Thursday, April 02, 2009

Miracles and Christian Ministry #1

Me: How do you think we can build up attendance at our evening congregation?
Congregation member
: Signs and wonders, miraculous happenings…that’ll work.

It was hard to gauge the seriousness of this comment when it was made to me after one Sunday service, but after further conversations I am convinced that for some of my friends, signs and wonders are held to be a valid and expected part of Christian ministry. Recent history teaches us that my friends are not alone in holding these expectations. Back in the 1980’s John Wimber of the Vineyard movement promoted ‘power evangelism’ with its miraculous wonders as a model for Christian ministry; people will come to faith through hearing the word and seeing God ‘show up’ with various acts of supernatural power. Since this expectation is still held by some brothers and sisters (who may or may not be aware of John Wimber’s thought), I think it's time to engage with these views and to provide a way of understanding the place of the miraculous in our weekly ministry...

Monday, January 05, 2009

Leadership lessons from the Kitchen

I was watching Bloomberg TV yesterday when on came an interview with Laurent Tourondel, executive cheff at BLT Steak, NYC. Interesting to hear this entrepreneur’s reflections about opening a new venture in a tough environment:

1. His first step was to walk around the suburb and get the feel for the place. This was a significant step given the space he was about to put the restaurant in had played host to four failed eateries (yes four!) in the immediate past. The interviewer said "Didn't that history scream out 'don't start up here!'?" Tourondel's response was insightful...

2. He spoke about how many restaurants fail because they are based around a concept which doesn't mix with the area. The space he was looking to start up in was near a business district with lots of men making high powered, high testosterone deals, so he thought a steak house would do well. This was a departure from Tourondel's own seafood background.

3. He mentioned that the other model for success is to become a 'destination' restaurant; a place where people will come despite the distance and immediate surrounds. This approach was much harder, and requires something really special.

Now as I'm listening to this, I was struck by how relevant all this is to those leading Christian ministries, especially those church planting. I was also reminded how many of these observations have already been made by some of our current church gurus; Driscoll and Keller both talk about the importance of walking around your suburb to get a feel for the culture. But the idea of matching a venture's concept with its context is intriguing. The idea of cultural relevance is not new; the homogenous unit principle has been kicking around churches for decades now, and there are growing numbers of us who love to find new ways to use new media to reach new people. But there is something just a little sharper in what Tourondel is describing. Does our suburb/city/country suggest a concept which we can structure our church communities around? Of course the main concept - the gospel - has already been given to us, but is there room for another thread with which we can earmark our church life, a thread which connects with those living around us? Note that Tourondel was also happy to change styles to provide something which would appeal to those around him.

I was also interested to hear of the distinction between a fruitful local venture and a ‘destination’ restaurant. I wonder what that extra something is?

Hi Roger

The dead shall indeed rise.
Let the readers (all two of you) understand.

Friday, April 04, 2008

The humility of Thomas

John 20.26 A week later his disciples were in the house again, and Thomas was with them. Though the doors were locked, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you!” 27 Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe.” 28 Thomas said to him, “My Lord and my God!”

When I read this story the thing I often wonder is this: How would I feel if I were Thomas? I think I would probably feel embarrassed. I mean, Thomas has been caught out in his skepticism here hasn’t he? He is so adamant that he will not believe unless certain conditions are met—he wants to see the nail marks, he wants to see the hole in Jesus’ side—and Jesus comes along and says “Ok, you asked for it. Here it is.” Have you ever been caught out like that? When you’ve been so sure of yourself only to be shown to be totally wrong? He could have felt quite foolish. Or he could have become quite indignant. “Oh come on Jesus, you appeared to the others, how come you didn’t appear to me? You’ve set me up Jesus. You gave me the harder task of believing without seeing” But look at how he responds, “My Lord and my God!” No protest, no dummy spit. Thomas simply responds in complete humility…“My Lord and my God”.

Sometimes the reason we don’t believe is not so much about evidence but about how we will look if we start believing. Some might think “I’ve been a skeptic for so long, I’m not about to change now. In fact, it’s a little hypocritical to start believing when I’ve lived my whole life in disbelief.” There is no shame in humbly accepting the testimony that Jesus has been raised from the dead. Thomas could have maintained his stubborn disbelief, but in humility he accepted the facts as they were presented to him. No matter how stubborn we have been in the past, no matter how entrapped we feel by our own history of skepticism, it’s never too late to look to the resurrected Jesus and to say with Thomas, “My Lord and my God!”

Sunday, November 25, 2007

"No one is blind in heaven..."

That's the quote of the evening, from Maxine McKew, who at this point looks like she might take the federal seat of Bennelong, making John Howard only the second serving Prime Minister to lose his seat in an election. Yikes. The quote comes from a 90 year old blind nun in McKew's electorate. Not a great deal of context was given as McKew recalled the very true words of hope from the elderly woman; they were part of a speech where McKew related some of her personal highlights from the campaign. But it was a nice reminder of the 'second kingdom' of which we are a part.

It's been a while since posting but I blame the following things:

- A new girlfriend (Jasmine herself says "I've replaced the blog! I've replaced the blog!");
- Facebook;
- College exams;
- Martin Luther (on whom I was writing a project/thesis thing).

So now that I have finished that enormous trial of mental endurance and godliness which is Moore Theological College, what am I going to do? Get back to blogging of course. Issues to write about include:

1. Some things which were stimulated by the hundreds and hundreds of pages of Luther which I read over the last 4 months;
2. Some thoughts on singleness which were actually stirred by some ethics lectures we had at college last year;
3. Some stuff on my College experience;
4. A theology of happiness (what the heck was I thinking? Goodness me...)

But its been a while, so I might still be talkin', but is anyone listnin'?

Saturday, August 11, 2007

On the couch with St Paul #1

Interesting article in the Good Weekend today. All about 'positive psychology', a developing practice where psychologists and therapists are focusing their energies on uncovering those attitudes and environments which lead to feelings of happiness as opposed to feelings of sadness and depression. Kinda like a preventative psychology, a move away from the common practice of dealing with the problem (like finding treatments for depression) and instead helping people create lives where happiness and contentment are fostered in an effective and ongoing way. Their initial findings indicate that helping others (surprise surprise) is an important element in becoming happy, although the ultimate measure of ones approach to life is still centred on the self: I help others because it makes me feel good. Still, it got me thinking...

As the article pointed out, the pursuit of happiness has always been a focus of psychology; it's just that now some practitioners are being a little more proactive in helping people 'learn happiness' rather than just helping them to not be as sad as they might be. But the fact that happiness has always been a concern of psychology (and philosophy) indicates that it has always been a concern of humanity. So reading this article I was left wondering: "Surely as the Church we must have profound and helpful things to say about happiness and contentment. Surely we can provide some kind of answer to the questions that are driving those looking for answers in 'positive psychology'". It was interesting to note that those interviewed in the article didn't want to provide a 'religious' answer to happiness (even though religious ideas formed part of their research data). But can't we afford to be a bit more positive about what a NT faith can offer the individual and society in terms of ideas about happiness?

I suspect that many churches have failed to really hit this squarely on the head. Some speak a lot about happiness and fulfilling your potential but do so in a theologically naive way. It is my contention that such an approach only causes damage in the long run. Others seem to view NT faith in a way which uses lots of negative expressions "The Gospel is about our sin; the first thing to say about humanity is about how sinful we are; church is all about service and duty". It is fast becoming my view that this approach is also theologically naive, and can truncate our enjoyment of the Christian life while exposing the sad fact that we don't actually have much too say about happiness.

So this is what I'm planning to do. I want to start to explore and build up a theology of happiness. I feel that in doing so not only will we enrich the spiritual lives of our churches but we will also open up another avenue into the world of those outside our communities. People want to be happy. Surely we can say something to them which goes beyond the glib soundbites of an underdeveloped theology. The first step will be to put some theological pegs in the ground...

10 points for the first to tell me what this picture is of.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Church and Spirit #5

Not only is a Spiritual church guided by the word of God and bound by the Spirit of peace, but a Spiritual church is also equipped by God with people who have various abilities; abilities which are empowered by the Spirit and used by Christ to care for and guide his Church.

Ephesians 4.11-13
11 It was he who gave some to be apostles, some to be prophets, some to be evangelists, and some to be pastors and teachers, 12 to prepare God’s people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up 13 until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.

Often these abilities are referred to as the “gifts of the Spirit”, because as we learn in 1 Corinthians it’s through the Spirit that Jesus grants these abilities to people as gifts for the Church. Much could be said about these gifts, and in our remaining time we cannot do justice to all that the Bible has to say on the matter. So I just want to point out one thing from verse 11 about these gifts of the Spirit: different people have been given different abilities. Jesus has granted some to be apostles, some to be prophets, some to be evangelists, and some to be pastors and teachers. Earlier in Chapter Four, in verse 7, Paul writes that:

to each one of us grace has been given as Christ apportioned it.

Jesus grants each of us a certain role to play. We won’t have the capacity or ability to everything, but we will have the opportunity to do something. Jesus has given each of us a portion to play in his ministry through the church and because each of us has a portion, that means there are two mistakes we can make. Either we can think that it’s up to us to do everything, or we can think that it’s up to someone else to do everything. Some of us need to let go of holding all the responsibility within our congregation. The Holy Spirit doesn't work through just one person, he works through all of us. Alternatively some of us need to get on with the job of picking up various responsibilities. The minister can’t do everything, the church committee can’t do everything, but we all can do something. If you’re wondering what that thing is, then speak to John Hooton,* he will tell you! But this is the way the Church works: it’s through the Holy Spirit that Jesus guides us, unites us and also quips us to work effectively as his Church.

So what church should our new immigrant look for? A church where the members are each taking a part in the ministry of the church. A church where the twin evils of egotism and apathy are replaced by teamwork. What church should we be? A church where we each accept the portion of the Spirit’s work which we have been given. A church where we put that portion into action. A church not unlike the church that Richard Johnson started back in the first days of the colony.

We started by talking about what it would have been like going to church back in the days of early European settlement when Richard Johnson was the only chaplain. From what historical evidence we have it seems that Richard Johnston tried his best to build a church which was Spiritual in the way we have seen this morning. When he arrived he brought with him 500 bibles to give away; it seems as if he knew that the Spirit authored Scriptures were an essential part of doing church. And one of the convicts who experienced the ministry of Johnson wrote about the sickness endured by the convicts of the colony, reporting that:

few of the sick would not have recovered if it was not for the kindness of the Reverend Mr Johnson, whose assistance out of his own stores makes him the physician of both soul and body.

It seems as if Johnson knew that the church ought to live by putting others first. And Johnson himself wrote about his plans to raise other workers up to teach the children of the young colony; he knew that the church’s work was a team effort, with each member bringing something to the community. In short Richard Johnson knew what a Spiritual church looked like: It was a church guided by Scripture; it was a church focused on others; it was a church where each person receives and gives back their portion. May Christ mould us into a church like this through the power of his Holy Spirit. Amen.

* John Hooton is the minister with special responsibility for Emmanuel Church Glenhaven, a church within the Anglican Parish of Castle Hill where I work on Sundays.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Church and Spirit #4

Our newly arrived Australian should not only look for the central place of Jesus ruling through Scripture, she should also look for a church which is united by the Spirit.

Ephesians 4.2-3 
2 Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love. 3 Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace.

Let’s think back to the body metaphor for a moment. The image of the church being a body teaches us that Jesus is our head, our leader. But it also teaches us that as a church we are all connected. We each have the same Holy Spirit dwelling in each of us. To extend Paul’s image we could say that if Jesus is the head then the Spirit is like the central nervous system, coordinating all the parts of the body so that they work in unison. And one of the symptoms of a properly functioning church body is whether we are maintaining peace within our relationships:

Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace.

I remember hearing a story about a church undergoing a building project, and this church ended up divided over the issue of where to put the port-a-loos for the workmen. One party within the church thought that the port-a-loos should be out the front where the workmen could access them; the other group thought it was just too ugly to have the toilets out the front and they wanted them out the back. This dispute divided the parish council for up to six months. People left the church over that matter and it became really quite tragic in the end. In a spiritual church issues such as where to put the port-a-loos should never reach that stage – that’s the very opposite of living at peace – and if we recognize that the Holy Spirit is in each of us, then it should be a top priority to demonstrate that unity in our relationships with one another.

And Paul knows that this will take some work. Have a look at verse two:

completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love.

Maintaining the bond of peace will mean being patient with each other, it will mean overlooking those things which irritate us, that’s what it means to bear with one another in love. Sometimes it’s so easy to become frustrated with people: “That person over there, she’s always voicing her opinion. That guy is so unreliable. This woman only ever thinks of herself, and he is just plain rude…” But a Spiritual church will always seek to maintain the bond of peace, recognizing the unity which have: a unity given by the Holy Spirit, a unity which sees us bearing with one another in love and patience.

There’s a story about General William Booth, the founder of the Salvation Army. The story is set at the end of the General’s life when he was due to make one final public appearance at the North American Salvation Army Convention. But when the time came for the General to give his address, he’d become ill and so he couldn't deliver his speech, so he sent a telegram instead. And so word spread that the General was sick, but that he’d sent one last telegram to the convention; a final message containing his last words to the movement which he had founded. And so on the last day of the convention the chairman opened up the telegram and read out the General’s final charge. The telegram contained just one word: Others. General Booth knew what a Spiritual church looked like. A Spiritual church is a church with is other-person centered. A church which is humble and gentle. A church which is patient. A church which bears with one another in love.

What should our new immigrant look for in a church? A church where disputes don’t drag on, and where forgiveness and reconciliation flow freely. What kind of Church should we be? A church which strives to be patient. A church where we have each determined to overlook the irritating habits of others; where personality faults are no barrier to fellowship. A church demonstrating the unity which the Spirit brings.

So a Spiritual church is ruled by Christ through his Spirit-authored word and it’s seeking to live out the unity created by the Spirit. However there’s one other thing we’ll say characterises the Spiritual church…