God is leading us and calling us in this strange season. It’s an opportunity to invest in a mode of being his people that draws us closer to him, stimulates our call, and increases our delight in the leadership of Jesus. This immediate time will shape us and serve us as we go into what is ahead.

Gill and I and others in our household have been putting together some thoughts and talks about how we might respond. In particular, how we might grow in the reality that we are currently expressing as “church in our homes” and while our homes are the location of God’s church. In our homes, households, and “telehouseholds” we minister to one another, and draw closer to God.

Two videos have been uploaded, we’ll be releasing more over the next little while from time to time.

Video 1: Introduction

Video 2: Lectio Divina: Being immersed in God’s word 

Anonymous asks (in response to a teaching time from one of our recent livestreams):

How would you distinguish between the words in your head and what God is saying?

I’m sure the Bible says not to act in feelings but if it’s a feeling God is giving you how can you know it’s from him?

[This is a Q&A question that has been submitted through this blog or asked of me elsewhere and posted with permission. You can submit a question (anonymously if you like) here: http://briggs.id.au/jour/qanda/]

I really appreciate this question. It’s an honest question. I think many of us ask (and answer it) without noticing, particularly when we are uncomfortable. It’s when we find ourselves confronted by or disagreeing with something we read in the Bible, for instance, that these questions arise: What is wrong here? What doesn’t sit right with me? Why doesn’t it sit right? How do I wrestle with it?

Too often, rather than wrestle with it, we put the niggly thing aside so that we can simply feel comfortable again. It is rarely the best way forward.

So how might we explore your question?

Firstly, let’s look at things in general: 

Your question is what we call an epistemological question. Epistemology is how we think about knowing stuff, particularly how we know what is right and what is wrong.

It the words in my head say something is true, is that enough or do I need something else? If it feels right, does that make it right? That’s the sort of thing we’re talking about here.

Our answer is affected by historical and cultural differences:

  • Some cultures emphasise tradition as more important than individual feelings or realisations. If you feel something is wrong, but the cultural tradition says it’s right, then the individual gives way to the collective wisdom. The internal process is like this: “I recognise that my experience is limited. Our tradition reflects the shared experience of generations of people, and is therefore less limited. Besides, I want to continue to fit in, so it is therefore more likely that I am wrong and the tradition is right.”
  • Some times in history have emphasised reason as more important than feelings or individual intuitions. The so-called “Age of Enlightenment” from the 1600’s through to the 20th Century picked up on this. “Truth” is determined by logic, and science, and cold hard calculations. This is an aspect of what we call modernism.
  • In the “post-modern” era (20th Century into the present day) we have elevated the value of individual feelings and thoughts. “Truth is experience” is our catch-cry; if we can’t feel it, it is not true. There’s value in this. Cold, hard, abstract theory, is not enough to guide and shape our lives. Our lives are also full of creativity, mystery, and the delights of the senses. We are also aware that beneath traditions and logical frameworks there are often hidden emotions and prejudices and unspoken power dynamics; we deconstruct these so-called truths as the self-serving assertions they actually are. “Going with your gut” rather than arguing yourself into subservience is a virtue in this worldview.

What does this tell us? That the “words in your head” and your “feelings” are not without value, but neither do they solely determine what is true and what is right. I know from my own experience, that my emotions are often broken. For instance, I have had a break down and depression; during that time my feelings about myself did not match the reality about myself and I had to learn to realise that. There have also been plenty of times when I held a view fervently that I subsequently came to realise was wrong. It is impossible to learn or grow without agreeing with the possibility that I’ve got something to learn.

Secondly, how do we approach this from a Christian perspective?

Our faith in God introduces something else into our epistemology.  We belive in a God who is not distant and aloof, but is involved, not only in the history of the world, but in our lives. We therefore belive in a God who speaks, through word and action. What he says is a revelation; it reveals truth about who he is, about who we are, and about what this world is like.

So how do we know what that truth is? How do we know what is being revealed? What is God’s revelation to us?

The beauty of it is that God’s revelation is objective and external to us. God’s truth doesn’t depend on us. This is a good thing! If it did, our sense of truth and of right and wrong would be self-defined. The truth is that God loves the world, and loves me, whether or not I feel it or “know” it. The truth is that there is right and wrong in God’s perfect justice, even if my heart has been hardened and my mind has been dulled, and I am either justifying myself or falsely tearing myself down.

This sense of God’s revelation is found in two forms:

It is found in what we call “general revelation”; there is truth to be found within creation and from looking at what is in front of us. “The heavens declare the glory of God”, the psalmist says.  “Since the creation of the world”, Paul says, “God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made.” This is how Christian belief embraces and recognises the value of the scineces; it is a study of creation and of humanity that reveals much truth.

It is also found in what we call “special revelation.” That is, if God is close, and interacts with his creation, then God reveals himself in history. The written accounts of that history will then also reveal him.  From looking at that written history we also see how God speaks through inspiration. He speaks to his people. Sometimes (but not often, it usually freaks people out), this is a direct “voice from heaven” (Exodus 20:18-19, Matthew 17:5). Often it is through the inspiration of a prophet who is set apart by God to speak to the people on God’s behalf. It is also through the giving of the Law, and in the inspiration of songs and poetry. The Bible is full of these things: history, law, prophetic writings, wisdom and creative writings, the accounts of Jesus’ life, and letters from his followers.

When we say “The Bible says” what we mean is that “God has revealed himself, in history, saying.” God has even spoken about how he speaks. “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness” (2 Timothy 3:216). The Bible is therefore an authoritative objective revelation for us.

The beauty of it is also that God’s revelation is subjective and personal to us. God isn’t relegated to speak to us in dry and dusty texts with dogmatic formulae; he whispers deeply and personally into the deepest parts of our heart. He calls us by name. He knows us. Jesus revealed himself to others in this way. Jesus sends the Holy Spirit who is our Advocate and Counsellor.  Sometimes the whispers in my head are prompts by the Spirit of Jesus. Sometimes my feelings are the way in which God is waking me up to his truth, a light in the darkness around me.

So how , then, do we know?

We can be certain of something when it all lines up and there is agreement in our epistemology. When our own feelings and logical thoughts agree with the traditions around us… when those things line up with what we read in the Bible and how we feel the Spirit is speaking deeply into our souls… then all is well and good. We have a sense of being sure.

When there is disagreement between these epistemological sources, however, we have some wrestling to do.

In particular, when I find myself wrestling with a part of the Bible that doesn’t “sit well” with me, I churn it over.

  1. I look to myself. What I’m trying to do is to work out what is happening within me. I name up the feeling: Am I feeling angry, guilty, annoyed, fired up and frustrated? What’s going on in me? Are those feelings associated with experiences in my life that I haven’t resolved yet; is there some pain and trauma that is getting poked? How is this Scripture offending me or moving me? I don’t pass judgement and soothe the feeling, I consider myself and work out what the problem is. I recognise that my heart is often fickle, I don’t quickly agree with it, but I acknowledge the reality of my feelings.
  2. I apply some reason and look to logic and tradition. Am I reading this part of Scripture correctly? Do I actually understand what is being said? Have I properly got into the world of those who first read it, and understood what they were hearing? Have I shoved my situation into the text and reacted to something that was never intended in the first place? How have other people understood it over the years? How have they applied it? What can I learn from them?
  3. In all this, I pray for the Holy Spirit to help me. I ask for the Spirit to illuminate my wrestle – to give me insight into the Scripture, or an insight into myself. I trust that the Lord has something for me in the revelation of himself. Sometimes I’ve had a sense of words “jumping out at me” from the page, or stuck in my mind while I dwell on them. Sometimes the Spirit of God works through these things. But! Just because I feel it, doesn’t mean that it’s the Spirit at work. In particular, the personal revelation of God to my spirit will never be at odds with his objective truth in Scripture.
  4. I do it in community. I share all this wrestling with others, even it’s just one person like my wife or a friend. I explain to them what I’m feeling, and how that’s colliding with the words in the Bible. We pray together. We reflect on it together. We wrestle together. And sometimes there’s a prophetic word within that community that sheds light and makes things clear.
  5. I allow God to be God. In the end, I entrust myself to God. It’s nice to have our feelings resolved, and to be comfortable with the Bible and God’s word, but it’s not always the way that leads to growth. Sometimes God is drawing us deeper, and we need to give it time. I can avoid the pain of that growth by setting God’s word aside by either judging it to be wrong, or subjectifying it as irrelevant to me. But, if I want to grow, I need to allow the wrestle to remain. I fall back in confidence on the things that are sure – e.g. God’s love and truth and the beaty of Jesus – and trust God with the rest. Even, and especially, when we cannot see, we acknowledge our blindness, and reach out for God even more.

I hope that answers the question. How we wrestle with our feelings and our own understandings is key to our discipleship and our caring for one another. Thanks for asking. Hope these thoughts help.

If you’re anywhere within 200ft of a Christian’s social media you will have encountered this youtube video. Musicians and worship leaders from a number of churches across the UK, singing “The Blessing” over the nation.

The video is here in case you’ve missed it: The UK Blessing on youtube.

Let me be clear from the outset here: I delight in this song and how it’s being used. This post isn’t a substantial critique. It’s a bit of wondering, a bit of defence, a bit of leaning off from it to think about the times we’re in and the church of which we are a part.  The song itself (attributed in the main to Kari Jobe and Cody Carnes) came into the limelight coincidentally with the Covid-19 pandemic. We’ve sung it ourselves as a household in this strange season.

So here goes: I delight in this song.

I delight in the content of the song. Its main motif draws upon the Aaronic blessing of Numbers 6:22-27:

The Lord said to Moses, ‘Tell Aaron and his sons, “This is how you are to bless the Israelites. Say to them:
‘“‘The Lord bless you
and keep you;
the Lord make his face shine on you
and be gracious to you;
the Lord turn his face towards you
and give you peace.’”

These are deep and rich words that Scripture leans on from time to time to give assurance of God’s love and favour. It’s there again in Psalm 67, for instance. It’s not about individualistic blessing: the focus is on nation and generations.  This also has rich grounding (Exodus 20:6, Deuteronomy 7:9) as does the invocation of God’s presence (e.g. Joshua 1:9) and God being for his people. These deep waters well up in the New Testament (e.g. Romans 8:31) as declarations of how fundamentally, totally, existentially, substantially, utterly, profoundly is the blessing of God to be found in Jesus of Nazareth, died and risen again as Lord and Saviour!

Notice how a lot of this biblical grounding is from the formative days of God’s people, Israel, in the time of their rescue from slavery in Egypt, their wandering in the wilderness, and the entering into the promised land. These were not easy roads. There were afflictions from around them, and the afflictions of sin and wayward hearts within them. Sometimes it may seem like the loving heart of God looks like discipline (some of us are feeling that at the moment) and feels like his absence (ditto): but the deeper truth remains and calls the heart to trust him. He is for you. He is with you, to the thousandth generation. May his face look upon you and give you peace. At this time of affliction, however we might feel it and experience it, these are life-giving words to sing.

Of course, some may (and have) suggested that the blessing that the Scriptures reserves to God’s people shouldn’t be invoked over the world at large. The critique is not invalid: the blessing of God is not merely a universally and thinly applied sense of warmth, it is deep and located and especially attached to God’s determined work, his promises to his people, and his presence in the person and work of Jesus. But it’s not wrong to pray for the blessing of many. I’ve addressed this question before. I long for all people to know the loving presence and saving grace of God, who knows us and made us and has given us his Son to save us and lead us into an eternal life that begins now. Especially now.

I delight in the recording and release of this song.  Having had to come to grips with sermon recording and livestreaming, I can very much delight in the video and audio editing skills!

It’s not perfect, of course. I’ve already seen some comments from those who haven’t seen someone who looks like this that or the other; not all the intersectional categories have been covered. I feel it a bit myself; there’s a lot of big evangelical charismatic mega-churches in that mix:  Where are the “ordinary worshippers” who look more like me and mine? I’ve got a well-honed cynicism after years in this church game. The “what about me?” response is an understandable human reaction, but in this case I/we should get over it.

This song hasn’t come from some tightly planned bureaucratic focus-group vetted process of fine-tuned diversity management. If there is anyone who has “made it happen” it’s Tim Hughes (formerly of Soul Survivor, and now of Gas Street Church Birmingham) and his espoused attitude towards the song is commendable. It has come about from a loose arrangement of friends and networks and invited and offered contributions. It’s organic and messy, and therefore not perfect. And that’s good.

It also hits a pretty good balance regarding the spotlight and avoiding the sort of brand-driven recognition we often slip into. One of the points of this song is to show that the churches are alive and working together. So it needs some sense of being able to recognise people and places and names of congregations. It does a good job of avoiding the celebrity factor. People are not named, churches are. It’s been released under a neutral brand. The naming of churches serves the purpose of showing a community of communities without overdriving the brands.  And I love knowing that there are Eastern Orthodox and Catholics and !Pentecostals and St. Someone’s of Somewhere all in the mix.

For me, unlike other attempts at this sort of thing, this feels like my brothers and sisters, and I can sing with them. I know these faces. I have seen quite a few of them in real life. I’ve had conversations with a number of them. There’s at least one face in that mix that I’ve served coffee to across my dining room table. The family of God is both bigger and smaller than we think.

Again, I’m good at cynicism. I’ve seen ego-driven light-show presentations done with not much more than a Christian aesthetic. This is not that. It’s not absolutely pure and precise, but so what? It’s a cracked-jar crumpled-paper offering of people who want to declare the love of God over a hurting nation. It is something to delight in.

The only thing that wears my heart, just a little, is this. There’s not enough of Jesus. One of the cracks in our jar (that I think this current season is rubbing at, one of the loving disciplines of God for us right now) is that we have been in a rut of church being about church rather than church being about Jesus. The church is a blessing – but that’s a truth of vocation (what we are called to and enabled to be) rather than identity (what we are by our own right in and of ourselves). The declaration at the end: “Our buildings may be closed… but the church is alive” is great, but it’s unfortunate in that it’s simply about us.  It’s the same with the blurb in the video description which is about our unity and our good works. It’s almost there, but not quite. We are only a blessing because Jesus is. We are only alive, because Jesus is. Let’s say that. We embody the blessing, but Jesus is the substance of it.

We’re not singing ourselves over the nation, we are singing the love of God in Jesus Christ our Lord. Keep doing it.

Amen. Amen. Amen.

Like many of us, I’ve been pondering things in this current pandemic season. I’m finding it helpful to see some parallels between these times and the effect of Jesus’ teaching, especially his parables.

Allow me to explain myself:  Jesus, famously, made use of parables. Rather than “answering plainly” he would tell a short story.  We know many of them by name: The Parable of The Prodigal Son, The Lost Sheep, The Good Samaritan, etc. They have become well-known to us. So well-known, in fact, that we have become immune to their force.

Parables are meant to impact.

Here’s an example from someone other than Jesus: In 2 Samuel 12, the prophet Nathan confronts King David about his corruption. He could have spoken plainly, but I doubt he would have been heard. Instead, he tells a parable, the story of a rich man who oppresses his poor neighbour. David is drawn into the story until he is confronted: “You are the man!”

Nathan’s parable brings David to a crisis. He cannot stay where he is. The status quo is not possible anymore. He must respond, one way or another. He can either respond with hardened heart, or he can fall into faith. In this case David softens his heart and responds with contrition and repentance. The parable has its impact.

When Jesus speaks in parables he brings his hearers to a similar crisis. They cannot remain unmoved. They will either harden themselves against his word, or they will fall into faith.

In Matthew 13:1-9, Jesus shares the famous Parable of the Sower. It’s a beautiful metaphor involving a farmer sowing seed indiscriminately; it lands on shallow soil, weedy soil, hardened soil, and good soil. He later explains the metaphor; the seed is the word of God which can come to nothing in the poor soil of the pleasures and pressures of life, or bear much fruit in the good soil of those who “hear and retain it.”

This story prompts his disciples to ask, “Why do you speak to the people in parables?”.  Jesus responds by quoting the prophet Isaiah:

Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send? And who will go for us?”

And I said, “Here am I. Send me!”

He said, “Go and tell this people:
“‘Be ever hearing, but never understanding;
be ever seeing, but never perceiving.’
Make the heart of this people calloused;
make their ears dull
and close their eyes.
Otherwise they might see with their eyes,
hear with their ears,
understand with their hearts,
and turn and be healed.”

Isaiah 6:9-10

Isaiah spoke to God’s people at a point when they were wallowing in complacency after a period of prosperity, even as their world was threatened by a looming invader. They had lost their way. They had forgotten who they were. They were God’s people but they had become self-assured, oppressive, and unrighteous, just like the other nations.  They didn’t just need teaching, they needed impacting. Like Nathan with David, they needed a real crisisSo Isaiah was to speak to them in a way that only faith would grasp. Without that soft heart, they would be “hearing but never understanding”, confirmed in their hardness.

Jesus speaks in parables to do the same for his generation.

Consider the Parable of the Sower. For those with “ears to hear” with a heart of faith, it is wonderful truth. God’s life-giving word is scattered indiscriminately; it’s not just for the strong or wise or holy. God has spoken to everyone, in all places and all circumstances. Heard with a heart of faith, this story generates a yearning to be good soil. It impacts faith and leads to more faith.

But for those who can’t hear it that way, it will have the opposite effect. For those who hold the word of God as something reserved for the upright and pure, a tool for those who have been schooled in the right Pharisaical school, this parable is a confrontation, even an offense. The reponse of the Pharisees to Jesus was often condescension, derision, or anger. They heard but didn’t understand. The parable reveals their lack of faith.

When it comes to faith (or the lack of it) within God’s people, parables have a prophetic amplifying effect. “Whoever has will be given more, and they will have an abundance. Whoever does not have, even what they have will be taken from them.” (Matthew 13:12)

This then, is my reflection: This coronavirus season is working like a parable to us, the church.  It is having a similar prophetic amplifying effect.  It is bringing us to a crisis. It’s not just a crisis of medical and economic management (although that is real). It’s not just a crisis of bereavement and trauma (although that is very very real). It is bringing us to a crisis of faith.

In the westernised world we have chuffed along in our churches in a context of comfort and prosperity. It’s a bit like Isaiah’s day. We have built a religious industry. We have made our appeals to the masses. We have gotten good at offering something decent on a Sunday, and mechanisms attuned to felt needs throughout the week. But that edifice has been shaken; we cannot even meet together at the moment.

Even as we do our best (and there is much good) in the netflix world of livestreams and zoom, we recognise that the former status quo is gone.  If we can put 90% of our “product” online, just what were we doing anyway? The question is raised. The moment is impacting us.

The impact is also similar to Isaiah’s day; it is raising the question of identity. Whose are we? The difference is literally a matter of faith: We are either God’s people, and confirmed in that, or we are self-made with a borrowed Christian aesthetic, and that is what will emerge. It’s a parabolic moment.

We can imagine the two different responses:

We could do it without God. We can rebuild the edifice. We can market the spiritual experience. We can even do a decent job of being a neighbourly community on a par with any decent Mutual Aid Group. We can find our activism of choice that wants to put the world back together again a certain way, and get on board. We may even take some of our current moment with us: the comfort of doing church in our pyjamas is not nothing!

It’s not necessarily malicious or morally bad, but in this direction it can all be done in our own strength. Like Isaiah’s people seeking help from Egypt… like religious leaders dismissing the up-start from Nazareth and turning back to their traditions… we will not hear the call to faith in the current moment. Just put it back the way it was, or the way we now want it to be.

In this direction, the trust is not in God, it’s all about us. Extend it out and we imagine not just church, but divinity itself in the form that we want it, purged of all that we find disagreeable.  This can manifest at any point on the church spectrum: From woke do-goodery, to blinkered protestations, to marketing tactics, to immovable emptied traditions, it can be sweet, or acidic, stimulating, or soporific. But it has this in common: My world, My terms. A Christian aesthetic, but God not needed, not really.

I can see our current parabolic moment amplifying this faith-less response. Yes, I see it around me, but mostly I mean this with respect to myself. I want to do. I want to seize the moment. I want to plan the future. This is my time! Let us choose the future that most aligns with our sense of self-security and call that “faithful”!

The real difference isn’t about choosing one self-made future as more virtuous than another self-made future. If we look at it like that, we are hearing but not understanding.

Rather, the other effect of this moment is to undo us, and bring us to God. That is the heart of faith.

We are also seeing this in this moment. People are being  undone. They are wondering, seeking, yearning, thirsting for something beyond themselves. Perhaps its because we’re facing mortality honestly again. Perhaps our pretenses of safety have gone and our simple smallness has re-emerged as real. Perhaps life once looked like a rut and rail in a predetermined direction, but now there are possibliities. Whatever it is, this moment is undoing us. It is at this moment in the parable that we look up to see the face of Jesus speaking.

Look at the response to Jesus’ teaching. Faith often looks like bewilderment. It’s the Pharisees that go off with self-assured certaintity of how they want things to be, but the path of faith looks more like confusion. Eyes have been opened, now blinking in the sun, exclaiming both  “Lord, at last!” and “Lord, I don’t know what to do!”  The Bible describes this moment in many ways – from amazement to being “cut to the heart” to declarations of bewailing truth “I am ruined.” “Go away from me Lord, I am a sinful man.”, and “My Lord, and my God.”

The faith-filled response is not so much as a position or determined direction, as a posture.

It is a posture of surrender. It is cross-shaped, a laying down of everything. It can feel like a refining death. Let it be that it is no longer we that live, but Christ that lives within us! We repent. We believe.

It is a posture of response. Jesus says, “Come, follow me!”, and we leave our nets and follow him. We are stripped of our security, and led into the unknown. But it’s OK, we are led by Jesus. He is of greatest value.

It’s a posture that bows to grace in the suffering. Of weeping when needed, and laughing at other times. Of praying “Lord, your will be done!”

It’s a posture that waits for him, as the edifices crumble, and the collapse of more substantial things is more than possible. And it ponders firstly, not “What can we make of this?” but “What will our Lord now do?” It is aware of needs, and fears, and griefs, and opportunities, and possibilities; but it doesn’t just up and thrust forward. We only do what we see the Father doing. We wait.

Above all, it is a posture of worship. We remember who we are, and we are His. Our distinctive is our worship: before anything (even before we all manner of good things, like a loving community), we are Jesus’ people. Everything else comes from that, or we lose it all, even our love in the end. So we sit at his feet. We stare at his face. We rest our head against his breast. Our love is in him, bearing his name.

Across the spectrum, it has this in common:  Lord, your world. Lord, your terms. Lead us, in this moment, lead us. It’s all about you, Jesus.

This season is like a parable, it is impacting us with a crisis of faith.  The status quo is not possible. And there are two responses for the churches: to harden ourselves in self-assurance and build our future, or be softened in faith and be his right now.

Photo credit: https://www.pxfuel.com/en/free-photo-ooqmj marked as royalty-free and available for re-use.

At the core of human identity is what we desire. As the saying goes, “What the heart desires, the will chooses, and the mind justifies.” I think Cranmer said it, and it is true. I know it in myself; when I wrestle with who I am, I end up at questions of “What do I really love? What is my heart’s desire? What moves me at my deepest?”

It’s the same with church communities. We can talk about vision-casting and strategic planning and the rest of it, but 99% of the time a church’s problems come down to this question of passion. What moves us? What do we want? Whom do we desire? 

To be frank, the honest answer for most churches is that we are enamoured with ourselves: our way of doing things, our past glories, our insecurities, our past pains, our desire to be bigger and stronger. Even when we are going about our worship (which is meant to be, by definition, God-focused), our eyes can drop to ourselves; to our feelings, our power, our benefits of being Christians. There’s a fine-line between thanking God for making us worthy, clean, and beautiful as his bride, and staring adoringly into a mirror.

Mike Bickle’s Passion for Jesus has, for this reason, been a refreshing read. Bickle is the founder of International House of Prayer, Kansas City (IHOPKC), a movement that is arguably the American correlation to the UK’s Pete Greig and the 24-7 Prayer Movement. This book is his definitive, slightly autobiographical, tome, originally released in the 90’s and updated a decade or so ago.

Bickle’s mission is to move people to pray. His wisdom recognises that that is a thoroughly impossible task if we do not understand the centrality of God in our very identity, or if we misconstrue God and don’t see his loving heart. And so he lays before us the truths of what God has revealed to us about himself. It’s not just the theological categories of God’s nature, but the personal categories of God’s character, his emotions and passions.

…passion for Jesus does not come from natural human zeal or enthusiasm. Passion for Jesus comes first and foremost by seeing His passion for us. (Page 4)

Bickle explores this partly through his own story, and recounts the crises by which he came to reflect on and grasp God’s love and affection. His project is to go to the foundational place of desire in our walk with Jesus. We could talk about Christian ethics, Christian morals, or the boundaries on the straight and narrow way that should bind our wayward heart. Bickle would rather talk about the beauty, glory, and intimacy of God. Rather than focusing on the edges of the path, he would have our heart be drawn down the road.

Expositions of intimacy with God are rarely adequate. Bickle is better than most when he urges us to be lovers “fascinated with God’s beauty” (page 37). Like others on this topic, he draws on the Song of Songs – that romantic, even erotic, love song-play between King Solomon and the Shullamite girl. He does it reasonably well, despite some exegetical slips (I much prefer David Pawson’s exposition of the Song). Nevertheless, Bickle draws some valuable insights, particularly around the dynamic of absence in the growth and expression of desire (pages 127-128). This is crucial, because the absence of God, rather than intimacy with God, is what most Christians predominantly feel. Yet the Beloved turns that sorrow of absence into yearning and searching and courageous abandonment of comfort and security because of her desire. These are helpful reflections.

In a similar vein, he spends an entire chapter outlining “twelve expressions of God’s beauty” (page 132): God’s beautiful light, his music, his fragrance, and other unashamedly affective contemplations. It’s a fascinating exercise, and has informed the counsels of my own heart when I am praying and dwelling on God in my everyday.

But the reason it all works, and what sets Bickle apart from other writers and speakers in the charismatic and pentecostal scenes, is that he doesn’t forget the theology. It is good, beautiful, theology influenced by the likes of Tozer, Piper, Packer, Edwards and “the devotional classics written by the Puritans” (page 171).

This book is nowhere near the slightly Freudian caricature of loving God as a starry-eyed swooning at Jesus and a desiring to be filled by his powerful Spirit. Here is an exposition that not only reveals God’s love and affection, but his transcendence and sovereignty. Bickle warns of how a blindness to God’s magnificence is a “shocking disregard for Him” (page 28) and that a dismissal of God’s holiness renders the cross of Christ insignificant. “They understand neither the greatness of their need nor the glory of God’s gift” (page 32). This is the antidote to the prevailing false gospel of today’s church, that we can have God on our terms.

When we gaze upon His loveliness, we will gladly die to those things that are not like Him. (page 35)

I particularly appreciated how Bickle makes use of Jesus’ famous prayer in John 17. It’s a prayer for intimacy (“that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you”) and it includes our Lord’s specific prayer for us (“for those who will believe in me through their message”). Too often this prayer gets turned into pious moralising manipulation: Don’t disagree with me, don’t you know that Jesus wanted us to be one, you wouldn’t want to disappoint him, would you?” Bickle sees the prayer as a manifestation of God’s sovereign heart; Jesus has prayed this prayer, as an act of love and affection for his people, and his Father will answer it. “The Holy Spirit will enable us to experience the deep things of God, as the apostle Paul taught” (page 42, emphasis mine).

It takes the power of God to make God known to the human spirit. This knowledge enables us to love God… it takes God to love God, and it takes God to know God… The church will be filled with the knowledge of God. Jesus said it. His promises never fail. The Holy Spirit will use the release of this knowledge to awaken a deep intimacy with Jesus. A revival of the knowledge of God is coming, and as a result the church will be filled with holy passion for Jesus. Divinely imparted passion for Jesus is on the Holy Spirit’s agenda as seen in Jesus’ prayer. (Page 60, emphasis mine)

I have looked at the lukewarm, compromising church of our day and wondered, How shall these things be? Will such a glorious revival come to pass? Then I remember Israel’s negative spiritual condition during the time of Jesus’ earthly ministry. The church’s only hope is that God is rich in mercy. Therefore, at His appointed time, God will supernaturally intervene. The same flaming zeal in the heart of the Father that complelled Him to send Jesus the first time will manifest as He revives the compromising church in this generaiton. The zeal of the Lord of hosts shall perform it. (Page 62)

This book is not about twanging charismatic heart-strings, it is an eschatologically scoped book, standing awe-struck at the plans and purposes of God. It looks for a “church that is joyfully abandoned to Jesus’ lordship” (page 76) as our Lord inherits the nations for his possession (Psalm 2:8).

I went to a concert last night, where Andrew Peterson lifted our hearts and minds towards the things of God. We were moved. Ironically, I found myself downcast and dejected. I had been taken to something deep – to the plans and hearts of the Someone who made and bled for this world and for his people. And it had left me feeling lonely. This desire for God is the root and core of who we are. I delight that Gill and I have learned (and are still learning) to orbit it together. And there are many others to stand beside and share the awe. But, in general, I am weary of an unmoved church, especially in the West, consumed in itself and discarding its own on the path to self-preservation or self-engrandisement.  I feel the same weariness in Bickle’s book, but also hope, and joy, and confidence in Jesus. The gift of that is its value.

Sarah, responding to my previous post, asks:

Hi Will, could you write another blog post on what conviction and humility look like? Speaking truth to power as you say.

Conviction is essential for obedience; it doesn’t forsake humility. And if we are saying and doing things that our society agrees with, they will recognise humility. But if we are humbly speaking God’s truth that is at odds with the world around us, it won’t be liked, it will be hated, and the world won’t see any humility at all because we are pointing to an authority higher than all others. We endure, we bless, we answer kindly, we are humble. But we will have to be prepared to not be seen as humble whilst we are bowing the knee to the Lord Jesus?

[This is a Q&A question that has been submitted through this blog or asked of me elsewhere and posted with permission. You can submit a question (anonymously if you like) here: http://briggs.id.au/jour/qanda/]

Thanks Sarah, and to others who have asked me if I could follow up on my previous post that deals with a perceived incoherence between two aspects of the gospel:

  1. The truth-claim that Jesus is Lord. (The message of the gospel).
  2. The character of humility. (The mode of the gospel).

As a wise friend commented, “Great stuff, Will. You outlined the dilemma well. I’d like to hear a fleshing out of the solution a bit more.” This is my attempt.

I’m not going to ground this attempt in anything more profound than my own experience and an aspiration towards common sense.

It begins with an agreement with the premise of the question: the Christian call is towards both conviction and humility. These two are not at odds. In fact, in the Christian worldview, conviction and humility cohere, that is, they go together and can’t be separated.

And I also agree with the premise that, in the end, the fact of this can’t be determined by other people; it is centred on Jesus. This is point of contention, perhaps. Almost by definition, humility involves an awareness of others, a willingness to listen, to be open to being changed and moved by someone and not hardened towards them. Paul is right: “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.” (Philippians 2:3,4)

The key to my thoughts is this: our other-awareness derives from our Jesus-centredness. That is, our humble approach towards others, in the end, relies upon us being found in Jesus, for Jesus, to Jesus. That is, our conviction about the gospel is the source from which our humility derives. There are a number of senses to this:

Firstly, there is a sense in which Jesus is the greatest example of humility. We saw that in the previous post when we looked at Philippians 2:6-8. To be apprentices of Jesus is to have the same “mind of Christ” and approach others in his mode. This is essentially “WWJD”, which isn’t always easy to practice: sometimes being silent, sometimes speaking up, sometimes standing against, sometimes submitting. Whatever the exact behaviour, the heart is humble.

Secondly, there is a deeper sense in which Jesus enables us to be humble. Humility is aware of others, but there can be a flip-side to that. I am also other-focused when I am driven by fear, pride, panic, hate, lust, and so on. If my sense of identity and worth is bound up in others, then it is impossible to be truly humble. If my identity is other-centred then any actions I do, even if they are nice and acquiescent will be at least tinged by self-preservation or self-fulfillment. Rather, if Jesus has captured my life (Galatians 2:20) then I am his and his alone; therefore I am free of obligation towards anyone else. I owe my eternal life to no-one else. Therefore I am free to be humble. John 2:24 describes this of Jesus, who in his humility, “would not entrust himself to them, for he knew all people.” He was free of them, he was free to love them.

Thirdlythere is a similar sense in which the Spirit of Jesus compels us to be humble. There is a conceptual and practical aspect to this. Conceptually, the gospel is a great leveller: “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith – and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God – not by works, so that no one can boast” (Ephesians 2:8-9). Practically, we trust that the Spirit of Jesus is at work in us. “Christ love compels us” (2 Corinthians 5:14a), says Paul, and he is right. However that compulsion is manifest – speaking, listening, acting, resisting, or simply solidly being – Jesus doesn’t just show us the way and give us the freedom to walk it, he leads, guides, propels us forward. The more we look to him, the more we are moved by his humble, life-giving Spirit.

I think the the premise of Sarah’s question is right. Our humility towards others rests upon our dependence on Jesus. Because of this, we cannot, in the end, measure the “success” of our humility by whether it is recognised or not. It doesn’t mean we ignore others, or dismiss other’s opinions and beliefs – after all, Jesus, didn’t do that. It does mean we don’t fear others, slip into their traps, or concur with their brokenness; we are embraced by Jesus first, and we love others out of freedom.

And it won’t always “work.” It didn’t work for Jesus. “If the world hates you,” Jesus said (John 15:18), “keep in mind that it hated me first.”

Gill and I have certainly known what means to be rejected. It does lead to some soul-searching. Many times, we have fallen short of the humility of the gospel, and have not been careful enough in manner or mode. Sometimes, we have compromised on the truth. At other times, I have had to conclude that I could do no more: My physical size has had me perceived as overbearing, and I can do little about that. I inhabit the role of vicar, and sometimes people respond to previous negative experiences of other vicars, and I can do little about that. All I can do is focus on Jesus and seek to be more like him.

But when it works, it works! I received a voice message today from a friend of mine. Here is someone who is fully committed to the gospel, and feels very free to share it. But there is no sense (beyond ordinary human brokenness) that that conviction is not manifest in a Jesus-centred humility. Take a listen to Uncle Nige:

 

And finally, I was struck today by an article that summed it up really well, from the point of view of Adam Neder, a Christian teacher. He conceives of humility as an awareness of our weakness, and therefore a dependence on the Spirit.

Many of us who teach Christian theology are keenly aware of the poverty of our language in comparison to the reality of God. We try our best to speak truthfully and faithfully, but our words often seem thin and unreal, they taste like ashes on our tongues, and we wonder if our teaching will add up to anything more than wasted time. In extreme cases, this trajectory of thought and feeling can lead to a deadening acedia that takes root within us and leaves us hopeless or in despair.

But an awareness of our dependence on the Spirit moves us in the opposite direction. It eases the pressure by displacing the teacher from the center of the educational process. It relativizes our weaknesses. It does not eliminate them, and it certainly does not excuse them, but it assures us that God rises above them. And this awareness becomes an essential source of freedom and joy for those who believe and depend on it, whereas for those who do not, teaching can become a burden too heavy to bear—at least for teachers who want their students to know God personally.

Humility is an awareness of the “poverty of our language” and a “displacing the teacher from the center.” When we come full of ourselves, with controlling systems, asserted techniques, and market-proven strategies, we are missing the mode of the gospel. When we come dependent on the Spirit, that is the power and freedom to humbly gift ourselves to the world. Whether the world receives us or not is not for us to know or control.

That then is the only “solution” I can offer: Jesus first, the rest of it will follow.

Image credit: Pjposullivan

The heart of the gospel includes a mode as well as a message. Jesus is the substance of both of them.

The mode of the gospel is one of humility. “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit,” Paul exhorts us in Philippians 2:3-11.  “Rather, in humility, value others above yourselves… have the same mindset as Christ Jesus:… he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant.”

Here is what theologians call kenosis, the self-emptying character of the gospel. Jesus, who had the power to command twelve legions of angels, doesn’t use the sword (Matthew 5:52-53) but lays down his life. This is the Teacher who sets the example of washing feet (John 13:1-17). “Whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant,” he says to his disciples when they jostle for position, “whoever wants to be first must be your slave – just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Matthew 20:26-27).

We, who follow Jesus, are meant to reflect this mode. It’s why we wince when there is hypocrisy in our midst, when we see the drippingly wealthy lifestyle of teleevangelists, or the coercive and oppressive legacy of Western colonialism. We align more clearly with the likes of Mother Teresa or William & Catherine Booth, and above all recognise that the greatest gospel heroes are usually unknown and unsung.

It isn’t always simple. Jesus’ humility, particularly during his passion and crucifixion, was one of complete surrender to the will of God; he was acquiescent, and was “led to the slaughter… like a sheep silent before her shearers” (Isaiah 53:7). At other times, he is forceful in his actions and language, particularly towards those who exercise and abuse their power. He turns over the tables of the exploitative money changers (Matthew 21:12-13). The pharisees and teachers of the law are “snakes”, a “brood of vipers” and worthy of judgement (Matthew 23:33-36).

When we consider these oppressive people, we agree with Jesus’ actions. Whatever humility means, it doesn’t mean being a doormat, or agreeing with oppression. In fact, our postmodern world might give us an insight that Jesus appears to be addressing: truth claims are power plays. By asserting what they declare to be true (in how the temple operates, or in the application of God’s law), Jesus’ opponents are constructing a social framework in which they get to have power and influence. Jesus is right to undermine it!

But here, if we are not careful, we run into an incoherence. Because the gospel is not just the mode of humility, it is a message of truth. Its shortest declaration is three words long: Jesus is Lord. We are making a truth claim.

We don’t want to lose humility. Should we therefore refrain from laying out this truth? Let us not fall into the trap of the Pharisees and assert our truth, especially when we inhabit a dominant or privileged Christian position in the Western World. Would it not be more Christ-like to withhold our voice, and be silent like lambs?

Perhaps we should not only lay aside our voice, but be aware of our own heart and attitude. Jesus was humble, so why should we be so arrogant as to hold that we have any particularly correct insight into the ways of the world, the way of God, and the wisdom of what is and what might be? Jesus was self-effacing, so if we speak his name, we must be doing it for our sake, not his. Evangelism itself, therefore, is a form of oppression. We should lay down our power-claiming truths even within the confines of our heart; we should let go of our beliefs.

Thus, we arrive at our incoherence: For the sake of the gospel, we should stop sharing the gospel. Indeed, for the sake of the gospel, we should stop holding to the truth of the gospel. 

If there is a defining dynamic of Western church life, this is it. We want Jesus, but we’re embarrassed to believe much about him, let alone speak of him. What if we’re wrong? We could so much damage!

I understand the dilemma. After all, other ways of resolving the incoherence may not be particularly attractive to us:

We could modify our sense of Jesus’ example of humility and so be less humble ourselves: If he was humble at all, it was an acquiescence tightly attached to his self-sacrificial death on the cross – something he chose to do, and therefore a demonstration of his power and strength. The kingdom of Jesus is muscular and assertive: it lays a claim on truth, and on our lives, and dictates some specific ways of living. This world is caught up in a war between good and evil, and we must fight for righteousness in every area of influence: politically, financially, sociologically. This isn’t dominance for its own sake, it’s justice. We must protect the innocent, particularly the unborn, and hold back the warped worldviews that will pollute the world of our children.

I’m sure you’ve heard this rhetoric.

We could modify our sense of Jesus’ claim to truth and so have less to believe and say: If he made any truth claims about himself at all, they were probably misinterpreted by his biographers, and later given the authority of holy writings by power-hungry men. Jesus is not the way, the truth, and the life (John 14:6), and if he said it, it only applies within the Jewish world that he inhabited, and he never meant it absolutely. Jesus may have claimed authority in the Kingdom of God (Matthew 28:18) but he meant it subversively, that we might further his Kingdom the way he intended: through dialogue with the oppressed, and inclusion of those discarded by society. The Kingdom of God is made present wherever the compassion that Jesus exemplifies is exercised by any of God’s creatures.

I’m sure you’ve heard this rhetoric also.

Both extremes in this dialectic have a degree of appeal. But it’s not a coherent resolution. Within the church, we find ourselves lurching between nihilism (“We can’t really know or be anything, let us just be, resting in the empty and meaningless”) and more explicit forms of control (“This is how it is, now get on and make the church bigger, don’t fail or we will lose influence”). In over-simplification, it’s so-called liberalism on one end, and traditionalism (even modern market-driven traditions) on the other.

The synthesis is where we need to be. Neither Jesus’ humility, or his claim to truth, can be modified without losing the essence of who he is, and the gospel we believe.

This comes when mode and message combine. As we saw above, Jesus operates in humility. At the same time, Jesus surely does make truth claims about himself. His declaration to the Jews in John 8:58 – “Before Abraham was, I am” – is undoubtedly a claim to divinity. John 14:6 is unequivocal, “No one comes to the Father, except by me.” Even the example of humility in Philippians 2 is not a denial that Jesus is “in very nature God”, but an exposition of how Jesus didn’t cling to it for self-grandeur. We are not nihilistic. Jesus is Lord.

Jesus is the only one who can lay claim to holding “all authority in heaven and earth” (Matthew 28:18) and do so with humility. Why? Because he is the only person for whom that is true, and who holds it rightly and justly and appropriately, and not by some pretense.

To hold that Jesus is Lord, therefore, not only speaks truth, it also embraces humility. If Jesus is Lord, then I am not. If Jesus mediates the way, the truth, and the life, then I can not. It sets the mode of the gospel: I can not speak the truth in and of myself, I can only seek to echo his words. I can not heal and transform, I can only seek to reflect his heart, and point others towards his safe life-giving arms. I can not untangle the warp and wefts of injustice and human brokenness, I can only, daily, seek to follow the lead of the Spirit of Jesus. We are not authoritarian. Jesus is Lord.

If we really hold to the truth of Jesus, we will be committed to humility. We will entrust others to his care, not try to control them. We will speak truth to power, without fear or favour. “We work hard with our own hands. When we are cursed, we bless; when we are persecuted, we endure it; when we are slandered, we answer kindly” (1 Corinthians 4:12-13). How? Because it’s not about us, it’s about Jesus. We live for Him.

The mode of humility involves a self-surrender. The message is that Jesus is the Lord. The two together is the heart of the gospel.

Grove booklets are helpful little tools for the ministry toolkit. They are often insightful and informative. Occasionally, like this one, they are somewhat frustrating, because the content should be bleedingly obvious.

Church researcher, Bob Jackson, posits the question, “As clergy numbers fall, is there a better leadership model than multi-parish incumbency?” (rear cover), and the answer is basically “Well, of course!” As church attendance declines, and the relative cost of “employing” a stipendiary vicar increases, the number of parish churches per clergy has also been increasing. Combining and amalgamating parishes sometimes works, but, in general, it stretches the mode of ministry to a breaking point, spreads the vicar too thin, and accelerates the decline. Jackson has researched the numbers (page 7).

So what do we do instead? Jackson proposes the use of “Focal Ministers”: Individuals, who are not expected to carry the burdens of incumbency (more on that later), but who can focus on the local congregation, the local community, and lead the rhythms and practices of the local church towards properly contextualised gospel ministry. Statistics show (page 9) that this is generally effective. This is not surprising. “Human communities rarely flourish without a hands-on leader. Leadership is best embedded, not absentee” (page 5).

Jackson spends his 28 pages helping us to imagine life in the Church of England with such Focal Ministers in place. He unpacks the benefits, identifies some of the pitfalls, and articulates some good practice. While opening up the “Range of Focal Ministry Options” (page 16), he maintains the “irreducible core idea… that one person leads one church” (page 3).

Taken alone, it is a simple premise, i.e. it is bleedingly obvious. The complexity and the relative obscurity lies in its juxtaposition alongside existing ecclesiastical structures, culture, and expectations, particularly in the Church of England.

To reflect on this, I have come from two different angles.

The first angle relates to what I have experienced and observed over the years.

In my experience: I am used to recognising and raising up what Jackson might call Focal Ministers (FMs). In one of my posts, the lay reader of many decades experience was clearly exercising local ministry, and much more effectively than me as I was stretched between three half-time vicarly posts; it was a no-brainer to encourage her towards increased ministry, and, eventually, ordination. In another post, Gill and I identified a young man with clear giftings and call, as he was raised into leadership we did ourselves out of a job. I could go on and on in delightful reminiscence about the numbers of coffees we’ve had to encourage people into areas of ministry (leading, preaching, pastoral care, etc.) While not all of these would be exactly the same as Jackson’s FMs, they were in the same ethos. I’m not trying to blow my own trumpet here, but isn’t this the norm? Isn’t this how ministry works? How else do you do it?

Similarly, I have been able to observe various forms of focal ministry. The Diocese of Tasmania experimented for many years with “Enabler Supported Ministry” (ESM) in which a “Local Mission Support Team” (LMST), which usually included an Ordained Local Minister (OLM), was called by the local congregation, recognised by the Bishop, and provided with a stipended “Enabler.” It differs slightly from Jackson’s model (it has a local team, not a focal minister; it is overseen by a non-authoritative Enabler rather than an incumbent in a “mini-episcope oversight role” (page 8)). When ESM worked, it worked. When it didn’t two things often emerged: 1) The LMST collapsed into one person, usually the OLM, who effectively became a Focal Minister, and 2) there were times when the Enabler needed to be given some authority in order to resolve conflict etc., and so were often also appointed as Archdeacon-Mission-Support-Officers. I don’t know if Jackson has looked at ESM (or it’s “Total Ministry”, “Every Member Ministry”, or “Local Collaborative Ministry” equivalents) but he’s arrived at a model that aligns with the outcomes.

The second angle for my reflection relates to my recent history in the Church of England. My current Diocese of Sheffield is in the midst of significant structural shifts. The development of “Mission Areas” with “Oversight Ministers” and “Focal Ministers” is a key part of the strategy. These issues are therefore very much live for me (as a recipient more than a participant in the current moment) and it has stimulated some thoughts for what to embrace, and also to avoid:

1) Focal Ministry requires a cultural change, but the danger is we only grasp it structurally: Jackson promotes FM as a way of eschewing the “pastor-and-flock model and professional ministry” (page 5). This is a strange contrast; turn over “pastor-and-flock” and you don’t quickly have a “Focal Minister” you have a flatter structure with no clear hierarchy. At best this could look like effective partnership, perhaps within a fivefold shape. At worst, (and I’ve observed this), it looks like bland egalitarianism articulated as “we don’t need anyone to lead us” and often feeling directionless and, ironically, insular.  If Focal Ministry can find the balance between assertive leadership and collaborative inclusion, then that’s fantastic, but that’s firstly a cultural issue not a structural one. There’s no reason why “normal” ordained leadership should not also find that balance. Similarly, without cultural change, it will quickly reduce back to a pseudo-vicar and their flock.

2) Focal Ministry raises questions about what ordination is all about. This is not a bad thing; it raises good questions! In Jackson’s model, Focal Ministers are charged with being the “public face of the church, [the] focal leader in the community, [the] enabler of the ministry of all, [the] leader in mission” (page 20), and he can imagine them leading a congregation of up to a 100 or so (page 26). On page 23, he suggests that Focal Ministers could get started by “raising the standards of church services,” looking “for people who have left the worshipping community” to hear their story, and using festival services as a means for growth. All of that is a great description of what ordained ministry looks like on the ground! If it isn’t, then what on earth are we teaching our ordinands to do? The only aspect of ordained ministry that Jackson doesn’t really mention is theological reflection and sacramental ministry. But don’t we also want our FM’s to be theological formed, and aren’t we giving them the oversight (at least) of the celebration of the sacraments in the local context? So, conceptually, how exactly is Focal Ministry anything other than a mode of ordained ministry?

We need to think about how Focal Ministers are “searched for, trained, and supported” (page 25). One would hope that Focal Ministers would be assisted in discerning their particular vocation, provided with training in theological reflection and pastoral skill, and offered tangible support (perhaps even some remuneration where possible) so that they are free to exercise their ministry. How is this not the same concept as the pathway to ordination and the provision of a living? It may be that our training pathways for ordinands are not helpful for FMs, and that we should provide them with more flexible and contextual options. That doesn’t raise questions about the training of FMs; it raises questions about the possible general irrelevance of ordination formation!  If ordination formation is relevant, why wouldn’t we offer it to FMs? If FMs don’t need it, why would we require it of ordinands?

In Jackson’s model, there isn’t really a difference in kind between Focal Ministry and Incumbency, it is a difference in degree (in his chapter 4 the only difference between “FM” and “IN” is that FMs only have one congregation and an INcumbent can still have multiple). The church offers a more rigorous (and defined) form of support to Incumbents, and a more flexible (but presumably cheaper and missionally adaptive) form of support to Focal Ministers, but they are both (in the truth of the concept) exercising the essence of ordained ministry. This is not a bad thing. However, it feels awkward because the Church’s statutory wineskin can’t easily cope with the adjustment, and we have to develop new terminology to get it there.

3) My only real concern with the model, therefore, is in its implementation. Jackson speaks of the need for “official diocesan policy” when it comes to this (page 25). He speaks of “a discernment process” for FMs “as there is with readers and OLMs” (page 25). He suggests that a “Focal Minister training syllabus will be needed, perhaps prepared nationally” (page 20). Some form of process is needed, of course, but the extent of it worries me.

The joy, and beauty, and actual point of FM is the local connection and flexible local adaptation of ministry.  As soon as you have syllabi and processes that are imposed from a distance (even nationally!), they risk becoming hoops to jump rather than resources to release. Such processes often hinder local adaptation by insisting on irrelevancies, and they undermine recruitment of FMs for whom that is onerous.  Too much centralised expectation and we might as well replicate (or just use) the ordination streams and send FMs off to the so-called “vicar clone factory.” We need to learn the lessons from what happened (or didn’t happen) with the aspirationally contextual Pioneer Ordained Minister schemes of 15-20 years ago.

It’s at this point of FM discernment and training that Jackson should have emphasised the role of the Incumbent Oversight Minister. Surely it is in the “mini-episcopal” incumbent that you entrust a level of discernment for who may or may not be invited into the FM role? Surely someone who has been through the “full” ordination program (and subsequently provided with the living) will have been equipped to offer formation and training to those with whom they share the work? An incumbent is both aware of the local context, and connected by their office into the wider accountability; incumbents are key to the framework working. In fact, here is the point of distinction between the two roles of incumbent and FM: incumbents are called to raise up and form, in addition to joining the focal work on the ground.

In conclusion, Jackson has given us a useful resource. The prospect of a framework that aligns with what he presents excites me. Not least of which because “it rescues incumbents from impossible job descriptions, enables some to work at a more strategic level and others to enjoy a more fruitful ministry with direct responsibility for fewer churches” (page 27). But I still slightly shake my head. This is not a new solution to a new problem. This is simply a framework around the sort of work we should have been doing anyway. No matter the exact form or nomenclature, we need to get on with it.

Like many life-long Christians, my formative years were shaped by speakers and writers fanning the flames of zeal and purpose. We wanted to know God’s plan for our life. It was about learning our gifts, keeping pure, and pursuing Jesus for the life that lay stretched out before us. We would change the world!

There’s nothing wrong with that. Three of my four children are now, officially, young adults, and I want something similar for them. Opportunities lie open before them. They don’t fully realise their sheer potential. So push into Jesus, equip yourself with his Word, become familiar with his Spirit, find healing for childhood hurts, and launch forth! “I am writing to you, young men, because you have overcome the evil one” (1 John 2:13).

We all grow out of our youth and into our adult seasons. And the discipleship that once formed us no longer fits as easily. We try and make it work. We take our sermons and channel our inner youth: fan your passion into flame, live life for Jesus! We mentor others by setting and pursuing goals, just like we did when the vista was young and wide. And we do the same with our churches: we place our communities on an horizon of opportunities, articulate some mission action goals and motion for them to launch forth like the youth we once were. Occasionally it works.

Our forms of discipleship are youth-shaped, even as we hit our middle age. They don’t hit the mark. This is where we need the sort of wisdom Ronald Rolheiser offers in Sacred Fire

Rolheiser’s framework is simple. He identifies three stages of discipleship in our walk through life:

1) Essential Discipleship: The struggle to get our lives together. This is the youth-oriented form of discipleship with which we are familiar. It’s for when we are searching, “for an identity… for acceptance… for a circle of friends… for intimacy… for someone to marry… for a vocation… for a career… for the right place to live… for financial security… for something to give us substance and meaning – in a word, searching for a home” (page 16, emphasis mine). “Who am I? Where do I find meaning? Who will love me? How do I find love in a world full of infidelity and false promises” (page 17)? We are familiar with these things.

2) Mature Discipleship: The struggle to give our lives away.  This covers the majority of adult life, and begins when we become “more fundamentally concerned with life beyond us than with ourselves” (Page 18). The transition from young adult to responsible parent typifies the entry into this stage of life. “The struggle for self-identity and private fulfillment never fully goes away; we are always somewhat haunted by the restlessness of our youth and our own idiosyncratic needs…. [However the] anthropological and spiritual task will be clear: How do I give my life away more purely and more generously?” (page 18). This is the substance and focus of the book.

3) Radical Discipleship: The struggle to give our deaths away. As we age, the default line shifts a second time. The question is no longer “What can I still do so that my life makes a contribution? Rather, the question becomes: How can I now live so that my death will be an optimal blessing for my family, my church, and the world?” (page 19). Rolheiser touches on this at the end.

Perhaps the quote from Nikos Kazantzakis on the very first page, sums it up: Three prayers for “three kinds of souls”.

1) I am a bow in your hands, Lord, draw me lest I rot.
2) Do not overdraw me, Lord, I shall break.
3) Overdraw me, Lord, who cares if I break!

It is the second of these that we need to explore.

In this stage of life, the aspiration is not towards heroism, but towards eldership (page 64). Rolheiser doesn’t go into it, but my reflection is that eldership has diminished in our collective imagination. Take any popular movie (my thoughts jump to Happy Feet) and it pits zealous youth against repressive elders: youthful explorations of real experiences against the oppression of traditions and the narrowness of a self-loathing parental generation. It’s an effective narrative; even now, my heart flutters with some longing to be the heroic youngster. But I’m getting old. I also long to cover, care, nurture, and father. I yearn to pass on some of the depths and ancient learnings that I discovered on my own youthful quests, and which I have digested over many years.

Eldership is valuable, so how do we disciple people towards eldership? How do we disciple people in their maturity?

This collision occurs in the church world. We promote (and fund) avant garde pioneering programs and strategies that promote church growth. There’s a risk of it being seen as just a young person’s game. That isn’t the case. I realised some time ago, that I simply ain’t the green young church planter I used to be (thank God). I’m not going to be able to grow a church, or pioneer something new, through my waning youthful zeal. It will only come through growing into and resting upon a developing eldership. That’s the discipleship I need, and Rolheiser has helped me.

I no longer need to explore paths of youthful imagination. I need to fathom the depths of when the patterns of life are “pretty bland, or flat, or overpressured, or disappointing” where underneath the (relative) stability of life “is an inchoate, nagging disquiet, that is stirring just enough to let us know that someday, though not quite yet, there are still some deeper things to sort out and a deeper journey to be made” (pages 65-67).

One of Rolheiser’s more powerful images is that of the “honeymoon.” Perhaps it sums up the dynamics of a mid-life crisis!

Our route to maturity generally involves a honeymoon or two. Honeymoons are real, are powerful, and afford us, this side of eternity, with one of the better foretastes of heaven. Because of that they are not easy to let go of permanently. Inside of every one of us there is the lingering itch to experience that kind of intensity yet one more time…” (Pages 69-70)

We could be driven by that allure for honeymoon excitement, not just in terms of marital fidelity, but simply as a fantasy of what “success” means to us (“grandiosity” as Rolheiser calls it). Starry-eyed youth run to their honeymoons, thinking to have escaped loneliness.  In our mature years, we learn to embrace a “new loneliness, that of seeing and accepting the actual limits of our own lives, a pain intertwined with accepting our own mortality” (page 74).

If there is one bit of wisdom to dwell on from this book, this is it.

All discipleship equips, and Rolheiser does just that: He unpacks workaholism. He looks at “acedia” – that noonday listlessness and ennui mixed with a daydream of regret and jealousy (pages 79-81), and the answering hope. He looks at forgiveness and how it is needed at the most existential level (page 83). He even unpacks all the seven deadly sins in helpful and insightful ways! Sloth, for instance, is not laziness so much as wilful distraction (I’m looking at you, Netflix). He teaches us to pray (page 169ff), with emotional honesty and life-giving rhythms. And he reminds us to bless and not curse (page 212). Chapter 8 sums it all as “ten commandments for the long haul.”

It was gratifying to find myself familiar with some of what he expounds. Gill and I have reflected for some years on how life is so often a divine call to wait. Our world is now-and-not-yet, and this can feel like Easter Saturday, or the days between Ascension and Pentecost. Just like Rolheiser, we also have drawn on the road to Emmaus (page 98ff) to grasp the depression and despondency of what this can feel like, despite the (unrealised) company of Jesus on the road. We too have encountered the painful compulsion of Peter (page 105), as we are bound to the one who has the words of eternal life, despite the costly road on which we are led and where often we don’t wish to go.  In the words of one of the songs that inspired me in my youth, but which I didn’t understand until I had lost some blood: “I know who I am, I know where I’ve been, I know sometimes love takes the hard way.”

In all good discipleship, we need to be both affirmed and stretched. This book stretches us towards the giving away of life that defines our age and stage. We are stretched towards kenotic living, and laying down of pride and judgementalism, superiority, ideology, and personal dignity (page 124). We are compelled to imagine living as ones baptised into Jesus, not just baptised into John:  i.e. baptised into “grace and community” and reliance on the one who can do the impossible. Pentecost comes not to the self-hyped and activated, but to “a church meeting where men and women, frightened for their future, were huddled in fear, confusion, and uncertainty, but were gathered in faith and fidelity despite their fears.” (page 131). We cannot live our lives out of “sheer willpower” (page 130). I know; I tried that once ten years ago and I broke.

The way of mature discipleship is to give away our life. It is Paul sharing in the sufferings of Christ. It is Mary, watching the crucifixion, not running, but absorbing the pain and refusing to “conduct its hatred” (page 149). Sometimes, the Lord places us as walls upon which the ugliness of a broken world breaks, and upon which the sulfurous sharpness of an idolatrous church sloshes. In our youth we might fight back. But in our maturity, we absorb, we bow, we break, and all that the stooping does is put our faces closer to the Rock on which we rest.

That is not the same thing as despair. Our muted helplessness is not a passive resignation, but its opposite. It is a movement toward the only rays of light, love, and faith that still exist in that darkness and hatred. And at that moment, it is the only thing that faith and love can do. (Page 149)

We need this sort of discipleship. We need this sort of imagining of what mature leadership, mature lives, mature ministry looks like. We need a church that can cope with being out of control, that can lean into decline and devote what is left as an offering of blessing. We need a church that finds faith in pain, and just simply is as the winds and waves of the world wash around.

We need to inspire our youth, and delight in their zeal (and their pretensions at times). And us older ones need to aspire to eldership, and give away our lives.

What’s gone wrong with the church? Surely, new life in Jesus and the Kingdom of God are so much more than stultified, sanitised, professionalised institutions? How do we organise ourselves so that there is more freedom for the Holy Spirit? How can we be the true embodiment of the world-changing gospel like we see in the early church of Acts?

That’s what this book is about. Torben Sondergaard, a Danish evangelist with a growing influence and impact penned this book some years ago. Amongst other things, it is required reading for those wanting to be trained under the imprimatur of his movement.

I have just finished reading it and I am left uneasy. This is a divisive book, for which Sondergaard is unapologetic (“We are going to be accused of destroying the church.”, p13). He interacts with some important issues. He taps into a disillusion amongst some of Jesus’ people: “There are many who are dissatisfied and frustrated because they are not being used and are not growing in the things that God has put in them” (page 96). His response, I think, is sincere. In the end, however, it is flawed.

I’ve had to check myself continually. Perhaps my unease is appropriate; as a vicar I represent the sort of churchiness that Sondergaard is rightly critiquing. Maybe I’m biased as Sondergaard attempts to deconstruct my current way of life. After all, I’m a professional churchman; the church institutions house and feed my family. My expertise, my career, my “marketable skills”, let alone my sense of vocation and divine purpose are woven into a form of church from which Sondergaard is pulling loose threads. So I’ve had to question myself: is my unease with this book just a form of self-preservation? I don’t think I’ve fallen into that trap.

After all, there’s a lot that I like. As he assesses the problems we face, I am often nodding my head. I love the church. It can and is a location of great blessing. Nevertheless…

1- Church culture often obscures Jesus rather than revealing him. Sondergaard writes, “We do not need to impose our church culture on people in order to make them ‘proper Christians.’ Rather, when we remove today’s church culture, we will see that people are more open to God” (page 21). I, personally, know what it’s like to find myself steering someone who is new to the faith away from the church world, and towards contexts where there is a deeper sense of spiritual family and where Jesus is acknowledged and relied upon. The way we do church doesn’t always have the presence of Jesus as a factor; it can be a toxic and neglectful environment.

2- Our churches appear spiritually stagnant and ill-prepared. “I look at churches in the West, I can see that they need to be refreshed” (page 23). I have felt this as a pervasive sense of dissatisfaction in the status quo. Even when we are blessed and fruitful, we cannot simply stop as if we’ve “made it” and be satisfied with the way things are. “Semper reformanda,” our forefathers said; the church needs continual reformation. We are not pursuing Jesus enough. We are not prepared for difficulty and adversity, let alone persecution, should it come. “The big churches will suddenly become small when they find out that following Jesus has a high price, a price most of them have never been willing to pay” (page 25).

3- Hierarchy (both formal and informal) beats discipleship in many churches. When I hear stories of people being raised up, nurtured, covered, cared for, and released, they often attend to people and relationships that are usually (but not always) outside of church structures. Here there is true accountability, an honesty and freedom to share difficulties, and receive help. However, within the structures, the stories are often different; they tell the tale of arbitrary hoops to jump, faceless people making decisions for you and not with you, power plays and spin. This is where accountability is reduced to box-ticking and number crunching; no-one “has your back” and, rather than freedom to grow, there is a subtle (and sometimes not so subtle) demand for complicity and conformity. When Sondergaard speaks of how “mature Christians get locked up in a hierarchical system that stops them from making progress” (page 43) he touches on these things. I don’t fully agree with how he deals with this phenomenon, but it’s right to raise the issue.

4- Church culture often has a worship problem. The so-called “sacred-secular divide” is much deeper than the “Monday-Sunday” separation that is usually used to describe it. Rather, it’s a cultural demarcation that defines claims on our time, money, and life. It’s as if we say, “Sunday mornings and 10% of my income, and some other contribution belongs to God and the church and the rest is mine.” Churches buy into this culture in order to facilitate collective goals and providing a means for people to contribute their bit. This isn’t a bad thing, but it can be self-defeating. Regarding tithing: “all our money belongs to God and not just ten percent… tithing can actually keep people in their comfort zones” (page 61). Indeed, true worship is about being a “living sacrifice”, a hundred holistic percent. It’s about giving Jesus all of our lives – our money, our time, our family, our identity, our career. This is how we worship (Romans 12:1), but we rarely nurture it in our church contexts.

5- Church culture often has a flawed sense of growth. I trained during the latter part of the Hybels-esque “church growth” era, shaped by being “seeker sensitive” and offering “homegenous unit” activities for the different blocs of children, youth, men, women, marrieds, singles etc. Growth was about presenting a pleasant and non-threatening atmosphere and getting people in the door and onto the seats. Some good things have come from this mindset, but in general it is a failed experiment that breeds passive consumer Christians. I’m not sure it’s necessarily true that “pastors and leaders… are mostly focused on how to get non-Christians to come to their church” (page 65) but I agree that “they should be looking to God to find the best way to equip the Christians who are already there” (pages 65-66).

I even resonate with some of Sondergaard’s experiences. Gill and I have been pioneers and church planters, and we have seen, time and time again, how something exciting and new can easily fall back into the rut grooved out by expectation and weariness. “This is not different at all! This is exactly how we held meetings in the other church.” (page 37).

Moreover, Sondergaard has given me some helpful food for thought. His treatment of fivefold ministry is generally very good (and even lands the apostolic in the right place at 1 Corinthians 4 – page 120). His emphasis that the fivefold gifts are most effectively expressed as itinerant ministers equipping local churches is intriguing, and I’ll give it further thought.

Yet despite all this, I am still uneasy about this book. His solution to these problems is flawed.

Sondergaard’s solution is his titular “last reformation”. He sees the need for a dramatic shift of the size and significance of Luther and Wesley, that would, unlike them, “transform our whole church structure” (page 12, emphasis mine). This imagined realignment of structure is shaped around his understanding of the early church in Acts: smaller household-sized communities, with a flatter organic leadership structure, that fosters spiritual activism (including the supernatural ministries of healing the sick and casting out demons), and which avoids the hierarchy, inertia, and control of larger organisations.

It’s a worthy vision. Structurally, it seems very similar to the house-church movement of the ’70s and the broader cell-church movement in general. It resonates with the “missional discipleship” movement of the ’00s, and the emphasis on “oikos”/household sized “missional communities.” In terms of missional ethos, it is similar to contemporary embedded communities such as Eden and parachurch organisations such as YWAM bases.

So again, why am I uneasy? I’ve distilled it down to three concerns:

1- His vision is self-defeating. There’s more than a hint of pathos at times (“I felt we could not put up with the rejection any longer.” page 41). Believe me, I get it. But a firmer foundation is needed. Here’s my concern:

The early church model in Acts is intriguing and attractive. However it was far from perfect, even in those early primal years. Read the first few chapters of Revelation and you’ll see how spiritually ineffective they could be! Moreover, the evolution of the early church, even before Constantine, was not due to a hardening of heart away from the will of God. It was moved by a desire to remain true to Jesus (apostolic succession, canon of Scripture), to flourish in faith amidst persecution (liturgical rhythms, appointment of pastors and leaders etc.), and to combat heresy and defend belief (trinitarian theology, apologias). Inevitably these lifegiving currents were, naturally, systematised. The assumption that the early church was great and it became increasingly bad does not entirely match reality. Sondergaard doesn’t seem to grasp this. e.g. He makes the curious observation that in the early Church “No one but Jesus was the Head of the fellowship, and it was clear to everyone” (p135), and doesn’t recognise that the Holy Spirit manifested that leadership through Councils of elders (Acts 15) and the sending of corrective letters from people in authority (Paul’s epistles)!

Even if Sondergaard were able to re-manifest that early church purity (on his terms of purer structures), it would inevitably (on those same terms) apostasize, just like the early church. You see, it’s already happening. Sondergaard is growing a movement. He has written a definitive book that is essential reading. He is playing the part of apostolic overseer and doctor-theologian. Within this movement, he defines what is orthodox, and what is not. As the movement grows, it will require infrastructure to organise and (ta da!) hierarchy to ensure that the core values of the movement are held and acted upon. None of that is bad! As long as you realise that this is what is happening and play your part well. I’m not sure he sees it.

What I think I see here is something I’ve observed in other contexts – a form of ecclesiastical nihilism.  “I’m not your pastor”, someone says by way of pastoral advice. “I’m not the leader”, they say, leading the way. “We trust in the Holy Spirit alone,” they say, by way of articulating the Holy Spirit’s guidance. “We are not full of ourselves”, they say, by way of self-description. The only way forward is to not pretend: you are a pastor, a leader, a discerner of God’s will. You do help shape our identity and place; now do it well!

Similarly, to Sondergaard, who imagines when people “once again begin to meet in homes and on the streets  where there are no big names, programs, or oganizations” (page 83) while writing a book with his name on it, offering pioneering training programs, and fronting an organisation: Don’t pretend you have discovered a pure form of doing church (which would necessarily need to be purer than the early church that, eventually, ended up with us!). Don’t pretend you have somehow avoided the pitfalls of structure and hierarchy and the pressures of collective identity; admit that you’ve actually got those things… and do them well. Stand on the shoulders of those who have literally done before what you are doing now. A little humility would not go amiss.

Relatedly,

2- He’s honed in on the wrong problem. The problem is culture not structure.  His critique of church culture is worth hearing. But his structural proposals are not novel, nor are they essential to the changes we need.

Sondergaard often plays existing church systems as a straw man. For instance, he rightly envisions a situation when smaller communities of faith can reproduce themselves quickly and efficiently. But he asks things like this: “Why are the churches so afraid of new fellowships if all the numbers show that this is the solution to reaching the world?” (page 45) They’re not! They might not be very good at it. And the big monolithic techniques of resource church mega-plants may not be my cup of tea… but everyone recognises that “church planting” or “fresh expressions of church” (when defined well) are essential to the way forward. And some even manage to do it.

Similarly, “Imagine that a matured married couple… come to the pastor and say: ‘We’ve really been seeking God, and we feel that it’s time for us to move on… We would like to have your blessing.’ Do you think the pastor will bless them?” (page 54). Well, yes! Sondergaard implies that the pastor would withhold the blessing in order to manipulate continued membership and financial support. Really? If that happened, that wouldn’t be a structural problem, but a competence problem! And if it was pervasive, it would be a cultural one.

In every structure, I can find (or at least imagine) a church culture which alleviates all the concerns such as spiritual stagnation and lack of discipleship.  I even see existing churches doing things that Sondergaard aspires to. e.g. I know of a church who is more than “happy to see people start their own [church] families in the neighbourhood instead of waging war with them.” (Page 51, NB. it’s either “happy to see” or “waging war” – there’s the straw-man false dichotomy again).  Similarly, in every structure I can find – including house church movements like Sondergaard – I can find spiritual lethargy and even toxicity.

We don’t need to reform the skeleton of the church – it’s structures – we need to reform the heart of the church. We need to fall in love with Jesus again, and to embrace that love and devotion individually, collectively, corporately. I have encountered that heart in the smallest of home churches, and in the biggest of cathedrals; in the most organic of prophetic communities, and in the most structured of liturgical settings. It’s not the structure that matters, it’s whether or not those in the structures devote them to Jesus or not.  Sondergaard briefly touches on this peripherally (“many… issues would be resolved automatically if people would simply repent and get saved”, page 134), but it is the heart of the matter.

3- His vision is too small. Reformations of the church have both discontinuity (a big shift from what was before) and continuity (it is still rooted in the ancient works of God). Sondergaard emphasises a discontinuity and achieves it because he takes a narrow field of view. His awareness of the nature and character of the Body of Christ doesn’t see the beauty and depths of existing traditions.

I can see how Sondergaard’s vision would rest well within some of the charismatic and pentecostal traditions. But even I struggle with his over-realised eschatology. I am no cessationist. I’ve got a lot a time for “Naturally Supernatural” activities, when done sensitively and well, such as Healing On The Streets and Healing Rooms etc. But you don’t have to look too much at Christian history to recognise that those who say “Jesus is coming back very soon, and I am convinced that we are the ones who will see His return” (page 15, emphasis mine) should be heard with a raised eyebrow.

Similarly, he is has a closed hand on some issues that should be held more loosely. For instance, he anathematises infant baptism (p15). This is fair enough, I guess (I am open-handed on this issue!). But to assert that it is important to some churches merely because it “brings in money” (p57) is not only insulting, but blatantly untrue. I doubt any church I have been a part of has even broken even on providing the ministry of Baptism, let alone made a profit.

All this does is narrow the vision. Is there a place in this last reformation for my reformed brother and sisters, who emphasise the study of Scripture, and value the expertise of learned teaching? Is there a place in this last reformation for my contemplative and traditional brothers and sisters, who value how the Spirit has actually been at work in the church over the last millenia or two, and who draw upon those good, ancient forms? I can’t really see it.

In conclusion, this is a difficult book to read. For those who are in some sort of denial about the state of the church, it would be usefully provocative. But my unease at his “solution” remains.

Sondergaard says he is “not out to criticize pastors but to see them as victims of this system. I feel sorry for them, and I want to save them from it. The problem is not them, or any other people! No, it’s the whole church system we have built up.” (page 55, emphasis mine). I appreciate much of this sentiment. I have been a victim of the system, and, I suspect, a perpetrator of it as well. I love the church, in, around, and beyond the institutions of which I am a part. Which is why, occasionally, I look at it and despair. But I only need one Saviour, and he is the church’s Saviour as well.

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