Long Obedience

So, Pastor Eugene Peterson died. He’s more famous for his bible paraphrase, The Message. I’ve never been too much of a fan of The Message, although there are some beautiful gems in that work which have been so helpful.

No, I’ve come to appreciate Eugene much more recently as a reflective writer on ministry as a life-long pastor. From him I’ve become more convinced of the fundamental need to see ‘the person’ and learn their name long before you assume to do anything else. Ministry is, above all else, founded upon relationships. I’m invited to take the risk of being known by others.

I’ve also come to understand so significantly the value of being available to listen to people without agenda. To see folks where they’re at and to go from there. People aren’t tools to be utilised or resources to be deployed – but lives to be enriched, encouraged, equipped and celebrated just as they are as for all that God will do in/for them.

Finally, he talks about life and ministry as one long obedience in the same direction. We’re called to life, not to grasping the ‘next thing’. Ministry in recent years for us has been exhaustingly spread. It’s all been hugely valuable – I’ve met great people, I’ve experienced great and challenging things, and I’ve changed hugely from the 20 year old who started out. But I’m in that place where I just recognise that everything that has gone before may well just have been training for the main job ahead. Having said that, a sabbatical would be really nice after 18 years of ministry without anything remotely resembling it!

More than all of this, I’m a couple of years off 40. God willing, I may have about 30 years ministry left? It’s not that long. God…what can you do with this one life handed over to you? It is for him to decide but I’m given over to it that Jesus might be lifted up and God be glorified.

Peterson expresses that he hoped his legacy will have been to speak prophetically to a generation of American pastors about the heart and rhythm of ministry. Well, Eugene – your legacy has burst its geographical and generational borders and lives on in many others in further places, even in me.

Thank you, Eugene. Praise God for your life, ministry, and long obedience in the same direction.

‘What is this that grieves thee?’

The blog title is a line from a song in the American Shapenote tradition. The song is a message to the human heart, an invitation to exploration, and an invitation to share.

I have to say I’ve been feeling ‘grieved’ for a little while. I’ve been feeling it lately, but it’s not a new feeling. It weighs upon me in the morning, in the day, at bedtime and through the night.

And the thing is, it’s not a ‘trendy’ thing to be grieved about. Seems that some people aren’t jealous for this, exercised to action over it…at least not very obviously! Or very verbally, at least in most of the UK context I live in.

I am grieved about the failure of God’s people, and myself as chief sinner among them, and our lack of passion for the gospel and the glory of God. Let me take away any sense of judgment about others, and instead take the log out of my own eye:

I’ve often appeared more spiritual than I really am; I’ve been more inconsistent in personal prayer that I know is healthy; the Word of God has not always been utmost in my passions; I’ve been careless in speech; my zeal in witness and evangelism has lessened; I’ve doubted the gospel in the fear of the world’s sensitivities; I’ve protected my fragile ego before taking the risk of speaking boldly; I’ve taken my eye off of Christ many times, and this is inspite of living in the cocoon of church leadership. I mean, should I go on?

The bottom line for us as Christians is: do I really live my life in such a way that displays what I really believe? Am I ultimately convinced that the gospel is the power of God for the salvation of all who believe? Am I a leader who will always choose the ease of being liked and appreciated over fulfilling the prophetic mandate to boldly proclaim Christ and him alone?

And more than that, will I spend the rest of my life in the safe zone of security whilst the church weakens, whilst the voice of prayer fades, the gospel gets watery and the ideas and philosophies of our culture does continued untold damage to the voice of scripture that, in some miraculously weird way, we’ve managed to muffle from our conscience?

You know what? All would seem quite overwhelming if it wasn’t for the fact that God, in his mercy, continues to draw us to himself. It’s never too late to come afresh and say, ‘God, show me your heart. Let me hear your voice. Fill me with your compassion. Give me a dose of fear and honour of your name. Remind me that I’m a dead man walking and allow Christ to reign.’ This isn’t to say that God just overlooks all this. No, his invitation is to repentance; to renewal; to our knees to cry out before him that he might restore us.

How about it? God help us.

Chan’s Letters to the Church

Francis Chan’s most recent book, ‘Letters to the Church’, was nothing new.  I don’t say that to dismiss the book at all.  Over the years I’ve read a fair bit of Chan and other authors like Frank Viola, Neil Cole, Alan Hirsch, Michael Frost, Matt Smay, Hugh Halter, et al who all write similarly and passionately about where the church needs to go and what it might be missing in our age.  If you’re in church (especially church leadership) and these names are new to you, you’ve got some catching up to do

In fact, a combination of all of that reading, as any long-term reader of my blog will know, eventually led me to something of a crisis point in my own leadership in The Salvation Army in particular.  I just knew that I couldn’t be involved in perpetuating a system which no longer serves either the current needs of the people of God or in fact one which seems to go against the flow of the core scriptural fundamentals of how church might look.  Long story cut short, but I stepped out of a highly institutional form of leadership to explore other paths.  I don’t regret it.

Having said that, I’ve been round the block several times in my mind about how to facilitate necessary change.  Maybe this is because it is, in many situations, a very slow process.  I have nothing against slow, but some situations are starting at very different points on what may be considered to be a necessary journey than others.

Anyway,  back to Chan.  His journey is different to mine but not entirely dissimilar.  He led a mega church (I’ve never led one of those, but one post-SA church had over 300 members – big for the UK) and whilst recognising all the good in it, was left with that creeping sense that there were some fundamentals missing.  Much of it rested on his personality.  Ministry was becoming ‘professionalised’, and there was more focus on church as a commodity to be consumed, and less as a church as a most beautiful sacred thing which comes alive mainly when it is at its simplest, and centred around Jesus rather than our preferences.

He left his mega church in good hands and moved to the other side of America and started afresh.  This is what flowed from it:  wearechurch.com Essentially, they stripped things back to disciple-making, scripture engagement, prayer, the Lord’s supper, meeting in homes, equipping and training people for real life in a bid to capture how the church becomes something that pleases Jesus rather than just ourselves.  This is both inspirational and terrifying in equal measure.  To be like this involves a radical re-think and re-focus which, in my experience, the church is rarely ready for.  In England, there is such a strong wedded hold to more traditional set ups and we can be slow to re-evaluate.  I fear that our readiness may, in many situations, be our downfall.  

It is just not the case that God will always stand in our corner to ensure we don’t disappear.  Yes, Jesus said the gates of Hell will not prevail against the church.  But I sense that he was thinking macro rather than micro, global more than local.  The reality is that many countries, regions, towns and villages have had the church disappear.  Even in places like Ephesus who are painted in the pages of the New Testament as folks who had almost nailed the whole church thing.  Now something of a missional graveyard.

We are yet to fully answer whether the UK will keep sufficiently in step with the Holy Spirit to discover again what it means to experience the kind of church Chan speaks of.  One things is pretty certain, though, especially so as far as I’m concerned:  I don’t intend to preside over decline in whatever ministry God has in future for me.  And I’m not just talking numbers.  It is relatively easy to attract and ‘entertain’ a crowd.  Much more of a challenge for churches to deepend their discipleship and dependency on Christ, their life as a community together and their impact for mission on the world and let the Lord deal with the numbers.

Anyway, Chan is worth a read.   He may just spark a whole tonne of questions that we all need to grapple with, even if we come to different conclusions as to what it looks like.  As always, the status quo will never do.