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….?!

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….

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…

What did you say?!

I love a game of darts. The board on my study wall enables a quick break, or a laugh with mates. Occasionally my son will pester me for a game. The problem is neither of us are right good, as the state of the wall around the board testifies! I’m bad (but like to reckon I’m alright), and he’s worse (but then he is only 11). Which means that when we play I’m constantly giving him advice as to how to be as awesome as I think I am. Which, as you can imagine, he absolutely loves. Which, in turn, leads to some interesting conversations.

If you look closely enough, the scars of our incompetence are clear to see…

He hits a triple one. ‘Nice one! You just need to aim a bit left, love.’

‘But Dad, you told me I’m supposed to aim for triple twenty. Why would I aim for the left?!’

‘No son, I’m not saying that. You just need to aim a bit left…’

‘But I don’t want to hit triple eleven! I want to hit triple twenty!’

‘No love. Hear what I’m actually saying…’

Recently it’s struck me that lots of the conversations that are ongoing in the evangelical world sound a bit like that. In fact, a lot of the conversations I’ve had lately have, to my ears at least, sounded a lot like that. Whether it’s some of the Twitter reaction to last week’s post, or people’s reaction to the growing emphasis on reaching the working classes with the gospel, or the circular conversations I end up in whenever I mention that it might be a good thing if there were more Yorkshire pastors in Yorkshire pulpits, there seems to be a pattern.

Maybe it’s just because I don’t communicate my thoughts very well. It’s the West Riding accent, or the old fashioned Yorkshire idiom, or my sometimes aggressive tone. Or maybe I am just a rubbish communicator after all. I’m quite happy to accept that I can be a massive barrier to people understanding my point. But I want to suggest that maybe in lots of our conversations we can be often just like my son. Stood there, with dart in hand, wondering why we’ve had the misfortune to be instructed by such a complete muppet. Because we’ve heard correction as overcorrection, or criticism, or just plain bigotry.

And if my point is in any way valid, I reckon we need two things when we talk about corrections we think the church might possible need. Firstly, we need clarity in what we say. And secondly, we need to work hard to make sure that we hear what people are actually saying. To not jump on corrections as complete overreactions, because they drag us out of our comfort zones. To perhaps admit that we’re dragging too far to one side and therefore need to be corrected slightly. To be a bit less Pavlovian in our response. And to listen and read carefully and with grace.

And so I want to do my bit for clarity. One of the main points of this blog is to raise a flag (blue, with a White Rose on it, admittedly) for some areas where I humbly reckon ministry and evangelicalism might need a bit of correction. Which means that over the coming months I might just say the odd controversial thing, just like I do in real life. And I want regular readers (all three of them!), and listeners, to hear what I’m actually saying and what I’m not, else the whole thing’s pointless. So here are five themes I reckon might crop up regular here, along with what I’m not saying when I say them…

When I say that Yorkshire is desperately gospel needy… I’m not saying other areas aren’t. Of course there’s great gospel need right around the country, and the world. Literally all I’m saying is that there’s massive gospel need here, and that we need help. I’d be delighted if people wanted to bang the drum for their needy area as well. I’m just doing it for the place I love, for my home, for my people. Please hear what I’m actually saying.

When I say that we need to reach, and be accessible to, the working classes in our town and around the country… I’m not saying we don’t need to reach all people of every class. It’s just that, as a general rule, we (and probably you) are not reaching the working classes. So if we really want to reach all people of every class then we need to work hard to reach the working class as well, and not just those who fit into the mould of what most Uk evangelicals look like. My friend Al Gooderham wrote a great little post about this last year. Please hear what I’m actually saying.

When I say that we need to raise up more Yorkshire leaders in Yorkshire pulpits… I’m not saying that we don’t need pastors from elsewhere, or that non-Yorkshire folk can’t reach Yorkshire people with the gospel. Of course they can! Of course I’m grateful for gospel workers from elsewhere, how else do you think I heard the gospel myself?! Even my Dad’s Scouse! It’s just that, if there are barely any indigenous pastors in a county of 5.5 million people, perhaps we might need to ask ourselves some questions about whether we’re reaching, and discipling, Yorkshire people as we ought to be. Please hear what I’m actually saying.

When I say that people need to contextualise their life and ministry to reach Yorkshire people… I’m not saying that Yorkshire is a unique case. If world missions have taught us anything it’s that every culture needs gospel workers to contextualise, right?! But there can be a tendency to think that because we’re in the same country we don’t have to change our methods or lifestyles to reach Yorkshire folk. Which surely is just plain wrong. Yorkshire is different to other parts of the country, and bits of Yorkshire are different to other parts of Yorkshire. You could say the same, I’m sure, about Cornwall, Liverpool, Norfolk, Wales, Scotland, or Middlesbrough. I’m just saying it about Yorkshire. Hopefully, I’ll say stuff about our context which will apply in different ways to contexts right around the country, and even the world. Please hear what I’m actually saying.

When I suggest that we need to hear more northern (or even Yorkshire) accents at evangelical conferences and events… I’m not saying that there’s nothing to learn from people from elsewhere. I’m not (as I’ve been accused of when saying this) some kind of racist, or a Yorkshire separationist. It’s just I grew up thinking I couldn’t ever be a pastor. And one of the biggest reasons for that was because I thought my clothes, my accent, my mannerisms, and even some of my worldview didn’t fit with what a pastor looked like. As I’ve said before elsewhere, until I sat and listened to an aggressive Irishman with a Halifax accent preach for a weekend, I’d never even imagined I could be myself in the pulpit. I just didn’t think I was allowed to. No one had ever said that, it’s just every single pastor I ever heard or saw was from somewhere else, was very different to me. And the fact is that the vast majority of preachers we ever hear at evangelical conferences are southern or American, with the occasional Scot thrown in. All I’m saying is that maybe we need to take into account the effect that might have on young lads from northern England, and how they view what a pastor or ministry looks like. Please hear what I’m actually saying.

There are probably more areas where I have this conversation, and I’ll likely write in more detail about each of these areas over the coming months. There’s probably, hopefully even, huge overlap with your context. But for now my plea is this: let’s actually listen to one another, and give each other the benefit of getting past our initial, almost Pavlovian responses to correction. And let’s engage in real conversation about how we can help the gospel go forward together. You in your small corner, and me in mine. And all of us working together, that people in all of those corners might hear of Jesus, and come to know him…