Tell ’em plain…

He’s on his way from misery to happiness… Ah, wrong film…

Disclaimer: Yes this is a post largely involving the First World War. Just count yourselves lucky it’s taken this long. Stick with it, there’s good news coming…

Last night I took a trip with a couple of mates from church to see 1917, Sam Mendes’ new film, set in…well you can work it out. The critics have been raving about it, and it looks like the luvvies at the academies will to. Those of you who know me know how much I love a good film, and the bus advert told me, ‘You must see this movie!’ And all adverts on buses must be true, right?! So off we went…

But those of you who know me will also know that, since my teens, I’ve been obsessed by the First World War. It holds a fascination over me that little else does. Since first watching Richard Holmes walk around France gently explaining the Battle of the Somme, and finding out my great-Grandad fought in that Battle and at Third Ypres (losing a lung to gas) among others, I’ve devoured anything I could get my hands on about the conflict. And I’ve been longing for a decent First World War film to show things how they were. So I was understandably a little torn as we sat down to watch (not to mention the fact that one of the mates I saw the film with has an MA in the First World War as well!).

If you’ve not seen the film yet I won’t spoil it. The cinematography is great, the first person camera that everyone’s been going on about is good (even if it made me feel like I’d just spent two hours playing Battlefield 1!), and George MacKay is as excellent in this as in everything else he’s been in. So the film buff was, in general, satisfied.

However…

The film buff didn’t get to enjoy that too much. Because the historian found the whole thing so utterly, utterly, stupid. The film is set (again, hopefully no real spoilers here) around the advance of the British to the German Hindenburg Line in April 1917. The basic plot follows two Lance-Corporals as they are tasked with taking a message to a battalion about to attack this new, formidable, trench system. Without giving too much away this battalion has arrived at their attack position, dug a remarkably JCB-like trench into the chalk of Picardy overnight, and is about to launch an assault all by themselves, without any support from artillery or armour. If you’re a First World War novice, that is about as likely and sensible as the SAS being dropped in a warzone with no weapons, or even clothes, today. I won’t reveal anymore, but let’s just say there were enough absolute howlers to keep myself and my MA-owning mate going on the drive home. Although it wasn’t as horrific as I expected given some of the interviews with director and cast I have seen, this was, at best, a buddy/journey film, that just happens to have a vague First World War aesthetic.

That’s an impressive feat in one night!

And the thing is that some of these inaccuracies seem to be put in on purpose, in order to make it more palatable to a 21st Century audience. One clear example was the attempt to make the film as diverse as possible. While it’s certainly the case that black troops did sterling service for Britain in the First World War (Walter Tull is one of my heroes), if the number represented in the two battalions or so seen here was representative of the army as a whole then hundreds of thousands of black troops would have fought on the Western Front. That simply wasn’t the case. Similarly the Indian Army solider who randomly turns up in a British Army unit. I understand why film makers make these choices (again, Indian Army soldiers performed great service during the 1914-18 war), but it does seem that the true situation is changed simply to appease modern sensibilities. To allow us to feel the tension of the life and death nature of war, without feeling the uncomfortableness of being transported to the different world and culture that these men fought in just over a century ago.

And it struck me as I thought it over again this morning (when I wasn’t raging!) that so often we make the same choices when we share the good news of Jesus with people. We’re all so scared of dragging people out of their comfort zones by talking about sin, death, hell, and judgement that we just stick to the nice bits. A whole vocabulary of meaning, satisfaction, and fulfillment has taken their place in the ways we often preach the gospel. We’re worried that if we confront people with the stark truth of reality as it is they might not stick with us. If we can just make the uncomfortable bits palatable enough, they might stick with the story. Now don’t get me wrong, we are all searching for satisfaction, meaning, and fulfillment, and those things really are only found in Christ. But I do wonder if we’re often tempted to use them instead of talking about wrath, sin, condemnation, and hell, rather than in addition to. Perhaps we’re guilty of trying to make Jesus palatable. Trying to fit him, as much as we possible can, into people’s existing worldview. To allow them to see the life that is in Jesus, with feeling the uncomfortableness of the death that we have chosen for ourselves.

And yet the gospel is the power of God to salvation. There really is a holy God who is angry at our sin. All have sinned and fallen short of God’s glory, and are running, laughing and cheering, to hell. But God has sent Jesus, to live the perfect life of obedience we couldn’t live, and to die in the place of all his people to bring them to his Father, by the power of the Spirit. People need to hear that. All of it. And, by God’s grace they need to repent of their sins and put their hope in this Christ, who took hell in the place of all who will trust him.

John Nelson was a bloke from round here in the 18th Century. He was saved after hearing John Wesley preach in London. He came home and went around sharing Jesus in our area, planting churches as he went. And he said this, ‘No preaching will do in Yorkshire except the old sort that comes like thunderclaps upon the conscience.’  In other words, tell ‘em plain. Don’t dress the gospel up. Don’t try it make it, or Jesus, more palatable. Give people the truth. Give them Jesus. It, and he, are actually far more impressive than your attempts to dress them up.

So get out there and tell people of Jesus. A Jesus who saves his people from the hell that he took on the cross in their place. That’s good news. It’s also the power of God to salvation.  Don’t dress it up, don’t soften it. Just tell ‘em plain…

(and if you’re at all interested in the real story of the First World War, then Gary Sheffield’s brilliant ‘Forgotten Victory: the First World War Myths and Realities’ is only 99p on Amazon at the minute. You can’t go wrong for 99p folks. Even if you’re a tight Yorkshireman…)

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….

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…

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…

The one with the racists…

There are some things in life that you think are just ‘wrong’, right?. We’ve all got that list in our heads in some form or other. I’m not talking sin or illegal. I’m talking cultural habits that people around us love, but we hate with a passion. You know the kind of thing I mean: watching Strictly, barn dances, socks and sandals, dance music, eating hummus, supporting Leeds United (ok, that last one should be illegal!)… It tends to be summat and nowt, harmless, a bit of banter that brings colour to life. But what about when we start to do the same with people? You see, that can get a bit more tasty.

Wrong, wrong, wrong! Just wrong…

Because, as I stated to explore last time, Jesus was well known in first century Judea as a wrong ‘un: a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners. If ever anybody fell in with the wrong crowd…

I mean, tax collectors were bad, right? They screwed their own people over for a slice of the Revenue’s pie. They rejected God’s covenant for the instant gratification of a cut of their mate’s giro. And sinners were called sinners because they were…well, you know, sinners. They broke the Lord’s commandments flagrantly and without shame. Often in their very line of work. And yet it was to these people that Jesus gave his time. To Matthew and his mates that he became a mate (Matt. 9.9-11). Them that he came to rescue (Matt. 9.12-13).

Matthew’s house: surprisingly similar to Spoons in Cleck…

As I said last time, I’ve been thinking carefully recently about what it means in our context to follow a Saviour who came for tax collectors and sinners. A Saviour who was a friend to those society rejected. And I’ve come to a shocking conclusion. I reckon it means I too should be a friend to tax collectors and sinners. To invest in them, love them, show them Jesus. Nuts, eh?!

And here’s the thing: I don’t primarily mean my mate who spends his working week in the HMRC offices. Because in our context it means I’m going to have friends who don’t fit into our societies’ nice little boxes.

You see, I am a friend of racists. Proper, open racists. People who won’t buy stuff because Asian people are selling it. They might look over their shoulder before they say it. But they’ll say it all the same.

And I’m a friend of junkies. Of alcoholics. Of people who shout, and swear, and smoke, and fight. Of people who are…well, you know, sinners.

That’s not because I’m special. I’m not some hardcore Christian, specially gifted to reach those who a large, and vocal, part of our society rejects. My friends are just normal people. They’re sinners. Like you, and like me. It’s just their sins are not always the respectable ones that our society accepts.

And I love them. Some of the things they say I disagree with! Some of them we have debates about. But it’s not summat I go on about a lot. They’re my mates. I like them. And, ultimately, it’s not their biggest problem. They need Jesus, and his gospel. And so I don’t want to hold them at arm’s length until they clean up their views on ethnicity, or their bloodstream, or (perhaps most shockingly to some) their language. I want to invest in my friends and tell them of the glorious good news of a Saviour who died that racists, junkies, and nutjobs might be holy and blameless children of their heavenly Father.

You see, Paul tells us that, ‘God demonstrates his own love for us in this: while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.’ (Rom. 5.8) Not after we’d cleaned ourselves up, and gone all respectable. And that means that I’m as needy as they are. The only difference is that, unlike those religious leaders in Matthew 9, because of God’s grace I know I’m sick. In ways that you will never know. And I don’t even want to know what goes on in your head! But Jesus came not to call the righteous (that’d be a one sided conversation!), but sinners. The gospel is for sinners. And unless we’re prepared to stick our messy, sinful hearts into the messy, sinful lives of those around us, they’re not going to hear it.

You’re context might be different. Maybe it’s the multi-millionaire tax dodgers and the crooked bosses who are the tax collectors (literally) and sinners in your community. We don’t tend to get too many of them in Cleck. But whatever our context, the bare facts are these: Jesus died for sinners. Jesus came for sinners. Not for the righteous. If you say you follow him and yet your only friends are the righteous (or those who think they are), then there might be a good chance that you’re doing it ‘wrong’.

Welcome to Cleck!

Cleckheaton is a belter of a place to live. The bloke who wrote the Mr. Men grew up here. It’s got good transport links, within easy reach of Leeds, Manchester, Bradford, Huddersfield. I can testify that it’s got some great pubs, a place where you can get a banging pie and chips, and a top live music venue (if you like tribute acts!). But perhaps the biggest claim to fame (it’s on all the signs when you drive into town) is that we have the world’s biggest Indian restaurant! Which would be perfect, if only I liked curry…

But Aakash is more than just a restaurant (and if you really don’t like curry, they do a tasty chicken and chips). It stands as a monument to the gospel need of my town, my valley, my county. You see the building that houses Aakash used to house an old Congregational Church. With space for 2000 people, it wasn’t small either. It reflected the gospel life in the Spen Valley that had bloomed in the 18th century revival.   

Now I’m not one to get sentimental about old church buildings. A building is a building. If it outlives it’s usefulness, ditch it. I’m just conscious of the symbolism. Conscious of the fact that the vast, vast majority of people in my town would rather enjoy a tasty korma than taste and see that the Lord is good. Which is probably true for your town or city as well.

But the truth in our town is that, not only do most people not want to hear the gospel, here there’s not much opportunity for them to hear it even if they did. It’s why we planted Spen Valley Church here just under two years ago. Because two years in, the vast majority of people I speak to in the town have never knowingly spent any amount of time with a bible-believing Christian, or heard the good news of salvation in Jesus. And I speak to people in that situation every day. The opportunities to share the gospel with people are seemingly endless, you just have to walk out the door.

But that opportunity brings it’s own challenges. As a church we have 14 members. There are 17000 people in Cleck, and 50000 in the Spen Valley. The harvest field is huge, the workers are very few. If we’re going to take this opportunity we need people to come and join us. To get stuck into life here. To join with us in an opportunity to share Jesus.

But the Aakash has something to say to that as well. Although people in Cleck do go there, Aakash is full when the car park is full. People drive in, have their fill, and leave.

After all, who wants to live in a fairly run down post-industrial Yorkshire mill town? Who wants to come and invest in it’s people?

Maybe people who follow a bloke who came from a poor, northern town that nobody wanted to move to. A bloke who spent most of his ministry walking around two bit northern towns, and had compassion on those very northerners, because they were like sheep without a shepherd. A bloke whose compassion drove him to a cross in order to be the shepherd who lays down his life for the sheep. And a bloke whose compassion drove him to command his disciples that they should, ‘ask the Lord of the harvest to send out workers into his harvest field.’ (Matthew 9.35-38)

One of the aims of this blog is to shine a light on what ministry in a small Yorkshire town is like. But also to shine a light on the opportunity there is to share the gospel in towns like Cleck all across Yorkshire and the North of England. To say, ‘Come over and help us’. Because we can shuffle the sheep who already have a shepherd as much as we like. But unless they hear the gospel, those without a shepherd in Cleck, in Yorkshire, in the north of England, are just going to happily crack on with eating their korma…