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

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….

What did you say?!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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