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!

‘New Normal’

It has been some time since I’ve had a clear enough spot in the week to sit down and reflect here about ministry and discipleship in this particular period of life we’re facing. Everyone is now talking about the ‘New Normal’ as it becomes very clear that life will have to change for some considerable time as we fight off this disease among us.

Churches will have to work out the practicalities of how to do that practically, but I sense there is a great danger of the practicalities of this movement forward crowding out what valuable lessons may be learned through lockdown, and that I’m afraid will be lost very quickly. That, however, is not what I want to talk about today – rather, some reflections on what has moved within my own life and what my own New Normal is looking like.

Through my daily times of prayer, reading, reflection, and silence, there are many things that have arisen to the surface which have been heightened and clarified in this context which I’ve been holding before God. I’ve been sitting with the question ‘What is it that I seek?’

  1. The solace of resting in God as the one thing necessary. This isn’t a new discovery, but has become a different reality in these days. Face to face with one’s mortality, and living through those ‘eternal questions’, I come to affirm that there is one over-riding call in our lives as followers of Jesus: to be in and aware of God’s presence or absence, and to live out of that. I think the Westminster Catechism puts it like this ‘To love God and enjoy him forever.’ That sounds rather lofty, and my lived experience feels a bit more rugged than that, but there’s nothing else I want amongst all the competing desires.
  2. A Place of Resurrection – a place where I can be myself and settle into stability, and where this can be lived out. I’m not talking necessarily about geography here, although the early Celts were always travelling in search of the place where God would establish them, via land or via sea, and where they would live out their days and await their Resurrection. The Benedictines always had a firmer commitment to stability as regards to place, over and above the Celtic peregrinati. On one level this is about feeling free to embrace all God is calling me to be, but also about settling into what/where my ‘fitting task’ is.
  3. A community of brothers and sisters for the journey. I’m a useless facilitator of any status quo that makes church a corporate show, over and above a dynamic community lived ‘face to face’ and ‘side by side’. The institutionalisation of the church is a great adventure of missing the point that many of us are sadly over-attached to. Even in lockdown, there is the pressure of performance, comparison with what the folks down the road are up to. What happened to companionship on the journey? I’m more clear that ‘making disciples’ is our task….it is Jesus’ job to build the church!
  4. A simply uncluttered life. Little of the extra is necessary, and it brings little joy, both in terms of material things or other things that fill our time and makes its demands.
  5. To live out the blessing. Living out of the fruit of ones life in Christ. You have to be prepared that some people aren’t going to like it – but that’s usually their problem. In the main, the most authentic ministry flows from our personal relationship with Jesus and encounter with him. I’ve learned lots of nice stuff over the years, but its always secondary. That’s not to minimise learning, but its also not ultimately where ministry comes from in my experience.

I’m not really sure what of that will chime with others, but these are the lessons I’ve learned. I have to say that, in the long term, they will guide some significant decisions, but for now I’m just living in the light of them to see how they settle.

Never waste a crisis. Sit with it, listen to it, let it teach you.

Pandemic Pastor

We’re pretty much a month into the covid19 pandemic ‘lock down’. So much on the ministry scene has changed in that time, and a new temporary norm is emerging for us here: daily live stream prayer gatherings at midday and in time for compline; two live stream community prayer events on Sundays; Zoom coffee mornings and a book club; DVD production to reach those without internet; a plethora of emails, phone calls and messages via social media to replace face to face; online social gatherings; conversations with friends about faith which maybe seemed daunting at one time; distribution of love gifts to those in need of some support or encouragement…and I could go on. Quite extraordinary – so many things it would normally take a church a long time to countenance, now having taken place in the short period of a month. Hard to see how things will ever be quite the same, although not all of the positives are likely to last beyond this.

There has been so much to scramble to get in place, but as the new norm settles in during this period, thoughts are inevitably turning to the longer term lessons. In my mind (when it’s functioning anything like normal), all the reading, study and exploration of many years into new forms of church and engaging with lots of missional ideas are at the forefront. I basically wrote a whole Master of Arts programme around new forms of Christian community, inspired by monastic rhythm, liquid church, and the missional movement. I’ve seen this stuff in my missional dreams, and now it’s real.

What is missing on much of the wider scene, though, is significant missiological reflection. It is interesting to see how people’s models of church express themselves in these days – everything from clergy performing ‘normal services’ on videos in empty churches, to very different forms of online gathering…and, of course, churches (and some parts of congregations) for whom the internet is an alien or unwelcome concept.

My over-riding principle this far is to establish and support community. Much of this won’t be a long term thing, and with the level of trouble out there in the world, there’s an important strengthening work to be done. But as time moves on, we’re increasingly reflecting both on what this time says about mission and discipleship, and about what lessons we will take out of lock down with us. The church is experiencing, possibly like never before, what it means to be uniquely joined around a vital task of being church in an entirely new setting with all that brings: culture shock; fatigue; reflection; longing for a return to the old; adaptation; grief over all sorts of change; deepening pastoral concern; and, in many places, an appetite for ‘new’ and a solid example of what the seemingly challenging teaching of recent months might look like in reality.

Having said all that, none of this is without its strains. I’m keeping myself at home pretty much continually as someone with underlying health conditions that wouldn’t be in my favour if I were to catch coronavirus. So, whilst the ‘day job’ gives cause for reflection, there’s nothing like a pestilence to facilitate existential crisis. There have been some darker moments of fear and concern, not only for me but for those I love. I’ve lost some friends to this, and others are very sick. There are various bits of life that are arising needing some thought and reflection moving forward.

But in it all…sheer grace. God has been so good and kind, and he has been and is my stay in spite of it all. I’m deeply humbled and grateful that what ministry I can offer from home is helping an supporting not only our congregation, but wider. I missed the ‘Pastoring in a Pandemic’ module at bible college and ministry training school, but we’re all learning to write the module!

Future Church Now!

On Sunday 15th March at the end of our morning service, I pronounced a blessing over the congregation from Romans 15:13 with a slight, perhaps indiscernible, wobble in my voice, and a strong sense that this might very well be our last gathering for some time. I had already been feeling anxious even about holding that service, knowing that whilst church would be quieter than usual, we would still be a ‘crowd’ with vulnerable people in the mix.

Since then, of course, there has been an almost unbelievable pace of change each day and we’re now straight into the throwes of imagining how church can come together without gathering; to imagine how we can support one another from a distance, and to create new ways to connect which, to be perfectly honest, should be part of our day-to-day life even before something like coronavirus COVID19 comes along.

I’ve often used the questions in training settings; ‘if, for whatever reason, it was not possible for our community to gather together in a large group for a length of time, how would we live as church?’, ‘How could we sustain prayer, mission, pastoral care and learning?’ and ‘How do our dependancies on the way we always do things let us down in that light?’ . Ironically, I’d have been having that conversation with Hertford Baptist Church in the summer as we gathered together to think of our future ministry. The time for talking, however, is not our luxury – now we are having to do it…it is our reality.

I might have been saying ‘if we encourage our whole community to come together in smaller missional communities, we’d be small enough to care and large enough to dare.’ I’d have mentioned that breaking down our larger community into decent chunks, raising up leaders and overseers for those chunks, and helping them to develop ways to be communities within communities, engaged in mission, care and prayer, we’ll find that we’re better fixed for mission and ministry moving forward as we break out of our one Sunday gathering to become that community of communities.

Alas, I’m not saying it in advance of the need for it…although I have been saying it for a wee while now. We aren’t as equipped and organised as we need to be for such a time as this. We are building from the ground up now, upon some fragile foundations that few could see were creaking a little.

I’m sure that our community will learn some valuable lessons from this – it might be one of the few silver linings. Or, maybe we won’t. Maybe we will see the utter value of the community we already share, or maybe we won’t. Maybe we will see how organising ourselves in a different way for an uncertain future is of great value, or maybe we won’t. Maybe we will be quicker to adapt, or maybe we won’t. Maybe this new season will galvanise a fresh determination to really value the ministry we have and need to extend, or maybe we won’t.

Hard to know, isn’t it?

These are reflections that had to be reflected upon. In many ways, there’s little time for the reflection right now. Now is the time to create, dream, be imaginative, be beacons of light, hope and prayer.

The church building may be shut, but this might mean that, even in isolation, the church of Jesus Christ might actually be activated in ways it hasn’t been for some time! We have the opportunity to seek to be a non-anxious presence in a troubled world. To make bold yet gentle invitations to prayer, to friendship, to connection and towards the very heart of God through being Christ hands and feet where we can, but more than that, by being God’s own letter written to our world in whatever way we can be (2 Cor 3:2).

Lord, build us up in faith, courage and hope. Cause us to care, love and extend your holy hospitality. Help us to reach beyond ourselves in spite of our fears. Cause us to look, sound and live like Jesus ‘for such a time as this.’ Amen.

Desert Invitation

Desert…not dessert!

Listening to God is an art. An art because it’s not something you can empirically prove, intellectually attain, or scientifically produce. It’s about posture, close attention to God’s written word, and God’s voice in the stillness of your own heart.

In these recent weeks, I haven’t actually had to be that still to hear God’s voice, because he has been very obvious, for which I am at once grateful and disconcerted! Day after day, in reading, prayer and other ways, God is inviting me into the desert!

Significance of the desert? Well, manifold! Personally, the call to the desert is a call to personal renewal, spiritual discipline, to seek God as the one thing necessary in spite of the inhospitable nature of the surroundings. I’ve learned over the years that they desert isn’t a place to fear, but it is a place where truth comes into focus and we don’t always like to face truth about ourselves, our relationship with God or with our context. I’ve found, like Jesus, that God tends to you there whilst the lessons come! He sends his messengers and helpers to aid!

The desert Fathers and Mother’s physically fled the emerging Christendom of Rome and headed out into the desert to start afresh with a discipleship not tainted by a gospel tainted by cultural entanglement with the State and the trappings of organised religion. There they founded embryonic monastic-type communities where, like Israel, the sought to ‘get Egypt out’ and be intentionally Jesus-focused simply because people followed them out there!

What does it mean to head to the desert spiritually? Well, it’s not always indicative of spiritual dryness and barrenness in yourself. We know that encounter with God in the wilderness is a strong theme throughout the biblical narrative – Abraham making covenant, Moses’ burning bush, fire by night and smoke by day, Joshua’s encounter with the Commander of the Army of the Lord…fast forward to John the Baptist, Jesus, and the varied sandy and watery deserts of St Paul, or Jon exiles on Patmos. In good company! So spiritually, this is about the richness of God within the desert, nor just about replenishing deserts within!

But what is God saying? Well, I won’t know fully until I submit to the invitation, but in most desert encounters, there’s an undertone of preparing to hear God’s instruction.

In another sense, the church in the UK exists in a bit of a desert exile which is our culture. The Christendom landscape has faded and we need to find new ways to ‘sing the Lord’s song in a strange land’. Where does our need to sharpen our discipleship focus meet with our need to submit to God, and how do we imagine afresh how that relates to the spiritually desert of the modern church and contemporary society?

I’ll be heading into the desert during Lent. As for right now, I’m just getting ready to set out for the desert road!

‘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 a) want to 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, 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 realised that not only had I been more focussed on building a particular expression of the church than I was on 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, connect with their stories, 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 all 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 produces 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 to give the illusion of success. 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, that 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 deserts, 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.’