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….?!

10 things I hate about growth…

I preached at one of our member’s wedding on Saturday. It was a great day. And that’s not just standard diplomacy actually. I normally hate weddings (all that waiting around isn’t always the easiest with all that ADHD bouncing around our family, for a start), but this one I actually enjoyed. Especially as preaching gave me the excuse to rip my mate getting married a bit. Don’t worry, he got his own back in his speech!

How could I not reference the fact that he did this to his head, bless him…

As part of the sermon prep I was thinking about that staple of wedding sermons: the romcom. As well as pointing out that the person Jerry Maguire really loves is not dear old Renee, but himself (come at me!), I thought a bit about why so many of us blokes hate romcoms. Now I know some guys love them, one (if not both) of my fellow Elders is a bit of an aficionado. But most fellas I know (and especially me) hate them, and sitting through an entire showing is proof that sacrificial love exists. But I reckon that’s one of the main reasons we hate them. It’s not just that they’re all the same, predictable, unfunny, and…well, just dull. I reckon the biggest reason many blokes hate romcoms is because they make us feel guilty.

You know the score. You have to sit there and watch as (at least towards the end of the film) some bloke extravagantly romances his missus; taking the initiative, thinking up incredibly intricate & planned out ways to surprise her, and spending shedloads of money on open-top carriage rides, spontaneous trips round the world, and flowery love talk. Man, it’s a lot to live up to. And it’s probably going to start giving my wife ideas that I’m just not going to live up to. What’s a trip to the pictures and a bunch of Aldi flowers to all that?! It’s like being forced to sit through a documentary solely focused on how much of a loser I am!

But that’s enough confession of my inadequacies as a husband, for now anyroad. The reason I bring it up at all is that it chimes with my experience of what we think sacrificial love is as we approach everyday life in the church. Like me as I sit through Isn’t it Romantic?! (no it ain’t!!), we’re quite happy to show sacrificial love when someone asks us to. We’re quite happy to serve that person because the pastor asked us to look out for them while he’s away. We’re quite content to do some practical service because we’re on a rota. We’re delighted to pray for someone when they ask us to, or listen to their problems when they ask if they can share. We’ll sometimes even get stuck into people’s lives or have them stay with us while they’re struggling, or dive into the graft of practical service. As long, and here’s the thing, as long as someone else takes the initiative to organise it, or ask us to.

Come on now, Tom. That sounds to me like you only want her for what she gives you…

But to take the trouble to think about how we could go out of our way to love and serve the people around us. To see a need and just get on with it. To simply be on the look out for needs in the first place. To get off our backside and organise some relationship building time together with other people in the church, rather than just leaving it for someone more organised or extroverted than you believe you are. To ask that person if they fancy catching up to chat/study the Bible/pray this week, even though you know it’s going to be like pulling teeth. To ask that person discipling you how they are, really are, instead of just letting them ask you about you all the time. To seek out ways to bless others in your church. To search out ways of outdoing one another in terms of love and service. To take the trouble to get to know that new believer who’s just started coming, and not just think that the pastor will pick them up. To ask them if they fancy coming for tea, or having a pint, and not just expecting someone else to do it. To voluntarily take the first step to review your giving, or your address, to see if a change could benefit the gospel. To actually think through moving to a different area to help a church plant, or a church seeking to reach a difficult area, and not just ‘promise to pray about it’ when you read a blog or hear a presentation. To take responsibility, and the initiative, yourself. And not just leave it to the ‘professionals’, or the young, free, and single.

Over the years, I come to believe that this is one crucial element missing from our practice (and maybe even theology) of sacrificial love in the church. We don’t want to take the initiative. We don’t want to push ourselves outside of our comfort zone. That’s what pastors are for, and (depending on how we’re disposed to them on that day) they’re either ‘very challenging’, or just nagging. But I reckon it’s summat we’ve got to sort out. For three main reasons;

Firstly, it simply doesn’t reflect the Lord’s love for us. He didn’t wait to be asked to come. He didn’t have to be told about our need. The Lord Jesus loved us enough that he willingly came, sought us out, and brought us to himself. And if that’s what love looks like (and it does, 1 John 3.16), and if that’s what our love for one another ought to reflect (and it is, 1 John 3.16), then perhaps we’ve got some thinking to do.

Secondly, it stunts our Christian growth, and that of those around us. If we never take initiative to love and serve people, then those we disciple won’t either. Actually, if we’re not taking the initiative to love and serve people, it’s probably unlikely we’re actually doing much discipling anyway. But if the only people who organise, seek out opportunities, and sacrifice without being asked to are the Elders and other ‘professionals’, then we just propagate the view that that’s stuff for them, the ones who are paid to do it. And therefore, Christians don’t grow, church plants struggle for workers, and people stay quite happily within their comfort zones.

And finally, it just ain’t going to work in communities like ours. People aren’t running through our doors. People think Christians are just a bit odd. And people round here are generally quite independent, they don’t like asking for help. There’s a pride in managing yourself here, even when it’s clear for everyone to see that you’re not. Unless we start to take the initiative to love and serve people, we’re going nowhere. We’ll just be another bunch of do gooders who like weird religious stuff.

But wouldn’t it be amazing if Jesus had given us a sure fire way to authenticate the truth of the gospel, and to get stuck into people’s live and help them see him at the same time?! Not quite a silver bullet, but maybe a foil one (and that worked on werewolves in the books I read as kid!). Well, as it happens, he did say there was summat that would help everyone know that we are his disciples, didn’t he? Remember what it was? ‘Love one another, as I have loved you.’ Love that takes the initiative, bothers to think, bothers to seek out ways to love and serve people every day.

That’d be good wouldn’t it. Maybe we should give that a go then, eh?

And yeah, before anybody asks, I get that in the light of all this (and especially Ephesians 5!), I not only need to watch the romcom, but perhaps to learn it’s lesson as well. Woo. Hoo….