Dec 16, 2014
neil

Why without Christmas there can be no dignity, liberty or equality

Oak Hill College in London invited me to contribute the following short article (part 1 features in this post)  to their winter 2014 edition of Commentary.

Our pattern for compassion

Richard Dawkins can’t stay out of the headlines for long. Mostly recently, Dawkins has caused a stir when tweeting in reply to a woman expressing her moral dilemma. What would she do if she discovered she was pregnant carrying a child with Down’s syndrome? Dawkins volunteered his judgement and his answer is a sobering one; ‘abort it and try again. It would be immoral to bring it into the world if you have a choice.’ A considerable disquiet ensued and Dawkins offered a speedy clarification writing it would be ‘immoral from the point of view of the child’s own welfare.’ There is an obvious and evident lack of compassion in Dawkins’ reductionist argument. But as he is quick to point out his argument is a rational response from his atheistic perspective. ‘Those who took offence because they know and love a person with Down’s syndrome, and who thought I was saying that their loved one had no right to exist, I have sympathy for this emotional point, but it is an emotional one not a logical one.’

Compassion: An unexpected virtue

At the other end of the Atheistic spectrum is author Bruce Sheiman. His book, An Atheist Defends Religion, certainly has a title designed to grab your attention and Sheiman’s book is unusual in its defence of religion. We might go so far as to say a lone voice amidst the hubbub of a more militant atheism vocal in its refusal to recognise that religion is capable of making any positive contribution to advancing the welfare of human-kind. So why is Sheiman moved to write a more generous estimation of a life lived for God? Not least because he recognises that Christ’s coming into the world paved the way for a brand new view of humanity. Apart from Jesus the world would have looked very different. In his historical survey Sheiman concludes that before Christianity ‘a commitment to human dignity, personal liberty, and individual equality did not previously appear in any other culture.’ It was a distinctly Christian view of humanity that led to a radical acceptance of the place and need of others. ‘Once we see ourselves as free individuals, and to the extent that we understand that we are all creatures of one God, we understand that freedom and dignity are the right of all people.’ Here’s an observation from outside of the church – Jesus’ followers committed to seeing the world differently and that included how they chose to view and treat others, especially those in need. In this article I want to explore briefly one particular expression of that impact – the place of compassion. Put simply, the gospel calls on us to feel something for those who are less fortunate than ourselves and that in turn leads to action.

Compassion: The supreme virtue

Jesus saw people as no-one had ever seen them. C.H. Spurgeon said ‘If you would sum up the whole character of Christ in reference to ourselves, it might be gathered into this one sentence, “He was moved with compassion.” And J.C. Ryle observes ‘It is a curious and striking fact, that of all the feelings experienced by our Lord when upon the earth, there is none so often mentioned as “compassion”. Nine times over the Spirit has caused the word ‘compassion’ to be written in the Gospels.’ The Bible word we translate as compassion describes, first of all a feeling, an emotion that comes from the heart (or more literally the bowels!) and so Jesus was moved by feelings of concern and sympathy. Those feelings compelled him to come to the aid of those in need. A quick word-search and we might remember the compassion Jesus showed an ostracized leper when he not only healed but first touched the unclean man (Mark 1:40-42), or his decision to delay his entrance into Jerusalem because of the cry of two blind men (Matt. 20:29-34). Jesus weeps with Mary and Martha over the death of Lazarus (John 11:32-36) and he is moved more by the fate of those who stood under God’s judgement than his own on his journey to the cross (Matt.23:37). There never was a heart like his.

Dec 12, 2014
neil

Three further reasons why your church might not be growing

This is the final post in a three part series interacting with Ray Evans’ book Ready, Steady, Grow. In the first post I reviewed this very helpful book looking at how to grow your church, in the second post I suggested three reasons why a church might not grow that were not the focus of his book and in this final post I ask three further questions related to the issue.

4. Is growth always desirable?

Another suggestion, woven into the structure of the book is that churches progress if they go from small through to large, and that this is the best way to grow. Evans argues ‘the wise use of scarce resources (money, time and ability) means that growing a large church may be better than developing many smaller churches, all of which need gifted speakers and leaders to take them forward.’[1]  I don’t find the logic of the argument compelling. Further thinking needs to be given to considering the question of whether growing large churches is the way to maximise gospel effectiveness.  Whilst some churches remain medium to awkward size because they can’t grow, others remain that size because they choose to give away growth. The approach our church has taken in Birmingham, along with a number of others in the city, has been to pursue growth through multiple church-planting. The result has been the multiplication of gospel witness as we minister in more communities across the city.  By working closely together we also ensure ideas, resources and vision can be shared. We reach many more people, raise up many more leaders and mobilise many more members into ministry than we could as a single congregation. It is a decision to grow, but to grow through multiplication, and is a decision at the same time not to grow quite as much as a mother church.

5. Is growth achievable given our current resources?

Evans says ‘great leadership is about character and skills combined.’ True enough, but for growing a church, a third aspect of great leadership cannot be overlooked, and that is gifting. Ready, Steady, Grow does not address to what extent the reason a church does not grow is the God-given limitations of the leadership. I use the word limitation advisedly because I do not want to suggest in any way that a limitation is a failure. Do some churches grow because God not only gives gifts but the measure of a gift? We ought to expect leaders to be leading to their full potential, and yet be leading different sized churches. We ought to expect the gift-mix that God has given different leaders to enable them to serve congregations with different dynamics.

Leaders can be made to feel guilty if their churches are not growing – how many dread the question ‘how many attend your church?’  Measure of gifting can be a blind-spot in thinking. Some leaders have simply been unable to recognise that reality. It’s not an easy thing to recognise our own limitations, and that perhaps the greatest barrier to further growth might be me!

For some churches, if the desire of a congregation is growth through to large church, a leader may need to demonstrate leadership by appointing someone more gifted to pastor a larger church. Learning to lead may well mean leading through the leadership of others.

6. How important is contextualisation for church growth?

One significant factor in growing Biblical churches that is not the focus of Evans’ book is contextualisation. Many churches don’t grow because they (no longer?) are able to effectively engage their communities.  The apostle Paul memorably wrote ‘I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some.’ Until and unless we recognise this issue, growth will be limited.

Tim Keller has commented that ‘culture is complex, subtle, and inescapable.’[2] The consequence is that if we want to grow our churches, we must always be deliberately thinking about our culture. Keller concludes: ‘No church can be all things to all people. There is no culturally neutral way of doing ministry. The urban church will have to choose practices that reflect the values of some cultural group . . .nevertheless, the ever-present challenge is to work to make urban ministry as broadly appealing as possible and as inclusive of different cultures as possible.’[3]

If our churches are to grow, sooner or later we need to help leaders engage with culture and contextualise faithfully to their ever-changing communities.

The contents of this series first appeared as a review for Foundations Journal.



[1] P.39

[2] Keller, Center Church, p.186

[3] Keller, p.174

Dec 10, 2014
neil

Three reasons your church might not be growing

In an earlier post I offered a short review of Ray Evan’s excellent book on growing churches Ready, Steady, Grow. No one book is likely to tackle every issue related to barriers to growth. In this post and one further post I offer six reflections not addressed in Ray’s book on what stops churches from growing.

Six reflections on growing churches (part 1)

Ray Evans provides us with an excellent introduction to an overlooked issue. For the simple truth is that church leaders do feel ill-equipped to lead their churches through change, and particularly the transitions involved in gospel growth.

His experience of leading a church for a long time through the stages of growth also ensures that this is no theory book but one written out of experience. His insights will open eyes to see what otherwise may have gone unseen and yet all along had been inhibiting growth.

Whilst this book suggests many good answers to some of the issues that face church pastors, there are a number of issues related to growth, that also need to occupy the mind of a leader, which remain unaddressed by the book.

1. How do we address the reality that many churches don’t desire the changes necessary to bring about growth?

The book is written for leaders already committed to growing a church, and it presumes at least some level of commitment on the part of church to the need to embrace change in order to grow. As a result, the focus is on strategies for growth.  However, many leaders need wisdom to know how, when, and in what ways to challenge a prevailing culture of a church, through the gospel, so that change becomes the desired prerequisite facilitating growth. Evans does touch on this issue but, for example, just three pages are given to considering how preaching grows a church. Church growth begins in the heart of every individual member and growing a church begins with preaching to change hearts that begin to change and grow churches.

So, one might imagine resistance to church growth coming from the obvious costs involved. Breaking through barriers of growth can be costly in terms of relationships as new structures necessitate new teams, and costly in terms of financial stability as staff are appointed in advance of any growth to help facilitate it. How do we motivate members? How and when does growth become a de-motivator for individuals? These questions are as significant as any others in managing growth.

2. Might church growth be a barrier to church growth?

It would also be of interest to many to consider one dynamic at work in larger churches that might actually acts against and inhibits growth in the life of the individual Christian, and that is the opportunity for discovering and developing gifting. In larger churches, certain opportunities are rarely available to members who otherwise would be offered them in other sized churches. As a young man I was preaching within two months of attending a church of 60 people; in the church I now pastor it is more likely to be 5 years before a young man with an embryonic preaching gift could expect a pulpit opportunity.  Later, when planting a church from scratch it was a privilege to witness individuals stepping up to take opportunities and responsibilities that they would never have dreamed of in a larger church. How then do we recognise and raise up gifted leaders in our larger churches?

All this demonstrates that growth can inhibit growth. Growing in numbers makes growth in young leaders a much greater challenge. Our response in Birmingham has been to prefer planting new congregations to growing a larger single church.

3. Is church growth inevitable?   

A danger inherent in any church growth book is the implicit (and often unintentional) suggestion that churches ought to grow and will grow if we can only get our leadership right. Whilst Evans is clear in his closing chapter that God alone gives the growth, some consideration needs to be given to the dynamics at work on the church, as well as in the church, that make growth difficult in many contexts.

Twenty years of gospel ministry teaches me that there are certain forces at work in our culture that makes growth uneven.  Some ministry contexts are a much greater challenge than others. Many minsters in rural contexts cannot expect to keep young men and women who, priced out of the market, cannot afford to live in the community once, say, children come along.  Some churches have witnessed significant changes in the ethnic make-up of their communities and struggle to meet the challenges of what is almost a mission context, and so on.

(The material contained in this post first appeared in my review of Ready, Steady, Grow for Foundations Journal.)

Dec 9, 2014
neil

What’s stopping your church from growing? Ray Evans offers some answers

I was invited by Ralph Cunnington, the editor of Foundations to review and interact with Ray Evans’ book Ready, Steady, Grow for the autumn 2014 edition. Do take a look at the journal which can be downloaded for free here but I’m also setting out the content of my article in 3 posts on the blog.

This first post will offer a summary of the book’s content and then in the next couple of posts I will address a number of issues that impact growth that Evans did not directly address.

Many gospel churches are not growing, yet, they could be, and they should be. That’s the argument of Ray Evans’ book Ready, Steady, Grow, written out of a conviction that ‘too many churches stagnate in their growth, or even derail in their gospel proclamation, because of problems that could be overcome if they just knew how.’[1] Whilst this is decidedly not a book on church-growth techniques, Evans shares what has worked in his own thirty years of ministry whilst always guided by biblical principles and practice.

The unique selling point of the book is its focus on the challenges involved in understanding the changing dynamics at work in our churches as they grow through different sizes. Quite simply, leaders underestimate and often fail to grasp altogether how the size of a church impacts the very way they must lead in order for the church to fulfil its purpose. Acts 6 is presented as a case study of ‘diversionary confusion’ in which leaders battle the challenges thrown up by church growth.  Organizational complexity requires careful consideration if a church is not to be unsettled or even undone by the problems of growth.

Central to the argument of the book is that it is a failure to grasp the dynamics of growth that leads churches and their leaders to get stuck at a certain size of church.  It’s not easy for churches to transition from small to medium, and medium to large, and they certainly won’t unless growth is understood and church structures adapted.  Of particular help to my own thinking is the description of a stage between medium and large sized church, described as ‘awkward’ size. Whilst not a description unique to Evans, his analysis of the stage of church life where a church is too large to be pastored by a single pastor, or for everyone to be relationally connected, yet not large enough to adopt the structures inherent in a large church, will prove helpful for many. Evans also gives some consideration to responding to a resistance to growth sometimes found in congregations as a result of a church culture that is inherently too cautious and risk-averse, or simply a congregation unwilling to change.

Ray Evans confesses to be an ‘everyday leader’ in an ‘ordinary town’ who has nevertheless overseen a growing church and taken that church from small to large.   That experience shows in the wisdom offered to help leaders and churches overcome ‘spiritual and practical blockages’ that arise from ‘confusion, numbers, complexity and complaints.’ The combination of insights from Scripture alongside common-sense wisdom is a winning one.

Having set out his thesis and offered some general reflections on leading through change, Evans goes on in the second half to show how for a church to grow, and grow through barriers, leaders need to be able to ‘work on areas of the Christian life simultaneously.’[2] He sums up those areas that require our attention under the heading of three ‘M’s’: maturity, ministry and mission.

For churches to grow, all three must be constantly in view, church members must share that commitment to growth in each but ‘it also needs a ‘top-down’ lead and practical organization, which leaders must facilitate.’[3]

In this short review I will highlight just one insight from each area in turn.

Growing to maturity

The impact of organisational complexity in a growing church can be felt in Evans’ observation ‘if you grow large, you have to grow small at the same time’ because ‘if large attracts, small keeps.’[4] Any large church must, at the same time, be a church of small groups if individuals are to grow. What is lost on a Sunday must be celebrated through the week as small groups become the place where relationships flourish and where individuals are given the time and opportunity to contribute, something not easy to do in the dynamic of large church.

Serve in ministry: getting teams mobilized

When it comes to serving in the local church meeting the challenge of growth requires a recognition that people have to be trained to serve in a new way. A culture-shift needs to take place across a congregation from generalisation to specialisation, from individual relationships to formalised teams and from wisdom caught to teams trained. Again the issue of complexity arises: how do you recruit a team, train a team, motivate a team and keep a team now that relationships are not the glue to service?

 Reach out in mission

I’m grateful that Evans donates three whole chapters to growing in mission. These chapters are further enhanced in that the end of each application is directed to the different categories of size of church. So, Evans’ insights of the danger facing growing churches that they will turn in on themselves, once they are financially viable and ministry needs are all being met. He also recognises that growing churches tend to develop new ministries, new ministries call for a greater time commitment from members. So much so that over time a growing church with ‘an overcrowded schedule may be slowly cutting off a key outreach strategy.’[5]

Conclusion

This book is an important addition to a leader’s library. It is a particular encouragement to me that a good resource on growing churches has been written by a British church leader. That has been long overdue. There are few, if any, books written for UK churches by experienced leaders who have grown their congregations through the challenges and transitions.



[1] P.11

[2] P.100-101

[3] P.104

[4] P.119

[5] P.167

Dec 8, 2014
neil

The perfect place to listen to carols this Christmas

Christmas Carols Radio is a new on-line radio station that plays a combination of traditional Christmas carols choral music, with Bible thoughts on the nativity (all advert free!).  If you like to listen to Christmas carols, and especially if you have friends that do who you would like to introduce to the real meaning of Christmas then its the only place to go!

 

The station is the idea of Ben Vane, a former radio producer (who was also a member at City Church), who is now training to be a vicar in the Church of England. “We play nothing but Christmas carols – no novelty Christmas music, just choirs singing traditional carols. As far as we know we’re the only internet radio station in the world playing nothing but Christmas carols. And we’re proud of it!”

Dec 3, 2014
neil

When people leave London why do more move to Birmingham than anywhere else?

The Office of National Statistics has published a report highlighting the fact that  more people are choosing to leave London in their 30’s than ever before.

The Telegraph reports ‘58,220 people aged from 30 to 39 left the capital between June 2012 and June 2013; a record number, and a ten per cent increase on 2010.’

So where are these people heading? More are heading to Birmingham than anywhere else. The Birmingham Post  comments ‘5,480 thirtysomethings left London for Birmingham last year, making it a more popular choice than any other UK city.’

In other words almost 1 in 10 people who leave London, head for Birmingham.

Tom Cullen is one such example why not find out why through his subscription e-mail I choose Birmingham

Nov 20, 2014
neil

Taking it to the next level – what is a third level gospel partnership?

I was invited to speak at the recent FIEC leaders conference on  the topic of Leading a partnering church and outlined the way in which churches are coming together in our city to collaborate in church-planting initiatives – under the 2020birmingham banner.

Here is the video of the presentation

Nov 13, 2014
neil

Amazing the impact a few students can have with water & biscuits

What one journalist discovered when accompanying University of Birmingham Christian Union volunteers witnessing to students on Birmingham campus.

Nov 12, 2014
neil

All these commentaries for just £4.99 each

Over 20 NIV Application Commentaries available on Amazon Kindle for just £4.99. No idea how long the deal will list so get them while you can

Nov 7, 2014
neil

Maybe you should just bring people to church after all!

Trevin Wax has written a thoughtful post on the witness of the church as community to the gospel and its power to help overcome barriers to belief. It’s not a easy read and the key conclusion I’ve quoted in full below but do check out the article here to understand his argument more fully.

The classical approach of apologetics is to present rational proofs for God’s existence, and then from this point to argue for the uniqueness of Jesus Christ and His resurrection. Classical apologetics is beneficial in the effort to show that Christianity is true, but if Taylor is right, then one is already likely to accept or reject reasons for belief before they ever hear them because the greater story [their scientific materialist worldview] is already conditioning them to accept or reject “proofs” of God’s existence and the truth of Christianity.

Perhaps this is why one of the best ways to engage an unbeliever is simply to invite them to church. Lesslie Newbigin spoke of the people of God as a “community apologetic.” It’s not that the church replaces other, rational strategies and arguments for belief in God. It’s that the church becomes the atmosphere, the teller of a better story, a story whose truth begins to work on the heart of a non-religious person, conditioning them for the moment when the classical apologetics “proofs” are then used by the Holy Spirit to confirm the belief He has already initiated in them.

Christians today should make use of the various tools we have at our disposal in order to persuade people to follow Jesus. But let’s not leave out the world where God’s good news comes alive – the people of God who corporately witness to a kingdom that has no end. It may be that the best apologetic for a secular age is a people who are in this world but not of it, who counter the rugged rationalist with the true story of new world which began on a Sunday morning outside Jerusalem.

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