Blog Archives

Dear pastor (an imaginary letter)

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Dear pastor,

I’m writing this letter to you not because I don’t value you and thank God for you. Quite the opposite. You are God’s gift to us at church. Your leadership and love and teaching have been used by God in many ways to help me and those around me to grow.

I’m writing because there are some things that pastors tend to do and say that perhaps have unintended effects on those they lead. So please read this in a spirit of charity. Some of my generalisations may be wrong. But I hope raising it with you will help you be even better at ministering to the people God has placed under your care.

So here goes.

Dear pastor:

When you frequently refer to the Greek and Hebrew (or the ‘original’) in your teaching, it can make me feel like I’ll never really understand the Bible I’ve got in front of me.

When you speak or post on Facebook about your wonderful wife and adorable kids, it makes me feel like a failure because my marriage is a struggle and my kids aren’t that gorgeous.

When you elevate the importance of full-time Christian ministry, it makes me feel like there’s not much I can do to serve God in my secular employment except to give money.

When you emphasise the importance of Word ministry but come under-prepared to teach and preach, it makes me wonder how important it is to you.

When you ask us to invite unbelieving friends to church, but when they come, you don’t really make an effort to meet them and greet them, I feel a little betrayed.

When you guard your day off as something so sacred that you can’t even take a phone call, and yet our church regularly schedules activities and meetings on everyone else’s days off (i.e. weekends), I feel it’s quite unfair.

When you appeal to cleaning or morning tea rosters needing to be filled or finances needing to be raised but never appear to be leading by example, it makes it hard for me to joyfully serve and give.

When you push the importance of training but don’t demonstrate growth in your own skills in leading, counselling, preaching or teaching, it demotivates me to take time out to upskill myself.

When you always appear tired and busy, it makes me afraid to approach you for requests, trouble you for a conversation, and feel like I have a right to take up your time.

When the only times I hear from you is to plug an event or organise a meeting (including on Facebook), it makes me feel a little used in our relationship.

When you talk about the importance of confession and repentance, but never share about your need for grace, it makes me wonder if you need the gospel as much as you say we do.

Dear pastor, I understand that some of these things will be really difficult for you to read, because they are intensely personal and probably mostly unintended. But I write them because I know that while God gave you to us as our leader and shepherd, you’re also our brother in Christ. And so part of our role in the body is to help you as much as you’ve helped us.

Thanks for reading.

Your faithful member, brother, and friend.

Karate Lessons For Churches

I didn’t plan to take Karate lessons with my son Andrew on Monday nights. It wasn’t even something I was contemplating. But around two months ago, we signed up for GKR Karate and have been going weekly ever since. Now that’s not going to be of great interest to most people, but there’s a reason why I felt compelled to blog about it. ‘Coz the whole experience of getting ‘sucked in’ to sign-up and committed to Karate lessons has provided me a few thoughts as to how this particular Karate club has gained thousands of national and international students.

As Jesus said in Luke 16:8:

For the people of this world are more shrewd in dealing with their own kind than are the people of the light.

So here’s my summary of some of the features of this particular Karate club that I believe churches and church leaders can perhaps gain some worldly wisdom from:

  1. Door-to-door introduction – our first contact wasn’t with a brochure in the letter box, but a karate instructor who visited each house door-to-door. And the difference between this person and a random person selling cheaper electricity plans, is that you knew that this person was doing it because they took part in it and believed in it.
  2. Prepared materials – when we invited the instructor in, she had a pack of info that she walked us through step-by-step. In the info pack were pictures, testimonials etc. Honestly, our particular instructor wasn’t the slickest and most articulate salesperson. However, she was genuine and she listened to our questions and concerns. That combination of preparation and yet personal interaction was gold.
  3. Wide appeal – what makes GKR Karate clever is, I believe, the fact that they have wide appeal. It appeals to those who want to get serious about karate and train lots and lots. It also appeals to families who might want to come and train together, but only a few times a month. It has different locations that you pay for on a per-lesson basis and so how much you want to buy-in is dependent entirely on you.
  4. Upfront but not total commitment – we paid a trial membership for four months and were encouraged to just go along to a few lessons and see for ourselves. If we wanted to upgrade to full membership (for life), we could do so after four months. There was no pressure to buy any gear, uniforms or other things while we were still checking things out. What was clever was you made an upfront financial commitment and yet weren’t signing for a lifetime membership that was more costly.
  5. Lessons were newcomer friendly – the first lesson recognised that we were new, got us involved, and yet gave us a lot of ‘slack’ when it came to what was going on. The best incentive to keep coming (and buy uniforms etc.) was provided by the other regulars who were there. They obviously enjoyed it, knew what was going on and wanted to be there. We found ourselves coveting uniforms and brightly covered belts before we knew it!
  6. Follow-up – I received a letter in the post after I joined and got a personal phone call after our first lesson. Imagine if churches all did that!
  7. Advancement and sense of achievement – GKR makes it easy to advance in the initial stages. It only takes 6 lessons for your first grading. Seeing little kids with higher belts was a great incentive to train and practise.
  8. Involvement in a community – what you’re drawn into is an extensive ‘GKR family’ that has regular tournaments and events at your disposal. Also, they have an interstate network so that if you wanted to attend training at any other centre, at any other time, you could just turn up. And so what binds you to people you’ve never even met is a shared experience.
  9. Flexibility  – there are scores of regions, training centres, times all around Australia. Some cater more for kids and families, others for adults and higher grades. I’d find it difficult to imagine anyone not being able to find something that could suit them in terms of weekly commitment.
  10. Operational strategy – this is something we don’t get to see on the ground, but if you go to the website, you’ll find out that GKR seems well-organised. It’s a business with a business plan. And yet, the business serves the little ‘dojos’ that meet in your local high school on a weeknight and manages a host of current participants in its teaching and leadership structure. That balance between multi-million dollar business and intimate ‘congregations’ must be difficult to achieve, and yet I think they’ve done it.

Now how churches might take up or discard some of these observations, I’m not going to bother blogging about. However, I reckon sometimes it is good to look outside at ‘the people of this world’ in order that we might improve what we do in ways that are consistent with the unimprovable and unchangeable gospel.

Have you had similar reflections on the ‘wisdom of this world’ that have helped or might help your church practices? I’d love to hear them.

Do Not Be Afraid Little Flock

 

We’re doing a two-sermon series on money starting this week at church.

As I was looking through passages on money, wealth and possessions, I was struck by two passages that link its exhortation re: money with fear.

Hebrews 13:5–6 Keep your lives free from the love of money and be content with what you have, because God has said, “Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you.” So we say with confidence, “The Lord is my helper; I will not be afraid. What can man do to me?”

Luke 12:32–34 “Do not be afraid, little flock, for your Father has been pleased to give you the kingdom. Sell your possessions and give to the poor. Provide purses for yourselves that will not wear out, a treasure in heaven that will not be exhausted, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”

This reminds me that a sermon about money has to deal with ‘heart’ issues rather than just ‘hand’ issues. I’ve got to somehow allow the Word of God to expose our fears and the false securities and idols that lie beneath those fears. I’ve also got to take the wonderful assurances of the gospel in order that our fears would be addressed. Then when the hearts are stilled and at peace, the hands will open up in courageous generosity.

Jealous of Another’s Ministry?

Admit it: you get jealous of other people’s ministries. I know I do. Whether it’s the mega-church pastor from another country, or that local church pastor from down the street, or that other youth group that’s bigger and cooler, or that well-resourced church with the ‘to-die-for’ ministry or music team, the fact of the matter is that we get jealous. We all do – whether you’re in full-time ministry, a Bible College student, a youth leader, or just a church attendee, we often find ourselves looking at other ministries with green-eyes.

And yet we all know that getting jealous of other ministries is at its root so wrong, so small-minded, so selfish. Why? It’s ‘coz we know we’re in it for God’s Kingdom, not for ours. Does it matter if the church down the road is bigger, better, more influential if God’s Kingdom is advancing?

Ministerial jealousy is damaging not just because it’s sinful and worldly. It’s also damaging because so often out of our own spirit of jealousy we will say things, do things, harbour things that directly damage the churches/ministries we’re jealous of. When that high profile church leader (of whom we’re all secretly jealous) says or does something, just watch how quickly the guns start pointing at him. It happens. You’ve done it, I’ve done it. Suddenly they’re not our brother/sister any more, they’re ‘competition’; and rather than giving them the benefit of the doubt, our bitter and jealous hearts lead us to gossip, speak, preach, blog, facebook and twitter some very very unkind things.

I write this not as someone who’s figured it all out. As I said, I get jealous, envious, bitter, competitive too.

So let me share with you how I’ve been challenged by God to respond. Firstly, I ask the Holy Spirit to lay my heart bare and expose anything that is remotely driven by jealousy. Next I confess it to God, ask for his forgiveness and repent of it. Then I confess it to someone else. If I know the person of whom I’m jealous I confess it to them. I at least confess it to my closest friend, my wife.

But then last of all and perhaps most rewarding of all, I deliberately find ways of blessing the person/church/ministry I’m jealous of. I go out of my way to pray for God’s blessing on them – that they would exceed even their own expectations, that they would ‘succeed’ even at the expense of my own ministry. And I also find opportunities to speak well of their ministries, speak blessing to their ministries and about their ministries. I will seek to be their biggest fan – and sincerely so, not just putting on a farce.

I’ve found that last step particularly humbling and helpful. It’s amazing what God will do in helping you combat your spirit of jealousy when you take that step as a part of your repentance to honour and bless rather than tear down and destroy.

So, who do you need to start blessing today?

Exclusion and Embrace

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Got my copy of Exclusion and Embrace by Miroslav Volf delivered for free from Book Depository in the UK. This paragraph in chapter 1 caught my attention:

What are the implications of the Pauline kind of universalism? Each culture can retain its own cultural specificity; Christians need not “loose their cultural identity as Jew or Gentile and become one new humanity which is neither” (Campbell 1991, vi). At the same time, no culture can retain its own tribal deities; religion must be de-ethnicized so that ethnicity can be de-sacralized. Paul deprived each culture of ultimacy in order to give them all legitimacy in the wider family of cultures. Through faith one must “depart” from one’s culture because the ultimate allegiance is given to God and God’s Messiah who transcend every culture. And yet precisely because of the ultimate allegiance to God of all cultures and to Christ who offers his “body” as a home for all people Christian children of Abraham can “depart” from their culture without having to leave it […] Departure is no longer a spatial category; it can take place within the cultural space one inhabits. And it involves neither a typically modern attempt to build a new heaven out of the worldly hell nor a typically postmodern restless movement that fears to arrive home. Never simply distance, a genuinely Christian departure is always also presence; never simply work and struggle, it is always already rest and joy. (p. 49)

For those of us like me doing ethnic-specific ministry, it’s a challenge on the one hand to allow the gospel to critique one’s culture and yet on the other hand not to dismiss or obliterate cultural distinctives. The gospel is meant to be like salt: it seasons many dishes and yet does not make every dish taste the same. Rather, the gospel brings out and enhances the glory of each culture’s distinctiveness, all to the praise of the God who created unity in diversity and diversity in unity.

That’s the easy part. The difficult part is figuring how all of this works out in practice, especially in ethnic or cultural specific churches. Thoughts?

Acceptable Christian Gossip?

I’m preaching on James 3:1-12 this Sunday about taming our tongues and so have been thinking about unhelpful speech like gossip.

I’m wondering what are the ‘acceptable’ forms of gossip that lurks frequently in Christian and church circles that you’ve noticed.

The classic example is gossip under the guise of ‘sharing prayer points’.

More recently, I’ve been on the receiving end of a quite a bit of gossip, much of which takes place as ‘Someone I know told me that people have been concerned about what you’ve been teaching or preaching.’ Obviously they’re so concerned that they’ve talked about me but not to me. From what I know, that happens to nearly every Christian leader at some point.

Or another example: I get an email from a church leader because another church leader who no longer goes to my church had chatted with a youth group parent from my church who has concerns about a recent youth camp that his child only attended a few hours of. And of course neither the parent or the ex-church leader talked to me or any of the youth leaders about it directly.

What do you think? What are the ‘acceptable’ forms of Christian gossip that you think happens in our churches? I’d love to read your comments (but no names please or this post becomes self-defeating).

Decide, Debate, Divide or Die For?

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Pastor Mark Driscoll and Dr. Gerry Breshears’ new book Vintage Church has a really helpful bit in their Q&A section following chapter 6 on ‘Church Unity’ (pages 158-159). In it they identify what they call four levels of certainty.

At the top are the truths you would die for. These are essential gospel truths that if one were to abandon, you’d be outside of the historic Christian faith, evangelicalism and perhaps even salvation. Things in this category would include the virgin birth, the full-divinity of Jesus, the bodily resurrection etc. I guess these would be your absolute ‘closed-hand’ issues.

Next are the truths you’d divide for. You don’t consider those who differ as outside of the faith, but you wouldn’t say, partner with them, invite them to speak at your church or fly under the same banner as them. In this category might be issues such as women in ministry (complementarian or egalitarian), Arminianism or Calvinism etc. These are also ‘closed-hand’ issues for your church, but there’s a caveat in that you shouldn’t allow arguments with them to

drain significant energy from our worship of God and hinder building godliness and proclaiming the gospel. (p. 158)

And therefore,

Instead of blogging about them, talking trash, or sending hate mail condemning them to hell, we should love them and emphasize our unity in the essentials. (p. 158)

(I think perhaps we in Sydney have a bit to learn from the above caveat.)

Next are the truths you’d debate for. These are issues you might engage in healthy debate over (perhaps even emotional debate over), but in the end you’d do it while

… maintaining regular fellowship, joining together in worship and proclamation.

In other words, you’d still count them as partners, you’d still fly under the same banner as them, you’d still consider them your allies in the work of ministry, even if you disagree on some things and have healthy debate over them. I guess these would be ‘open-hand’ issues such as worship style, politics and (perhaps controversially) whether one is cessationist, continuationist or somewhere in between.

And last are truths we’d simply decide for. These are ‘open-handed’ issues that really don’t matter in the end and aren’t even worth spending time debating about – e.g. whether you can have alcohol, whether you raise hands during singing, whether you sponsor a child or not.

Their conclusion is worth quoting:

Divisive people are ones who elevate lower-level issues to divide fors. False teachers treat die for issues as questions open for humble discussion. As we utilize these levels as a community of believers, we can avoid the trap of being unnecessarily divisive on one hand and compromising the faith on the other.

I think these observations are quite timely in the current climate of theological discussion and what’s making rounds in the blogosphere. In my mind, there are a lot of issues I would like to think are in the debate for basket that hopefully means people can differ while still being courteous and loving, keeping in mind that we are partners together in the work of the gospel in our city. But I fear that there are people who want to regard all of the issues being debated for as issues to divide for (or worse yet) to die for. Or perhaps unwittingly, by the tone with which we blog, comment or debate, we give the impression that these truths being debated over are in fact truths we ought to divide over.

I’d be interested to hear what you and your churches would consider as issues to divide for versus debate for?

Mother’s Day sermon Q&A continued

We had a live Q&A via SMS at church on Sunday night after the sermon on ‘A Mother’s Worship’. These were the two questions that didn’t get answered on the night due to time constraints.