down, long to be affirmed by the world. Long for people with a voice in the secular world to think Christianity’s cool, or credible, or even just not as outdated as everyone thinks it is. We still believe that getting celebrities to tell the world about the gospel (or summat vaguely connected to it anyroad) will mean it’ll turn round and trust Jesus (you know, like it did with Cliff!). We feel like we’re validated a bit when people with a voice in the culture say summat nice about us, or even Jesus.

Perhaps that’s the reason that evangelical conferences in the Uk still have the ‘preachers with a profile’ on the platform. Perhaps it’s why lots of evangelistic endeavour looks like getting the famous person to do a testimony, or the person with the ‘amazing story’. Because they’ll draw a crowd, and the more people who hear the truth of the gospel the better, right?! Perhaps it’s why churches with big name preachers, and big ministries, and lots of resources, in big cities, have lots of people. And average places, with average preachers, and few resources, scratching out a ministry of gospel life together and seeking to speak of Jesus, are always struggling for people to join them.

I wonder if at times we’re in danger of tearing 1 Corinthians 1 & 2 out of our Bibles. We certainly get quite excited when the wise and strong of this world get saved, or even throw us a bone. Perhaps we need to remember that when God really shows off he doesn’t do it with flashing lights, and a banging beat. He does it with a humiliated, naked, peasant; beaten within an inch of his life, hanging on a tree. Broken, beat, and scarred…and winning the victory over all the cosmic powers of evil. Destroying the wisdom of the wise and the intelligence of the intelligent. Wisdom through foolishness, strength through weakness. That’s what turns the world upside down. Not celebrity endorsements.

And, funnily enough, as far as I can tell, that’s the entire argument of Tom Holland’s book…

Just keep swimming…

The other day I spent a good day in the company of some mates, who are all at different stages of planting churches in similar contexts to us. It was great to catch up and hear encouragements. But it was also great to be able to be honest together about the struggles of planting churches in places like Cleck.

You see we’re two years in now, having launched in September 2017. And the Lord has been good to us. We’ve seen a few people join us from our previous church. We’ve seen a guy who’s recently moved back into the area show real interest in joining us. We’re spending time at the minute trying to help a very new believer navigate all sorts of issues. We’ve built relationships with people from all sorts of backgrounds in the town and valley. We’ve seen some of them show interest in the gospel, and one or two even join us regularly on a Sunday. God has been really good.

But we’ve also seen people break our hearts as well. People who have shown interest in the gospel, and seem to want to know more, only for circumstances or a negative reaction to gospel truth to take them away again. We’ve seen a few Christians show interest in joining us, and then be driven away when they realise we do actually believe and seek to live out what’s in our statement of faith. We’ve worked hard to build relationships with people in the town, only for stuff beyond our control to cut them off at source. We set up each Sunday knowing that, humanly speaking, there’ll be around 15 of us again. And, in it all, the Lord is still sovereign and still good.

So far, so ‘that’s just ministry life’, right?! True…

But our town doesn’t get a new influx of young, energetic people every September. And people don’t move into our town for work. (That little dot there is a full stop folks. No caveats here) And two years in, the dissatisfied Christians travelling out of the town for good reformed ministry, that everybody told us would be here, haven’t exactly been beating our door down. Largely, I reckon, because they don’t exist. And those young, zealous, free & mobile professionals who are desperate to move round the country to help little church plants (so loved of church planting literature)? Well, I’m sure they exist. I’ve just never met many of them maybe…. We also don’t have a long history in the town, or dechurched people looking to return to church, or friendships going back over years…

Which could all sound like a moan, couldn’t it? And perhaps some of it is. Poor little us. It’s alright for you lot in your big churches with your new buildings, and your 15 staff, and your excellent ministry, and your [insert stereotype here]… I’m aware enough to see that in my own heart. But it’s also more than that. It’s not even just yet another appeal for more workers to come and help us.

Because I reckon I’ve seen enough of Uk evangelicalism to know that most of those calls fall on deaf ears. I’ve got enough mates who’ve made them, and I’ve made enough myself, to see that most people act all concerned and prayerful, and then get on with their day. Now I know the Lord can do wonders, and I’m praying he will. But as I tell our folks regularly, we can pray and ask as much as we like. And the Lord might even send us some workers. But the cavalry aren’t coming. They don’t exist. But we’re here. Now. And that’s because the Lord has placed us here. Now. For his glory and the extension of the kingdom.

And so the call of God’s word to us, and to folks in contexts like ours, maybe even to you, is to trust the Lord, and (like Dory) to just keep swimming. We’re here, you’re there. Now. So keep plodding on in gospel ministry. Keep speaking of Jesus to one another. Keep loving one another beyond our capability to do so, as the Lord enables us. To keep building friendships and telling people the gospel. To start new friendships when old ones break down, even through the pain that brings. To pray, and pray, and pray, even when it feels like they’re bouncing off the ceiling. To remember that the Lord never gets the wrong address or the wrong people. To trust him when it seems the end of the road is a long, long way ahead.

My wife and I were discussing the weather the other day (we know how to live!). And how sometimes planting in our context never seems to be too sunny, or too stormy. Nothing too horrendous just at the minute, nothing too exciting either. But how, often it just feels like trudging along in the never-ending drizzle. And being from West Yorkshire, you think we’d be used to that! But it still grinds you down in the end. No coat’s waterproof for that long. No trainers will keep the wet out for ever. But the call of the gospel is to keep going. To just walk on through the rain…

Because at the end of the day we’re not listening for a lark, but, one day, we will stand under the light of the Son of Righteousness. And we’ll rejoice in seeing the glory of God fully in his face. We will be like him, for we shall see him as he is. And maybe, just maybe, the Lord will be gracious enough that we’ll be stood there next to some people from Cleck that we never even met here. But who heard the gospel in the future because, by God’s grace, we kept trudging through the drizzle now. I reckon that’d make it worth getting a bit wet. And if you’d like to come and join us in that, we’d be delighted for some fellow travellers! Bring a brolly!

But, for now, whatever happens, we keep looking to that day and to Jesus. And we keep trudging on. Slowly, squelching and dripping as we go, but ever onward. Maybe that’s you just like it is us. Keep going brothers and sisters. Because Jesus is worth it. And Jesus is Lord. And he is coming. Soon

A tender beating…

I spent most of yesterday at the Gospel Yorkshire Conference in Dewsbury. I’ve been going to this conference since it began in 2015 (feels like I should, being on the Committee and all!). You can find out more about Gospel Yorkshire’s mission to help churches plant churches in Yorkshire here. One of the churches that’s come out of that mission is ourselves in Spen, so we’re very appreciative of all that Gospel Yorkshire is about.

It was a good day, with lots of opportunities to catch up with mates, and others planting across this massive county. Yorkshire has the same population as Scotland, but is massively unreached with the gospel, especially outside of the major cities and university towns. As I say regularly, on here and elsewhere, we’re in desperate need of people to come and help us. Yesterday we heard from two blokes ministering in Yorkshire in different contexts, Tim Davies from Christ Church Central in Sheffield, and Ian Goodson of Grace Church Wakefield. The day was finished off with ministry from Richard Underwood, of Christ Church Market Harborough. All of the sessions were helpful, but I just want to pick up on a few of the things Ian brought to us as he led us through some of the lessons learnt in planting Grace over the last 8 years. As well as being so applicable to contexts like ours, I think there are massive lessons to learn for the evangelical church. I said to Ian afterwards that his session was so good that I tweeted 90% of it, and I just want to hang a few thoughts on some of those tweetable lines.

Ian encouraged us to think about the ‘average places’. The towns and villages of Yorkshire were there isn’t a city or a university. The places where 3.5m of the 5.5m population of Yorkshire live. He suggested that maybe instead of lionising the quick growing church plants of many cities we should be looking instead to the example set by those in average places. He reminded us that Dewsbury Evangelical Church, in whose building we were sat, had started off with just 4 young Christians who had covenanted together, called a pastor, and sought to consistently and faithfully love their town. Average people, in an average place, doing average ministry, trusting the Lord to give the growth. Getting on for 50 years later, they’re still here, still living for Jesus, and have had a huge impact on their town over the years, as well as planting two other churches in other average towns. Maybe, we need to hear those stories more. And plant those kind of churches, in those kind of places more as well.

Ian also challenged much of the consumer mentality that seems to be prevalent in much Uk evangelicalism. It’s certainly true in our experience, as well as others we’ve talked to, that few people want to sell up and move to get involved in a church plant in the North of England. Especially in an average town like Cleck or Wakefield. That few people would be willing to get stuck into a church on a council estate, deprived area, or place where there’s just not a lot going on. And that’s a discipleship issue. If our student ministry and numbers grow and grow, and yet average places are lacking churches where people might hear the gospel, are we really fulfilling the Great Commission? Or could we be guilty of hoarding our resources, our talents, so that our kingdom might be a bit more comfy. Send us some people. Send some to Wakey. Flipping heck, even send them to Middlesbrough, Doncaster, or Halifax if you have to! Why not move there yourself?! But at least ask the question of whether you’re discipling people properly if you’ve never challenged them to move and take risks for the sake of the gospel. And if you’ve never thought of it yourself….

But he didn’t just have challenges for wider evangelicalism. We’re praying Matthew 9 prayers for our church this year. And while that means we are praying for more workers to help us in this harvest field, it also means that we’re praying that the Lord would give us soft hearts like Jesus’ heart of compassion. That he would give us grace to just do it and get out and sacrificially serve each other and our valley by sharing Jesus with them. And Ian wanted us to see that that’s not going to happen overnight. That seeing gospel fruit in the average places will take time. But that doesn’t mean we can let up. Planting churches in average places like Cleck & Wakey is a long, slow, slog. A constant putting one foot in front of the other, trusting the Lord. That long, slow obedience in the same direction. Ian’s encouragement to us was to keep going, even when it’s knackering. Because Jesus has promised to go with us and before us.

And he had one last challenge for those ministering in university towns. Don’t forget your brothers and sisters in the average places. For those students who leave average places to go off to university towns: don’t forget your home. Come back. Sacrifice for Jesus. That his people here might know him. And in the midst of the average places, Jesus might be glorified.

As Richard Underwood said later in the day, ‘Thank you Ian. I’ve never been beaten up so gently and tenderly.’

If you’d like to help in an average place, why not check out Grace Church Wakefield . Or if you’re prefer your beatings a bit less tender and with Yorkshire vowels, do give us a shout. Yorkshire desperately needs more gospel workers in average places. Perhaps we need you. Why wouldn’t you want to check it out….?!