On Sunday I’ll be renewing my vows as a Companion of the Northumbria Community – an annual occurrence for each member of our Community. It is a special time. Holy Week, the week leading up to Easter, is a naturally reflective time, but this adds an extra dimension. It’s time to revisit our Rule…which isn’t about regulations, but about a provocative framework for life and discipleship. It’s not intended to ‘tie us in to a system’ but to shape our lives around key questions.

This last year, these questions, which the whole community live out, have been so poignant for me:

  1. Who is it that you seek?
  2. How then shall we live?
  3. How can we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?

These are exile questions…questions from the desert. Questions that are asked between Egypt and the Promised Land, between the first advent and the second, and after Christendom…until whatever emerges next. I know that the penny hasn’t dropped for every Christian or every church, but we navigate a landscape where the Christian story is no longer dominant. Many live in such a way as to try and regain that dominance. Others recognise that Christianity has often been its most robust and healthy when it has occupied the margins of society.

My hunch – and it is a very ‘Baptist’ hunch – is that Christianity occupying a central stage this side of eternity is a compromised Christianity on the whole. Politics and ‘my rights’ take the place of humility, service and radical faith. By radical I don’t mean radicalised in the modern sense of the word, but radical in the sense of paying attention to our humble but significant roots. I guess this is why the questions are so significant to me in my own discipleship.

My answers to those questions aren’t so much destinations, but journeys…which sounds cliche, but that’s what open questions do. They’re questions that can be asked several times a day and yield different answers, priorities, realities and perspectives. They lead me far beyond ‘why’ towards the courage needed to adapt and move forward. I’ve found them to be the best companions.

The rest of the Rule seeks to make a corporate response to the questions, and to aid us in adding our ‘YES!’ to the core values of AVAILABILITY and VULNERABILITY, which, when fully embraced, returns us to risky living for Christ and the gospel. It has been these questions and these key elements that have called me back into life and ministry this year, in a year where every other resource seemed to elude me. It changed my ‘why’ to ‘and so, what next’ – and that is no small thing.

I still feel like I am inhabiting an ‘in-between’ place, like many of us are right now. I am trying not to resist or fear this, but to embrace it and find the joy in it. Easier said that done, but there but for the grace of God we go!

Secret Work

Pastoral ministry in the local church has several faces.

There’s the ‘public work‘ – what can be seen. This includes leading of worship, preaching, teaching, meetings, pastoral meet ups, social media and the like. All the things that you can look at from the outside and say ‘that’s pastoral ministry being outworked.’

Then there’s the ‘background work‘ – what is sometimes visible by some. This is the daily administration of teams, planning, writing, strategising, thinking, communicating, etc. These are all the things that, with others, keep things moving along.

Then there is the ‘secret work‘ – sometimes only know to God. That’s what I want to talk about now. It is secret in that it is a prayerful work, a reflective work, and very often a solo work, even when there is a wider team. This is where the weight of ministry is held, before an ever gracious God, and where the pastor gives highest continual account as those who will be judged more strictly (James 3:1).

It is an intercessory place – where a pastor will get on his knees for the pains and joys of their people, for the glory of God’s name, for the mission, for the lost, for the communication of the Word, need of every ounce of grace for a task for which we feel largely unworthy and unqualified for.

It’s a place of warfare – the enemy’s tactic is to ‘divide and conquer’ and the attack is greater at the pastor’s door, so the pastor needs to be well hidden in Christ, well covered in Him, and kitted for battle. It is consecration; it is bringing the most human of lives into the divine presence to be rededicated and empowered again for the next task.

It’s a preparatory place – because of this, its the place where the pastor soaks in the Word and in the Presence, and the source of the public ministry. This is where the pastor/minister brings his/her own heart to God that the work of the ministry of the Holy Spirit might be done in them first before it gets anywhere else.

It’s also a work that is least understood because it’s not directly on view, although you’d notice if it wasn’t there. It’s also a part of the work that many pastors I know struggle with maintaining and keeping proper space for, because many won’t understand the time needed to be invested here for effective ministry. The result is that many sacrifice this for ministry that can be seen perhaps to avoid criticism, to meet unrealistic expectations, or to win approval because one is ‘seen’.

There have been times in my ministry where I’ve neglected the secret work for all of those reasons, but the further I go on, the more I recognise that, in many ways, it IS the work. When the apostle Peter came to the place of appointing deacons in the book of Acts 6:4, he says, in effect, ‘we need help with so many other tasks so that we can continue to give ourselves to the ministry of prayer and of the Word.’ Reality means that pastoral ministry will always be a smorgasbord of activity in these days, but prayer and the Word must never be neglected.

Dear pastor friends – maintain your work in the secret place.

Folks in the fellowship – know that you are loved and held.

The needs of our day are different from the needs of any other time and history – and in the cacophany of the age, there are things that really need to be grounded in the depths of our calling as the people of God…for His glory alone.

Ecclesia Semper Reformanda Est

Ecclesia Semper Reformanda Est – ‘the church is always reforming’

This season of Covid has changed ministry beyond all recognition – without doubt. And, my sense is that it has changed people, certainly in the short term – there is a strong fatigue, a weariness, and an uncertainty hanging around. These seasons in life – where we’re between one thing and another – are ‘liminal spaces’. They are confusing in-between spaces; not quite sure who I am or where I’m going spaces; not sure what to do with it spaces; very uncomfortable spaces as the familiar falls away.

Not everyone can do ‘liminal space’ well. It takes a certain grit to embrace a transition season, but also some perseverance to tune in to its messages. Liminality speaks loudly…as loud as the most silent silence. There’s a profundity to step into if we are able to embrace it.

Liminal space is transforming.

Think of being thrust out of the Garden. Think of sailing on a flooded earth for a season. Think of lying in the bottom of a pit abandoned by your brothers. Think of generations living under slavery. Think of 40 years in the desert. Think of climbing up Sinai. Think of hiding in a cave from your enemies. Think of 40 days in the desert. Think a few nights in the depth of the tomb. Think of being shut away in an upper room praying and hoping in fear. Think of a few nights in the jailer’s cell. Think of exile on a island. Think of years of house arrest. Just a few biblical examples of ‘liminal’ in-between spaces.

Many of us are suspicious of the unknown. We hanker for safety, security, and the familiar. That’s natural, but it’s not normal in the sense that life is rarely really like that. I guess in the West, we feel that much of our lives are usually predictable and almost dull in their regularity, until something like a death, a sickness, a crisis, a pandemic or a war comes along.

And what about the church? Well, in lots of ways the church can be an expert at stability. Not saying that is a bad thing. The church, over the years, has had periods of being settled, it has endured, it has succeeded (sort of) in passing apostolic faith down the centuries. Execept, every 300 years or so, something comes along and provokes a reformation.

The first reformation was the coming of the Spirit on the people of God! Wow! Big one! Nothing was the same again.

The second reformation, maybe between 400 – 500 or so, was the emergence of desert monasticism – a movement that rejected the normalising and the compromise of church getting into bed with the state. So the Desert Fathers and Mothers lived a radical discipleship on the edges.

Not far behind, St Benedict and his radical movement which didn’t just transform the church, but transformed the world – preserving culture from itself!

The third reformation, maybe 400 years later again, came in the shape of St Francis. ‘Rebuild my church’, God proclaims, and Francis and his sister Clare set about bringing simple joy and poverty back to an indulgent church, setting a new bar for discipleship.

Fast forward another 400 years or so, and the rot hasn’t stopped. Faith and practice distorted: enter Luther, Calvin, Zwingly and Co. Enter the Anabaptists, then the Huguenots, the Waldensians, the Moravians, the Puritans and the like who take the church back to the Word, back to the basics of discipleship.

Skip a few hundred years and you have the Wesleys, Whitfield, Finney, Edwards, Moody, the Booths and the Evangelical revival of the 18th-19th century, taking the church back to the streets, back to the ‘common people’, igniting a passion for the gospel which lead to the biggest move of evangelisation since the early church.

And then…there’s now. In lots of way the rug has been pulled from under us. We’ve experience the biggest upheaval in the history of the modern church. Will be go back ‘to normal?’ Or, will we put our ear to the Word, to the ground, to the heartbeat of God and listen to what he’d have us do now?

That’s the choice we face in liminal space. Will we be the reformers, or will we be those reformed against? Can we take a brave, bold step into an unknown future for the sake of the gospel? I pray so.

That spiritual problem…have you got it?

In the last post I suggested you may have a spiritual problem – quite bold of me! I certainly have no wish to judge or condemn, but rather, to see followers of Jesus walk in freedom. This, after all, is what Christ set us free for – freedom! (Gal 5:1).

I’m not going to beat about the bush in arriving at this two-sided problem. I want to outline them briefly, and then point us to the road to freedom.

The problem is two fold: legalism or antinomianism. Whatcha? HUH? Yeah.

Legalism is the situation where, even if saved by grace through faith, there is a tendancy to believe that we have to do certain things in order to either contribute to our salvation, or work to please God and earn favour. The language of a legalist is ‘should’, ‘ought’, ‘must’. It can be directed at self (eg. I must have at least 20 minutes prayer every day or I will be failing God) or at others (eg they really ought to be at church twice a week every week to be any use to us). This can reduce the Christian life to a guilt-inducing set of requirements on a whole manner of things which, at the end of the day, will make you or those you are legalistic towards fairly miserable. Where is the joy? More than that, is it freedom to be enslaved to rituals, practices and attitidudes?

The opposite is Antinomianism. Basically, antinominism is where, even if saved by grace through faith, there is a tendency to believe that because we are ‘under grace’, I don’t have to do a thing! Don’t sweat it! Jesus has it covered! It is a kind of ‘lawlessness’ because, well, ‘I’m not under law.’ This plays itself out in lots of ways. People don’t take advantage of the means of grace that help us grow deeper into Christ (fellowship, prayer, bible reading, communion, worship etc) and reject the call to holiness (they are over-easy on their purity of heart and life, letting themselves off). This leads to a ‘Christian by name’ but ‘defeated by nature’ situation. This, too, is less than fulfilling, not transformative and leads to nominalism.

Can you see the problem? These extremes feed into each other, and are both extortions of authentic faith. One robs the joy and turns faith into religious doing, and the other robs the fullness by leading into sin, disengagement or spiritual laziness.

What’s the answer? It’s this: ‘grace reigning through righteousness’ (Ro 5:21).

What does that mean for the legalist? It affirms that their is a right way to live as we follow Christ, but rather than it being the case that we slave at religious works, instead we accept we are saved by grace and allow grace to inspire our free devotion, leaving off the religious or judgemental shackles. It’s about learning to live freely and lightly, accepting that Jesus’ burden is easy and his yoke is light – that nothing ill-fitting will befall us. That frees us up for loving devotion.

What does that mean for the antinomian? It means that although our salvation is by grace through faith, there is a demand of the gospel. Salvation is free, but it actually costs us everything. We’re invited to come and die to sin. More than that, as Paul spends loads of time saying in Romans, grace doesn’t mean we go around enjoying our sin simply because grace covers it. No! Grace means that not only are we set free from sin and its dreadful consequences, but we are freed from the bondage to sin. We live by the Spirit, and, like the legalist, we learn to live freely and lightly in response to the call to follow.

As I reflect on 20 years of pastoral ministry, I believe I’ve seen these two ways played out in hundreds of lives. When I started out in faith, I didn’t understand this dynamic and quickly fell into religious legalism…until I learned about grace. There have also been seasons when I’ve played down the call to life a life of repentance, purity and submission and have got tangled in sin for a season, dumbing my conscience to throw of the call of God…until I remembered grace.

I’ve tried to keep this post simple, but I believe the effects of these two tendencies in the life of the Christian not only lead to misery and defeat, but that they hamper the mission of God and the advance of the Kingdom of God so far as that is reliant on our witness in the world. It is a pastoral issue, but also a missional issue. We want to invite people to freedom in Christ – not a dried up religion or a weak, watery believe-ism that rejects the call to radical discipleship.

How might your reflections on this lead you into the freedom grace bestows?

You’ve probably got a spiritual problem

There are two equal and opposite ‘heresies’ or misunderstandings that plague the believer in Christ today. The are on opposing poles with each other, they set up division between one set of people and another, and they both lead to an impoverished spiritual life. Some people will be more entrenched in either one than someone else. The apostle Paul spoke about it very clearly.

Chances are, at many times in your Christian experience, you’ll have been inflicted with these to some extent at different times. Perhaps one or either of them have been your ‘operating system’ as a Christian for some time, even now. It is unlikely that they will exist in you at the same time.

If that’s the case, it is likely to be the reason that faith either makes you miserable, or gives your spiritual life such a lack of fulfilment. These problems are robbing you of your joy, will be affecting your relationship with God and with the body of Christ. It’s that serious.

Dealing with either these things as they affect your life will be a challenge, and it will offend you before you can find freedom from it. Not dealing with them will restrict you from full freedom in Christ

If this was true, would you want to know what they are and what the escape route was?

I’ll be writing more on Monday 15th March – tune in.


Stories of the times in history when God moves sovereignly in the hearts and lives of his people, and as a result, in the beautiful spiritual awakening of whole communities, fill my heart with joy and deep longing in equal measure. I am not interested in awakening or ‘revival’ as a means of putting ‘bums on seats’ in the church, in the face of the free-fall decline in the church in these lands. What I am interested in is that as many people have the transformative experience of having their lives radically impacted by the presence of God.

I once pastored a church in the Scottish Highlands which had experienced such a revival in the 1930s and 1940s. The church had become part of what was called the ‘Fisherman’s Revival’ which impacted UK ports up and down the whole of the east coast, from as far north as Wick and as far south as Great Yarmouth. The spirit of God profoundly impacted the life of fishermen, who carried a powerful gospel message up and down the country. A key figure in this awakening was a chap called Jock Troup, a Salvationist from the town of Wick, who was a simple yet powerful preacher. The Salvation Army had to send extra officer reinforcements to cope with the preaching, the follow up and the impact in the community.

I’ve sat with records from that time, housed in the filing cabinets of my church office, that recount stories of hundreds of people seeking Christ every week for several weeks. In the town of Wick, the Salvation Army and the Baptist Church held meetings at which countless lives were changed. More than that, as I pastored in that town, the legacy of revival sat before me each week. Many of the people in the church were children of people who were saved or awakened in their faith through that extraordinary season.

And that is a useful ‘working definition’ of awakening. A time when God does what God always does but in a sharply focussed time frame, resulting in an outpouring of salvation, holiness and, as a consequence, an increased awareness of the presence of God and a subsequent impact on the wider community.

I am not inclined, either by my reading of the scriptural narrative of both Testaments, or by the countless stories of God’s actions down throughout history, to believe that the church will ever experience long-lasting growth and advancement through strategy, plans or stylistic changes. This can often be reduced to merely ‘shuffling chairs on the Titanic’. If you contrast the evangelical revivals of, say, the late 1800s and early 1900s around the time of the Industrial Revolution with the ‘Decade of Evangelism’ in the 1990s or the Church Growth Movement of the 80s – 00s, there’s no competition. The former was built on impactful communication of the gospel, the latter largely on ecclesiastical aesthetics.

Aesthetic changes can be interesting or shiny for a short while, but as soon as people get fed up with it, realise that it doesn’t satisfy, or discover people doing it more to their liking down the road, the enthusiasm disappears. The thing is, if you win people through a youth programme, a worship style, a particular type of liturgy or non-liturgy, or any other such thing, you create the environment which means you really have to sustain that thing and keep it ‘special’ in order to keep the folks who have been attracted by it. That pushes you straight into a game of cat and mouse, chasing after the next new thing, whatever that might be. It is exhausting and largely futile. We go for the gimmicks because they can perhaps draw a crowd and pique interest. This doesn’t meant to say you are not creative or innovative, but it does mean that whatever you do endeavour in the cause of the mission has its centre not on the means, but by the core…Jesus Christ and him crucified, raised, glorified, and coming again.

I strongly suggest that the only way to make solid disciples who will last the course, whatever the fad of the day, are those who are won through the preaching of the gospel, regeneration by the Spirit, and a radical change in the heart which means that lives are built on Christ and on the indwelling presence of God by the Spirit. You don’t have to entertain a follower of Jesus – they will not want to let him go, and they will feel an inextricable link to the Bride of Christ, the church. They’ll worship, pray, learn, witness, serve, love and suffer for the name of Jesus…and they’ll persevere through whatever season comes along.

So, this conviction, long seated in my heart for ministry, grows deeper each passing year and is at the heart of my prayer life for the fellowships I have led, and for the way I approach ministry. I regularly use Psalm 85 as a basis for my prayers along this theme, both for my own church and the church in our nation and around the world. Perhaps it’s a prayer you might be able to join with as you seek awakening and renewal in your own life, and in the life of the church and moving out into impacting the nations for Christ.

You, Lord, showed favor to your land;
    you restored the fortunes of Jacob.
You forgave the iniquity of your people
    and covered all their sins.
You set aside all your wrath
    and turned from your fierce anger.

Restore us again, God our Savior,
    and put away your displeasure toward us.
Will you be angry with us forever?
    Will you prolong your anger through all generations?
Will you not revive us again,
    that your people may rejoice in you?
Show us your unfailing love, Lord,
    and grant us your salvation.

I will listen to what God the Lord says;
    he promises peace to his people, his faithful servants—
    but let them not turn to folly.
Surely his salvation is near those who fear him,
    that his glory may dwell in our land.

10 Love and faithfulness meet together;
    righteousness and peace kiss each other.
11 Faithfulness springs forth from the earth,
    and righteousness looks down from heaven.
12 The Lord will indeed give what is good,
    and our land will yield its harvest.
13 Righteousness goes before him
    and prepares the way for his steps.

Picking up the communication…

Well, once again I’ve rather neglected my old blog here…it happens every once in a while, especially when life gets ‘interesting’. My last reflections here were on initial thoughts on the pandemic type stuff, but then sometimes life just has to be lived and gotten through!

But my old blog calls me back; partly as a reflective tool for myself, and also by way of sharing with others. In lots of ways, this blog has been the ‘inner workings’ of ministry. Lot’s of people only see the front end, so to speak, and I know it’s hard to tell at times how leaders/pastors might get to the places they do in their thinking etc. For that reason, it’s sometimes worth writing.

In the last year I’ve pretty much had to get over my antipathy to all things video. I think part of my reticence in that is just inexperience of communicating through camera and a ‘preference’ for live. Much of communication feeds on how the recipients are engaging or hearing – and it makes communication very different, especially in the area of discerning what the Spirit is saying/doing.

Showing art on HBC livestreamed worship from home

I think the other aspect of speaking to a camera is my own spoken language problems. I’ve been ‘down south’ for nearly 6 years, and 11 years if you count Newcastle in the north…and it is no easier for me to speak English as a native Scots speaker. I don’t think in the English you hear coming out of my mouth. People rarely recognise how much I have to change my spoken language in order to communicate and it’s an exhausting task, often meaning that I stutter and stumble over words, phrases and sentences that I wouldn’t do if I were speaking ‘naturally’.

In any case, I’ve come round to video as a medium. And, whilst I think it is second best to real life, it has its place. Even after lockdowns etc, I think video communication is here to stay. It will be interesting to see where that goes.

All that to say that as much as I think I will work at picking up the blogging here again, I may actually do some video blogging (vlogging) too. I know there are some who find that more accessible.

So, sorry for the relative blog silence as far as this site goes, I’m sure there are relatively few that missed it – but I have missed the discipline of open reflection in ministry and so, for my sake, if not for anyone else’s, I’ll probably blog/vlog on!