Evangelism dunt need Einstein!

In the last two posts (here and here), I’ve been thinking through some of the reasons why it’s so easy for Christians to spend most of their life in the Christian bubble, and why that’s not really a good thing. I highlighted five issues; time, comfort, lack of care, over-programmed churches, and the way many University CUs are run.

This week I want to just suggest a few areas where a bit of lateral thinking could help us. I don’t think a single one of these is original (so apologies to any one I unwittingly plagiarise), but hopefully at least one or two might be helpful to someone. I’m not going to address all of the issues I raised last week, but just a few things I’ve tried to do over the years to get myself, and others, into the real world (where we can share the gospel!).

So here goes. If we want to get folks out of the Christian bubble & prioritising time with non-Christians we must;

Model it: Not rocket science, right?! But how many pastors/elders have mates? I mean, you could ask that question full stop! But in view of our question, how many pastors/elders intentionally spend relaxed time developing deep friendships with non-Christians in the town? Do you have time? Is it a priority? What does Paul’s command (2 Tim. 4.5) to ‘do the work of an evangelist’ look like in your life as a pastor/elder? Or simply as a mature believer. If people see it’s not a priority for you, why should it be a priority for them? Maybe we need to look carefully at our timetables…

Disciple others in it: Again, it’s obvious, right?! When we’re spending time with unbelievers we get others along to see just how easy it actually is. We let them see how we do it. We let them see how people are invited into our homes and lives. We open the Bible with them and let them see why it’s a biblical imperative. We encourage, challenge, encourage…

Celebrate it: Sorry this really is sucking eggs, isn’t it?! But maybe, if so many of us really are stuck in the Christian bubble, we need someone to tell us that the King’s forgotten his pants. On Sunday, in Life Group, in one on ones; get people to share how they are getting out into the community and developing relationships. Get people to share ideas. Point to people who are examples in this and say along with Paul: ‘Follow [them] as they follow the example of Christ.’ (1 Cor. 11.1)…

Be willing to sacrifice a few sacred cows: Here’s where the rubber might just hit the road. Maybe there are too many ways for people in your church to ‘serve’ each week. Might it just be possible that someone can ‘serve’ at every ministry you run and never really get to know anybody, especially an unbeliever. To hide behind the coffee jug or the reception table. Might it just be possible that there might be ministries you run that have had their day, or that aren’t essential, but are tying people up from getting to know people in their community. The answer might be, ‘No’, in which case brilliant. But is it?! Really?! At least ask the question. At Spen Valley Church we don’t have any formal meetings outside of a Sunday, and the plan is that we won’t. Of course we’re willing to follow where the Lord leads, but the aim is for our weeks to be free for discipling and getting to know others. People know that. By and large they’ve bought into that. We’re only two years in, but I know ten times as many non-Christians as I’ve ever known anywhere else. Who knows where that will lead…

Get off your backside, and do what the Lord has called you to: Too strong?! Oh well, you’ll get over it… And I’m saying it as much to myself as anyone. Although there are loads of systematic issues why we spend all our time in the Christian bubble, I reckon the main reason is that we quite like it. The outside world is scary. Non-Christians do unpredictable things. We don’t want the hassle of telling them they’re sinners. We quite like watching people shout, swear, drink, and stab each other on Netflix (where they’re safely inside the screen), but we’re not quite comfortable with experiencing it among people we might call our friends. And let me be brutal: That, my friends, is sin. If we don’t care enough about the lost around us to get into their lives and tell them the gospel (whether in a programmed way or not) we either don’t believe in hell, are seriously stunted in our Christian maturity, or maybe even aren’t regenerate. Telling people the gospel is a biblical command. It’s one that’s full of joy and blessing, but at the end of the day, it’s a command. End of. Perhaps we need to do some serious soul searching about why we can’t be bothered to obey it…  

Preach the gospel: Duh! But not just to the lost around us. If we recognise ourselves, and our sinful hearts especially, in our lack of desire to share Jesus with those around us, then we’ve got to come back to the cross. There is forgiveness there to cover every sin. Admit you’re a loser in this area. I mean, technically we’re all losers in every area, that’s the point of the gospel, right? But here’s the joy: Jesus isn’t. And he has died that we might enjoy real life in him. That we might love others because he first loved us. And we might go to the world to share him as he came into the world to share himself. If you’re a sinner in this area, and you are, then come back to Jesus. Fill your view with his cross-work. See the reality of what hell is as you look at that cross. And, just like Jesus, for the joy set before you (the Father’s welcome and the joy of being united to his people) get on and make some mates. And tell them about Jesus…

Like I said, it ain’t rocket science…

From Cowardice (and forgotten priorities) defend us…

Last week I suggested that the experience of the psalmist in Psalm 120 might not be the everyday experience for many evangelicals in the Uk, especially in small northern towns like ours. For him, life is war. A constant battle with those who want to fight him whenever he opens his mouth about the peace with the Lord that he has found. A war to maintain his identity as one who is for peace, when he’s surround by those who are for war.

I suggested that one of the main reasons for that is that it’s far too easy for most of us to live, almost our entire lives, in the Christian bubble. Outside of the work environment anyway, where let’s face it, we’ve got a job to do! This brings the obvious result of being at peace with most of those we spend our time with (or at least that’s the biblical ideal!). It also means we simply don’t share the gospel with those we know, because we don’t really know anyone. We don’t speak to people about Jesus, in David Robertson’s phrase, because we don’t speak to people! Which I’d like to think we all reckon is a problem!

This week, I want to suggest some of the reasons I think we’ve fallen into this trap, some of which show up sin in our lives and some which might be more systemic problems with how we operate. It’s not an exhaustive list by any means, but just a few that have been on my heart recently as I’ve thought about this. I want to stress that these are things I’ve experienced in a few different contexts (to greater and lesser degrees), and might not be true in every context. But I think they’re probably more common that we’d like to admit, so I’m just going to say them. If you’re not offended by at least one of the following, I’ve probably not expressed myself very clearly.

So here goes:

Time: I hinted at this last time, but it’s the most common reason (excuse?!) I’ve heard over the years (from myself as much as anyone else). We’re busy people. Most of us have jobs, time consuming ones at that. Lots of us have families, we’ve got to give them time. We’ve got our church commitments, that’s maybe 3-4 nights a week. I do my hobby. I need my me-time. I’ve got to use my time wisely. I need to be productive. I just don’t have time to spend hours sitting around building intentional relationships with unbelievers. But I reckon the Bible tells me that we always do what we most want to do. I reckon, as I quoted my friend Mez McConnell as saying at a conference a few years ago, that time is a massive idol for us. We always find time for what’s important to us. Which brings me to the second thing;

Comfort: If the number one idol is our time, I reckon our comfort runs it pretty close. Getting out of our comfort zone isn’t summat people generally are wild about, and experience tells me that evangelicals often aren’t that different. And crossing the pain line to spend time with people who aren’t necessarily like us, and especially to tell them they’re sinners in need of a Saviour, isn’t first on our list of things we find comfortable. And so, given the least hint of an excuse not to, we don’t do it. And partly that’s down to the fact that;

We’re just not that bothered: We generally talk a good game about evangelism. We are evangelicals after all! We’re desperate to see people saved. We’re desperate to see churches grow. But, as I look at my own heart and talk to other believers, I’m afraid I’m not that convinced. The fact is that, for most of us, nearly everyone we see today is headed for hell. I’m just not convinced that we do actually care that much. I’m not anyway. I can talk the talk all I want, but unless I do summat about it, it’s just words. As I said back in March, preaching on Amos 6-7, I don’t reckon you’re that much different.

Packed out church programs: In our first few years of marriage either my wife or I was out at some activity run by our church every night of the week (with the exception of Saturday) in term time; gathered worship, running clubs, mid-week meetings… Now that was exceptional, and I should have made sure it didn’t happen! But, all the time-idolatry issues aside, many people do live busy, complicated lives. A report out today tells us that the average working week for teachers is between 45-48 hours a week, with a quarter doing 60+ hours (I think they must have included the part-time teachers as well!). 40% of teachers said they usually work every evening, and 10% usually work at the weekend. As I former teacher, I reckon those figures are on the low side, and many jobs demand even greater commitment. When you add in the weeks where deadlines hit, or there are evening work meetings, or (shock/horror) an evening or two spent with the family, or a date night, or whatever, even a couple of church meetings a week doesn’t leave most folks with loads of opportunities to spend relaxed time building relationships with unbelievers around them. And most churches probably have more than a couple. But this is our church culture; the midweek, the kid’s club(s), the foodbank, the prayer triplet, the discipling (if we do that)… None of those are necessarily bad things in and of themselves. But together, they often don’t leave a lot of time for owt else. And here’s the thing I reckon we love it. Because it sits right in our comfort zone. Because often it’s rooted in us from our formative years. It’s just all we know. Which brings me to my last reason (where I reckon it could really kick off);

University Christian Unions: Steady on, hear me out before you start throwing stuff! Now, there’s a general consensus that most evangelicals in the Uk are university educated, I’ve seen numbers from 75-85%. And it’s true that for many of us those student years are either when we were converted, or when we really grew as believers for the first time. It’s why churches, and parachurch organisations, put so much effort into student ministry. Which, don’t get me wrong, is a great thing. I led a student work at my last church for 6 years, and we saw real encouragements in it. But as kids sign up at Freshers’ Fairs around the country this week I wonder how many events the CU have got on. I wonder how many other societies young, zealous, Christian students will sign up for. I wonder how many of their friends outside of the CU they’re getting to know this week will still be those they spend time with this time next year. I wonder what they’ll make of the strongly worded advice from ‘Christians who work with students’ that they should not, under almost any circumstances, live with non-Christians in their 2nd and 3rd years. I wonder how many meetings those who serve on Committee will be asked to go to, and how much they’re able to prioritise spending time with unbelievers. I wonder how much time any of them will have free to spend with unbelievers once they’ve got through the main CU meeting, and the Small Group, and the Small Group Leader’s Bible study, and the CU Prayer meeting, and the Committee meeting, and their session with their Relay worker, not to mention all the meetings their church runs for Students. And that’s before they actually spend any time in the Library, or writing dissertations, or making up final projects: you know, being actual students! And if, for such a majority of evangelical believers today, that’s how their Christian lives started, why would we expect it to be any different once they graduate.

There’s many more reasons why we don’t spend time with people, and therefore don’t speak to them of Jesus. But these will do for now. Next week, I want to propose some ways we can seek to work through of these issues. But for now, recognise yourself? Cause I do…

The (phoney) war of the Christian life…

The other Sunday at Spen Valley Church we started a new sermon series in the Psalms of Ascent. I love these psalms; brutally realistic about the fact that the Christian life is war, uncompromising in their call for us to depend entirely on the Lord’s keeping power for our peace and security, and full of hope of the joy of being one together with the Lord and his people.

Funnily enough, we started out at the beginning, Psalm 120. It really is brutal in showing us the Christian life as war. But as I started to think about the applications for us, it struck me that this psalm isn’t really about what we normally talk about when we think about the battle of the Christian life.

You see, we think about the Christian life as war because of the battle to pursuing holiness, or kill sin, or even because of the fight to keep trusting the Lord when suffering strikes or loved ones die. But the slight problem is that that’s not really what the psalmist’s problem is.

He’s fighting a war because of where he lives and who he lives among (vs. 5). Wherever it is that he lives, it at least feels like he’s living among pagans. And pagans (vv. 6-7) who hate everything he is and everything he says. He is a believer, one of the Lord’s people, who’s very identity is one of peace with God and his people. A man who wants to speak the good news of peace to all around him. And yet all this peaceful being and speaking only brings him war. It’s a fight to keep going, keep believing, keep speaking. So much so that (vs. 1) he’s repeatedly crying to the Lord for help.

There were lots of applications of this war for us as a church. Check them out here if want. But I just want to dwell on one for a few posts here. I might be getting this proper wrong, but I reckon that for a lot of us the psalmist’s experience isn’t really our own day to day experience. Now, I understand that if you work in academia or a similar environment, or even TV land, then you might regularly come up against people who don’t like the Bible’s view about certain social issues. But I reckon that for lots of us, especially in small northern towns like ours, the war the psalmist is talking about just isn’t something that causes us the same distress it does him. And I reckon there’s at least two fairly simple reasons for that.

Firstly, I reckon that often our default pattern of life is different to the psalmist’s. We might inhabit the same geographical location as plenty of non-Christians, both at home and work. But whether or not we dwell amongst them is another question entirely. It’s far too easy for so many Christians to avoid spending time amongst those who don’t know Jesus, and spend all our non-work time in the Christian bubble. Another meeting to attend, another committee to be on, another youth club to run, another shift at the church foodbank/drop-in/café to get on with. All our mates are Christians, and sometimes we even enjoy spending time with them. When asked at the prayer meeting to give a name of a non-Christian we know well, and want to share the gospel with though, if we’re honest, it’s a bit of a struggle.

Perhaps no-one hates us, because no-one actually, really, knows us.

Or perhaps we do know people. We’re even invested in people’s lives. But if we’re honest it’s quite hard for them to tell the difference between them and us. Yeah, we have that funny hobby on a Sunday, and we’ve got some weird thing about Jesus, and a few daddy issues. But the stuff we talk about, the stuff we get excited about, the dreams we live for, they’re pretty much in line with theirs. From what we say, they could easily make out that if our kids turn out normal and successful, our spouse is gorgeous, we get that promotion, we win the lottery, our team win the league, and our version of Brexit was delivered, we’d think life was quite tidy, thanks very much. Perhaps the idea of telling them that they’re a sinner heading for hell and in desperate need of Jesus as Saviour and Lord has crossed our mind, but…well, they wouldn’t like that, would they now?!

Perhaps no-one’s out for war, because we barely ever speak of peace.

In our town, probably 99% plus have never heard the gospel. It’s probably similar in yours. Unless we actually get out there and tell them, that ain’t going to change. They’ll never know they’re at war with God unless we live among them, speaking and living out the implications of the gospel of peace.

So what can we do about that? Well, next week I want to think about some of the systematic reasons why it’s so easy for us to live in the Christian bubble and how we can try to change them. But for now…? Pray. Go out of your door. Pray. Go somewhere, anywhere, where’s there’s people. Pray. Meet some people and get to know them. Pray. Tell them about Jesus and their need of him. Pray.

Repeat. Then repeat. And repe…

You get the picture…

Back to school…and the future!

Yesterday was a big day in our house. My son went off to high school for the first time. He’s quite the nervous soul, and so the last couple of weeks have been a bit lively! Not only have we had the joys of spending a ridiculous amount of money on compulsory school-branded clothing, and equipment he won’t use that often (over £200, even with buying the cheapest stuff we could find!), but we’ve had occasional tears, grumps, and the odd nightmare.

It was a long time ago that I first went to high school (probably well before some of his teachers were born!). But I still vividly remember the six weeks of anxiety about the stories of heads being flushed down toilets and what Year 11s did to little Year 7s behind Faggee’s Corner or on the Cage Walk. But I also remember that there turned out to be nothing to them. And I also remember my years as a high school teacher, and know that generally kids settle in quickly, get used to a different way of working, and most importantly make new friends fairly quickly.

5 years I spent in this place. Happiest days of your life…apparently!

So, as he went off in fear and trepidation yesterday morning, I was thinking about the friends he might make. And it struck me that over the coming weeks he might meet people who will be his mates for life. People who he has, as yet, never set eyes on who might be the guys he drinks in the Malt Shovel with in 40 years, or the blokes he works with, or the people he turns to when life falls apart down the line, maybe even someone he might walk down an aisle with one day.

You see, that’s Cleck. So many of the people I meet in the town have lived here all their lives. They grew up here. They all went to the same school, unless they went off to the grammar school in Hecky (by definition a minority). They’ve all known each other since they were 11, or 14 at least if they’re old enough to remember the middle school system. They all know each other’s mums and dads, and different family situations. They all remember that thing that happened when they were 16, and what she did to him when he said that to her. They still hang round together, not on Facebook, or Insta, or even on Friends Reunited! But in real life. Their best mate is still the fella they met in the classroom way back when. Lots of them are married to one another. Very often, it’s even generational. Families have lived here for as long as anybody can remember. Not only did they go to school with their best mate, but their dad went to school with his dad, right back to when their great-grandads worked in the mills together.

Cleck in 1900… Dark and satanic according to some poet or other

You see they’ve got history. Long history. Involved history. And that means that planting, and being, a church here might be a bit different to places where people tend to be a bit more socially and geographically mobile. There’s probably lots of things it means, but it means at least that we’ve got to rethink our timetable for growth. On the other hand, it means that setting up a solid little church invested in the local community could, by God’s grace, do great good over a very long time.

You see, planting a church in a place like Cleck simply will take a long time for lots of reasons. But the fact that nearly everyone knows nearly everyone, and always has, plays a huge part in it. As a church we’re all incomers. Some of us are even incomers to Yorkshire. Even my wife and I, who’ve lived all our lives within a 7 mile radius of Cleck, are still in many ways outsiders. And that means that deep relationships are going to take longer to grow. We’ve not got that history, we’re not from round here. Many people already have a huge network of relationships, whether family, or mates, or whoever. And therefore there’s less people looking for new friends, or new opportunities to get out and do stuff. It means getting into our community is going to take longer. And so planting here is going to be very different to planting in a mobile town or city where people are coming and going all the time. It’s going to take longer, it’s going to be more labour intensive, it’s probably going to be more frustrating. We’re going to need more support from outside, both in terms of people and finances. We’re going to have to be patient, and keep going even when it feels like nothing’s happening. We certainly won’t be self-sufficient, or self-funding, any time soon.

A place of memories for all who grew up here… The old school building

But it also means that, long term, there are huge opportunities here that might not exist in more mobile places. Because in 20, or 30, or even 100 years, by God’s grace we’ll still be here. Maybe not all of us, or even any of us. But, if the it’s the Lord’s will, then Spen Valley Church will. And, God willing, it will be full of people who grew up here. Who went to school here. Who have invested their entire life in this town. Whose mates are the people they met in Year 7 or even in Reception, or even before that. People who are simply part of the huge, complex, tangled web of relationships that make up Cleck. Who those around them have seen grow up, have seen go through the process of coming to know Jesus, be baptised, and get stuck into church life. People who have lived out the transformation of life that comes with knowing Jesus. People who are part of the very fabric of this town and are determined to proclaim the gospel of Jesus to those they’ve loved all their lives. Who demonstrated the keeping power of God in one place, in front of the same people, for 70 years. That’s just not possible in areas where people stick around for 3 years, or even 10, before moving on. That’s just not possible in places where all the kids go off to university and rarely come back. But I reckon that here, it just might be.

We’re still a million miles from that yet. But we are praying that God will be gracious in getting us there one day. That he might take a group of incomers and make us part of this place. That he might bring us more incomers willing to come and be part of this town for the sake of the gospel. And that he might use that process so that people might come in and know the rest that comes with belonging to the family of God in Jesus…