Monday, 26 January 2015

Grace church and the next 5 years.

This Sunday we were looking at God's mission for the church and what exactly that will look like for Grace Church.  It is in short our vision for Grace Church for the next five years.  Here's a summary:

Why does the church exist? What’s it here for? What’s God’s purpose for it?  Matthew 28v18-20 is Jesus final instruction to his disciples about what they’re to do when he has ascended into heaven. It’s their marching orders, and the mission of the church as we’ll see in Acts.

In 2007 Tearfund research found that 70% of the UK population had no intention of attending a church service at any point in the future. 70%, and my guess is that figure has only gone up in the last 8 years. Another organisation looked at trends in Sunday School attendance; in 1900 55% of children attended Sunday school, in 1940 30%, 1970 14%, 2000 4% and by 2016 it’s estimated to be 1%. Another study concluded: 96% of children in Britain grow up without any significant exposure to the church or the gospel. Isn’t that staggering?  Given that context of the country and community we live in.  We need to go with the gospel.

The first thing we must see about this mission in Matthew 28 is the context in which it’s given. Jesus and his disciples know how needy the world is, but what Jesus wants them to know is the power they have behind them. Jesus has been given “all authority in heaven and on earth...” He is God the Son, he’s the King and he commissions them. The disciples carry the royal warrant as they go on this mission. And they aren’t alone; Jesus is with them, how? Acts 2 by the Holy Spirit.

It is knowing that authority and presence that they are to “therefore go” and make disciples. Notice the scale of the mission, to all nations teaching them all or everything I have taught you. But that mission isn’t impossible because of scale of the authority Jesus has. Jesus doesn’t just pass on his mission but he promises they are joining with him in his mission with his authority and presence.

And notice what they’re to do. They aren’t to make converts but disciples. People who follow Jesus; who make Jesus their overriding passion in life. How do they do that? By teaching them; calling them to repent of their sin and put their faith in Jesus as the one who rescues and reconciles them to God. That means teaching them the gospel, that we’re rebels against God, cut off from him and facing life and eternity without him. Until God the Son became man because of the Father’s love for the world, and lived, was put to death to pay for our sin as he experienced God’s just anger on our behalf, and who rose again just as he raises us to new life. So that by trusting in him we’re credited with his perfect record and by grace given a right relationship with God. Adopted into his family to live as God’s children. All symbolised in baptism and resulting whole life change.

This mission to make disciples who live life following Jesus, transformed by grace and called to obedient sonship drives the disciples and the early church, and it’s a mission which is passed on to us.

But what does it look like to live out this mission?

Gospel teaching and learning are vital
In Acts we see the mission undertaken. So in ch1v21-22 a new Apostles is chosen, why? Because teaching about Jesus matters and it is necessary to fulfil this mission. In Acts 2 when they receive Jesus authority as the Spirit fills them they preach Jesus and 3,000 believe. And straightaway (2v42-47)we see the church meet, focused on making disciples. Devoted to the Apostles teaching and remembering Jesus death, devoted to gospel teaching, learning and transformed living.

In Acts 4 the Apostles keep on teaching God’s grace(33) and that becomes the key driving force in this new community bringing transformation and unity. In Acts 6 they restructure the church so they can focus on making and discipling believers by teaching the gospel. In Acts 8 they’re driven out of Jerusalem by persecution (4)preaching the word wherever they go. In Acts 15 they contend for the truth of the gospel to safeguard the message they must pass on. In the epistles the gospel is taught, learnt, applied and lived out. And in the pastoral letters the charge is given to the next generation to pass it on.

The churches mission in action. We stand in that tradition with the same mission. We must teach the gospel, learn the gospel, and live out the gospel, living as and making disciples.

The gospel taught, learnt, and lived produces a community marked by grace and overflowing love
Acts stresses that the teaching of the gospel produces a community of grace. (Acts 4v33-34)The gospel drives everything they do. It’s a church that’s quick to welcome, love, forgive, bear with and sacrificially serve one another. Why? Because that’s how they’ve been loved in Jesus, and grace becomes the heartbeat of the church.

That expresses itself in their devotion to sharing life with one another. In their generosity with their money, their homes, their possession and their time. That this isn’t a one a off is seen in the letters to the churches; in Corinthians Paul rebukes a church that has stopped treating one another with grace, in Ephesians he helps a church marvel at what God has made the church by grace, in Philippians he encourages them to live lives increasingly transformed by grace, in Thessalonians he praises them for the transformation and love grace has brought and is bringing about in them.

The gospel at work; taught, learnt and applied produces a community of grace. But it doesn’t stop there. That community with its passion for God, the gospel and people goes with the gospel to the world. It loves those outside the church because it serves a God who so loved the world he gave his only son. And that means the church works to relieve suffering where we can find it especially eternal suffering.

Practically as a community focused on grace we’ll be propelled outward to love others, we’ll “go”. As a community constantly taught the gospel we’ll be equipped by the gospel to do good works(Eph 4v11-12) which display God’s love and grace to those outside the church. Drawing them to see and meet Jesus as we hold out and speak the gospel.

But how? What will that look like for us in Auckley?

The challenge for us is to take God’s mission and work out what it looks like in our context. What that looks like for us? What will we put our energy into for the next five years?

Seeing the gospel taught, believed in, applied and lived out
Only one power exists on this planet and in this community that can bring lasting change. Only the love of Jesus Christ that conquers sin, wipes out shame, heals wounds, and reconciles enemies can change the world one life at a time. And that power has been given to us. Our mission is to go and make disciples. We’ve always been a church focused on bible teaching, but we want to increasingly add to that bible learning and living.

So on Sunday mornings our focus will continue to be teaching the bible well, on applying it to our world, community, family and lives. We’ll continue to have questions for discussion after the service and encourage one another to use them to think practically about how we learn and live out what God has taught us.

Gospel Group on Tuesday night will continue to provide a second opportunity to be taught, believe, apply and live out the gospel. We’d love to see more people coming along, we’d love to multiply groups, times, locations and leaders.

We want to see the gospel taught to those who don’t yet know Jesus. To share this good news with the community around us. I think since we’ve been here we’ve made a great start. Assemblies are an ongoing way we do that, holiday club was another way, Uncover has been another. And we’ll keep on doing those. One Big Question this March is another way we want to go with the gospel and bring people in to hear about Jesus, provoking questions and providing responses.

We want to build on the annual set pieces. Easter Sunday was brilliant last year and we want to maximise that opportunity again. Christmas saw over 50 visitors come across the 4 services and hear the gospel. We have the potential to develop harvest opportunities and others as we proclaim the gospel and look to make disciples.

Here’s the challenge for us as a church. We need to multiply bible teachers as we do this. That means both considering if that’s a gift we have or if you could serve in other ways to take some of the pressure off those who teach so that they can focus on teaching well. For example you might consider; setting up church on Sunday, doing the rota’s once a term, collating and emailing the weekly church prayer update, visiting people, and so on. Jobs where you could serve and free up time for those who teach the bible.

It also means giving to enable that to happen, to set aside those who teach and are freed up to teach well.

We also need to pray. Pray for those teaching the bible, turn Matthew 9v38 into a prayer for more bible teachers. Pray for people to come along to events and for those who come along to respond to the gospel. Perhaps that is going to be your focus for this year.

Seeing the gospel taught and lived out produce a grace filled community of overflowing love
One of the dangers as we grow is becoming more diverse. The call of the great commission is to make disciples of all types of people, different backgrounds, ways of thinking, likes, dislikes and so on. How does the early church overcome that? We saw in Acts 6 by keeping the gospel central, and by being a community where grace is at work. Practically they maximised the opportunities to be together.

Sunday morning has ample opportunities both before and after the service, could you make more of those? Church lunch provides a great opportunity to get to know those you don’t know so well. Gospel group provides another opportunity, as does prayer meeting. Why not use Sunday afternoons to have people over for lunch.

As we’ve thought about what it will look like to be a grace filled community loving the area we’ve contacted some people to ask what they thought the key issues were. We’ve decided to focus on three areas:

1. Building community. 
Our area is changing rapidly with new developments, but it has also lost lots of resources. The children’s centre and community hall have all closed in the last 7 years and nothing has replaced it. It’s an area of need but with little provision. There are three things we think we can do to meet this need:

a. Community Governance Review – we’ve been in contact with the council to see about renaming the area. We want to lead a petition to see if there’s interest in getting the area renamed Hayfield. That potentially would mean forming a Parish Council for the area which would have some money to spend each year to meet community needs. It may also provide a way for residents to have a say in creating community.

b. Community space/provision - The area needs community provision, somewhere for things to happen, for people to meet, but there isn’t anywhere. Peel Holdings promised a community centre, play park and green space but apparently there wasn’t anyone willing to oversee it. We want to explore with them whether this is a role Grace Church could play.

c. Coffee mornings - We want to grow our coffee mornings, making it a place of contact and where we can help build community.

2. Strengthening Families
a. Toddlers - We already do some work in this area through Toddlers, but we want to expand and grow toddlers. One of the current limitations is the bungalow and we want to explore a potential new place so we can develop this more.

b. Christians Against Poverty - Debt and money management are an issue in the area. We are exploring getting training on becoming a CAP provider, so that we can teach budgeting to those in need. We need people willing to be trained and provide that service.

c. A voice and link. Grace Church is becoming known as a place to go to for help, we want to develop that further. Pointing people to agencies and providing practical help. We also want to be a voice for those who feel that haven’t got one, writing to local MP’s, councillors etc.

3. Nutrition
Food is a need in the community. Figures say 1 in 5 mums has gone without a meal so their children can eat in the last year. It’s not just having enough food that is an issue but providing nutritious food.

a. Foodbank - It’s great to see the foodbank developing in town and in Rossington but we want to explore setting up one or a satellite here, and becoming a point of contact for those in need.

b. Recipe book - We want to put together a book of healthy meals for a family for under a fiver. Potentially providing the opportunity to teach this to parents via twilight evening session, though again a venue remains an issue.

c. Voicing the need - Again as we do this we need to contend for those who are marginalised and in need.

As we serve in those areas we will hold out the gospel, knowing that the greatest need is the eternal need. Here’s the challenge as we think about the next five years. What gifts has God given you to serve as we look to make the gospel known?

Only one power exists on this planet and in this community that can bring lasting change. Only the love of Jesus Christ that conquers sin, wipes out shame, heals wounds, and reconciles enemies can change the world one life at a time. And that power has been given to us and our mission is to go and make disciples.

Monday, 12 January 2015

Dreaming ministry dreams for 2015

What are your dreams for 2015?  (I know I'm a bit late to the new year thing, that's what holidays do for you.)  I've been thinking about what our community needs, how the gospel could transform and minister to our community?  What are my gospel dreams for the area God has called me to serve?

Now I have two temptations here, one is to be cynical and barely dream at all, just stick to what I can do and control.  The other is to impose on a big dream my time scale, and I'm impatient and want it yesterday.

Over the last few weeks and months I've found myself dreaming about ways the gospel will transform our area.  Some of these dreams are big and long term none of them we can do in and of our own strength.

1. Creating community identity
Our area is one without an identity.  It used to be the RAF base and attached housing.  It is currently called Auckley, though local people refer to it either as Finningley or the former RAF base, or the camp.  It doesn't feel like Auckley which is a village a 10-15 minute walk away and has a totally different feel to it.

As a church one way we can serve our community is to help create a community identity.  There are things we can do to facilitate this, and we will be doing some of those - trying to get the council to carry out a Community Governance Review and rename the area Hayfield and maybe have our own Parish Council to serve the community.  Involving people from the community in serving and making decisions for the community they live in.  But we can't create community, we can try to facilitate it, but we need God to work to create community through the gospel.  By creating in our church family a heart that longs to serve not its own needs but the needs of the community we are called to serve.

2. Meeting community needs
This is an area with real needs, and we by God's grace and love in the hearts of the church family are meeting those needs.  My dream for this year is that that ministry is multiplied, that more and more grace flows outwards over the boundaries of the church into the hearts and lives of the broken and needy who are loved and see Jesus lived out.

The big dream is that we as a church can meet community needs.  there is no place to go, no neutral space.  No pub, no community centre or building.  We've been in contact with some organisations about facilitating the running of such a building, but there has been as of yet no response.  Only God can make that happen.  My big dream would be that God provides so that we could have a community use building that is more than just a building.  That contains a space where we can run toddlers and coffee mornings.  Where we can house counselling and debt services.  Where we could have attached to it a doctors surgery with a committed Christian GP or two who would serve the area in an almost old fashioned way.

That is a big dream, especially for a church with a monthly budget deficit that means we only have money for 1 more year of full time ministry.  But dreams are about looking at the community and thinking about how the gospel can serve.  That may not be God's will, God's will may be small scale and incremental.  But those kind of dreams are vital as we look at a community and imagine ways the gospel could bring transformation.

Tuesday, 23 December 2014

When is an invitation not an invitation?

I've been thinking about what it means to invite someone to church this week.  Partly because we've given out over 800 invites to our Christmas events and there have been some surprising responses.

Our default assumption is if I've given you an invite to something you are welcome at the event.  However, what we've been finding is that invites through a door aren't enough, in fact they don't seem to be taken as saying that at all.  Lots of people in the community have then messaged people in church to ask if they are "allowed to come".  Do you see the unspoken assumption in that question - general invites aren't for everyone even if you give them to everyone.  Whereas personally reassuring people that of course they are invited and not only are they allowed to come but that we'd love to see them works without question or confusion.

It makes me question again the value of flyering.  It proves the value of real face to face contact in our invitations so people can see the invitation and welcome in our actions and faces that you can't see in a flyer posted through a letter box.  A personal invite says I want you to come along.  Does that mean next year we need to knock on doors with the invitation, maybe, its certainly something we need to think about?

At the time when we celebrate God's incarnation, his coming to us personally with the greatest invite of all, I'm glad he didn't just post an invite through my door.  Perhaps its not so surprising that we need to invite people to celebrate the incarnation in the way God invited us, incarnate!

Monday, 22 December 2014

Why bother praying for your leaders?

Over the last 6 months or so I've come across a significant number of people involved in Christian ministry who are struggling with significant debilitating long term health issues.  Not just the ordinary run of the mill minor illnesses but ones which make their ministry increasingly difficult and which place limits on them well below their previous capacity.  Now there are potentially a number of reasons for this.

It could just be that they have burnt themselves out by working too hard and too fast for too long.  That is a very real issue in Christian ministry and for those involved in it.  And those who lead alongside them and the fellowship or organisation that has a duty of care to those ministers needs to ask the question is this the result of overwork?  If so the remedy may seem easy but it is rarely so because ministry cannot be confined to work hours because it involves people.  But steps must be taken to ensure those in ministry feel sufficiently resourced to carry out their ministry and sufficiently rested (days off and holidays) to enable long term sustained ministry without burn out.

I wonder if the other significant reason is one that we tend to overlook; spiritual warfare.  The christian life is a spiritual battle, Peter writes "Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour."  He's not a tame tabby or a feral but small stray, he is a lion on the hunt, a real threat.  We tend to live in the mundane and forget the spiritual reality that rages around us.  Revelation lifts the curtain and gives us a peak at that cosmic battle and our part in it, but then the curtain drops and we're back to the everyday.  But despite appearances that battle still rages, and at times Satan strikes at God's people with illness.

So we need to live and pray aware of that spiritual reality.  Aware of our enemy, but amazed at the opportunity to come to the only all-powerful sovereign God who we call Father and ask him to protect and shield those he has called to be set aside to bring the gospel to us and shepherd us.

Monday, 15 December 2014

Another extraordinary but totally normal Sunday morning

I wonder how you think of church?  My hunch is that we tend to get used to it.  It becomes normal and therefore rather than being thankful for it we think of it as mundane.  We often fail to recognise what is really happening as we gather, as we sit, as we pray, as we sing, as we listen to God speak to us, and as we rise to respond.

Yesterday was just another normal day in the life of Grace Church.  If you'd been a fly on the wall you'd have seen people setting up, being welcomed, conversations - both mundane and more spiritually significant - being had, refreshments being served, biscuits and Christmas confectionery being consumed, people singing, praying, the Bible being read, and people listening to God speak.  Children playing, singing, acting, laughing and having fun.  It all looked so ordinary.  The church wasn't packed, we didn't have to get out more seats.

But something extraordinary was happening too.  People who would not normally think to darken the door of a church came, felt welcome, heard the gospel and discovered church wasn't so scary after all.  That actually church was for people like them, that people in church would speak to them, include them and care for their children.

There were no blinding Damascus road conversions, no excited queues of people signing up to do Uncover.  Just barriers to the gospel being put silently aside so that people could more easily meet Jesus again.  But we mustn't underplay that, we mustn't forget how significant that is.  In an area where church has so many negative connotations something extraordinary was happening.  Each person drawn there by God as part of his plan at his timing to hear from him.  Each person there hearing eternal truths of cosmic importance yet applicable to them as individuals.  Our prayer is simply that next Sunday would be another extraordinary but totally normal Sunday in our community coming to know, love and follow Jesus.

Monday, 8 December 2014

Challenges church growth poses

Most of us pray that our churches will grow, we long for it.  We'd love to see more and more people coming to faith in Jesus from our community, families and friends and then joining with us in our church family.  But is loving the idea the same as loving the reality.

We were looking yesterday at Acts 6v1-7 where we see the early church which has grown explosively from 120 to well over 5,000 facing the challenges growth brings.  It is a fascinating and helpful passage for our churches.  It helps us think about potential issues growth might bring and ways to plan for and resolve them.  Because growth brings dangers.  Acts 4-6 shows us the church under threat, in Acts 4 it is the threat of persecution as they are ordered by the Sanhedrin not to teach about Jesus any more.  Then in Acts 5v1-11 it is the threat of internal corruption as Ananias and Sapphire fake a work of the Spirit, and try to counterfeit grace.  Then in Acts 5 we see the threat of escalating persecution as the Apostles are arrested, divinely released and then rearrested and tried, and told not to teach anymore before being flogged and released.  Now in each case the Apostles and the church are not cowed or distracted from preaching the gospel or gathering together.

Then as chapter 6 opens we see a new threat to the church, in many ways perhaps the most dangerous because it is unexpected.  This threat has its genesis in the growth of the church.  As the church grows it gathers those who now follow Jesus from different cultures, and a simple oversight - the badly managed distribution of food by the overstretched apostles - leads to grumbling which threatens to turn difference into division.  The other danger that growth brings for the church is distraction for the Apostles from serving by preaching the word to serving by mercy ministry.  Growth brings pressures, it has with it dangers as well as potential benefits.  But this danger posed by growth also presents an opportunity to plan and re-imagine church so that growth continues.

God through Luke records for us their Spirit inspired way of resolving these pressure points brought about by growth.  The Apostles acknowledge the danger of difference becoming division and resolve that they mustn't be distracted.  The solution is re-imagine church and to appoint others to serve via mercy ministry whilst they focus on preaching and prayer.  Why?  Not because one is more important that the other, both must go hand in hand.  But because preaching the gospel of grace fuels the church.  It is the good news of Jesus taught and grace grasped that sees people won to follow Jesus and join the growing church.  It is the good news of Jesus taught and applied to believers that leads to unity despite difference and prevents those differences widening into division.  And it is the good news of Jesus taught and the growing awareness of God's amazingly gracious and generous love for us as needy people that fuels love and results in practical service of those in need.

What's the result?  A church growing in maturity expressed in unity and service of others at cost to self, and others seeing this gospel fuelled community in action and hearing the gospel which has created this amazing community and responding to the call to follow Jesus and becoming disciples in numbers.

It is so helpful as we aim to be churches taking the gospel of Jesus to a needy world to be aware of the challenges growth will pose.  To ask where are we facing these challenges?  And to reaffirm our commitment to prayerfully teaching the gospel, to be looking to multiply ministers so we can serve others well and care as the gospel calls us to.

Wednesday, 3 December 2014

Job: a hard slog but worth studying

Earlier this year I set out to read the Bible through at pace, reading for about twenty to thirty minutes a day from Genesis through to Revelation.  As I read it reminded that there are some books of the Bible that I have avoided, not deliberately, but unthinkingly because I just don't get them, I don't get how to teach them, I have not heard great teaching on them, and I find them hard.  One of those was Job.  And so my challenge was that for two months I was going to do a deliberate and detailed study on Job, working my way through reading it with the help of a good pastoral commentary.  I chose Christopher Ash's contribution to the 'Preaching the Word' series.  Having just finished the book and the study I am immensely grateful for the time Christopher Ash has put into the book as I found it very helpful.

It is honest about the books complexities and difficulties but just as honest about our need to understand it as we seek to live for Christ in a broken world.  One of the things I found most helpful and challenging was the exposing of the faulty logic, or 'system', which the three friends base all their advice on.  Tragically so often as Christians we can partially parrot some of this advice when we see others suffering.

Job is a book that confronts us with the brokenness of the world, a world which isn't simple in terms of good stuff happening to good people and bad stuff bad people.  It is a book that confronts us with the sovereignty of God even over Satan who is active but not free to do as he pleases.  Job is a book that constantly calls into question some of our unbiblical suppositions, and throws us back on the majesty of God.  It has not been an easy study, at times I have opened it with a heavy heart, other times I have closed it with a heavier heart, but at the end I am left more sure of the goodness of God and the wonder of his love incarnate in Christ, and aware of my creatureliness in light of his majesty.