Yet not I, but we/us/our in Christ…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Help a brother out, eh….

Do you get it yet?!

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

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

But the Lord knows what he’s doing…

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

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

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

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

So just let me be beside the seaside…

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

On the positive side;

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

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

Shearer!!!!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Medhurst Ministries: Mithering, ministry, movement…

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

Genuinely taken last week at the Jonas Centre #VisitYorkshire!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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…