Church Planting

how our increasingly odd-looking faith might become increasingly compelling

The bonfire at the 2010 La Trobe Uni CU/FOCUS "Mancamp" (photo by Chris Wong)

In a recent interview over at The Other Journal, James Davison Hunter (who has the dubious honour of giving the world the term ‘culture wars’ — although apparently when he coined the phrase he was trying to point out a way of thinking about culture and values that was to be avoided) paints this picture of a Christianity that’s ‘faithfully present’ in Western culture:

[T]here is no question in my mind that Christians would be considered even more odd than they are today by virtue of what they believe and the morality by which they live, and yet because they are fully engaged in each sphere of life as individuals and communities of character, they would serve as a credible and creditable conscience of the overlapping communities they inhabit. Odd, to be sure, but no one would deny that they do extraordinary good in the world. Neither would anyone doubt that they serve the cities and communities in which they live very well.

I don’t know about you, but I find this inspiring (and challenging)!

It’s a tremendously stimulating interview — and I’m very keen to get my hands on a copy of Hunter’s new book, To Change The World. It’s got me pondering (again) about how Christians can rightly and winsomely exert an irresistible influence on our culture

becoming a church of irresistible influence (redux)

Check this out:

How is it possible that the gospel should be credible, that people should come to believe that the power which has the last word in human affairs is represented by a man hanging on a cross? I am suggesting that the only answer, the only hermeneutic of the gospel, is a congregation of men and women who believe it and live by it. I am, of course, not denying the importance of the many activities by which we seek to challenge public life with the gospel – evangelistic campaigns, distribution of Bibles and Christian literature, conferences, and even books […] But I am saying that these are all secondary, and that they have power to accomplish their purpose only as they are rooted in and lead back to a believing community.
(Lesslie Newbigin – ‘The Congregation as the Hermeneutic of the Gospel’, The Gospel in a Pluralist Society, p 227).

Now that’s what connecting is all about!

are you a thermometer or a thermostat?

I want to revisit my spiritual ‘combustion triangle’.

fire-triangle1

When I first introduced it, I suggested that the way to apply heat to whatever fires of ministry and social engagement the Holy Spirit starts was preaching. I’d like to modify that. Particularly because I realise I’d slid into (mere) activism — and let prayer drop off the radar!

But rather than ‘not … but’ I want to say ‘both … and’ — both preaching and praying. Listen to how Tim Chester and Steve Timmis try to set the cultural temperature of their church such that congregation members naturally bring ‘gospel intentionality’ to bear in their everyday lives (Total Church, p 62):

We try to create this culture by regularly teaching our values, celebrating gospel opportunities, setting aside time each Sunday to share what we have been doing, ‘commissioning’ people as missionaries in their workplaces and social clubs. Above all we model the culture for one another so it becomes the normal thing to do.

Can you imagine the difference it would make in your church if along with teaching people about the priority of speaking the gospel you prayed for each other the way you’d pray for your overseas missionaries?

From the overflow of the heart the mouth speaks. What’s said in public — and especially what’s prayed — either reflects the cultural temperature of your church or sets it. If you don’t think about it much, then like a thermometer you’ll just reflect the ambient temperature — inevitably cooling in terms of enthusiasm for gospel proclamation and the good works that adorn it. But if you’re more deliberate, constantly dialing in your heart to God’s own heart and priorities, then like a thermostat you can start setting the temperature.

Now, there’s got to be more to this than just hot air. Few things are more damaging than leaders saying they value something and then contradicting it in practice (that’s for another post). But Christian leaders are either cultural thermometers or thermostats. It’s a choice we all face…

a call for creative ministry

Let me lay something on you:

We do in fact live in an age of revolution and experiment; unless a thing is new, it has little or no appeal. We must never put our trust in novelty as a substitute for truth: that would be “another Gospel”, but not an authentic Gospel. That caution is necessary; but then it is right to add that Evangelicals have a solemn duty to take their place in the van of all those creative areas of new work and experiment today. They should stand out in the forefront of true theology, both in scholarship and in authorship, with a clear-cut contribution to the fields of education and literature. They should be more active than ever in evangelism and in missionary concern, all unafraid in exploring new ways of true spiritual outreach to the unchurched and the non-Christian. They should honestly recognize the value of common prayer in the forms of public worship and the need for liturgical relatedness to the daily affairs of a modern congregation. They should examine existing structures with a view to replacing what is outmoded and improving what is effective, while never losing sight of the great need for pastoral compassion in the Name of Christ for all who are lost or out of the way. The Church of England has never been a mere spiritual ghetto: its doors should stand open so that all who are in need may come in. They should face the moral questions of a permissive society and the social problems of an affluent country with an intelligent application of the teaching of the Bible. They should clear their minds on the great issues of church affairs such as the ecumenical movement or the organic reunion of now independent Denominations. These are only some of the needs which call for wise judgement or for imaginative response today.

How’s that for a call for a creative evangelical response to contemporary challenges?

It’s delightfully expansive — taking in academic engagement, evangelism, world (and home) mission, liturgical revision, strategy and structural reform, and pastoral care.

It’s from the Presidential Address to Sydney Synod in 1980(!) by Archbishop Marcus Loane — God rest him. But it feels so fresh, doesn’t it?

I give it a hearty ‘Amen’!

brush_and_pallette

becoming a church of irresistible influence (7)

I want to wrap up this series by posing an important self-critical question:

Is all this talk about becoming churches of irresistible influence a recipe for the inevitable dulling of the church’s witness?

In other words, am I setting us on the road to Christendom? To trading our integrity for worldly influence and political power? And, what place (if any) have I allowed for the expectation of suffering and persecution … even martyrdom from the world that hated Jesus?

Christendom's Defining Moment (Raphael's <em>Constantine at the Battle of Milvian Bridge</em>)

Christendom's Defining Moment (Raphael's Constantine at the Battle of Milvian Bridge)

Of course, I’m convinced that the task empowering and harnessing the church’s significant human resources to do good — so that we are actually salt and light in our communities — does not conflict with the church’s witness. But why not?

Well, even though we must surely expect hostility, our witness is not a matter of standing apart from sinners and condemning them. Instead, it’s about meeting them with the love and grace of God, calling them to repent and believe.

As I’ve said before, we’re seeking to tread in the footsteps of Jesus here. And as His life was not at odds with — but rather fulfilled and crowned by — what He achieved in His death and resurrection, so our works of charity are not at odds with the task of announcing His atoning achievement. Christ-like works don’t compete with Christ-promoting words; they go hand-in-hand with them. How else can we adorn the gospel of God our Saviour?

Now I’m not up for romanticism. We’ve got to be realistic about this. If we do actually manage to become churches of irresistible influence, we will still (tragically) be the stench of death to some. As long as we haven’t smoothed over the offence of the cross…

But just like our Lord — and as Him witnesses — we’ll be impossible to ignore:

Let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven (Matt 5.16).

becoming a church of irresistible influence (6)

Some people I’ve been chatting with about this issue of proactively bridging the gulf between the church and the community have been struck by the way it seems to reverse a something we’ve all had drummed into us. We’ve been told to try and trim non-missional programmes and minstries from our church ‘portfolios’. Like old, crusty donated furniture ministries have a way of hanging around well after their Used By date is past. (Think of the proverbial ‘mothers group’ consisting of septuagenerians.)

But it sounds like I’m talking about starting new programmes. Is this going to leave the church of the future with unwanted and irrelevant ministry ‘black-holes’?

I reckon we should learn to treat any ‘community connecting’ programmes we launch as experiments (Ah! I always knew that science degree would come in handy). Because like in good lab work we need to be both creative and critical.

496px-Biohazard2

In the lab, a good hypothesis explains the available evidence and makes predictions. Yet it’s a risky business. You do have to give a new hypothesis a good run — e.g., allowing that what looks like counter-evidence early on might have a good explanation once the hypothesis is more firmly established. But you also have to be honest (and robust) enough to concede that your hypothesis may have been falsified when the evidence stacks up against it. You have to be prepared for the experiment to fail.

In the same way I think we need to learn how to promote a culture of risk-taking as well as encouraging honest feedback. We’ll need to try new things if we’re to becoming a church of irresistible influence. But if something you try doesn’t work (or if what you’re already doing stops working), then admit it, celebrate your successes and wrap it up.

Of course, we’re not good at this in the church or the wider culture. We’re unaccustomed to being both creative and critical. What’s more it’s really hard to treat a ministry or programme you’ve started like a science experiment! Rightly, it means more to us than a mere hypothesis.

So, can you help? How do we do both?

Let’s pool our imaginative resources, and generate a list of a possible ways to foster both creativity and constructive criticism.

becoming a church of irresistible influence (5)

woodenbridgeBack to the issue of becoming churches of irresistible influence in our communities…

Launching into some bridge building may sound great. Surely we’ve got to develop connections in a manner much like cross-cultural missionaries often try to.

But things will probably start getting messy when we do. Physical bridges produce changes in island life — disruptions, more ‘foreigners’ visiting or even moving in. Why shouldn’t bridges of good works do the same?

If we’re not going to back out — through fear of change or the unknown — then we’re going to need to prepare ourselves.

The key is to vigorously implement the kind of attitude Jesus displayed towards sinners. Meet them with grace. Accept them wherever they’re at — whatever sin or doubt or fear they’re struggling with. But don’t leave them to wallow. Walk with them towards transformation and maturity in Christ.

I want to suggest two points of departure for this:

  1. Get used to setting (and continually reinforcing) the expectation that the church is about growth and spiritual transformation. In other words, move beyond just talking to ourselves about love and transformation — preaching, quite literally, to the converted. And start prayerfully and proactively living it.
  2. On the flip side, teach the fact that it’s OK to be part of church if you don’t ‘have it all together’ — and lead by example. We may talk a lot about growth and transformation. But there’s no biblical warrant for expecting uninterrupted linear progress. Christian growth is a matter of struggle between the Spirit and the flesh (cf. Gal 5.16-26).

The challenge, of course, is to make all this concrete!

becoming a church of irresistible influence (4)

Two thoughts about how to promote ‘bridge building’ by church members in order to build up some capital in a culture that either distrusts or outright ignores the church:

First, we need to figure out how to encourage kite flying. The only thing that made the first bridge over the Niagra gorge possible a kite. A child’s kite — in a kite-flying competition — bridged the gap well before anything more substantial could be laid across the span. And once a rope was attached, engineers could begin the work.

We need to learn to help our congregations become OK with dreaming dreams — even crackpot dreams. With trying things. Answering the ‘How?’ question with ‘Yes’.

A Chinese kite in flight above Portsdown Hill, Portsmouth, Hampshire, UK (from Tholly on Wikimedia Commons)

A Chinese kite in flight above Portsdown Hill, Portsmouth, UK (from Tholly on Wikimedia Commons)

But second we need to try to make sure that at least a few of these kites land. Or at least that we’re actually behind the effort of kite flying and it isn’t just an exercise in futility.

In his book Breakthrough Thinking: Using Creativity to Solve Problems, Nick Souter makes the obvious point:

If we don’t have an effective process for implementing our ideas, then the thrill of our creative endeavours may well turn to disappointment and eventually disillusionment. We’ll wonder why we bothered. And if this happens repeatedly, we’ll stop bothering.

To change the metaphor, it’s a bit like starting a fire. It may only take a little spark to start a fire. But it’ll need fuel, oxygen and heat to really get going. And in the absence of any one of these, it’ll sputter and die.

The same goes for bridge building (or kite flying).

When the Holy Spirit brings together people’s passions, giftings and opportunities fires get started. Fires that — all too often — church leaders let burn out. Warming themselves over them for a while perhaps. Maybe fearing getting burnt — or seeing others burnt. Doing our level best to contain the blaze.

But what if we actually sought to fan them into a raging furnace? How would we do it?

I’ve devised this ‘spiritual combustion triangle’ as the guts of an answer:

fire-triangle1Permission — this is the oxygen of Spirit-anointed, organic, ‘bottom-up’ ministry

Resources (financial, staffing, etc) — these are its fuel

Gospel proclamation — this is the heat; good works are not competitors with the gospel, they’re its fruit — so preach it up!

becoming a church of irresistible influence (3)

At least part of what’s opened up the chasm between local churches and their communities has got to be our overwhelming focus on church activities. This is not just a matter of social events steamrolling gospel-driven programmes. It’s as much a matter of what we consider worthwhile investments of personnel, training and resources.

Utkin Bridge, St Petersberg (No, I haven't been there!)

Utkin Bridge, St Petersberg (No, I haven't been there!)

Unfortunately, I suspect it’s symptomatic of a degree of tunnel vision about what Christian ministry is.

Take the whole issue of training, for example. What are you training people for? Cast your mind back over the training programmes you’ve offered over the last two or three years. Be honest. What have they prepared people for? Where’s the emphasis been?

I’d put money on the fact that you’ve probably mainly prepared people for ‘word ministry’ — leading Bible studies, personal evangelism, answering tough questions, etc. Which is all good. But is that what Paul means when he fleshes out the job description of the apostles, prophets, evangelists and pastor-teachers in terms of equipping the saints for works of service (Eph 4.11-13)?

Whatever we may have to say about the significance of the word ministries for building the body, nowhere does Paul imply they’re the only worthwhile form of ministry or service. God is honoured as we bear spiritual fruit in transformed characters and faith working itself out in love. And that will no doubt take a variety of forms.

Which leads me to wonder … what structures would we have to put in place in our churches if we were took seriously training people for this rather than exclusively for word ministry?

becoming a church of irresistible influence (2)

Step into the shoes of the average non-Christian in your suburb for a moment. Imagine how they’d react if they woke up tomorrow and your church had vanished. Would they feel much do you think? Would they even notice?

The tragic reality is that its very easy for a local church to become a more or less self-sufficient island. Effectively cut off from its community. Doing the odd letter box drop at Easter and Christmas. Maybe turning up on people’s doorsteps occasionally. Or holding a stall at a community festival. But making no significant or lasting impression. And falling far short of Jesus’ insistence that like a city that can’t be hidden because it’s so brightly lit, those in the kingdom will offer impossible-to-ignore testimony to the glory of God by our good deeds.

Rottnest Island, WA (Jan 2009)

Rottnest Island, WA (Jan 2009)

This is deeper than an image problem, isn’t it? It’s a full-blown credibility gap.

The authors of The Church of Irresistible Influence have a simple but profound word for this situation: Start working on bridge building. Don’t just continue to fortify and ‘build up’ the island. Re-establish your credibility by doing good in impossible-to-miss ways.

Of course, bridges cost — both to build and to maintain. And they often bring change. Threatening to disturb our comfortable island lifestyles. But they also offer concrete answers to the biblical challenge: ‘Don’t cut yourselves off from the world (like a sect). And don’t blur the boundaries between church and world so that no difference remains. Instead, be in the world but not of it — for the world’s sake.’

Do you have a sense of what might be different about your church if it was connected to its community by a significant bridge or three? What sort of bridges have you seen or tried to establish?