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.’ 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.’ 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.’
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.
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.)
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.’ 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.’ 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.’
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.’ 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.’
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.
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.
Fascinating article in the Economist on growing numbers in the church, growing confidence of the church and growing persecution by the state of the church in China.
(HT: Chris Green)
China already has more Christians than members of the ruling Communist Party according to the Economist. Now its set to become the world’s most Christian nation and all in a country that severely represses the church.
This is the third post in a look at the question ‘What is marriage?’ We began by recongising that there are at least 5 reasons why we need to look at this issue afresh. In the last post we considered the consequences that have flowed from the radical redefinition of marriage from covenant to contract that has taken place in our society since the 1960’s.
Now I want us to reflect on just how what the Bible teaches us about marriage as a covenant relationship changes the way we might think about marriage. The five headings I’m using come from Andreas Kostenberger’s book God, marriage and family. As we go through each one I’m going to touch briefly on how a marriage covenant points us to a better understanding of God who has made a covenant with us in the gospel of Jesus Christ.
If marriage were merely a contract between two parties then it could be temporary but because it is covenant established by God it is permanent. Jesus’ words in Matthew 19:4-6 and in particular his conclusion ‘what God has joined together let not man separate’ makes that clear.When Christians marry we must never marry thinking to ourselves well if things don’t work out for me in this relationship, if I am unhappy, unfulfilled, or if our lives are pulling in different directions then I can always leave.
As Tim Keller says ‘to break faith with your spouse is to break faith with God at the same time.’
James Dobson wrote a letter to his finance shortly before their wedding day and he said ‘I want you to understand and be fully aware of my feelings concerning the marriage covenant we are about to enter. I have been taught at my mother’s knee and in conformity to the word of God that the marriage vows are inviolable and my entering into them I am binding myself absolutely and for life – the idea of estrangement from you through divorce for any reason at all will never be permitted to enter my thinking. I’m not naive on this on the contrary I’m fully aware of the possibility, unlikely as it now appears, that mutual incompatibility or other unforeseen circumstances could result in extreme mental suffering. If such becomes the case I am resolved for my part to accept it as a consequence of the commitment I am now making and to bear if necessary to the end of our lives together.’
How does this point us to God?
This costly sacrifice that comes from committing ourselves by way of covenant is what we see demonstrated by God in the gospel. He made a covenant to love us and he has kept that covenant even though it caused considerable pain to do so.
2. The sacredness of marriage
Because marriage is a relationship not just ordained by God but as John Stott says ‘sealed by God’ only God can end a marriage. It is not for us to decide that a marriage is finished but for God to say it may be finished. Jesus’ words in Matthew 19:1-12 address marriage, divorce and singleness and in this series we will spend quite a bit of time in this passage. In his comments on divorce we read very sobering words that tell us that if we end a marriage for reasons that God has not permitted then any subsequent remarriage is sinful and adulterous. Jesus says, Matt. 19v.9, I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for marital unfaithfulness, and marries another woman commits adultery.’ What Jesus teaches in this declaration is that there might be divorces that, whatever we might like to think, are not divorces in God’s eyes. For him the first marriage is not over.
Sealed by God, our marriages are sacred. As his children so we must therefore work on my marriage, invest in it, nurture and feed it.
How does this point us to God? In the gospel we see God practicing what he preaches. However weak our love is and however many times we may fail God his covenant loyalty means that he will not break promise with us or himself. It is a sacred bond. Our relationship with God is not performance-based and he will not withhold his love or his affection because we struggle to honour our commitments. That said, Scripture’s warning is also clear that if we deny Christ and forsake him our covenant with God is broken. ‘If we disown him, he will also disown us’ (2 Tim. 2:12).
3. The intimacy of marriage
In the beginning God says everything in his perfect world is good. That is the constant refrain of chapter 1. But there is one thing that is not good and that is that the man is alone. Now, interestingly, God says it is not good before Adam appears to have noticed that it is not good. There is no evidence in the passage that Adam is lonely. As Christopher Ash points out in Married for God ‘marriage is not there to solve the problems of loneliness.’
Our culture tells us that we will be unfulfilled unless we one day marry. That is not so. In heaven we will not be married, the Lord Jesus never married and many Christians down the ages have testified to lives lived fully for Christ as single people. We will return to this theme later. Rather it is the job that God has given Adam to do that means it is not good for him to be alone.
Marriage is a gift of God to help us fulfil the work God has given us to do. In Genesis 1v27-28 we read ‘so God created man, in his own image, in the image of God he created him, male and female he created them. God blessed them and said to them, ‘Be fruitful and increase in number’
Part of God’s purpose for marriage is godly offspring. Christopher Ash says ‘we ought to want children in marriage because we want to serve God. The Creator entrusts to married couples the awesome privilege and responsibility of pro-creating.’
There are many ways to serve God but the distinctive way in which couples in marriage are to serve God is bringing up godly children. Ash says ‘never despise the significance of parenthood in the service of God! For many, especially mothers what they do as parents will prove more significant in eternity than the most glittering careers in the eyes of the world.’
God’s purpose for marriage addresses two big questions of our day.
Why would God not approve of same-sex marriage?
If marriage is about companionship then it might be that a stable, loving, committed homosexual relationship would be considered equal in God’s eyes with a heterosexual one. But, whilst not the only argument against that conclusion, a key one is that God’s purposes in marriage are pro-creation. I want to point you to this little book called Is God anti-gay? It’s written by a friend of mine, who is a church leader and whilst preferring not to use the title ‘gay’ to describe himself he is someone who is attracted to other men. Drawing on those words of Genesis 1 he says ‘God’s purposes in marriage depend on hetero-sexual relations.’ Marriage is designed to bring children into the world.
Whilst in a perfect world God’s design for every marriage is children, living as we do this side of the fall, sadly, not every marriage enjoys the blessing of children. Jane and I know something of that pain personally having waited 12 years to have kids. If this a personal struggle for you or friends can I commend the book Just the two of us written by a friend.
Why is sex outside of marriage wrong?
God’s design for marriage is that Adam and Eve should express their perfect intimacy through the union of their bodies. In Genesis 2:24 we read ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and they will become one flesh.’ Sex is the body-language of perfect self-giving intimacy that befits marriage. Sex outside of marriage is to tell a lie with our bodies because when we give our bodies to another – when we are united to them – and yet are not commitment to them through the marriage bond we make one promise with our bodies that we are not ready to make with our whole lives.
The intimacy of marriage does point us to the greater intimacy that God offers to us in the gospel. At the very end of the Bible, in Revelation 21:4, we read ‘God will wipe every tear from their eyes.’ Our need for close, intimate relationship will be fully met in Christ. What many of us are looking for from a marriage is actually to be found in our relationship with the Lord Jesus Christ.
In the next post two further ways in which marriage as covenant changes our view of marriage.
What is marriage?
There can be no doubt that one of the most significant events of 2013 was the passing of legislation by Parliament re-defining marriage. At the heart of the debate, whether acknowledged or not , was the question ‘what kind of relationship is marriage?’ And the reason that Christians and our non-Christian friends have found ourselves talking past each other and have failed to find any common ground is simply this; in our society there has been a silent revolution that has taken place over the past 40 years or more in which marriage has ceased to be understood as a covenant and come to be understood as a contract.
What is the difference?
At the heart of the idea of marriage as contract, Tim Keller argues, is the idea that personal fulfilment and individual happiness. So much so that therefore ‘we stay connected to people only as long as they are meeting our particular needs.’ Many might talk of a marriage being over because ‘we have fallen out of love,’ or ‘have drifted apart.’ Marriage vows still give the impression that marriage is a covenant – huge life-long promises are still made – yet the change in mindset that has also seen the introduction of no-fault divorce demonstrating the reality that marriage in our culture is a contract masquerading as a covenant.
Unlike a contract, in covenants we bind ourselves to another ‘come what may.’ The relationship, rather than personal fulfilment, is the centre. Keller argues that perhaps the only covenantal relationship that we can still relate to in our culture is that of parent and child. Parents put the child and the relationship ahead of individual happiness and comfort. Parents sacrifice and serve and seek the well-being of the other ahead of their own. It’s practically unthinkable to imagine someone coming into work announcing that their relationship with their kids was over. Well until relatively recent times it was almost as unthinkable that the marriage relationship could end.
Here’s a table showing how the change from covenant to contract has impacted marriage. In 2011 there were 117558 divorces, in 1860 there were 103. After the 1969 reform act the figures grow exponentially. Why was divorce so rare for so long? Because in our culture marriage was regarded as a binding covenant.
At least three things flow from this biggest redefinition of marriage away from covenant to contract.
1. Falling marriage rates. The reason people say marriage is ‘just a piece of paper’ is because they are viewing it as an economic contract. Whether or not to marry at all is now really no different from going into the phone shop and weighing up the advantages and disadvantages of a contract phone vs. pay as you go. Co-habitation is simply pay as you go. So the table tracks that general decline over 40 years.
2. General acceptance of no fault divorce ad steep rises in divorce rate. Again, that’s what the table shows us.
3. Freedom to redefine marriage and therefore who may enter the relationship. Why should we exclude same-sex couples who wish to make their commitment to each other if marriage is a contract the terms of which we define. And now that same-sex marriage has been accepted by society it’s not surprising that growing numbers of people want polygamous relationships recognised too. Why should we limit a love agreement to 2 people? So in Brazil last year a civil union was established between a man and two women.
What does this mean for Christians and their view of marriage?
The real danger for us in establishing healthy marriages will probably not come from the challenge presented by the re-definition of marriage that took place last year but the cultural shift that represents the redefinition of marriage from covenant to contract over the past 40 years. What tv and Hollywood have done to redefine marriage is far more likely to shape the way you think about marriage, even your own, than recent events.
Tim Keller writes ‘the very idea of ‘covenant’ is disappearing in our culture. Covenant is therefore a concept that is increasingly foreign to us, and yet the Bible says it is the essence of marriage, so we must take time to understand it.’
For, as we will see in our next post, Jesus says marriage is not a contract but a covenant.
This Sunday at City Church we started a nine week series entitled Marriage, Divorce & Singleness. I gave the following 5 reasons for making this our focus at the start of the new year.
1. Understanding for a world in confusion. In our times no-one seems really sure as to what marriage actually is. We need God’s word to shed light on this topic with some urgency and in doing so we will find that God’s word constantly challenges the values and wisdom of our culture.
2. Preparation for the future. We need help to make wise choices and decisions about marriage. Whether we are in a marriage or thinking one day about marriage we need to understand God’s purpose for marriage. What should we be working towards to fulfil God’s ‘mission for marriage.’
3. Healing for the past. For some of us the very thought that we will be tackling subjects that are the cause of much personal unhappiness is a reason to be concerned. Maybe you have been a victim of divorce. For some of us it will be hard to be caused to reflect on an unhappy singleness (through all this talk of marriage!) after having worked so hard to learn to accept it. Well, the series is not here to dredge up hurts of the past and this series is certainly no witch-hunt designed to highlight past sins that have been repented of, but we do want to bring to God our past and seek understanding and a gospel perspective that allows us to move on with renewed joy in our hearts that the gospel is bigger than our past.
4. Wisdom for living well today. We need practical wisdom and advice on getting it right. We will be thinking through how we should live whilst maybe wanting to be married and waiting to be married and yet being single, how to know whether and when to marry. In what ways we should invest in and strengthen our marriages if we are married. What to do if we are struggling in marriage and how to resolve difficulties. Whether and in what situations we might even end a marriage.
But I want to say right at the start that it would be a big mistake to think that the reason we’re looking at this topic is to focus only on human relationships. Our real goal in this series is that we might all say by the end of it we know our God better and that we have a deeper understanding and appreciation of the gospel.
5. Insight into the gospel. We need to understand how the themes of marriage, divorce and singleness point us to the very character and purposes of God in Christ Jesus. The truth is, whether we’ve ever thought about it or not that marriage, as a gift of God is given to teach us about our future.
The Bible might begin with a wedding between a man and a woman but it ends with a wedding between Christ and his bride, the church. Whatever our views on marriage for this life, we cannot afford to lose sight of the fact that if we believe the Bible then one day, perhaps very soon, we will all be married.
In Revelation 19 we read these words
Hallelujah! For our Lord God Almighty reigns. Let us rejoice and be glad and give him glory! For the wedding of the Lamb has come, and his bride has made herself ready. Fine linen, bright and clean, was give her to wear. (Fine linen stands for the righteous acts of the saints.)
The Christian life IS marriage preparation. Our relationship with the Lord Jesus Christ in the new creation is one of perfect union, intimacy and blessing that the only way we can get close to it in this life is to understand God’s gift of marriage.
In the next post we will look at why marriage is in crisis in our culture and how the real and radical redefinition marriage took place not in this past year but 40 years ago.
On Sunday evening 370 people packed The Blue Coat School Chapel in Edgbaston for our annual Carols by Candlelight. The text for my address is given below.
Three wealthy sons each gave their elderly mother a Christmas present. The first son gave her a new house. The second gave a new car. But, the third said to his brothers, “you know mum can’t see very well these days. So I’ve spent £20,000 on a most gifted parrot money can buy and I’ve had him trained to recite all her favourite poetry. He’s amazing.”
After Christmas the old lady wrote “thank you” letters. To the first son she wrote: “Thank you so much for the house. Sadly it is rather too large. I much prefer my small flat.” To the second she wrote: “Thank you so much for the car. Sadly my failing eyesight means I can no longer drive.” But to the third she wrote as follows: “Dear Donald, thank you that at least You have the good sense to know exactly what your mother likes. The chicken was delicious.”
Well Christmas is that time for giving and receiving gifts and I for one love doing both although I’m not so hot on the shopping bit. We don’t always get what we want though do we. Apparently last year 366,000 people already had an unwanted present listed on eBay by the end of Christmas night. And greater numbers than ever rather than watching Christmas day TV are scanning the internet for the presents they didn’t get – at knock down prices – before the day is over.
Of course the reason we give gifts at all at Christmas time is because we remember the gift that God has given to the world. If you could ask God for one thing this Christmas I wonder what it would be? An England win in the ashes? An x-factor voice? The football skills of Lionel Messi or perhaps a body the size of Kate Moss?
The idea that God could, if he really wanted to, do a lot to improve our lives is an attractive one. So what is it that God given you?
1. God’s gift to the world that first Christmas was the gift of himself.
The angel said to Joseph that the son born to Mary would be called Immanuel – which means ‘God with us’. Now, why would God, in all of his wisdom, give us Jesus for Christmas? What made him the best gift we could receive?
To help us think about that I want to draw our attention to our final reading this evening from the beginning of John’s gospel.
And there in v.9 we read ‘the true light that gives light to every man was coming into the world.’ John describes Jesus as a light to give us light for life. God’s one gift helps us make the most of all of the other gifts. Many people will wake up this Christmas day and will have Steve Jobs to thank for their present. Thanks to him we have iphones and ipads and all of the rest but even Jobs in all of his brilliance cannot give us what we really want. In his battle for life he said ‘No one wants to die and yet death is the destination we all share. No one has ever escaped it.’
Another brilliant man, Leo Tolstoy, gave great pleasure to the world through his books. But he remained frustrated by his own lack of answers. He famously asked — Is there meaning in my life which will not be destroyed by the inevitable death awaiting me? Is there anyone who can give our lives the meaning and purpose that no amount of socks, perfume, or even chocolate can fill.
God’s gift to you this Christmas is the true light that gives light to every one of us. In v.3 we read ‘through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life and that life was the light of men’. Jesus the author of life is the key to life. As God he is our guide to life. He’s our satnav, he’s the help desk. He’s the technical support, the on-hand expert because the light of the world brings light to our lives. Once we know that God is there and we know the future that he offers it gives direction, meaning, purpose to all of the details of our lives.
Jesus really is the ultimate gift because there is nothing like him. v.18 No-one has ever seen God, but God the One and Only, who is at the Father’s side, has made him known.
The wonder of Christmas
The real wonder of Christmas is that it tells me not just that there is a God but that he is interested in me. Some of us ask does God care about this world, could God ever be interested in me. Perhaps those are questions that sit at the back of your mind this evening. But when God came into our world. He chose to live life just like you and me. He didn’t arrive on Air Force One with a cavalcade of stretch limos. No God chose to be born in a stable because no one offered him a bed for the night. He grew up in a small town, doing an ordinary job and all to tell us what kind of God he really is. One of us.
And Jesus when he grew to be a man made his mission clear. To seek and save the lost. Jesus came into the world because he came looking for you and me. The true light came to give light to every man. To show you the way back to God. To give you a life and a purpose that lasts into eternity.
Well if the wonder of Christmas is that God would do all of that for me then the scandal of Christmas is that when he came we didn’t exactly make him welcome.
The scandal of Christmas
Even at Christmas time not everyone is welcome at least not all of the time. There will be falling’s out this Christmas. One survey suggested that a fifth of rows this Christmas will be over what to watch on TV. 14 percent of arguments will be over doing the washing up. 11 percent will be about an old family issue; and ten percent about what presents to open. Top of the list? Board games prompt more arguments than even TV – 24 percent.
John tells us, v.10, that when Jesus came into our world, ‘though the world was made through him, the world did not recognise him. He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him.’ When we read through the life of Jesus we see that when God came into our world we did not exactly make him welcome. It wasn’t just a few innkeepers who could not find room for Jesus at Christmas. It seems that the whole world was ready to exclude him from their celebrations.
When we remember that a life that began in a manager ended on a cross we are reminded what a very easy thing it is to refuse and reject God. Many of us have simply got comfortable living life without him. How many of us even if we think that God might just be there have no plans of making room for him in our lives this Christmas time?
The gift of Christmas
God’s gift has come into the world – yet even as many refuse him, look with me at v.12, ‘to all who received him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God.’ Jesus comes to give us the greatest gift of all – a relationship with God. More than that, a whole new status – you and I can leave here this evening as children of the living God.
If you’re looking for a last minute present there is a website called highlandtitles.com. It offers you – for the small sum of just £30 – the chance to become a Lord or Lady of an area of one square foot in the highlands of Scotland. A real plot of land, a certificate for the wall and the right to call yourself a lord or lady. Tempted? Well maybe. But we all know it’s a complete nonsense of course.
But God’s offer is not nonsense. For to become a child of God changes everything.
A little later in John’s gospel we read these words, perhaps the most famous in all of the Bible ‘For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.’ Jesus, through his death on the cross would pay for our sin and for all who do receive him he reconciles to God. That is the Christmas gift that is on offer to you this evening.
Kerry Packer was the richest man in Australia. He died a few years ago but one newspaper obituary recorded an extraordinary episode of his life. One evening Packer was out with friends and came to a pub looking for a meal. The landlord turned him away saying ‘.I’m sorry he said we’re not still serving food.’
Undeterred, Packer walked across the town square to the other pub but this time the landlord was pleased to welcome him and provided a meal for his party. When they had finished eating the bill duly arrived for £140. Packer got out his pen and wrote a cheque for £10,140. Explaining what he had done he said to the landlord. £140 is for the bill. £10,000 that’s your tip. The only condition is that before you cash the cheque you show it to the landlord across the road.
The mistake the first landlord made was not simply that he had turned someone away but it was much more who he chose to turn away – the richest man in his country. John urges us not to make the same mistake this evening. This Christmas time Jesus says – will you receive me? If you will I will give not £10000 but the right to become a child of God. Wouldn’t it be an even greater tragedy to turn away not the richest man in the land but the one who offers eternal life.
What might it mean for you to receive him this Christmas?
Joshua Dubois was a man working for Barack Obama when he was Governor of Illinois and campaigning for the Whitehouse. Dubois was just an aide working for the Obama team. They’d never met each other but Dubois wondered whether in the midst of everything that was going on in Obama’s life whether anyone was really thinking about his soul.
So he sent Obama an e-mail with a Bible verse. He didn’t expect a response but he got one almost immediately . Obama replied ‘That is exactly what I needed’ and then said ‘would you do that every day.’ And that is what Joshua Dubois has done for the past 6 years. I wonder whether you think someone pointing you towards Jesus in a busy and stressful life might just do you good too?
Why not take this booklet and read it. Why not join us at City Church this Sunday or on Christmas day. Then in the new year there is a chance to join us on a course called identity.
And if you think it might just do you good I’d be happy to send you one e-mail a week. With just a Bible verse, a thought. My commitment to you is that apart from adding you to that e-mail list I won’t contact you unless you ask me to. And of course you can stop receiving them at any time. If you’d like that simply drop an e-mail to the city church office and you’ll receive that first one just in time for Christmas.
As we turn to our closing carol may I take this opportunity to wish every one of you a very merry and blessed Christmas.
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