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…

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…

So Pastor, what are you doing today?

A few weeks ago I spent far too much time on Twitter. Now my wife would probably say that I spend too much time on Twitter about 349 days a year. But the other week I managed to crack out 49 tweets in one thread. Let’s just say that’s a few more than normal.

It all started when a couple of friends asked me recently what my week looked like. The old joke that a pastor is invisible 6 days a week, and incomprehensible on the 7th still comes out occasionally. Maybe it’s just because I preach rubbish sermons! See what you reckon here. But I think it’s mainly because to a lot of people, whether church members or people outside the church, at least the first half is true. It can be very tempting for pastors to spend the majority of their week locked up in the study working hard on sermons. Even when people do see their pastor during the week, they don’t always know what he gets up to the rest of the time.

So, in part to answer my friends’ question, and to help others understand what ministry really does look like in a post-industrial Yorkshire mill town, I decided to live tweet my week. Check it out here. I wanted to show my friends (and anybody else that cared to listen) that, in our context here in Cleck, a pastor who spends his entire week in the study is going to make minimal impact for the kingdom of God. He might preach sermons that make Spurgeon look like a loser, but unless he engages with real people day to day he’s going to be preaching awesome sermons to a very select few. I also wanted to challenge some views of what is and isn’t pastoral ministry that I’ve encountered over the years. To suggest that we should maybe have a bigger view of what being a pastor involves. That hanging out with mates in the pub, at the football, or in a café is as much pastoral ministry as preparing a sermon.

I hope the thread shows the importance I place on spending time with people. Investing in church members to help equip them to disciple one another, and share the gospel with their friends. Investing in those who aren’t yet trusting in Jesus to build relationships, and show them the awesome person of Jesus. Just being a normal human being, who spends time with people, laughing, talking, mithering, and getting on with life together. You know…like Jesus did. Jesus: the glutton and the drunkard, the friend of tax collectors and sinners.

I also wanted to model to our church’s members what it looks like to get stuck into people’s lives, in a way I don’t normally. A fresh nudge that the gospel calls us to live as a family; in and out of each other’s houses, spending time chilling together, opening the Bible with each other, and pointing one another to Jesus. A fresh call to sacrificial use of time, energy, and cash in getting stuck into relationships with people around our town and valley. In fact, since then, I’ve started sharing my weekly google calendar with the church’s members, so they can see what I’m up to and be praying. And so they will, hopefully, be inspired to get out and spend time with people themselves.

Because here’s the thing: I can spend my time with people all I want, but there’s only one of me and 17000 people in Cleck. And it’s only as we as a church get stuck into our town; sacrificially, daily, lovingly, that we’ll show people the true beauty of the gospel. Even if all our church do that, and we’re very slowly getting there, we’re still only 14 in a valley of 50000. We need more workers. We need people from both inside and outside of Yorkshire to look at the need here, and commit to come and get stuck in. To join us in this joyful, happy, exhausting slog that is the work of making disciples where very few people know Jesus.

And, because of that fact, I also wanted to nudge the wider evangelical world. To start a conversation, however small, about what ministry looks like. About how we reach people with the gospel. About how we invest in people. But to also nudge maybe just one person to see the need. To commit to praying for our gospel needy area, both here in Cleck and around Yorkshire. To maybe even consider joining us in this mission. That here, in the Spen Valley, where for the vast, vast majority of people Jesus is not named or known. That here, the gospel might turn the world upside down.

Big hopes for a Twitter thread I know. But then, who’d have thought 120 terrified losers, hiding out in a spare room would ever have any impact on the world…

To the Pub…

A few years ago, a good friend, who I massively respect, told me that I needed to be careful with my alcohol intake. That the amount I was drinking was a lot for a pastor. That I could end up on the slippery slope to secret excessive alcohol use. To me the princely sum of about 4 pints a week didn’t seem excessive. To my friend, apparently, it was.

The Malt: like Mos Eisley… just without the band…


I don’t tell this story to make my friend seem like some sort of legalistic prude, he was genuinely looking out for me. But I do want to make the point that so often we can fall into simply following our cultural norms in how we think about living the Christian life. And, especially in a place like Cleck, that can have implications for how we’re able to reach the people who live around us with the gospel.


I’ve been doing a lot of thinking recently about the fact that Jesus was called a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners. It all started with a comment from Andy Prime, in his session at the Gospel and Class Conference in London last September, which my friend Matt tweeted.


It struck me as bang on for our folks, not just me, as we seek to reach our town and valley. For the vast majority of people in our town, social life is built around the pub and the chippy/pizza place. That’s where you meet your mates. That’s where you catch up on news. That’s where you laugh at the latest idiotic post about dog mess or bad parking on the Cleckheaton Matters Facebook group. That’s where you relax. Very often the people in the pub, including the people behind the bar, are your family.


And therefore, if we want to share Jesus with people, that’s where we need to be as well. Not just once a week where we all pile in as a group of church people. But regularly spending time where people are at. And spending time with people, chatting, getting to know them, remembering their names and situations. Now, before you shout at me, I am aware that for some people the pub’s not a helpful place to be. We do have to be careful not to cause people to stumble, or lead people where their conscience doesn’t allow.

Spoons: the centre of (retired) life in Cleck…


But in our context, people spend their evenings in the Malt Shovel, the Commercial, and the Rose and Crown. And retired people spend their days in Wetherspoons. And that means I drink a few more than 4 pints a week (along with a decent amount of refillable coffee!) My friend might think I’m in danger of turning into a drunkard. I’m confident I’m not, and I certainly don’t drink to excess (as my wife and Elders will testify as they hold me accountable). But I’m willing for people to call me a drunkard if they want. Because I am building more and more relationships with the regulars in the pubs I go in. They’re slowly starting to accept me as one of the regulars too. And fairly often, we have discussions about what I do for a living, and why I want to follow this Jesus fella. Sometimes that morphs into fully orbed opportunities to clearly explain the gospel, sometimes it doesn’t. But I passionately believe, and am praying, that one day I’ll be baptising someone from Cleck who starts their testimony with, ‘So I was sat in the Malt Shovel one night…’


If I want to follow Jesus, and help others to know him, I’ve got to think through what taking up my cross means. Now let’s be honest, sitting in the pub regularly is not that much of a cross for me. But the quickly suppressed frowns of some other Christians when I explain how I spend my time sometimes can be. The need to get up and out when I’m knackered and would rather just stick Netflix on sometimes can be. Because I follow a Saviour who was willing to be called a glutton and a drunkard, so that his people might meet him and know his grace.


Your context might be different. But, be certain, there is some area where, in order to reach people for Jesus, you’re going to have deny yourself, take up your cross, and sacrifice the good opinion of other Christians. Do you love the people around you enough to get on and do that?


Next time, I want to think through what following Jesus in the second half of that first century insult looks like in our context. Let me tell you about my friend, the racist…