Revitalising the larger church

larger-churchWhy do we assume when it comes to churches that size determines health? Why assume that a church of 300 must be doing well, while a church of 30 must be unhealthy and in need of revitalising? It could be possible that a large church of 300-500 people is really spiritually unhealthy and in need of serious revitalisation, while the 30-strong church is actually spiritually vital. (For American or African readers, if 300 seems small, please understand that that is quite large by UK standards.)  To assess whether your church needs revitalising, here are six suggested measures of bad church health.

  1. Poor prayer life. Do all the Christians in your church pray together? There is a world of difference between a ‘prayer meeting’ (routine, dull, predictable, driven by habit, unimaginative, happening because it ought to) and a ‘prayer gathering’ (motivated by a real urge to pray about something, led with good preparation, filled with heartfelt prayer, praying for things that have not been prayed for before, going beyond habit in order to cast ourselves upon God, a gathering that happens because it simply has to – the Christians felt they had to be there). If your church meets to pray because of habit rather than because of a heart-felt desire, then the prayer life of the church really needs revitalising. More than that, are you modelling public prayer as an example of the kind of prayers people should be praying alone at home? The way the church prays in public will shape the way people learn to pray in private. The larger the church, the harder it gets to pray for people in public. If someone is ill and awaiting test results after a scan, it is hard to reveal that in front of 300 people, some of whom won’t know who you are talking about. The larger a church grows, the less it remains a fellowship (a strong argument for church-planting) and the more easily it can drift into a life together less and less bound together in prayer.

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5 priorities for 2017

2016-2017So 2016 comes to its foundation-rattling end, and so many people want to forget it as the collective nervous breakdown in the West continues. A New Year is a moment for Christians to reflect on how we can be different in the year to come. Here are five pleas I want to make for Christians and Churches to consider putting central in the coming year.

1.  Hope in God. In the two great psalms that explore despair and hope, Ps 42 and 43, the psalm writer repeats the exhortation to himself: ‘Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you in turmoil within me? Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my salvation and my God.’ At the end of the year that has seen some great political earthquakes, an appalling civil war in Syria, and massive terrorist attacks in France, Belgium and Germany, do you have real hope? I ask this because I have heard so many Christians say as the next upheaval or calamity happens, ‘But still, God is sovereign’, almost as though this is our last ditch hope. We have our own plans and our routine, and we plug on through life seduced by the certainties of a daily working routine, a stable stock market and a quiet suburban life. But when everything is thrown up in the air, whether in a referendum result, a presidential election, or the more visceral and desperate aftermath of a terror attack, then and only then do we clutch hold of the sovereignty of God. The sovereignty of God should not be our last and desperate refuge. He is our salvation and our God! We should be close to him, united through the daily fellowship of prayer, looking at the world as his world, and every aspect of our lives as lived for his glory. Our confidence should be in him, whatever happens, and whatever foes we face, knowing that in life and in death he is our salvation. Continue reading “5 priorities for 2017”

The Black Dog in December

img_20161130_0817551It is early December, and a very foggy day, and by a strange line of lateral thinking I remembered that I once wrote this piece for a blog I ran during a sabbatical in 2007. Nearly ten years later it is interesting to revisit this, and I am posting this not because I am in a low mood – I am feeling very positive – but I am mindful of so many in ministry and mission who are depressed at this time of year.

When I posted it on my blog in 2007, I was jumped by my deacons who said ‘Pastors really shouldn’t post this kind of thing. It will make your flock reluctant to share their problems with you. Keep quiet about your depression. It is most unwise to talk about it.’ Well, they leaned hard, and I took it down, and I continue to think that was wrong. In the dark of winter, or at any time of year, it is really important to talk about depression, and to be open about it and help each other. So here it is. Hope it helps someone.  

Churchill called it his ‘black dog’, but it is still the great unmentionable today, and it still carries a great stigma, especially among those who do not understand it. Many people suffer from depression without realising it, and live in denial, making their own lives and the lives of their loved ones a misery. For me, the past week has brought back some of the old symptoms: noticeable mood swings, disturbed sleep, lethargy, loss of concentration and creativity (hence no blogging), loss of interest in anything (starting reading lots of books and quickly giving up), introspection with weird temptations, a malaise and listlessness, comfort eating, short temper, and the illusion that life would be so much better if we upped sticks and started again elsewhere. I would describe it best as waking up in a lead helmet.

There are several things to say about depression. First, it usually surprises you. I never expected to get a bout of depression during sabbatical, and for the first few weeks that didn’t happen: lots of jollies to look forward to – Edinburgh and Italy made me feel so happy. But now I’m home, quietly reading and deprived of my regular fix of adrenaline and other people’s attention. This is time to discover the real me rather than the busy me, and it is not a pleasant experience.

Second, it may hit you at the same time of year, as indeed happened to me when I returned from holiday in Belgium last year. There seem to be particular times of year when it strikes, and you get wise to them.

Third, there are degrees of depression – this bout is by no means the worst I have suffered, though lots of the symptoms have a familiar ring to them. Finally, when you get wise to depression, it doesn’t have to be utterly suffocating. All that is happening is that the brain’s biochemistry is lacking, and that can be restored. Rest is crucial, but also exercise. I went out on Wednesday for a 6 mile walk round Martlesham and felt hugely better the next day.

However, Friday wasn’t so good, so it takes time, and you have to ride the mood swings and get wise to them. On a good day, make the most of it but don’t overdo it, and on the bad days do what you can and get an early night. Also, work out what jobs you can do when depressed, especially things with a tangible end-product you can look at and say that you did something, and get them done, and leave the ‘road-block’ type problems to be solved on the good days. Call it ‘cognitive behavioural therapy’ if you like, but in the end if you suffer bouts of depression, in the end you get wise to it and know how to work round it. This week life is better, and I expect life will improve from here. Today I’ve had a burst of creativity and haven’t felt so threatened by failure.

 

Fifteen tips for starting out in ministry

sheep-1547720_1920I was a young minister once! Up to the age of 50 you’re allowed to think that maybe you still are. But then I have to realise that Margaret Thatcher resigned as PM while I was in college, Scotland didn’t get a Parliament for another eight years after I left Scotland and was ordained, and I am firmly in the second half on ministry, hoping still to score a few goals. So, as I have watched an encouraging batch of young men enter ministry this autumn, several of whom I have followed through training, here are fifteen tips for starting well that I’ve picked up along the way.

  1. Preach within your range. The Bible is like a mountain range, and some peaks are a lot higher than others, so don’t set out to preach beyond your capabilities. We grow into the task of preaching, so don’t set out to preach through revelation as your first series, or John 14-17 or 2 Cor. 10-13. (I tried the latter, and am still scarred by the experience.) Preach what your congregation needs to hear most, and what you can make clear and apply well. Your preaching will reach first class standard after about five years, and test match standard….maybe! meantime, know your limits. John Chapman says ‘Preaching’s not that hard. It’s just the first forty years that’s the worst!’ After twenty four years I am starting to appreciate that quip more and more.
  1. Make a preaching plan for your first few years that takes you to a different genre of Scripture in each ‘term’ of the year. I watched my pastor in Abingdon, Simon Hutton, do this in his early years in Abingdon, and it is a great plan (which had never occurred to me). So we had Exodus 1-15, Colossians, some of Mark, Job (the best early series), Amos and Micah, and so on. As he tackled each series, so he became used to handling that Scripture genre ready for whenever he handled a similar book in future. See your early years in preaching as developing your skills gradually.
  1. If you are a sole pastor, and preach both ends of the day on a Sunday, don’t do a mega series both ends of the day. The real challenge of such ministry is staying fresh at both ends of the day, and not letting one sermon become the poor relation, and typically it is the evening sermon that suffers. Sometimes it is good to do a doctrinal or evangelistic series in the morning that doesn’t tax all your prep time, leaving you free to work hard at an evening series in OT narrative, or a closer exposition of a NT letter. When you want to put your main effort into the morning series, preach from well within your range in your evening series.

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