'The Pastor has Left the Ministry!'

Back in 2009/2010 there were a few books around that ‘spoiled’ traditional ministry for me. By traditional ministry I mean being content to just preach the sermon on Sunday, visit a few folks in the week, run programmes, keep busy and hope that by all the activity, you might attract a few folks and the church will get bigger. It was the model I had inherited from the earliest days of my faith, and it matched with my desire that more people should come to know Jesus like I had come to know him. It wasn’t a bad assumption that the way to do mission was to get more people to come to your church, and not a bad assumption that doing things might attract people to be part of the crowd. Church should have an attractional side to it, after all.

It was, however, a bit of a bet that we could put on the kind of stuff people would want to a) come along to and, b) be the thing that would lead them to Jesus then somehow lead them naturally to want to learn more about Jesus and deepen in the life of faith. Looking around, experience was telling me that you don’t make disciples by accident, but by being very intentional.

The books: one by Floyd McClung, a few by Frank Viola, more by Neil Cole, and eventually stuff by Alan Hirsch and Michael Frost. What can I say? Mindset blown to smithereens. Forever!?

What most of them spent many pages saying was, ‘our job isn’t to build the church, our job is to make disciples: one by one, life on life, in community – face to face.’ More than that, there is an apostolic dynamite at the heart of the church which is asleep and needing to be reawakened so that we can recover the missional heart of the church.

I realise that not only had I been more focussed on building a particular expression of the church than making disciples of Jesus, but that what I was building was so culturally nuanced and distant from ‘everyday people’, that it was unlikely to cut the mustard. This blog actually records some of that journey and the conclusions I came to back in the history of it (along with all sorts of other weird notions over the years – it’s rather humbling to have a rather long record of ‘working out what on earth this ministry thing is!).

My response at the time was to ‘leave ministry’ and, as I shared recently with a group of people, I haven’t gone back. ‘What? But I thought you are a pastor? Haven’t you been working in churches for nearly 20 years?’ Yeah – I am, I have, but what I mean is that I refuse to just go back to ministry as a career choice, to run the show, put on the performance and hope that, somehow, we can pull em in by the sheer weight of the character of our organisation, the dazzle of our Sunday worship, or the proficiency of our programmes.

Now, not much of that is bad. However, if it doesn’t lead to transformed lives by the power of the gospel, and a growth in the ways, patterns and life of discipleship, then we haven’t been carrying out the mission of Jesus. We’ve been doing some other thing. Some other thing.

Ten minutes spent overhearing regular conversations in your local coffee shop will tell you that the future of the church doesn’t belong to the ability to put on a show, but in the ability to connect with people one-to-one, and do so with the intention to disciple them towards Christ. Gently offering them one step towards him at a time. Certainly, there are churches who do well with the show and it still has some impact amongst some in our culture, but that impact is diminishing and regardless of how you dress that model up, it doesn’t always lead to depth or to transformation or, indeed, perseverance in the faith. It comes down to what our faith is built on and bolstered by: is it on our preferred model of church and the extent to which is ‘meets our felt needs’, or is it on being utterly convinced that the call to follow Jesus actually means giving up your life, losing your comfort, and carrying your cross?

Ten years on from all that reading, reflection and response that led me to move in a particular path, and to stop building church empires, nothing much has really changed in the sense that I, and every church leader and every church member, have to make a really solid resolution: to make the making of disciples our number one priority over and above building the institution at every turn.

Sure, every church needs its structure – organisation is required. But it is so easy for the balance to tip from the mission to the model. The model becomes the sacred cow and the mission becomes a pesky inconvenience. We’ve recently been working on a project which uses the contrast between a vine and a trellis. The vine is the living organism which produced the fruit: the trellis is the support system that keeps the vine upright and enables health. Both need attention. The vine needs pruning and tending. The trellis needs mending or changing, not for itself, but in order that the vine can produce fruit. Reality is – it’s easy to tinker with the structure of the trellis because it’s largely man-made systems that we understand and comprehend, or even create. Vines? Well, there’s so much organic factors in there that we can’t control and so we often don’t know where on earth to start. Easy to see how we go about making our choices based on what seems easiest to do or tinker with. I call it ‘shuffling chairs on the Titanic’.

Let me tell you where I started: I started paying more attention to my own discipleship and devotion to Jesus than I did to x number of other stuff which all felt worthy and necessary. It is out of our own intimacy with Jesus, our relationship with him and our ministry, whatever that looks like, finds significant expression.

I’ve said it before: I genuinely hope I am part of the transitional generation of leaders in the church who will work to shift the balance from empire building to disciple-making as the default position for the church in our age. Building the church is God’s job, and he will do it when we are faithful to our call to conform our lives to Christ and help others do the same. The church of the future is fluid, dynamic, flexible and relational…like taking a walk through winding desserts, twisting roads, deep valleys and rocky hills with some first century Jewish Rabbi, encountering others on the way.

As my kids keep reminding me: ‘Dad, the church is not the building – it’s the people.’

Getting into Silence

When I was speaking earlier today with a group about spiritual practices, I spoke a little of the practice of silence: how I do it, and why I do it. I have to say that I haven’t analysed how I ‘do’ silence or contemplation much, but having thought about it thought I might as well write it in case its of interest.

Why – well, I think my journey into silence in God’s presence arose at a time when all my bog-standard evangelical prayers seemed empty and fruitless. I’m not saying they were, I know God hears, but they weren’t connecting me with the presence and person of God. I sensed an invitation just to be with God, focussed on his presence, and my presence with him. A mutual beholding, if you like. I still did the spoken intercession-like prayers, but prayer is more than that!

I was exploring that suspicion I had that the injunction to ‘pray always’ couldn’t possibly mean ‘say prayers all the time’, but that I could somehow access the indwelling presence of God and grow in awareness of that in my life, through focussed intention, or just as I went about my day. The other side of the coin was that, quite simply, I needed to find a way to quieten the chattering of my mind before God to deal with rogue patterns of thinking.

How – people tell me ‘oh, I could never do silence – my world is too noisy’. That kinda misses the point. Silence isn’t always about the lack of noise, although a quiet place can help. It’s about that settled centre within. I enjoy being ‘inwardly silent’ with God in busy, bustling places.

But practically, I learned to be with and hear God in the silences simply through sitting down and shutting up. Being silent until silence comes. Initially, and for a good time, and even still, my silence can be bombarded with a million thoughts, but the ‘skill’ is simply to acknowledge the thought and let it pass, and to return to fixing the eyes of my heart on God. More than just ‘distracting random thoughts’, you also find that some of the deeper seated fears/anxieties/pains of life come to the surface. That can be scary and put people off.

In times where I lack the focus, I might simply seek to keep my focus by saying ‘Father’ or ‘Come Lord’ – not repetitively like a mantra, but just to draw my heart back into focus.

Practically, I tend to practice silence sitting upright or kneeling – basically, a position I won’t fall asleep in (because who doesn’t need more sleep?). At home, on retreat or on longer periods, I tend to either wear a blanket on my shoulders, or use a hooded top or wear my scapular (a monk’s hood). This, I find, focuses my intention and communicates to my mind/body that it’s prayer time! We know that monastics, but also the Jewish community, had this as a practice – a physical reminder of the call to the ‘work of God’ in prayer. I also use a gentle alarm, especially for longer periods of silence, to keep tabs on the day!

Like I say, though, this is not just a ‘be quiet in a quiet room’ practice. I’ve found that I can access that same focussed intention in other spheres, in the midst of the business of life, and this is where the silence is probably more valuable – the ability to ‘close my door and go into the room’ when I need to have a sense of what to do, how to speak, how to act or be.

Finally, although I am an introvert, this practice isn’t about introversion. The quiet certainly rejuvenates me in lots of ways, but I can access that kind of quiet just being at home knitting or reading a book. This is the silence I believe that everyone somewhere on the scale of introversion and extraversion needs – I think silence is one of God’s favourite languages! It’s a beholding relationship, a place of being, of being known, being with my beloved and being loved. It’s the place of intimacy of God that no song, poem or text will do, I don’t think.

Might do a teaching day sometime soon…been a while since I’ve done one on silence.

It’s a countercultural spiritual discipline that may just be the answer to a lot of the world’s frenzied angst. Worth delving in.

Salvo-monastic

As you may know, I’ve been a student and practitioner of ‘new monasticism’ for over a decade. Even then, I recognise that a big part of The Salvation Army’s life that held me so significantly was the shared ‘rule of life’, the soldiers ‘Articles of War’ and ‘Officers’ Covenant’, and the deep bond of the community of Salvationists. So this sense of call stretches back to my conversion in The Army in 1995, nearly 25 years. My conversion was a radical call to give it all away to Christ, and The Salvation Army was the vessel through which it was expressed at the time.

Now, I have to confess that I’ve never quite found anything that is up to replacing that Salvationist expression as far as living a particular life in community goes. I’ve no problem admitting that, and The Army remains very close to my heart. There is, at its best, something very special about living out the Salvationist charism or ‘characteristics’. The very best of it still lives in me – it can’t not!

Having said that, The Army isn’t where God would have me right now and so I’ve journeyed outside the Salvationist movement with a strong call to a covenanted life, which has found some expression in new monastic community. I am a Companion of the Northumbria Community, which was the first community I happened upon and whose rule and daily prayer speaks to me. I’ve learned a lot from the Community of Aidan and Hilda and the writings of it’s founder, Ray Simpson, and, in fact, their way of expressing a rule of life is actually a more helpful place for my particular personal commitments to be held, given the more detailed invitation they invite with regards to the construction of a way of life. Alongside this, I have a (different) relationship with the Order of St Leonard.

I say all that mainly because there are, as life moves on, new readers to the blog who might not have picked up the long history of my spiritual journey. I also write it as a confession, and that is to say that all of my Christian life has been accompanied with a certain frustration and tiredness with ‘casual Christianity.’

The life of Christ, for me, is an all-consuming way of life. As I reflected yesterday in my blog ‘Prefer nothing to the love of Christ’, Jesus is everything and his call implies a radical change of life at both the heart level and the practical level as we are grafted into his life and into his community. Life-long transformation (ie continued ‘whole-life’ discipleship) is at the heart of seeking after Christ – the process of becoming like him (and boy do we need it!).

One of the views you might find in Salvation Army circles, which doesn’t always come from a healthy place, is a scepticism about the church. Not church in the biblical sense of being God’s people, but church in the institutional sense…maybe its more about a scepticism of ‘churchiness’ than church – a better way to see it, perhaps.

There is a strong culture in The Salvation Army of being a people called out of the comfort of the church to the front lines, at least in the rhetoric. A sleeves-rolled-up life, a radical call to a holy life, a life given to the preaching of the gospel and care for the poor. Now, there are questions as to The Army’s faithfulness to that, but that’s no longer my question to explore and I pray nothing but blessing on what a friend calls ‘The Beloved Movement.’

I say all this because all of these questions and the deep sense of call is what is continually being worked out in day to day life. An inescapable call to abandonment to Christ, and not to settle into the tired culture of a fading Christendom. Throughout history, monastic movements were always radical reform movements who sought to rid the ‘world’ from the church and establish a radical faith in Jesus out of the comfort zones of conformity.

New monasticism, at its best, helps me keep the questions about how we live in ‘exile’, an ‘unknown land’, to the forefront of my daily walk with Jesus. It calls me out of my personal comfort to a life of discipline. It sharpens the focus of my ministry and keeps me faithful to not rest in the blissful slumbers of the church institution, and to the work of repeating the call to be alert, awake and on the move as the people Jesus is drawing to himself. We are not to be content to simply do church and go about our lives – no! We are God’s new people living in a new Kingdom alongide the rot of the old, bringing light, peace, truth, good and transformation that only the gospel brings.

It’s all considerably more than the smallness we often assign to the life of faith. I’m committed to the renewal of the church – not in the sense of accommodating our life to make it somehow more palatable. Rather, to sharpen Jesus’ call to take up the cross and follow him. It never was a popular message – no reason to believe it will be now. However, is there anything more wonderful to do with life?

'Prefer nothing to the love of Christ'

The monastic Rule of St Benedict exhorts its readers to ‘Prefer nothing to the love of Christ’ – in other words, make him the sole object of your life, and lift nothing above him. Don’t let anything compete with Jesus for the devotion of your heart.

It’s what Jesus wants – he said that our love for our families should seem like hatred in comparison to our love for him. He wasn’t saying ‘don’t love your family’, but he was saying our devotion to him should out shine it by far. In consequence, loving Jesus also means that it spills out into love for others, so no one loses out – in fact, we love better.

In terms of the church, is there anything else that we exalt up there with Jesus? We all know the answer should be no, but I’m not sure that’s always the reality. I look at my own experience over the years and can see times when I’ve been guilty of the following:

Jesus plus my traditions
Jesus plus my denomination
Jesus plus my preferences
Jesus plus my culture
Jesus plus my favourite church programme
Jesus plus my pet topic

Thing is, if we build our church community around Jesus plus [whatever], we will spend more time maintaining the plus than you might imagine, because the plus becomes the thing that we’ve made the glue of our community. We become a very human community creation, not a spiritual creation. Pubs, community interest groups, sports teams, choirs, streets and villages etc can all build community that is good without God…we shouldn’t be surprised at this, it is very possible. It also means that the church can build community with community as the glue instead of God. It’s easily to become our ‘thing’ as opposed to the house God is building.

There are two things that can tragically flow from this:

1. You take away ‘the thing’ and people will quickly abandon because their ultimate loyalty wasn’t to Christ, but to ‘the thing’.

2. You can take away Jesus, pack him away in the basement, and much of the community will stay intact because ‘the thing’ is still there. Jesus wasn’t so central after all.

Makes me weep. I’ve glimpsed ‘church’ communities where Jesus gets a back seat. It’s quite possible for those communities of people to thrive and do good, but just because it ‘works’ and draws a crowd does not mean to say that what you are dealing with is ‘the church’.

The real church is not just those who gather in church buildings every week, nor even those who believe some religious stuff. The real church is those transformed and joined together supernaturally through Jesus, and who are held in him. We become the body of Christ, God’s building and it is among this people Jesus makes his home, and it is them that Jesus is building into a spiritual house. The consequence of this is that not everyone who sits with you in your place of worship on a Sunday is necessarily grafted in to the spiritual reality of the church – yet.

Is Christ, and Christ alone, enough for us? Are we brave enough to see what kind of house Jesus will build through those who have a wholehearted devotion to him? Jesus said he would build his church. It’s not really our job to build the church, we are so tempted to build with materials and ‘things’ that don’t last.

A community with the gospel message of Jesus at the centre that God is drawing together will stand against the gates of hell so long as they have Jesus. That’s when you know if you have a church or not

To prefer nothing to the love of Christ is more challenging that we may at first think. The Benedictines, in a time where being the church was turning into a state religion, stole away and founded ‘houses for conversion’ where the aim was to seek Christ above all else, and where life is conformed to what he wants. It’s surely what we need in our own day.

When everything else is stripped away, will be still be content with Jesus?

Life Together

I had the privilege of spending three days at Worth Abbey this week alongside the Benedictine monks who make up the monastic community at Worth. Long-time readers of my blog will know how much monastic spirituality and discipline inspires my own life of discipleship and so I had long anticipated the opportunity to spend time at Worth.

Three days was just about enough time to settle into the daily routine of prayer, worship, work, reading and rest, although I could easily have stayed much longer. By God’s grace, I was able to enter into ‘the silence’ quickly and with ease. In the depths of it, I was able to hear the ‘Still, Small Voice’ on some fairly big things going on for me at the moment. So, at a heart level, just what was needed.

The Benedictine motto is ‘Ora et Labora’ – prayer and work. The brothers there meet 6 times a day for community prayer, and pray the 150 psalms through together every week (!) but also devote significant time to contemplation, silence, and ‘spiritual reading’ – or, in Latin, Lectio Divina. I wasn’t there long enough to do anything of use to the community, but did manage to get some knitting done!

On the reading front, however, I chose to take along two very challenging books that have been with me for a while. The first is ‘Life Together’ by Dietrich Bonhoeffer, along with ‘Discipleship: Living for Christ in the Daily Grind’ by JH Arnold. Both of these books are dynamite in their own way, but Bonhoeffer’s writing on ‘community’ in the protestant Christian setting is deeply challenging. I may do a little blog series on the book some time soon as I think it has some powerful things to say about how we approach ‘church’ in these days to help cut through the nonsense. Both of these were powerful companions both to my personal context, but also to interpreting what I was witnessing in the community I was visiting.

The first remarkable thing about this community of brothers for me was the depth of their welcome and hospitality. Inspite of not sharing more than one or two sentences with just some of them, there was a depth of welcoming and ‘honouring Christ in the guise of the guest’ that I don’t know I’ve ever experienced in the same way anywhere else. Although it was my first visit I didn’t feel like a stranger at all. I had a profound sense that these men were praying for me as well as with me in these few days.

Some of the Benedictines at Worth with their distinctive traditional black habits.

The second remarkable thing was the peace and stillness of the Abbey Church. It is a beautifully modern building – not what you’d typically think of as monastic at all – but the round architecture, with the lit altar in the very centre, spoke of the tangible presence of Jesus at the heart of the place.

Worth Abbey Church

The third thing was a new appreciation for the Psalms. In the space of three days with them I reckon we must have got through nearly 70 (and yes, we chanted them!) and they were all incredibly powerful prayers. I had an overwhelming sense of praying with Jesus and heard his voice strongly through them. Coupled with the Psalms, the daily readings at Lauds (morning prayer) were from Ezekiel, which again spoke powerfully. Great, too, to hear chapters from the Rule of St Benedict read along with readings from the Patristics (writing of the early ‘Church Fathers’).

Whilst a number of the ‘discoveries’ of the few days are matters of the heart for me personally, I definitely came home with a renewed inspiration to persevere in living a disciplined life of prayer, contemplation, practicing silence and living out my own ‘Rule of Life’.

I’m sure that the visit was the first of many.

The Main Thing

It is the relative simplicity of the call of Jesus to be and make disciples, and the complication of what the church over the centuries has done with that, which makes ministry such a challenge at times! It’s not that being or making disciples is easy, but the call is clear.

‘Church’, in whatever form, and in whatever century, has always had to organise itself. It doesn’t exist without a structure – no community does. Jesus’ community, right from the start, was organised…and Jesus even had Judas as treasurer! But there are times when the structure becomes so cumbersome that it gets very challenging to maintain any significant energy for the ‘main thing.’

That has been my experience of nearly (only) 20 years in ministry. It is so easy for the ‘main thing’ to be the welcome escape from the regular life of church. Yet, somehow, we maintain that, regardless of how much we see that it’s not in balance.

And then there’s the pace of change. Whilst necessary, any significant change worth making is worth really thinking through, winning support and traction for. Sadly, not everyone is patient. Equally sadly, church as a community of disciple-making disciples won’t ever be enough for some people in a world of consumer entertainment. Some churches try to compete with that – but again: that’s not our game!

I long to be a part of a ministry where I’m not simply a supplier of religious goods and services, but where I’m a champion, equipper and releaser of healthy disciple/disciple-makers whether scattered out in the world or gathered in community.

I think I’ll hold on to the dream just a little while longer.

Pressing on!

Well, my poor blog has been a bit neglected in these last couple of months with one thing or another…mainly some poorly disciplined over-working and too-busy-schedule of events, but we’ve a lot of work going on in the background of church life, lots of people stuff to support and develop and all the rest. Can’t say I’m not just a little bit tired, maybe even weary, but some seasons in ministry are like that. You have to do the work to break through into a new place.

I’ve made no secret over the years of the struggles I’ve had with mental health. Praise God, I’ve had several years of very reasonable good health after a fairly big crash. The reality is, however, that significant amounts of self-care really need to take place to maintain that.

A big part of that has been carving out, on the solid rocks of resolution, a firm rhythm of prayer, rest and time off. And, although there have been some disturbances to that, the steadiness of that commitment is the stabilising factor. It is all grace!

Anyway, all of that means that I’ve got a bit of a backlog of blog ideas to work through in the next few months, so normally blog output should hopefully emerge soon enough!