Thursday, 13 April 2017

How do you grow a church?

How can you take a dying church and make it grow again? That is a $64,000 question hundreds of struggling ministers would love to know the answer to. But the honest response is that I haven't a clue, even though every Church I have served in have looked to me for the answer. But I don't know. Trust me I have read ALL the books.

Gordon Strachan, current manager of the Scotland Football Team was once asked how, after a series of losses, when all talk was of him losing his job, his team had suddenly started winning again. With a customary twinkle in his eye, Strachan thought for a moment and then said suddenly, "I know what it is, we changed the coach driver!"

In other words, he had no idea why one minute the same team had gone on a run of losing matches only, suddenly, to start winning again. The same could be said of turning a dying church into a living one. There is no easy answer, no matter how often you may try changing the driver!

When I go along to churches which are busy and full, with lots of activities for every age group, it is tempting to think that the answer lies in such things as good organization, a new building, lots of young people and families or a contemporary music band with a gifted speaker. But then that means it all comes down to human effort and you grow a church by having the right things or hiring the right people. What about God? Doesn't He get a look in?

Jesus tells his disciples that there is only one way to build a church, and that is to let him do it (Matthew 16:18). That does not mean that we are not involved, but that ultimately He is the one who will do it and should, therefore, get the greatest glory. And after all, He has made the biggest investment.

To use an analogy, when I was a bricklayer, none of us workmen could start building until the materials had arrived and the Head Foreman had come along and shown us the plans and told us what to do. We then could get on and build houses. But once it was all finished the work of the individual workers were never mentioned. Instead, it was the firm that got all the credit. It was never Mark Williams or Joe Bloggs who built the houses, it was Wimpy or Hales or whoever the firm was.

It is the same with the church. God will build His church, and it is God, therefore, who should get the glory at the end.

How great is our God

Wednesday, 12 April 2017

Take me to the alley

I am a huge fan of singer/songwriter Gregory Porter whose mother was a minister and who died when he was 21. You can see her influence in the lyrics of the following song. I am not sure if Porter has a faith but these words are spot on:

Well, they build their houses
in preparation for the King

And they line the sidewalks
With every sort of shiny thing
They will be surprised
When they hear him say

Take me to the alley
Take me to the afflicted ones
Take me to the lonely ones
That somehow lost their way

Let them hear me say
I am your friend
Come to my table
Rest here in my garden
You will have a pardon

Take me to the alley
Take me to the afflicted ones
Take me to the lonely ones
That somehow lost their way

Let them hear me say
I am your friend
Come to my table
Rest here in my garden
You will have a pardon

They will be surprised
When they hear him say

Take me to the alley
Take me to the afflicted ones
Take me to the lonely ones
That somehow lost their way

Let them hear me say
I am your friend
Come to my table
Rest here in my garden
You will have a pardon.

Bringing the gospel message to life

The message of the cross and the resurrection are not enough to win people to Christ! That statement is enough to catch the attention of any serious-minded Christian and can, at first glance, seem to deny the very fundamental heart of the Christian Faith, but before you write me off as a liberal and a heretic let me - or rather let William Law - explain. This is from the book I am reading called "The Power of the Spirit" published by none other than CLC. He writes:

"The truth and perfection of the gospel could not be realized until it became solely a ministration of the Holy Spirit. Though instructed in heavenly truths from Christ Himself and enabled to work miracles in His Name, nevertheless the apostles were not yet qualified to know and teach the mysteries of His Kingdom. There was a still higher dispensation to come which they could never have part in from an outward instruction, even from the lips of Christ Himself. Only when he, being glorified, should come again in the fullness and power of the Spirit, breaking open the death and darkness of their hearts with light and life from heaven, could they experience in themselves all that He had promised to them while He was with them in the flesh. "I tell you the truth, it is expedient for you that I go away," said Christ, thus teaching the need of a higher and more blessed state than they could know through His bodily presence with them. For He adds, "If I go not away, the Comforter will not come" (John 16:7. Therefore the real comfort and blessing of Christ to His followers could not be had except through something more than His physical presence and verbal instruction, wonderful as these must have been to those privileged few."

Many churches today are struggling despite knowing Jesus and His message having personally benefited from it themselves. They have a heart for the gospel and long to share it with others but something is missing. Could it be the Holy Spirit? I am not one for looking for quick fixes or miracle cures, and I am dubious about the benefits of another revival when the last one fizzled out like a damp squib and seemed to leave us worse off than before. However, I would say and am becoming more and more convinced, that we need a fresh outpouring of the Spirit, a New Pentecost so we can see the truth about Jesus live once again.

This is no quick fix though and it is salutary to remember that Jesus told the disciples that they would have to wait for the Spirit's coming. Waiting requires patience and we live in an impatient age. The church has caught something of this and looks to other solutions to get things going. So we have building projects and publicity stunts, whilst bemoaning the fact that nothing seems to work anymore. We must pray and wait, and wait and pray. I am convinced that nothing else will work.



Tuesday, 11 April 2017

Help and the helper

Years ago I remember being introduced to the person of the Holy Spirit through the writings of Catherine Marshall. In particular, I remember her book The Helper, which was written following her own discovery of the importance of the Holy Spirit in the life of the Christian. We need the help of the Holy Spirit in all kinds of ways, not least in reading and understanding the Bible. Here is what William Law an Anglican Christian of the later 17th, early 18th century:

"Read whatever chapter of Scripture you will, you will be ever so delighted with it - yet it will leave you as poor, as empty and unchanged as it found you unless it has turned you wholly and solely to the Spirit of God, and brought you into full union with and dependence upon him."
(The Power of the Spirit).

Over and over I have discovered the truth of this observation as I have met people for whom the Bible meant nothing, while for others it was the richest book in the world. And the difference between the two? The Spirit of God. Once the Holy Spirit indwells within you then the Book of books comes alive when once it was dead.

Slow work

Growing a church is a slow business, painfully slow, and requires great patience, perseverance, and prayer. I was much encouraged recently by the following quote from Fresh Wind, Fresh Fire by Jim Cymbala. He writes:

"There will come a day, Paul says when all our "work will be shown for what it is because the Day will bring it to light. It will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test the quality of each man's work" (1 Corinthians 3:13). The gold, silver and precious stones will endure while the wood, hay, and straw will go up in smoke.

Paul doesn't say that the quantity will be tested. He says nothing about attendance totals. Everything will focus on quality.

Warren Wiersbe made an interesting observation about this passage to the Brooklyn Tabernacle staff.
"What's the difference between these two materials, besides the obvious - that one is fireproof while the other isn't?

"I think it's significant that wood, hay, and straw are abundant...right outside your door, or only a few miles away at most. Any forest, any farmer's field has an abundance of these.

But if you want gold, silver, and costly stones, you have to dig for them. You have to pursue with great effort. They're not just lying around everywhere. You have to go deep into the earth."

To me, says Cymbala, these words are profound. Spiritual "construction" that uses wood, hay, and straw comes easy - little work, little seeking, no travail, no birthing. You just slap it up and it will look adequate - for a while. But if you want to build something that will endure on Judgement Day, the work is much more costly.
Fresh Wind, Fresh Fire pages 135-136

More on the Kingdom of God

Brian Zahnd is the founder and lead pastor of Word of Life Church, a nondenominational congregation in St. Joseph, Missouri. Writing about the Kingdom of God he says:

"....The revolutionary insight that’s been central to my theological journey is a deeper understanding of what the kingdom of God actually is.

I remember telling my church eight years ago that seeing the kingdom of God has given me “new eyes.” Reading the Bible with “kingdom eyes” made Scripture brand new to me. I came to realize that the kingdom of God was virtually the sole topic of Jesus’ teaching ministry. The gospel of the kingdom is what the apostles were announcing in the Book of Acts. And even though Paul doesn’t use the term “kingdom of God” often in his epistles, I came to understand that what Jesus tends to call the kingdom of God, Paul tends to call salvation, but they’re talking about the same thing!

Back in 2006, I worked on a single question for several months: What is salvation? I finally concluded the best answer is this: Salvation is the kingdom of God. Our personal experience with the kingdom of God (including forgiveness) is our personal experience of salvation, but the kingdom of God is much bigger than our personal experience of it.

The problem we have today is that the term “kingdom of God” is archaic and obscured under layers of religious veneer. “Kingdoms” went out with the Middle Ages, and we tend to think of the “kingdom of God/heaven” as privatized Christianity experienced in our personal spiritual lives.

But Jesus was announcing that the government of God was at long last being established in the world through what He was doing. The apostolic gospel was a proclamation that Jesus is now the world’s true King; in light of this, we need to rethink our lives and begin to live under the administration of Christ. "

The above is part of an online interview with Brian. To read the rest go here.
https://blogs.thegospelcoalition.org/trevinwax/2012/06/28/from-word-faith-to-the-church-fathers-a-conversation-with-brian-zahnd/

Monday, 10 April 2017

What are you filled with?

This week - Holy Week - I am reading through the last chapters of Luke which tell the story of Jesus' Passion. Today is Luke 22:1-23 and my thoughts settled on verse 3 today where Luke tells us:

"Then Satan entered Judas, called Iscariot, one of the Twelve." 

It is not wrong to feel pity for Judas. As the saying goes "there for the grace of God go I" and so who knows what we would have done caught up in the same circumstances? However Satan does not enter or gain access to our thought processes and manipulate our wills unless he is given an opportunity, which is why the advice of the Bible is always to watch and pray, using the prayer Jesus gave us in the Lord's prayer which, as you remember, says "lead us not into temptation but deliver from evil" (the actual wording is more correctly translated "from the evil one"). Judas, despite his very close proximity to Jesus, let his defenses drop and Satan "entered" and gained access to him and the rest, as they say, is history.

But here is the question. Laying aside the more extreme understandings of our text to one side (did Satan possess him etc), what are we allowing to fill us? What are we filled with? That which is good or that which is evil? That which will lead us upon ever darkening paths, or that which will lead us towards the light?

In the letter to the Ephesians Paul admonishes his readers not to become drunk with wine but be filled with the Spirit (see Ephesians 5:18). The context is Paul warning the Ephesians to be on their guard against "the fruitless deeds of darkness" (5:11) and to "wake up" (5:14) and take every care about that they live their lives "not as unwise but as wise" (5:15) "making the most of every opportunity, because the days are evil" (5:16). He tells them to avoid being filled with wine, "which leads to debauchery" (5:18) but instead to be filled with something (or someone) which will lead them in the right direction. The presence of God Himself in the person of the Holy Spirit.

The point here, in both texts, is that we can be 'filled' with that which is good and beneficial or we can be filled with something that is the opposite. What are you and I filled with? Who is it at the centre of our life and existence? If it is the Lord, who is the Spirit, then we will move and walk in the light. Anything else and we run the risk of being like Judas. We will betray the Lord and be filled with a darkness that eventually leads to death and destruction. Judas gave in the devil and this led to the crucifixion of Jesus.

I admit everything is not as black and white as I have painted it. People cannot be divided into good and bad as easily as that and most, if not all, are a mixture of both. But the point I am making is that we nevertheless have to be careful about what we dedicate ourselves to, and what path we follow in light. There are, ultimately, says Jesus, only two paths. One is narrow and challenging but leads to life. The other is broad and easy and leads to ultimate destruction. Our choices are important. What 'fills' us is important.

We don't have to look far to see contemporary examples of this today with the atrocities of Isis across the globe and the recent suicide bomb attack in Egypt in a Coptic Church. How many today have opened their hearts to darkness and bring destruction on others?

Today is the funeral of the policeman PC Keith Palmer who was killed in such a violent and senseless way by Khalid Masood. Masood, like Judas, appears to have given up his life to the darkness and let it rule him. The result was devastation and the loss of innocent lives. So be on your guard. What fills you will control you. Be filled with the Spirit, the same Spirit Paul tells the Galatians, which will produce nothing but good fruit in those who yield their lives up to God (Galatians 5:22-23). Such people will see love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness and self-control grow in their lives.

What - or who - are you filled with? Be filled with the Spirit.

Friday, 7 April 2017

The dangers of religion

Bill Johnson in his book "Face to face with God" has an interesting definition of religion. He defines it as "form without power". This ties in with St. Paul's words to Timothy in 2 Timothy 3:1-5

"But mark this: There will be terrible times in the last days. People will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boastful, proud, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, without love, unforgiving, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not lovers of the good, treacherous, rash, conceited, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God— having a form of godliness but denying its power. Have nothing to do with such people." 

Looking at forms of liturgy, liturgical dress, processions, incense, icons etc, this is not a criticism of them per se (you could equally talk about worship bands, waving hands or churches that avoid using names that have any 'religious' connotations to them), but a criticism of the kind of religiosity that says that these ALONE are what the Christian faith are about.

Jesus makes this point over and over again, as does the rest of the New Testament. Take, for an example, the story of the Good Samaritan, which was in the news recently as it was read by a member of the Royal Family in Westminster Abbey at a memorial service for the victims of the recent attack on Westminster Bridge. In the story, Jesus paints a painful contrast between religiously correct Jews - the priest and Levite - and the religiously, theologically incorrect and heretical Samaritan who stopped to help the injured man when everyone else passed by.

Of course, the inference of this is not that all outward forms of faith expression are bad, but if they become a substitution for the 'real thing' without any real spiritual life within and alongside them, then this is where Bill Johnson's definition (and St. Paul's) hits home. And we can all point to stretches of time when the church has fallen into to woeful habit of getting its services right, arguing over fine points of practice and correct use of words and liturgical niceties, while at the same time failing to pray with purpose, reach out in mission and live out in loving service to others. And this becomes particularly pronounced as the church fights for survival in an aggressively secular age where it has, frankly, forgot its way, its true identity and what it is here for.

Not only that but personally, when times have been tough, and I have hit a brick wall in preaching etc, or have been under spiritual attack, it has been all too easy to retreat into the safe confines of going through the religious motions, maintaining the status quo and just surviving. Doing church is so much easier, hassle free and causes the least amount of problems, personal or otherwise, when you do things by the book (the 'church' book, not THE book). But it then results in spiritual; dryness and a feeling of guilt and loss which is only assuaged when the Spirit moves and life returns, for a time, back to "normality" The kind of normality where God's presence is real, prayer is powerful and the Spirit of God is active in your life and the life of the Church.

Of course, when things are going as they should and God is at work, the enemy pops up and says that this is not supposed to happen all the time and I should not to expect it to. So the foot is taken off the gas, the vehicle slows down and the ensuing lull becomes a concern leading to panic and a return to the religious default position of maintaining services again in order to feel as if you are doing something right. In other words, religion.

So what is the key to circumventing all this? Prayer. Constant, regular, persistent, wrestling (at times) prayer. Seeking God's face, and His presence, at all times and at every opportunity. It is only our constant relationship with Him that prevents and protects us from falling into mere 'religion' again. And that is true of every church and not just the ones where folk dress up and process. Religion is a danger across the board. We must, says Jesus, "watch and pray".

So next time you struggle, don't go to the forms but to the Father. And remember, forms may help in your relationship with God but they must never become a substitute for it.

Thursday, 6 April 2017

The upside-down teaching of Jesus

"The teachings of Jesus in the New Testament really set conventional wisdom on its ear. According to Jesus:

we win by losing (Matthew 10:39).
we live by dying (Matthew 10:39; John 12:24.
we get by giving (Luke 6:38).
we lead by serving (Matthew 20:26).
we get to be first by being last (Mark 10:31).
we defeat our enemies by loving them
(Luke 6:27-31; Romans 12:20)
we are responsible to initiate reconciliation with people when they offend us (Matthew 18:15), and we are also responsible to initiate reconciliation when we offend them (Matthew 5:23-24). So whether we are the offended party or the offender, it is up to us not to wait for others to come to us, but to go to them to initiate reconciliation.
we are obliged to care about and spend time with sinners and outcasts rather than trying to curry favour with the rich, powerful and influential (Mark 1-4)

This is radical teaching. Jesus took almost every conventional thought of his day, and our day, and turned it upside down."
Bob Grahmann: Transforming Bible Study page 23-24

What does God want?

Thinking over the readings for the morning Office - the prayers and readings which are set out for each day - and was struck by the following verse from Psalm 40 (verse 7) which in my translation goes like this:

"In sacrifice and offerings, you take no pleasure,
you have given me ears to hear you.
Burnt-offering and sin-offering you have not required, and so I said, "Behold, I come."


Lots of different things can drive our Christian walk. Family, tradition, duty, obligation, fear, self-preservation, doing what you are told to do, or what you have always done. All of these can be found in the Bible. Some of these things are good things, but when they become an end in themselves they can be fruitless or even damaging.

The writer of Psalm 40 was used to the yearly round of sacrifices at the Temple which God, in His Law, commanded should be offered at certain times and seasons (see Exodus, Leviticus and Deuteronomy). As a committed, dutiful and devout Jew he would have made his offerings to God at the appointed times. But something changed in his life and he came to realize that God wanted more than this. He discovered that what really pleased God was not sacrifice and offerings but the loving attention of His people:

"In sacrifice and offerings, you take no pleasure,
you have given me ears to hear you."

God wants us to listen and be attentive to Him. He wants us. He wants a relationship with us. He wants to speak with us, engage with us, relate to us, love us. He wants us over and above all the sacrifices and religious stuff we do. That is not to say that those things are wrong, provided they are an expression of our love and not a substitute for it, which sadly, they are. In fact, the only 'requirement' that God really wants, the bottom line of the Christian faith is that we come to Him as we are:

"Burnt-offering and sin-offering you have not required,
and so I said, "Behold, I come."

Notice that there is no qualification to the 'I'. It is not a holy 'I' or a perfect 'I' or a worthy 'I' that God wants. He just wants us, just as we are. Which reminds me of that wonderful hymn by Charlotte Elliott:

Just as I am, without one plea,
but that thy blood was shed for me,
and that thou bidd'st me come to thee,
O Lamb of God, I come, I come.

Just as I am, and waiting not
to rid my soul of one dark blot,
to thee, whose blood can cleanse each spot,
O Lamb of God, I come, I come.

Just as I am, though tossed about
with many a conflict, many a doubt;
fightings and fears within, without,
O Lamb of God, I come, I come.

Just as I am, poor, wretched, blind;
sight, riches, healing of the mind,
yea, all I need, in thee to find,
O Lamb of God, I come, I come.

Just as I am, thou wilt receive;
wilt welcome, pardon, cleanse, relieve,
because thy promise I believe,
O Lamb of God, I come, I come.

Just as I am, thy love unknown
has broken every barrier down;
now to be thine, yea, thine alone,
O Lamb of God, I come, I come.

Just as I am, of that free love
the breadth, length, depth, and height to prove,
here for a season, then above:
O Lamb of God, I come, I come.

The hymn beautifully captures how we are to come to God. And yet how many time, unthinking, have we sung it in Church? But look at it closely and note how we are to come, and HOW God wants us to come to Him:

Just as I am, without one plea....poor, wretched, blind etc.. Doesn't that throw the door open wide, not narrow it down to the perfect, the faultless, the sinless and the saintly?

I am reminded of the words of the One who brought this home to us so powerfully when He makes this promise:

"Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” (Matthew 11:28-30)

Wednesday, 5 April 2017

9 changes churches muts make or die

The following is an article from an Amercian website but it has interesting things to say which might be useful:
"It broke my heart. Another church closed. This church had unbelievable potential. Indeed, it had its own "glory days," but only for a season. But, 10 years ago, few would have predicted this church's closure. Today, it is but another statistic in the ecclesiastical graveyard. I know. We don't compromise doctrine. I know. We must never say we will change God's Word. But many of our congregations must change. They must change or they will die.

I call these churches "the urgent church." Time is of the essence. If changes do not happen soon, very soon, these churches will die. The pace of congregational death is accelerating. What, then, are some of the key changes churches must make?

Allow me to give you a fair warning. None of them are easy. Indeed, they are only possible in God's power. Here are nine of them:

1. We must stop bemoaning the death of cultural Christianity. Such whining does us no good. Easy growth is simply not a reality for many churches. People no longer come to a church because they believe they must do so to be culturally accepted. The next time a church member says, "They know where we are; they can come here if they want to," rebuke him. Great Commission Christianity is about going; it's not "y'all come."

2. We must cease seeing the church as a place of comfort and stability in the midst of rapid change. Certainly, God's truth is unchanging. So we do find comfort and stability in that reality. But don't look to your church not to change methods, approaches, and human-made traditions. Indeed, we must learn to be uncomfortable in the world if we are to make a difference. "We've never done it that way before," is a death declaration.

3. We must abandon the entitlement mentality. Your church is not a country club where you pay dues to get your perks and privileges. It is a gospel outpost where you are to put yourself last. Don't seek to get your way with the music, temperature, and length of sermons. Here is a simple guideline: Be willing to die for the sake of the gospel. That's the opposite of the entitlement mentality.

4. We must start doing. Most of us like the idea of evangelism more than we like doing evangelism. Try a simple prayer and ask God to give you gospel opportunities. You may be surprised how He will use you.

5. We must stop using biblical words in unbiblical ways. "Discipleship" does not mean caretaking. "Fellowship" does not mean entertainment.

6. We must stop focusing on minors. Satan must delight when a church spends six months wrangling over a bylaw change. That's six months of gospel negligence.

7. We must stop shooting our own. This tragedy is related to the entitlement mentality. If we don't get our way, we will go after the pastor, the staff member, or the church member who has a different perspective than our own. We will even go after their families. Don't let bullies and perpetual critics control the church. Don't shoot our own. It's not friendly fire.

8. We must stop wasting time in unproductive meetings, committees, and business sessions. Wouldn't it be nice if every church member could only ask one question or make one comment in a meeting for every time he or she has shared his or her faith the past week?

9. We must become houses of prayer. Stated simply, we are doing too much in our own power. We are really busy, but we are not doing the business of God. Around 200 churches will close this week, maybe more. The pace will accelerate unless our congregations make some dramatic changes. The need is urgent. Hear me well, church leaders and church members. For many of your churches the choice is simple: change or die. Time is running out. Please, for the sake of the gospel, forsake yourself and make the changes in God's power."

Originally posted at thomrainer.com. Dr. Thom Rainer is president and CEO of LifeWay Christian Resources of the Southern Baptist Convention.

Tuesday, 4 April 2017

Good News

I don't know about you but I am fed up to the back teeth with bad news. Whether it's Brexit, terrorist attacks in London and St. Petersburg, Isis and Syria, all I seem to see and hear is wall to wall bad news. So it's good to be able to talk about Jesus and the Good News that He came to give us. He was so concerned to bring us this Good News that He died to bring it to us. In fact, His death opened the door to God so that we don't have to despair any more about what is going wrong in our world. We can play our small part in putting it right. If we follow Jesus He can show us how.

The Evangelical Alliance has produced a new website full of good news stories by people who have discovered Jesus and the power He has to change lives, communities and our world. So why not check it out and follow the link at this address:  https://greatcommission.co.uk/

How do you grow a church?

How can you take a dying church and make it grow again? That is a $64,000 question hundreds of struggling ministers would love to know the...