Tuesday, 21 October 2014

How's your listening?

At Grace Church when someone preaches we try to review their preaching with them, not every time they preach, but fairly regularly.  The practice helps sharpen us up as preachers of God's word.  It helps us spot verbal and visible habits which might distract people from what we are saying.  It helps us see if we are preaching in a way that is relevant to the whole congregation rather than just people like us.  It also keeps us faithful to God's word not our latest fad or hobby horse.

But as churches we rarely do a review of our listening.  Have you ever sat and wondered what you are like to preach to?  Are you someone who encourages the preacher to teach you God's word and apply it to you?  Or are you someone who saps the energy of a preacher or distracts others around you?  Here's a light hearted look at some different type of listener, which one are you?

The whisperer
This person will lean across and whisper to those around them at various points in the talk, often smiling at some shared joke or comment they have made whilst totally unaware that their "whisper" was heard by almost the whole church, who are now looking at them wondering what the joke was.

The snoozer
Sometimes due to a disrupted night with the kids or medication, or the fact that their team was last on on Match of the Day people just drop off.  One time such a dropping off was accompanied by a clunk as the gentleman's false teeth clattered to the floor.  But mostly it's just the drooping head followed by a jerk of the neck as their chin reaches their chest and they fight again for consciousness.  Sometimes it's accompanied by the noise of an angry beehive

The living dead
This person is awake, well their eyes are open, but they are glazed over and totally unresponsive.  As you preach you find yourself willing someone too poke them whilst mentally reminding yourself of CPR (who says preachers can't multitask!).  Oddly enough these people are often the ones who ask you questions proving they weren't dead they were listening.

The rustler
This person can't make it through a sermon without sweets to eat, presumably the sugars keep them from becoming comatose.  But why oh why do they choose the sweet with multiple wrappers and then entomb them in a paper bag that sounds as if they are sandpapering a rocking chair as they search for each and every sweet?

The rage
This persons eyebrows knit together the moment the last notes of the song fade and they realise the preaching has begun.  They stay knitted together in a perpetual frown for the whole time you preach.  As the sermon continues you wonder at what point they will burn you as a heretic after the service as they clearly disagree with everything you have said.

The distracted
This person has roving eye syndrome.  Not in terms of looking at others in the congregation but in terms of looking at everything other than the preacher.  Every time you look at them it looks as if they are counting the roof tiles, or how many bricks are between the projector screen and the band.

The pretender
This person is on their phone.  They will tell you that they have a bible app on their, but no bible app I've ever come across requires you to tap, swipe and flick as if you are playing angry birds.

I consider myself very fortunate with Grace Church, we have few of the above and lots of great listeners.  Listeners who make eye contact as if willing you to speak God's word to their hungry hearts.  Who smile and nod as they see where you are going.  Who work hard to avoid distraction and have disciplined themselves to listen well, knowing that good listening encourages good preaching.  And good listeners encourage a preacher to ignore the dozer, the pretender the rustler and the whisperer, because someone is hungry for God's word.

Monday, 20 October 2014

Is Christianity a middle class faith?

That's a huge question we need to ask ourselves.  As we look at our churches are they mono-culture in terms of class?  Which class is it and how does that affect us as a church?

For the majority of churches in the UK the answer is that they are middle class, so questions follow from that.  Is the outreach we are doing middle class in its appeal?  Do we subtly teach middle classes values as if they were gospel values?  Do we care about other classes and if so how is that seen?

As you read the Acts of the Apostles and the the letters written by the Apostles to those churches you can't help but be struck by how multi-class as well as multicultural they are.  In Acts 2 and 4 rich landowners sell land to provide for the poor.  In the second half of Acts we see Paul facilitating a collection for the churches struggling from those churches who are more wealthy.  In Corinth the Lord's supper showcases the gulf in wealth between members, in James he warns the church against favouring the rich over the poor.  These are churches which have drawn people from all across the social spectrum with all its potential tensions.  But what these churches won't do is simply mirror societies divisions because to do so would be counter the gospel.

So how come in the UK we have largely ended up with mono-culture churches?  How has this happened and what will we do about it?  There are lots of potential reasons, my hunch is it will be a slightly different story for different churches.  But what is not in doubt is that there is a real need to establish congregations in areas of urban need.  Not in 10 years time but now, why because it is an unprecedented time of opportunity in these communities.  It is these areas of urban need that are most feeling the squeeze of the benefit and service cuts and which will take the longest to recover.

Just thinking about the area in which we live and which Grace Church serves, an area with a range of social backgrounds but with a high percentage of social needs.  One of the first casualties was the local children's centre, desperately needed and doing great work among needy families but now closed (or rather run at another site 2 bus journeys away!!!).  Then the local youth group closed.  Then the travelling library service was stopped.  There are no community use buildings, no village hall, and rapidly multiplying needs.  As the church in the UK now is the time of opportunity to reach out in these areas and meet needs.  To provide services and establish congregations that serve these people and hold out the hope of the gospel to them as we live alongside them.

Not that we always need to start new things.  Whilst in some places we may need to in many places there are small local congregations working hard but with limited budgets and personnel in those communities.  What a difference it would make to them to have a wealthier church support and partner with them financially and in prayer.  What a difference such a partnership in the gospel would make.  What an opportunity to share ideas, challenges, prayer points, gifting, finances.  Churches can't change where they are located, but they can multiply the areas in which they have an interest and an involvement by partnering with other churches.

The church cannot afford to be mono-class.  If it is it is failing in its mission, something is missing in the picture of the transformation of the gospel which it provides.  Partnership working is one potential way to begin to overcome that danger, challenge potential prejudices and encourage gospel growth in maturity.  As well as to invest in seeing others come to faith and God's kingdom and fame spread.

How not to love your community

I heard it suggested last week that Britain had become a nation who no longer moaned just about the weather but now moaned about everything.  My initial reaction was to disagree.  But then listening to others and my own conversations I began to wonder if they were right.  And the biggest tragedy is that I didn't detect any significant difference between Christian conversation and worldly conversation.  As the church we have absorbed societies negativity and made it our own.

But that is so dangerous because it subtly undermines the gospel.  We live and work in a community where there are lot of needs.  We live and work in a community where many people do not have the choices that others might; to move, to access different health care, to drive miles to a better play park, or to another toddler group, or school.  In that situation what does moaning about those things say to the community - I don't love this community, I don't value it, and I opt out of it.  And by implication I don't love the people in it, or at the very least I don't want to live through what they have to live through.  I'm not really in it with you, I'll parachute in and out when I feel like it, when it suits me!

The moan about there being nothing to do with the children, or about the local resources, or the local health care seems small but is actually incredibly damaging.  Stop doing it if you want to convey to the community that you love it and those living in it and that you are there for the long haul.  But secondly do something about it.

In order to moan we have spotted a need, a weakness, an area of opportunity, for development and that is incredibly positive.  We have glimpsed how life should be and could be.  So instead of moaning about something (which undermines our gospel witness) why not actively try to obtain a better deal for your community?  As a church how can you bless the community in terms of provision for mums and toddlers?  How can you bless the community and meet a need for youth activities?  How can you pray for the local leaders and the decisions they are making which are isolating your community?  How can you campaign for access for that community especially for those who can't?

Grumbling in the bible is never viewed positively, it is always detrimental to communities and nations.  So among God's people today it has no place, but don't just clamp your mouth shut when you see something you might moan about.  Think of it as an opportunity to bring change, to bless, to show God's love and pray that God would use it to open hearts and eyes to the gospel.

Friday, 17 October 2014

Choosing our words carefully

In a digital age it has become more and more important to choose our words carefully but increasingly more difficult to do so.  Social media is designed to illicit a quick response rather than a slow, considered, wise response.  I wonder if it's also having an affect on how much time we give to considering our words when off social media.

When I write a sermon for Sunday there are usual 5 stages I go through when I am carefully sifting, editing, weighing and changing words before I preach.  But when using social media there is just the one, or when I'm being more sensible, two as I write it, let it sit for a morning or afternoon and then come back to it.  I wonder how much this is creeping into the way we do other things.

A couple of things have triggered off this train of thought and my concerns.  One has been brewing for years the other is a more recent thing.

We need to be careful with the words we use full stop - just read Proverbs or James and you will see why.  But we need to be especially careful when we are talking about churches and church planting.  For example I have known of two occasions in different parts of the country when I have heard someone talk about the need to plant a church in a city/town because there is 'no bible teaching church there'.  When in each case I have known of 1 or 2 faithful Christ centred, bible teaching churches in that city/town.  Such claims worry me on two levels, firstly they just aren't true and secondly they can cause immense damage to the gospel.

I've been on the receiving end of some of this when I've heard third hand from people who have jobs in Doncaster but live in Sheffield that when they were moving they were advised not to live in Doncaster because there "are no bible teaching churches there."  Now that is a blatant lie, there are bible teaching churches, a number of them.  Some are medium size, some are small, some are traditional, some are less so, some are middle class, some are working class.  But there are Bible teaching, Christ centred, disciple calling churches in Doncaster.  Such comments discourage much needed potential workers from moving to an area of gospel need and they discourage existing Bible teaching churches, congregations and ministers.

So I can imagine how much more devastating it must be to hear of a church planted in your city/town because there is "no Bible teaching church".  I can't help wondering if using phrases like that owes more to our societies methods of marketing, PR, and spin to create a need or appetite or simple gather support rather than true gospel heartedness, honesty and unity.  Be careful with your words.

But we also need to be careful with the words we use to talk about other churches on social media.  I wonder if we ought to either be positive or be quiet.  If we can't recommend a church then don't but do not slander it or demean it.  Don't be quick to cry 'heresy' or accuse a church of 'losing the gospel' because I don't think the New Testament is.  There are New Testament letters that are firm on the need to root out false teaching and we need to do that, wolves are dangerous and must not be allowed to destroy churches.  But there are other churches - Galatia, Corinth - that I can't help thinking critics today would quickly decry as 'heretical' on twitter but with which the Apostles persevere because they see the gospel at work there.  We ought not to spread slander against churches on social media, by all means heartily recommend a church but don't denigrate another.

There are a couple of things that feed into this, sometimes we confuse tribalism with being gospel-centred or bible teaching.  A church simply being different doesn't make it unsound.  Consumerism also feeds into this - just because we don't like a church (it's worship style, it's community involvement, it's chairs, it's not using the KJV or ESV or NIV) doesn't make it not bible teaching.  We'd do better to be honest and say I'm really picky and didn't like________ (a separate issue for another post) rather than say there are no good churches.

All that just to say we (I as much as anyone) need to be careful in the words I use to speak about other churches both in person and especially on social media.  To weigh them before we speak them or type them.

Thursday, 16 October 2014

Yorkshire Training

Today I'm off to do my first session of the year at Yorkshire Training.  I'll be taking an hour to do a whistle stop tour of John's gospel.  My aim is to whet people's appetites for reading, understanding and teaching John's gospel, but in an hour there is only so much you can do.

I've been involved in YT for a few years now teaching some sessions and also leading a preaching/teaching workshop.  I've loved every minute of it.  It is a chance for different people from different churches across Yorkshire to come and together and get sharper in their handling of the bible, in their teaching of others, but it is also an opportunity to grow in your faith and to learn from more about pastoral care and issues facing the church.

Maybe you know someone who would benefit from such training.  The course is on Thursdays during term time at Xscape in Castleford.  It's easy to get to and there are lots of eateries for lunch.  The cost is reasonable for the training you get, and you can still join now or maybe even drop in for a taster session.

Tuesday, 14 October 2014

The bit I hate about pastoral ministry

What do you imagine your pastor or vicar hates about pastoral ministry?  I guess there might be a number of things: meetings, politics, admin.  I don't hate any of those things but I was powerfully reminded again yesterday of the bit I do hate.  I hate the brokenness of the world in which we live and it's devastating effects of those in our church family that I love in Christ.

Some days as a pastor your calling is to sit and listen as people pour out their hearts and lament the brokenness of the world and its impact on them and their families.  You are not called to be a dispassionate observer, or even a cool detached listener.  Your calling is to weep with those who weep, not in a professional or detached way but in a way that reflects your love of those you are called by God to care for.  It is not that their grief becomes your grief in an overly empathetic way but your compassion for them means you enter into their suffering and hurt with them, from that view point you look to minister to them.

One of those passages I turn to again and again in such circumstances is Psalm 42.  It beautifully and powerfully mixes lament at brokenness with a desperate determination to cling to God as our only hope:

As the deer pants for streams of water,
    so my soul pants for you, my God.
My soul thirsts for God, for the living God.
    When can I go and meet with God?
My tears have been my food
    day and night,
while people say to me all day long,
    “Where is your God?”
These things I remember
    as I pour out my soul:
how I used to go to the house of God
    under the protection of the Mighty One[d]
with shouts of joy and praise
    among the festive throng.
Why, my soul, are you downcast?
    Why so disturbed within me?
Put your hope in God,
    for I will yet praise him,
    my Savior and my God.
My soul is downcast within me;
    therefore I will remember you
from the land of the Jordan,
    the heights of Hermon—from Mount Mizar.
Deep calls to deep
    in the roar of your waterfalls;
all your waves and breakers
    have swept over me.
By day the Lord directs his love,
    at night his song is with me—
    a prayer to the God of my life.
I say to God my Rock,
    “Why have you forgotten me?
Why must I go about mourning,
    oppressed by the enemy?”
10 My bones suffer mortal agony
    as my foes taunt me,
saying to me all day long,
    “Where is your God?”
11 Why, my soul, are you downcast?
    Why so disturbed within me?
Put your hope in God,
    for I will yet praise him,
    my Savior and my God.

Thursday, 2 October 2014

Small church struggles in reaching a needy community

Every church has it's pressures, no church is ideal, no church is perfect.  But I wonder if small churches who are active in reaching their communities feel particular pressures.  That is certainly the way it feels at the moment.

Praise God Grace Church has grown, if everyone was there on Sunday mornings we'd be 70ish, but 30 of those are under 13.  Some mornings Sunday school is bigger than the remaining congregation.  And the encouragement is that it's not just church kids, or even children of families who come to church, but some children come on their own.  But the pressure is in staffing a Sunday school of 30, especially as one group now numbers 13-15.  We'd love to split it into two but we simply don't have the people.  7 years of praying for more workers because the harvest field is ripe has seen some come join us but we desperately need more!

One of the biggest frustrations is the open doors we just don't have the man power or money to make the most of.  We were asked again yesterday to run a CU or after school Christian club in a local school where we are involved.  But we simply don't have the man power to do it, people in church are caring for one another, working hard at community involvement, and pastoral care of existing members and we simply can't meet this great gospel opportunity now.  Oh for more gospel workers.

And the community, thanks to God's grace, now seem to regard Grace Church as one of the go to places for help when in crisis, which is brilliant but we are having to place strict limits on what we can and can't do, again simply because of manpower.

And now a new issue is increasingly presenting itself.  We are visible on a Sunday but not during the week.  We've been asked if we would set up a food back but have no space in which to do so.  We'd love to run parenting courses and CAP courses but entering homes is a threshold too far for many in the community.  Whereas a neutral space, or non-home space would open up all sorts of possibilities. The dream would be to buy a house on the estate and have offices upstairs for organisations to use and a larger space downstairs for groups to meet in, other services to use and a space where we could store and give out food as a food bank.  But again the resources aren't there, with a budget deficit we can't afford even to look into property.

In the midst of so many encouragements and opportunities the frustrations are coming thick and fast, which is why God has graciously led us to study Acts.  To remind me it is God's mission, he loves this community more than I do, he wants to show them and speak to them of the healing power of the gospel of Jesus Christ more than I do.  And he is sovereign, so every frustration I need to turn into prayer.  Prayer for more workers, prayer for more money to use to reach the community, prayer for the lost to be found, prayer for God to be glorified in us.