Try Tears

wbTruth be told, I cry a fair bit.  I got the advice from William Booth (not in person, you understand) – ‘try tears’ he said.  Injustice moves me, poverty moves me, unwarranted suffering moves me.  Most of the time I’m not directly connected to that, especially these days.  Yet, over the years, another thing that has consistently ‘got me’ is a burden for God’s people to encounter the transformation he brings and the depth of longing for the church to grasp the significance of our work, mission and task ahead of us.

It is a burden that I’m continuing to take to the Lord.  I lay out my question before him:  ‘How long?? Lord, why is it when your word says [this], and your passion is [this], and your command is [this], we’re so slow to respond to your call?’  And I ask him ‘Lord, send workers into the harvest!’  ‘May your Spirit renew us inward and move us outwards!’ …and I plead.  I beg that he might come and do his work…and I try tears as old Booth suggested.  It’s not that God will be manipulated, or suddenly moved by waterworks.  It’s not that I have to turn it on, I just plead and I long…and it lays heavy on my heart.  I still pray over my church’s empty seats every week like I’ve done for a long time in every place, picturing each person who comes and calling to mind the ‘feel’ of the assembly and the spiritual temperature of the corporate experience.  And, praying for those who’ve still to hear, who might someday sit on them.  I celebrate the good, and the rest…well, the Lord hears me.

The problem with me is that I’ve never been satisfied with any doctrine, idea or argument which seeks to come along and detract from the urgency of the Gospel.  Yes, call me old fashioned, but for me, preaching the gospel (in whatever format) is still important because I want people to experience the fullness of salvation God brings.  I want them to connect with deep grace, deep love, deep mercy.   I want to see so many folk’s transitory troubles pale into insignificance compared to the greatness of the promise; Christ in you, the hope of glory!

Taking away the Christian-talk….I believe God is in the business of rescuing, changing and redirecting people to a different destination.  And, there’s not a single person any of us have clapped eyes on that is not in need of the work of Christ to lead us out of the Kingdom of darkness into the Kingdom of the Son, whom God loves.  Any other ‘gospels’ out there perplex me, to be honest.

And then there is what passes as ‘normal’ in so many settings.  From my own perspective, I am worried if I have no passion: to encounter God through his Word; to pray and spend time in the ‘secret place’ with the Lord;  to speak his name and carry out his mission; to meet with, and encourage, and create community with the body of Christ regularly; to be open and accountable about my spiritual life; and, to extend the loving hand to the ones in whom Christ comes to us in his most distressing disguises (whatever you do for the least of these…)

It can’t be that I’m just weird to be so preoccupied with these things, can it?  And don’t get me wrong, I have my own salvation to ‘work out’ and I’d be competing with Paul for the ‘worst of sinners’ title most days if it wasn’t for God’s restraining grace.  It’s just that my heart longs for Christ to be fully formed in us, as much as is possible and that our capacity for being drawn in pursuit enables us.  To that end, I’ve laboured and no doubt will continue to labour.

Another thing Booth said was to assemble kindred hearts in some back room somewhere and pray until the breakthrough comes.  Prayer is where the transformation comes, it is where the relationship flourishes and where disciples are formed in love and active learning.   It’s a burden that needs sharing, maybe even a vision that needs renewing.  May God hear and answer.  Come quickly, Lord.

How to support your pastor/minister

Over the years there have been plenty of those ‘how to support your pastor’ posts written and that appear on Facebook etc. from a variety of perspectives.  Certainly, when I’ve read them there have been things that are useful and things that are less so, usually to do with the context.  I guess, over the years, I’ve never taken the time to contribute to that conversation from my own perspective.  It won’t be perfect, but its the fruit, I think, of 17 years in full-time church ministry (boy, I really need a sabbatical!)   I’m going to use the term ‘their’ as a gender inclusive word rather than his or hers.  In no particular order…

1.  Support your pastor’s family.   Your pastor loves you, no doubt, but their primary ministry in life is their family and their wellbeing will always be at the forefront of their attention.  It is very likely that your pastor already sacrifices a significant amount in the family area in fulfilling a rather unconventional job.  As your pastor pours their life into seeking to care for the church community, they need to know that when things get as equally challenging for their family that someone will be there to love, care, support, help, visit, pray for, feed, and provide for them.  One more thing: babysitting. If your pastor is married, they have a relationship to maintain.  Chances are they are living a significant distance away from their family and other networks of friends…that’s where the church steps in for the sake of the family’s wellbeing.  

Personal reflection:  I’ve always appreciated people who actively demonstrate the love of God to my children in ways such as offering a gift for birthday or Christmas, or when leaving the church; buying sweets; taking an interest in their interests; offering with lifts or school pick ups; encouraging them in their faith, especially when it’s easy to feel that they’re just being dragged to church because it’s mum/dad’s job.  A great gift that one church member offered to us was simply one evening per month of babysitting so that I could have precious time with my wife.

2.  Ask your pastor if they have any needs.  Most churches do a good job of paying a reasonable wage, some offer accommodation etc, and other practical things in order to provide a secure base from which they can work.  That doesn’t mean to say that practical, financial or time challenges don’t arise.    They have a need for time to cultivate and enjoy sustaining friendships and activities outside the church to help keep them sane.  Even with a day off a week, realise that your pastor’s brain rarely switches off from the things they are passionately working on.  Even the most disciplined pastor will not or cannot just ‘switch off’ – it’s not that kind of job!

Personal reflection:  Some of the greatest situations I can recall were when a church took it on board to feed our family when I was sick, who took me for coffee and walks, gave hugs and shoulders to cry on, quite literally.  There are times when we’ve struggled financially for whatever reason (cash flow, unexpected bills etc) and churches have said ‘we’ll help take care of that’.  In fact, the table and chairs my family sits at every day were an anonymous gift because when we left The Salvation Army we had no cash left to buy one…our dishwasher was a similar gift.  It’s not about the ‘stuff’ – it’s about recognising that sometimes love has to be tangible.  There have been times when people have ordered me to go home and rest, and not to dare to show my face until the black rings disappear from my eyes!  

3.  Support your pastor’s personal development.  Depending on the denominational system, there may be things already in place.  But, there are a few things worth mentioning:  your pastor needs to keep his own devotional life, education and study life and inspiration fresh if you want to continue to enjoy decent services and sermons!  If they are not sustained, you certainly won’t be through their ministry.  A book budget, a training budget, a spiritual direction or mentoring budget can all be real gifts to help a pastor sustain their spiritual development and leadership.  And don’t forget there may be practical training needs.

Personal reflection:  The greatest support I’ve ever received from a church in this area is a few extra days each quarter of the year that I can take away from the ministry setting for study or retreat, as well as occasional financing of that.  These have refreshed me, stretched me, blessed me and sustained me, as well as allowing me the opportunity to reach my full potential for the Kingdom.

4.  If your pastor has helped you, tell them.  Respond to their ministry as it touches you.  No healthy individual is asking for their ego to be stroked, and no-one should be asking to be ‘exalted’ or set on a pedestal.  But pastors will usually be deeply invested in assisting your growth as a human being, a disciple of Jesus, a member of a family, church, and community.  If they are succeeding at all, thank them.  Even if you have to be really creative with your thanks, have a go!

Personal reflection: Some of the most precious things I have are the stories of how my labour\work has impacted a life. It really IS what makes it all worth it.  To know that there have been things I’ve been able to say, be or do that have helped just a bit is so meaningful.  It has taken me a long time to be able to really hear what people are saying when they express this kind of thanks and not to shrug it off, and as I’ve worked on that it has become a deep blessing to know that my work isn’t for nothing.

5.  Pray for them, with them, beside them and over them.  Chances are your pastor invests significant time in prayer for all sorts of situations.  Equally, the chances are that your pastor is prayed out and desperate.  Moreover, they may feel that they’d just love someone to minister to them…to pastor the pastor with prayer.  Ministry is not just a role or a job; it is, in itself, spiritual warfare.  A praying pastor will pray diligently for protection and guidance, but they need support.  There is a picture in the Old Testament of Moses interceding over a battle on the ground below.  When he got tired, his arms raised in intercession drooped and the battle suffered.   When others came alongside and lifted/supported his arms, the battle picked up.  That is just a beautiful picture.  Do you pray for your pastor?  For their protection, vision, love, inspiration, preaching ministry, pastoral ministry, evangelistic endeavours, practical stuff and just general wellbeing?  Good idea to!

Personal reflection:  ‘Let me pray for you’ are the sweetest words to my ears. The sense of being lifted up before God is my deepest need.  No matter how diligent I am in engaging in prayer, someone battering down the door of heaven for you in prayer is life itself.  And, yes, there have been people who have prayed for me when I’ve no words left to say.  There are people who have chosen to be prayer warriors ‘lifting my arms’ – and they are the greatest gift to me.

6.  Share the ministry burden.  Ministry is not a one-person-band outfit.  Most pastors are not a multi-talented jack of all trades type of people, but that can often be the expectation…especially in some parts of the church.   You may not feel you can preach, or anything like that (although, that’s great too!), but maybe you can offer some PA admin support, do some phone calls, or anything else that a pastor can be relieved of in order for them to do what you really want them to be doing.

Personal Reflection:  Honestly, I’ve done it all over the years.  Cleaned the toilets, set up the chairs, done the money, raised the funds, baked the cakes, redesigned the church garden, painted the rooms…I could go on.  No problem with it.  But the challenge for me is when doing all that distracts from the real purposes the church is paying me and releasing me for.  There have been some situations in the past where I’ve felt like little more than a glorified janitor/administrator and those have been the points when I’ve thought…actually, if I stacked shelved at ASDA I’d probably have more freedom for ministry in my spare time! No job is beneath me as a leader….but equally, there are some bits of gifting and expertise that you’d probably benefit more from.  

It isn’t all practical though:  there have been seasons where I’ve had to deal with REALLY complex pastoral issues and people have said ‘really, let me preach this Sunday for you’ or ‘let me do that bible study’ or ‘let me organise temporary cover for a few things’ all whilst I’ve dealt with ‘that’ thing.  I’ve seen things and experienced things in ministry that have totally wiped me out emotionally, spiritually and physically…and have been restored by loving teams who’ve stepped up to the mark.

6.  Follow their leadership.   Leadership happens in lots of different ways and is often shared.  But, perhaps the calling, training, and experience your pastor has in ministry positions will help you arrive at particular places, and maybe some places you don’t fully understand the way.  Your pastor may be wrong, yes, but responding to their leadership by getting behind them or asking helpful questions to fill out what you don’t understand might help.  If you’ve had enough confidence to call that individual (if that’s how your system works), maybe dare to believe that God has brought their specific set of skills/giftings to you for a particular time and a particular season.  Dare to step out with them, always knowing that they are (should be) open to creative criticism and tweaking on the way.  Back them up on small and large things, speak to them privately if you need to, but try and support as much as you can.  On the other hand, don’t be a blind fool.  It is right and good to question and don’t let anyone ‘Lord to over’ you.

Personal reflection:  I think the whole church has huge shifts to make in its leadership culture and even its leadership training.  I’ve learned most of what I’ve learned ‘on the job’ – from both good and bad experiences…that’s life.  But, I can only do what I can do with the support I’ve got…the role is too big otherwise and is undoable.   The day of messiah-pastors or super-pastors is gone and was probably never really here.  The buck stops with me as a leader…and I’ve always been glad of people who will back me to the hilt when it really matters…and especially glad when people have even stuck out their neck even when they didn’t fully agree with me.  Sometimes I’ve been right, sometimes they’ve been right but we need to hear each other.

Bottom line: there is every chance your pastor is doing what they do for the love of God and love of you.  Please give the benefit of the doubt, especially if they have to deal with difficult things.  Don’t be afraid to shape, challenge and question…but overall these things:  pray for them and love them.

Personal reflection:  I also like Tunnocks’ Caramel Wafers.

Monuments and Movements

My last paper for my MA in Mission explored some of the key factors that might be required for any church stuck in a rut to get moving again.  Discounting dynamite, laxatives or any other such distasteful or destructive methods, the conclusion I argued for was simply to focus on ‘making missional disciples’.  OK, so the argument was a bit more complex than that, but that’s the gist of it.

I guess, over the years, I’ve been a part of a million-and-one exciting projects and initiatives…especially all the latest things which are guaranteed to grow your church in 5 easy steps or your money back (…no, wait a minute, we’re keeping your money…it’s your lack of effort that means our fool-proof plan isn’t working).  Most of those things seem to hinge around the idea that ‘if you build it, they will come’ from some nostalgic Kevin Kostner baseball film rather than any biblical or historical pattern that really meant something, or on any engaged theology of mission.

But you know what?  There is not a massive crowd out there looking for a church of any description.  The number crunchers tell us that perhaps 10% of the population not already in church MAY CONSIDER taking up an invite to come along.  No guarantees…just ‘might’.  The rest are rather non-plussed.  And, I don’t always blame them. Considering we focus our major resources on the 10% (along with almost every other church out there), it’s reasonably safe to say that growth and movement will not come that way.  There are already hundreds of churches set up for just that.  But what about the rest?  Who will go to those for whom church is the last thing on their minds?  And what will it mean to do that?

By missional discipleship, I mean getting a tipping-point percentage of those already in church engaged in a mission-centric approach to discipleship as opposed to a church-centric approach; one based on active learning (learning and living by doing and engaging) as opposed to book learning alone; one which cultivates in individuals the instinct to go beyond the boundaries of church culture and actually engage with real people – not with some ulterior motive – to live our lives openly alongside others in such a way that God-in-us can be seen, questioned, challenged and explored.   Hirsch calls it having ‘the missional-incarnational impulse’ – the desire to ‘go out and go deep’ and maybe even to ‘stay out’.  What does it meant to engage people on their turf, on their terms and in their time rather than the other way about?

I think I’m stating the obvious here, or at least it seems that way to me.  But, the reality is that for many situations the writing is already on the wall and there are many situations up and down the country not prepared for the present and future challenge in the mission of the church.  Uptake on any form of active discipleship can be low, let alone a missional discipleship that is ready to engage in such a way that a real shift can happen.  And I’m not talking about church activity here…if anything, that can be a distraction.  The church is rota-ed to distraction!  I’m talking about a core commitment to living a Jesus life at home and in the community.  For me, the church exists beautifully whether it’s gathered or scattered and it strikes me that the only way for that beautiful life to be seen is if we dare to expose it to the scrutiny of those who need to witness it.

I’m not against making our gatherings accessible, meaningful and even ‘attractive’ to visitors at all – but it is a small part of the story as far as mission is concerned.  Major shifts are required for them even to cross the door.  Maybe getting them to cross our particular shaped doors is not the main thing after all? Maybe the ones crossing doors should be us?  I’d bet my bottom dollar on that.  In fact, I believe it is what Bonnhoeffer meant when he said that he believes a new kind of monasticism is required…one that is nothing like the old flavours of monasticism apart from that men and women gather around the central theme of LIVING OUT the Sermon on the Mount…the Christ-shaped life.  If God is a God of mission, who sent his Son, who then sent the Spirit, who now sends us…isn’t it about high time we got going?   Please, for God’s sake, let’s!

On reading and learning…

‘The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us’ – John 1:14

I picked up the two heavy ring binders containing my study notes from my days at International Christian College in Glasgow last night and enjoyed a good flick through the pages.  On one hand, I loved revisiting the pages, remembering even sitting in the classrooms…the lecturers and students.  On the other hand, I was slightly bewildered at the fact that I’d once learnt this stuff, much of which I’d forgotten, or, rather, filtered.  One of the things I always said about going to bible college was not so much about the specific things I learnt, but the fact of having learned to learn!  That’s the thing that really sets you up for life and it becomes a skill you can develop and apply to most stuff.

I have to say that one of the things that troubles me most in many churches I’ve experience in over 20 years of being a Christian is the low levels in congregations of people engaging with learning.  Don’t get me wrong…it’s not all about book learning for me.  I think it’s even possible to know loads of stuff and for it to make little impact on your discipleship (I’ve seen that too).  I intuitively know that many people learn better by doing, and that an active ‘on-the-road-with-Jesus’ discipleship should helpfully balance any book-type learning.  But all the same, it is concerning how in some circles the take-up for education is low in the church…especially when it comes to Bible literacy.

When I was 14/15 years old, and in the six months or so before my conversion, I was literally soaking up everything I could read about Christianity.  Everything.  I had devoured my little red Gideon’s New Testament I had got from school and had covered anything half decent in my local library on matters of Christian faith.  I just wanted to know more.  This, I believe, not only helped me to respond to the gospel readily in October of 1995, but also set the tone for what would be a normative part of my ongoing discipleship.  I’ll always be thankful for that, wherever I got it.

Thing is, I was never a reader up until that point.   Until that point in time I don’t reckon I’d ever really read a proper book.  I wasn’t encouraged, really, to read at home.  I do understand that reading isn’t some people’s bag…I honestly get it.  But, for me, the thirst to understand the Christian story was just bigger than all of that.  And, I haven’t really stopped.

But I remember that early passion for the Bible.  I remember, lying in my bed at home, reading the bible under my duvet like it was some contraband material (probably was in my house!) and being entirely captured by the words of Jesus.  I remember the first time reading of  ‘you are the light of the world’ and ‘let your yes be yes’ and ‘if the light in you is darkness, how great is that darkness’, and ‘this is how they will know you are my disciples’ and ‘Jesus sent them out two by two’… and to hear those words for the very first time without any real church context understanding of them at all – it was revolutionary stuff!  I was captured by the Jesus in the books and was thrilled and amazed when I realised that I could talk to this Jesus and that he would respond in ways I could never have imagined.

And that’s the whole point:  relationship; encounter; thirst; transformation.  People spend their whole lives expecting people to feed them with this stuff.  Truth is: you have to have the appetite (if you don’t have it, ask the Spirit); you have to learn how to feed yourself; you have to take responsibility for your own discipled approach; and, you have to not just be a reader, but a doer of it.  But you know what?  People like me have jobs that are designed, really, to help people do just that!

None of this is to say that, over the years, there haven’t been dry patches, negligent patches or, in my case, some periods of time where I have been prevented from being able to read or study due to being unwell.  But, as soon as I detect a real case of whatever it is, it doesn’t take long before my cry is ‘God, please!’

I remember one such time during a recent illness when I just couldn’t read – the words wouldn’t register, they wouldn’t come together, it just wasn’t happening, and I was desperate for the cognitive function to engage.  In that time, I even remember carrying my Bible with me, opening it on the desk and resting my head on it.  I wasn’t under the impression that any sort of weird osmosis would take place, but I had such a desire and longed for my head to clear and the ability to read to return.

I’m always happy if I can just encourage people, in any small way, to read and engage.  And, if people aren’t readers to get on the apps, the CDs, the mp3s, the podcasts, the whatever and allow your mind to be shaped through engagement with gospel ideas and the teachings of Jesus.  More than that, do it with other people…it’s not a solo sport all the time.  Take responsibility…move on from the milk, and arrive at the good meat.  So, what ya reading? 😉