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.

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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.

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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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Christmas can be the time substance gets lost beneath frantic frivolities. Pastors, vicars, and ordinary church folk enter into the annual tradition of trying to talk about deep things (incarnation, salvation, Jesus!) without sounding twee or spoiling the mince pies and mulled wine.

It’s not just a Christmas predicament, though. The same thing is there, more subtly, throughout the rest of the year. Church life is always full of frantic frivolities. There may be less tinsel, but the dynamic remains. We can lurch from Sunday to Sunday. The buzz of activities can be a pervasive background. Our Christmas “church gigs” have an intensity about them; we invest in them, advertise them, and are glad when we are rewarded with the right sort of numbers. But that only amplifies what is already present: our drive to perform and get growing results. Throughout the year, in the midst of the mist of religious supply and demand, we try to talk about deep things, without sounding twee or spoiling things.

I’m not sure it’s working that well.

I know I have become wary of activity and busyness.

It’s not that I’m into passivity or quietism. I rejoice in the sense of flow when a community acts, seeks, worships together. When brothers and sisters are in unity and purpose… well, the presence of Christ is almost tangible. Even as I write this, I can hear the sounds and smell the smells wafting up the stairs from the meal that is being prepared in our downstairs church hall. It’s an excellent activity with a sense of flow, a weekly expression of hospitality and care, and one of the highlights of my week.

But I also know what it’s like when church activities are not like that: when doing is about duty and not much more, and movement is a going around in circles, a spinning of our wheels. This is when we do things only because we did them last year. This is when new opportunities are met with a pang of cynicism: “We’ve done that, we tried that, that just feels like yet more work.” When we take things deep and try to reconnect with the point of it all, suddenly the words sound hollow, disconnected, echo-like. We drown in the shallows.

When it’s like that, it’s worth listening to Jesus.

Lately I’ve been moved to lay aside all my carefully curated church growth strategies and reflect on the words of Jesus in Matthew 16.

Famously, he has his own church growth church strategy. It is founded on Peter’s confession of Jesus as Lord: “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by flesh and blood, but by my Father in heaven. And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it.”

More infamously, Peter tries to take control of this building project. He refuses to countenance the thought of the Messiah laying down his life, and counsels the King of Kings to choose a different path. As Jesus points out, he is moved by “human concerns.”  Jesus rebukes him and includes this injunction: “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it.

In Luke 17, the same words are echoed. This time, it is not about the foundations of the church, but the finishing touches at the point of our Lord’s return: “It will be just like this on the day the Son of Man is revealed. On that day no one who is on the housetop, with possessions inside, should go down to get them. Likewise, no one in the field should go back for anything. Remember Lot’s wife! Whoever tries to keep their life will lose it, and whoever loses their life will preserve it.”

How’s that for a church growth strategy? Whoever tries to keep their life will lose it!

This has led me to two conclusions:

Firstly, this is a key to our frantic activism, at Christmas time or any time else. So often, we are scrambling to not “lose our life;” we do things to keep from demise. Take any church activity as an example: a Sunday gathering, a carol service, a bible study, an advertising campaign, a diocesan restructure. If it exists as an attempt to justify our existence, prove our relevance, deflect our decline… then we are full of “human concerns” and we are in the way. Often the best thing to do is to cease that activity, or shut something down.

But if those same church activities exist to give ourselves away, for the sake of Jesus… they flow and bring forth life. They become deep, acts of sacrificial worship, reflections of God’s grace, of love to the local community, of sharing our very selves one with another. They encapsulate something precious, the essence of the Kingdom of God.

The same activities can either be a clinging to life (and losing it), or a giving of life for the sake of Christ (and finding it). This is the paradox of Christian leadership towards true church growth: How do you build yourself up by giving yourself away? How do you generate something without slipping into empty activism?  My thoughts have taken me here:

Secondly, it lifts our eyes towards the ends, not the means. The big word to describe this is “teleological” – from the Greek word telos meaning “end” or “point” or “goal.” We need to be teleological and look to our end, to the point of it all.

The writer to the Hebrews has the sense of it when he exhorts us to “run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith” (Hebrews 12:1-12).  Paul has a similar motivation when he “sets his eyes upon the prize” (Philippians 3:14). Both speak of activity and perseverance, but the vision is towards the goal. The goal is Jesus.

We need a teleological approach to mission. When we think about mission, we quickly go to the activities (evangelistic activities, community engagement etc.) or desired outcomes (increased attendance, more activity). This is a focus on the means. The Scriptures look first to Jesus.

In Hebrews 2 or 1 Corinthians 15, for instance, we see the goal, the telos, of mission. It is not, firstly, about church numbers, or even social justice, it is about the glorification of Jesus. Everything flows from that. “He must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet,” Paul says. Psalm 8 is used in Hebrews 2 to say much the same thing about a “Son of Man” who is “made a little a lower than the angels” only to be “crowned with glory and honour” with “everything under his feet.” We find justice, we find salvation, we find grace in that truth, and nowhere else.

This gives the focus of mission. The point of mission is the rule of Christ, the honour of Christ, the glorification of Jesus. True worship is mission. True mission is worship. This is the point. This is the goal. This is our telos. If we don’t do it in the name of Jesus, we will end up doing it in the name of ourselves; we will end up clinging to our life, and so losing it.

For sure, those mission activities are not a waste. Delve into Hebrews 2 and you will see them find their place in the light of Christ’s supremacy: Jesus is glorified when his people glorify him. This happens when his people are sanctified and set free from the power of sin and death. Therefore, evangelism and outreach are a means of our mission. Pastoral care and discipleship activities are a means of our mission. Confession and repentance and contrition are a means of our mission. But they are, by definition, not an end in and of themselves. But be aware, we can do all these things in a self-facing frantic way, and so lose ourselves.

Our diocese happens to face an uncertain 2020. It’s not alone; the pressure to perform, and survive, and to save ourselves is mounting on the declining Western church. We can cling to ourselves, or we can “lose ourselves” in the truth of Jesus, reigning over all things. We give ourselves to him. We trust him. We repent. We worship. We adore. We devote. We give ourselves to that end. We give ourselves to that goal. We give ourselves and so find ourselves… in Jesus, our Lord.

Merry Christmas.

 

 

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Reading this in my current quest to explore the connection between trauma and church culture, I have found a book that is well-intentioned but fundamentally flawed.

Dave Burchett’s Bring ‘Em Back Alive gets a lot right. He is honest about how church can and has been a painful experience for many. He has a pastoral heart that yearns for the church to reach out to those so wounded. There is some helpful advice for those who care and some useful insights for those who have been hurt. But this book is far from the “healing plan” it is touted to be.

A defining image (page 13) in the book is of the “lost sheep”, the one who has wandered, as opposed to the 99 who remain in the fold. He exhorts us to have the heart of the Good Shepherd who seeks out that one lost sheep. The image draws on Jesus’ words in Matthew 18, of course, but it’s a somewhat tortured connection with the parable. Not only does Burchett avoid a nuanced exposition, he misses the plain correlation between the lost sheep and the “little child” of Matthew 18:5 who “enters the kingdom of heaven.” His use of The Message as his biblical text throughout severely restricts the depths from which he can draw.

It’s a shame, because Matthew 18 can really help us in this area. The wandering sheep is a “little” one, who exhibits a childlike faith. Jesus has just talked about the consequences for those who would cause such a “little one” to stumble, or sin, or wander. The dramatic image of a “millstone hung around the neck” and being drowned in the sea should give us pause for thought! It is a prophetic parable against those “who look down on one of these little ones” and has more implications for the character of the flock, than that of the little lamb.

And here lies Burchett’s problem. As he rightly appeals to church leaders to value those who have wandered away, he misses this prophetic trajectory against the existing flock, and therefore embraces some worrisome assumptions. I’ve tried to bluntly distill them here:

  1. The point of reaching out to the wounded is to bolster the strength of the church. “How much depth have we, the collective church, lost by not aggressively seeking to find and heal our wounded lambs?” he asks on page 2, in the introduction. Somehow the utilitarian power of the wounding community has become the point.
  2. The problem lies with those who have left. “So many people out there have been given up for lost,” he writes. “They could be found, healed, and returned. If we could only begin to communicate that we are willing to accompany them on the road back, forgive them, love them, and celebrate their return” (page 18). Frankly, this sentence made me angry. The subtitle of the book aims it at “those wounded by the church”, yet here it is the wounded ones that need to be “found”, “returned”, and “forgiven.” This is close to the language of an abusive husband, offering “reconciliation” because he is gracious enough to forgive his wounded wife.
  3. People leave because of their immaturity. “Like a thirsty sheep, a bored and unfulfilled Christian who is without spiritual shepherding may wander onto paths that lead away from God.” (Page 36). Which is fine to say, perhaps, if this is a book about being better shepherds. But it’s not, and it infantilises those who have left and diminishes the principles (some of them dearly held) that shape that departure.
  4. Unity trumps holiness and justice. “The Good Shepherd has a cure for us, and it starts with His prescription for unity.” (Page 48). “Division within the body of Christ is sin. Jesus’s teaching about unity is indissoluble.” (Page 56). His words, in themselves, are not wrong. They are simply not careful enough. Again, he inadvertently echoes the words of an abusive husband insisting that marital unity is more important than any particular transgression on his part. Sometimes separation is necessary for unity. Even Paul (quoted by Burchett on page 53) exhorts Titus to have “nothing to do with” the (truly) divisive person. I know too many people who have appropriately departed their church community, and have then be shamed as divisive or schismatic, when the real wound to the body of Christ was done to them, not by them.

I’ve deliberately painted a stark image here, to make my point.  Despite the flaws, Burchett does get to some helpful places.

The chapter entitled The Heart of a Shepherd is generally good. Occasionally he has the same sentiments as people like Mike Pilavachi who reimagines church as family. “Peter did not advise the shepherd to show difficult rams and ewes the sheep gate”, Burchett writes (page 76), and I hear Pilavachi echoing “We don’t have employees to hire and fire, but sons and daughters to raise.” Burchett’s one clear point is well made: We have a responsibility to the wounded(page 78), and we should take it seriously.

The second part of the book is also useful. It is actually aimed at those who have been hurt, rather than those who might seek them out. It’s nothing groundbreaking, but it is good, solid, stuff. He would turn our wounded eyes towards Jesus who “understands the pain, betrayal, and anguish that… selfish and sinful behavior causes” (page 117). He exhorts us towards forgiveness (page 180). He gives guidance about living in the present (page 153).

Occasionally, the era of the book shows. Published in 2004, it is just before the heyday of the emerging and emergent church movements. As he scratches on the disaffection of those in church who are “tired of pretending their lives are better than they actually are” (page 90), he has not yet seen the growth of movements that did arise from those who left that plastic world.  Perhaps there is a glimpse of some generational wistfulness: “…they need to hear from their former flock that we care, we miss them, we need them, and we want them to come back” (Page 91). Having lived and led in that era, what we actually needed to hear was “that we care, we miss you, and we long for you to fly, and do, and build what that the Lord is leading you to do, we’ve got your back.”

I shook my head a little, when he talks about churches setting up classes and seminars for those wounded (by the same churches running the classes, presumably!), so that the “injured lambs” might not “feel alone… having a forum where they can express their hurt, and share their concerns.” I don’t think he realises how patronising that idea sounds.

You see, in the end, the lost wounded sheep don’t want to be found by a hurtful church, even a regretful hurting church. I know this from my own experience. I know this because many of those I’ve met are wary of being found by me; I wear a clerical collar, I embody that which has been the source of their trauma.  They don’t want to be found by us, they want to be found by Jesus. Yes, they also want community, but they want it real, spiritually authentic. Which means, Jesus first.

Helping the wounded isn’t about classes or offers of therapy. It’s not about technical change in tired institutions. It’s not even about “revivals” of a surge of life into ordinary auditoriums. It’s not our task to “bring ’em back alive.”  Yes, we follow Jesus as we search for them, care for them, breathe life into them, back them, cover them, and cheer them on. But it’s not about slotting them back in to where they were first injured. It’s about the Lord doing something new. When I meet the “little ones” who find no place at the institutional table, laden with looming millstones, I am increasingly realising that the kingdom of God belongs to those such as these.

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Churches can be hurtful. Whether it be the institution, the community, or individuals within them, they can wound, manipulate, damage, and neglect. This is no new thing. Recovering from Churches That Abuse was written by Ronald Enroth in the early 1990’s. It’s been on my bookshelf for almost 20 years, but, for various reasons, I have only now found the right time to read it.

For church leaders the topic of church abusiveness can be painful, awkward, and emotionally complex. It’s like reading a book on parenting for those of us who have children. There is a complex mix of feeling the pain of our own childhood and our own imperfect parents, of feeling the pain of our own mistakes and many flaws, and of fear about the fact that more mistakes will likely happen in the future!  Similarly, I have been hurt by the church, I have been (along with all my colleagues) a flawed and broken church leader, and sometimes the way ahead seems more fraught than hopeful.

Which gives all the more reason to thoughtfully and deliberately engage with this topic.

Enroth’s book may not have been the best place to start. It is anecdotal more than it is analytical, a “life-history approach to illustrate patterns of spiritual and emotional abuse” (page 137). Its focus is on situations where the level of abuse is extreme, blatant, and cult-like. There is some use in seeing dysfunction in the extreme, but it’s not always helpful when reflecting on the “ordinary” hurts of the everyday church.

Nevertheless, there is some wisdom to glean. In what follows, I simply outline the echoes of some of these stories in my own experience, and also the useful insights that Enroth bring.

1) Points of resonance:

Although the anecdotes are often of extreme situations, we can connect them with more “normal” circumstances as well.  I have heard some of the language Enroth shares being used by those around me. I have used some of it myself. There are points of resonance.

For instance, Enroth quotes someone as saying “I woke up one morning and realized that I had not thought my own thoughts for three years” (page 33). I hear similar from those who may have left a mainstream church that has a strong and particular view of their own mission. It’s the experience of buying into someone else’s mission until it reaches a point where the secondhand faith becomes a collapsing foundation. When a mission-driven church doesn’t also exercise the right interplay of freedom and formation and focus on real people, pain results.

Similarly, we read words like this: “One of the things that has been most distressing to me is to see the way the church can discard people the way you throw an old banana peel out of the window with no apparent care for them” (page 33) and language that appeals to God’s will as a means of control or deflection. I’ve seen what it’s like to be on the receiving end of interpretations of God’s will as a means of ameliorating rejection: “I’m so glad you’ve found the place where God actually wanted you to be…”

I’ve reflected in the past about the disillusionment of those who are “done” with churches which are increasingly “self-referential.” Enroth shares stories in which “members will be requested to serve, to become involved, to sign up for a variety of activities that, upon closer inspection, appear designed to maintain the system” (pages 31-32). I know what it’s like for the direction of the church rut to be about “helping the vicar do his job” and nothing more. I understand the painful passivity of those for whom “it is hard to be a part of anything anymore” (page 46).

As I read through Enroth’s anecdotes, a thought crossed my mind: There are many situations in which church members are not ill-treated, but in which church staff come away damaged. It’s a point of concern, because there is a growing tendency to “professionalise” vocational work and assess ministry via bureaucratic markers. It’s telling that Enroth refers to abusive communities as “performance-based” (page 17, 44) a number of times. I have seen too many church workers broken by impossible performance measures, mediocre remuneration and support, and spiritualised reasons as to why they should grin and bear it.

Indeed, I have sometimes reflected on the fact that the mechanisms for abuse that Enroth’s stories reveal (financial dependence, the priority of institutional reputation over personal injustice, spiritualised language to assert authority, and gaslighting condescension as decisions are made for you and not with you), cohere to the relationship between most clergy/pastors and their institution. If these mechanisms are not proactively countered by good oversight, their abusiveness inevitably emerges.

2) Helpful learnings:

Where Enroth does provide some analysis, it is helpful.

For instance, he raises the question of “How can we discern an unhealthy, abusive Christian church or fellowship from one that is truly biblical, healthy, and worthy of our involvement?” (page 27ff). His answer references the psychological health of members, of whether or not people are isolated from families, or discouraged in “independent thinking” and “individual differences of belief and behavior.” We learn of “legalistic churches” exhibiting an often-hypocritical emphasis on “high moral standards” and which allow no external accountability.

Throughout, he also raises aspects of church life in which good things are twisted to achieve bad outcomes.

For instance, there is no doubt that the Scriptures are a source of life, and truth, and a revelation of God’s love, grace, and presence. Yet, from an abusive situation in which “if you questioned Scripture you were made to feel very guilty” (page 22), even the beauty of Scripture can be hidden in pain and trauma. It is similar with some of the precious doctrines of Christian theology, e.g. the Lordship of Christ, the atoning sacrifice of the cross. These can be mishandled into guises of dominance and guilt-inducing wrath.

I am learning to see it for myself. I can tell when words, that have been life-giving for me, walk into clouds of darkness in someone else’s eyes. I have encountered Scripture and the truths of Christian doctrine as refuges, places of safety and sustenance when the church has otherwise left me starving in the dark. For others, they have been instruments of control. As they begin to move towards healing, they can come close to throwing out the baby of truth with the bathwater of pain. Enroth doesn’t give any great insight into how to address this tension, but nevertheless declares:

The survivor must be assured of God’s unfailing grace and be able, in effect, to rediscover the gospel. (Page 43)

We thought we were Christians, but despite years and years of being in Christian groups, neither of us knew Christ at all. Neither of us knew how to depend on Christ. (Page 61)

I have found a number of them who have difficulty with or even an aversion to reading the Bible because it has been misused by the group to abuse them. Learning the proper application and interpretation of Scripture goes a long way toward healing the wounds of abuse. (Page 66)

Victims must be able not only to rebuild self-esteem and purpose in life, but also renew a personal relationship with God…. it is possible to have a rich relationship with God… the victim must be turned “to faith in the living God from faith in a distorted image of him.” (Page 67)

Day by day we had to put one foot in front of the other and say, “Jesus, I have been a disciple of my denomination. I have been a disciple of my church. I have been a disciple of my pastor. I want to be your disciple and follow you.” (Page 84)

I now have a church where the pastor leads us to Christ, not to himself. (Pages 139-140)

Similarly, another twisted “good” is the concept of spiritual family. For myself, the concept of family is life-giving – a place of refuge, warmth, and formation. I have found that individualism is a lonely place, a form of sterile functionalism in which no one has your back, a capitalist vision of Christianity in which the body only moves together as a collective of coincidentally aligned self-actualised individuals. I resonate with Mike Pilavachi of Soul Survivor who speaks passionately and rightly about the need for church to be family rather than business.

I am learning, however, that even language of “family” can resonate with people’s trauma. Dysfunctional families eradicate individual differentiation so that identity is lost. The language of spiritual parenting has also been used to manipulate and control and attaches to the abuses of so-called “shepherding” (page 55, 143). We need to redeem that language with care.

It takes time to work through this language barrier. It is possible to have healthy church family, and to share common goals, and to find oneself as part of a larger whole, and to have appropriate formation and discipline. “The intensity of relationships within an abusive group must be matched by intense relationships in a wholesome setting” (page 65). It requires a context of love, and grace, and warmth, and acceptance. At times it requires some particular leadership skills, which I am aspiring to discover. For those of us who inhabit a leadership, pastoral, or even therapeutic role, we need to to understand how the mistrust of us is not personal, but a natural wariness “of allowing another authority figure into their lives” (page 64).

It is useful, therefore, to see how Enroth takes us to some of the pathways that lead to healing and restoration. It involves overcoming a “shame-based identity” (page 37) and mistrust.

By learning to trust again, the victims of abuse also discover that they can tolerate and trust themselves, an important part of the recovery experience (page 40).

Simply by describing this journey, Enroth helps us.  I understand what it is like to go through a season of regret over “the lost years” (page 44) of giving away health, wealth, and youth. Similarly, the journey through “anger and rage” (page 128) and bitterness, away from “pointing the finger” (page 78) and talking about “what had happened to me” (page 112), is difficult but necessary. The four stages of “role exit” (page 116ff) of those who leave an abusive situation is illuminating. The summary of “mending” (page 140) is helpful.

They need to understand that their significance is not in what they had, but it is in their relationship with Christ. They have lost a few years, but they have not lost their soul. (Page 130)

In conclusion:

Enroth has helped me listen to my own internal pain. If find something of myself when he quotes Johnson and VanVonderen who write:

There is no test to diagnose spiritual abuse. There are only spiritual clues: lack of joy in the Christian life; tiredness from trying hard to measure up; disillusionment about God and spiritual things; uneasiness, lack of trust, or even fear…; a profound sense of missing your best Friend; cynicism or grief over good news that turned out to be too good to be true. (Pages 138-139)

If nothing else, Enroth has shown that such painful journeys are “far more prevalent and much close to the evangelical mainstream than many are willing to admit” (page 139).

I remain perplexed and moved. In my real world, I am frequently running into those who have been left bleeding, and who have reached the same end as some of Enroth’s stories: “[W]e will never get what we need from a church. It is going to be our family and the Lord, and we have to get that relationship right. There is not going to be a church suited for people who have our backgrounds…” (Page 99). How to help, how to serve, how to bless, from a church leadership role that looks like what has hurt them before? This remains my question, my conundrum, and my prayer.

Recovery means trusting in the God of grace, the God of endless years. Remember the promise made to Israel in Joel 2:25: “I will repay you for the years the locusts have eaten.” (Page 145)

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In recent years there has been a resurgence in thinking about the so-called “fivefold” “ascension gifts” shape to ministry. It has been furthered by the likes of Alan Hirsch and Mike Breen. It draws on Ephesians 4:11-12 in which Paul refers to five gifts from Christ, “the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, to equip his people for works of service…”

In general, despite a growing tendency to reduce it to some sort of personality inventory, fivefold thinking is helpful. I have, for instance, used it as a starting point to unpack what it means to be prophetic.

Here, however, I want to focus on the apostolic. 

There’s a lot to commend in typical fivefold thinking about the apostolic. It will usually draw on the root word of “apostle” and the associated verb “apostello” which means simply “to send” with the nuance (in context) of being sent with purpose: i.e. appointed to go and do something. Hence the disciples who were the direct recipients of Jesus’ Great Commission are, rightly, “big-A” Apostles. And so is Paul, who received his appointment directly from the risen Christ later as one “untimely born” (1 Cor 15:8).

This can appropriately be applied to aspects of ministry today. There is something about the apostolic, for instance, that pertains to movement. The apostolic stimulates movement and seeks to lead a community into places where it needs to go but hasn’t. Just as the original Apostles took the gospel into Judea, Samaria, and to the ends of the earth, so the contemporary apostolic desires to extend the Kingdom of God in some way. In any new venture – church plant, missionary movement, activist community – you will likely find the apostolic at work, hearing the call of some “Macedonian Man” and heading out to answer (Acts 16:9-10).

The apostolic, therefore, is often associated with words like “entrepreneurial” or “visionary.” Mike Breen, answering a blog post question, says, for instance, “Apostles can’t help but start new things.”  A site that expounds Breen’s lifeshapes, describes an apostle as a “Vision-keeper for the extension of the church’s mission, an entrepreneur/starter… bring strategic skills, risk taking, get things off the ground (church planting?).”

There is some truth to this. But it is also where I want to push back.

The apostolic is NOT primarily entrepreneurial. In my experience, it’s the evangelists who often have the crazy new ideas. Some of them even work!

The apostolic IS primarily parental. The original Apostles didn’t just break new ground, or go into new territory, they took the church with them, and birthed and grew whatever was begun. They bring the body of Christ on the journey, and they hold and cover whatever is formed.

Entrepreneurs can often be the worst at bringing people with them. To be sure, none of us are as friendly as the pastors, but belligerence is not the mark of the apostolic. Neither is a “vision and dump” mentality that says “well, I’ve started it, now you carry it.” I’ve even heard excuses made for toxic leadership, “It’s OK, some people have had trouble responding to the apostolic in him.” A corrective is needed.

Healthy apostles don’t behave like that. They don’t behave like bosses pursuing a vision despite the collateral damage. Yes, they are deliberate, determined evenAnd the movement is, often, outward, ground-breaking, map-making, and pioneering. But they take a “family” with them, and they form a household on the way, wherever they have gone. Because that is the point!

I thought it would be useful, therefore, to list some of the characteristics of the apostolic that I see in the pages of Scripture. It’s not an exhaustive list, and I’d love to receive other suggestions.

These are marks of the apostle that I see in Scripture:

The Apostolic Way is PARENTAL.

Paul writes the following to the Corinthians:

I am not writing this to shame you, but to warn you, as my dear children. Even though you have ten thousand guardians in Christ, you do not have many fathers, for in Christ Jesus I became your father through the gospel. Therefore I urge you to imitate me. For this reason I am sending to you Timothy, my son, whom I love, who is faithful in the Lord. He will remind you of my way of life in Christ Jesus, which agrees with what I teach everywhere in every church. 1 Corinthians 4:14-17

The language Paul uses of a father with his children or, (in the case of Timothy), his son, is obvious. His heart isn’t just to direct or dictate, but to impart, through relationship. The gospel is something to be modelled and embodied, and therefore imitated, not simply pursued as a function or task. This marks apostolic ministry.

Paul makes it even more explicit when he applies a maternal image to his ministry, as he writes to the Thessalonians:

As apostles of Christ we could have been a burden to you, but we were gentle among you, like a mother caring for her little children. We loved you so much that we were delighted to share with you not only the gospel of God but our lives as well, because you had become so dear to us. (1 Thessalonians 2:7-8)

This is why churches and church structures that revolve around programs and pragmatics have a sense of lifelessness to them – a stagnancy even in their busyness and sense of “success”; they have stepped away from the apostolic sharing of life to sterile functionalism.

The most apostolic people I know bring movement to the church, not just by leading the church, but by carrying it. They weep and laugh with it. They are broken by it, delighted by it. They hold it in some place primal, and there they carry it to the Lord and Father of us all. They imitate him, and are therefore worthy of imitation.

This does, however, lead to the second mark:

The Apostolic Way is PAINFUL.

The cost of parenthood is significant. There is great joy and fruitfulness in it, but also great pain. Any parent can tell you that. God, our Father, reveals the truest sense of this. The Apostle John alludes to this constantly:

“…to all who received him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God – children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God.” (John 1:12-13)

“…for God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” (John 3:16)

And Paul, writing to the Romans, having spoken of the Holy Spirit as the Spirit of Adoption, by which we cry out “Abba, Father” then speaks of suffering as something of a family trait:

“Now if we are children, then we are heirs – heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory. I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us. The creation waits in eager expectation for the sons of God to be revealed.” (Romans 8:17-19)

The apostle’s “imitation” of the Father will lead the apostle, and any church that can rightly be called “apostolic,” on a path of suffering. This is not a defeatist trajectory, rather it is the “mind of Christ” – the kenotic (self-emptying) way that Paul speaks of in Philippians 2:1-11. No wonder, when Paul wants to speak of his apostolic power and authority, he sees the madness of leaning on his own strength and learning (2 Corinthians 11:21). Rather, “if I must boast, I will boast of the things that show my weakness” (11:30) so that “Christ’s power may rest on me.” (12:9).

Too often, we look up to a triumphalist form of church leadership. We look to persons who have been successful, who have achieved some empowerment of our organisation, and in them we place our trust. We are not far from accolading the so-called “super-apostles” that had bewitched the Corinthian church. In what I think is the defining description of apostleship, in 1 Corinthians 4, Paul pushes back at those who delight in being winners in the Christian world:

Already you have all you want! Already you have become rich! You have become kings – and that without us! How I wish that you really had become kings so that we might be kings with you! For it seems to me that God has put us apostles on display at the end of the procession, like men condemned to die in the arena. We have been made a spectacle to the whole universe, to angels as well as to men. We are fools for Christ, but you are so wise in Christ! We are weak, but you are strong! You are honoured, we are dishonoured! To this very hour we go hungry and thirsty, we are in rags, we are brutally treated, we are homeless. 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. Up to this moment we have become the scum of the earth, the refuse of the world. (1 Corinthians 4:8-13)

I have learned to look for this “scum and refuse” moment in apostolic movements. If it is not there, I am wary. For instance, the apostolic qualification of a contemporary movement like Soul Survivor doesn’t lie in its many achievements (although I surely delight in them!), but in its foundation in the Wasteland.

The most apostolic people I know weep for, and because of, the church. In this sense they share in the sufferings of Christ, and lead the people on the same self-emptying path. Their tears take them to the heart of God. They cry themselves to sleep at night, and know the grace of God new in the morning. That is what makes a movement, and it can’t be generated by any entrepreneurial technique.

Which reveals a final mark of the apostolic:

The Apostolic Way is Compelled, not Controlled.

In some ways, this is just a natural consequence of the “sentness” of the apostolic. A pioneer cannot predict the path ahead. A pioneer cannot take a controlled path around obstacles and difficulties. By definition a pioneer is not following a map, they are making the map!

An apostle goes out with the family of God, not with a plan of control (“This is what we are going to do.”) but with a plan of purpose (“This is why we are going.”) And then they have to roll with whatever comes along. So often it is not what they planned; it is almost beyond them, in a direction where they must rely on the Holy Spirit. They are only strong because they are weak.

Paul’s plans for the evangelisation of all of the province of Asia were halted. Instead he and his companions are compelled by the Holy Spirit and find themselves bringing the gospel to Europe (Acts 16:6-10).  And throughout Acts, we find a similar sense of Paul being out of control: he is imprisoned, driven by storms, compelled to escape violence. Even what seems like an attempt to free himself from prison by asserting his Roman citizenship only leads to further captivity… but still many opportunities for the gospel. So often, it seems, apostolic movement is more rightly characterised by “a wing and a prayer” than clever, entrepreneurial, goals.

The Apostle Peter, as he is (re)commissioned by Jesus at the end of John’s gospel, has a foreshadowing of the manner of his death. Jesus tells him “when you are old you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will dress you and lead you where you do not want to go” (John 21:18). John tells us that, most specifically, this statement indicates the kind of death that Peter would have. But it also colours the sense of Jesus’ very next words: “Follow me.”

So often, the apostle finds themselves “being led where you do not want to go.” Their plans go out the window, and they learn to return to the Father’s heart. There, in the midst of uncertainty, they follow the Spirit of Jesus, who only ever does what he sees the Father doing.

Paul, in his chains, brings the gospel even to members of Caesar’s household (Philippians 4:22). Peter, even in his death, glorifies God (John 21:19). It is not the path they may have chosen, but it is the path chosen for them. The apostle leads the apostolic church in embracing the weakness (and therefore the power) of this way.

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They came up in a discussion I was having recently: the so-called “Five Marks of Mission”, here taken from the Anglican Communion, in which they were developed over the last 30-40 years.

The mission of the Church is the mission of Christ:
1) To proclaim the Good News of the Kingdom
2) To teach, baptise and nurture new believers
3) To respond to human need by loving service
4) To transform unjust structures of society, to challenge violence of every kind and pursue peace and reconciliation
5) To strive to safeguard the integrity of creation, and sustain and renew the life of the earth

They are intended to “express the Anglican Communion’s common commitment to, and understanding of, God’s holistic and integral mission.” They’ve got a lot going for them.

They’re not perfect, of course. The Anglican Communion website recognises, for instance, that they don’t fit together like five equal parts.

The first Mark of Mission, identified with personal evangelism at the Anglican Consultative Council in 1984 (ACC-6) is a summary of what all mission is about, because it is based on Jesus’ own summary of his mission. This should be the key statement about everything we do in mission.

And this is a worthy observation. After all, you clearly can’t do 2) (teaching and nurturing) without also doing 1) (proclamation).

The last three are, in my mind, in a slightly different category, because they incorporate forms of activity in which the specific revelation of the gospel in Jesus is not entirely necessary. What I mean is this: It is conceptually impossible to proclaim the gospel of Jesus and nurture new believers in Jesus without actually having a faith in Jesus. However, it is possible to engage in loving service, transforming unjust structures, and renewing the life of the earth without knowing or speaking the name of Jesus.

This does not denigrate these last three. They are a necessary and important outworking of the gospel in the lives of Christians and Christian communities. Moreover, they are forms of mission where our cause overlaps with many other activists who do not follow Jesus. Not only are they achieving a good in their own right, they also facilitate the first two as we are provided with opportunities to give reason for the hope that we hold (1 Peter 3:15).

In many ways I applaud them. I love it when the church is moved to do, rather than to sit apathetically behind rose-colour stained glass windows. As the saying goes, “It’s not the the Church of God that has a mission in the world, it is the God of Mission who has a Church in the world.”

My critique of the Five Marks, then, is not about what they say, but what they don’t say. It’s more than omission, it’s like there’s something askew. It’s a slant that is often present in conversations about mission. I think of the “Mission Minded” tool that we used during my training years; in many ways it was excellent, but there was something missing.  That tool outlined various activities that churches could be involved in, but there wasn’t a clear place for something that seemed crucial to church life. That something was worship. Where is the doxological character of Christian mission?

Christian mission, for it to be something deeper than “mere” activism, must be essentially worshipful.

After all, the “chief end of man”, as the Westminster Shorter Catechism states in its very first question is to “glorify God and enjoy him forever.” What an excellent definition of worship! The “chief end” is not the making of Christians and the bringing of justice (although they are necessary corollaries) it is to the glory of God.

The Catechism is not going out on a limb here. Jesus, himself, would have us pray “hallowed be your name” even before we pray “your kingdom come, your will be done.” The hallowing of God’s name is not just prior, it is integral to our seeking the kingdom and the will of God.

Similarly, the mission of Jesus is not essentially pragmatic but is rooted and immersed in the adoring, loving relationship between Messiah and God, Son and Heavenly Father.

Very truly I tell you, the Son can do nothing by himself; he can do only what he sees his Father doing, because whatever the Father does the Son also does. For the Father loves the Son and shows him all he does.
John 5:19-20

In the big-picture eschatological scope, the glory of God is also the chief point of mission. When Paul speaks to the Corinthians about the end of time, he speaks of Christ’s mission as “putting all his enemies under his feet,” and then submitting himself, and all that is under him (that is, everything!), to God his Father. Christ’s mission is to ensnare all of creation into his own worship of his eternal Father.

But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. For since death came through a man, the resurrection of the dead comes also through a man. For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive. But each in turn: Christ, the firstfruits; then, when he comes, those who belong to him. Then the end will come, when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father after he has destroyed all dominion, authority and power. For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death. For he “has put everything under his feet.” Now when it says that “everything” has been put under him, it is clear that this does not include God himself, who put everything under Christ. When he has done this, then the Son himself will be made subject to him who put everything under him, so that God may be all in all.
1 Corinthians 15:20-28

When I was young, I was moved towards activism. I was moved towards doing mission. In my zeal I misunderstood or even disparaged more “worshipful” aspects of our spirituality such as contemplation, adoration, and prophetic acts.  At best, I used “quiet times” and “retreat days” as ways of stoking the fire for the “real work” of reaching people with the gospel or “building the church.” If I used the “up-in-out” triangle, my emphasis was on the “out.”

I was wrong. And I am not alone. The “up” must come first, because it is the heart of both the “in” and the “out.” Even now I run into situations where there is a false dichotomy between “worship” and “mission.” If there is a separation between doing the “work of God”, “drawing people to God”, and “adoring and worshipping God” then, frankly, we’re doing it wrong!

One of my greatest concerns for the contemporary Western church is our entrepreneuralism. When that speaks of innovation and focused pursuit of the gospel, I cheer it on. But sometimes it lapses into pragmatism, or even task-oriented rationalism, and, more often than we might care to realise, self-glorification. When we are at risk of asserting control for the sake of our own existence or empowerment, even as we pursue the five marks of mission, we risk losing the way of faith. We must return to worship, attuned to a King who will bring all things under the father at the end, by being a living sacrifice now, hallowing his name. That is the chief mark of mission – to glorify God.

We are encountering, more than we ever have, a growing number of people who are moved to worshipSometimes it is through prayer and intercession; they travail, literally groaning as they filled with the Spirit. Sometimes they adore, and rest, and exhibit the peace, sometimes ecstasy, of that very same Spirit. Sometimes they offer words of knowledge and wisdom, speaking prophetic truths that do what all prophetic truths do; they call us back to hallowed ground where Father’s name is all in all.

Many (but not all) of these feel homeless in today’s church. They feel tangential to the missional machine, un-embraced and unreleased, because the missional return on investing in them is not clear to a “missional church.” Yet, I am fully convinced, without their leadership, we have lost our way. Without their heart, we can do “our” mission, and find on the last day that we already had our reward.

This is not a new thing. And I’m not trying to paint a black picture. Different traditions have the tools to do the recalibration of mission around the heart of worship. The Catholic propensity to interweave mission and the eucharist encapsulates, at the very least, the missional value of simply bringing the presence of God to where it is needed and administering his grace. The Charismatic and Pentecostal world values times of “worship and ministry” as a place where the Holy Spirit administers healing, revelation, acceptance, and conviction; a space into which Christian and non-Christian like can be invited. The Liberal claim to self-effacement, to be followers of the Word rather than asserting ourselves, can line up with this. And the Evangelical posture of submission to the Word of God in all things, for its own sake, takes us to where we need to be.

For myself, as I think about mission in my own context, and have found myself being led by worshippers: Let us first turn our face to our Heavenly Father. Let our hearts and our very beings resonate in adoration. Let us cry “Holy Holy Holy” with the choir of heaven. The chief mark of mission is to glorify God, who made heaven and earth.

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Anonymous asks:

What’s your take on spiritual attack, Satan, demons and all that kind of stuff?

How do you know what’s actually ‘powers and principalities in the heavenly realms’ and us over spiritualising stuff (ie: ‘I lost my keys… IT MUST BE SATAN!!!!!’)

[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/]

Thank you for an interesting question. I’m going to approach it in two different directions: Firstly, by looking at Ephesians 6, which you are quoting. Secondly, by unpacking some of the popular thinking and experiences of “spiritual attack” and seeing if we can make sense of it.

So, firstly, POWERS AND PRINCIPALITIES IN THE HEAVENLY PLACES.

You are quoting Ephesians 6:12:

For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms. (NIV)

As with all snap quotes from the Bible, the best way to grasp the meaning is to look at the verse in its context. This verse, for instance, uses a bunch of keywords and phrases that Paul is threading into his letter to the Ephesians.

One of these threads is the phrase “heavenly realms” which, here in 6:12, is the location of “spiritual forces of evil.” However, at the beginning of the letter, in his opening lines (Ephesians 1:3), it is also the place of “every spiritual blessing:”

Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing in Christ. (NIV)

The phrase “every spiritual blessing” ties back into the fundamental hope and mission of God’s people, to embody the covenant promise of God, that Abraham would be blessed, and so bless the whole world. God keeps his word, and fulfils his promise in Jesus. And now the whole world – Jew and Gentile – are drawn together in Christ into that same blessing. This is God’s victory, purpose, and wisdom, and it is also present “in the heavenly realms.” In Ephesians 3:10-11 we read:

His intent was that now, through the church, the manifold wisdom of God should be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly realms, according to his eternal purpose that he accomplished in Christ Jesus our Lord.

What, then, are the “heavenly realms”? The popular caricature is of clouds and cherubs or something like what is imagined in The Good Place.  In this imagining, heaven is “up there”, the real world is “down here” and while there may be the occasional cross-over, with souls coming and going and angels and demons intervening from time to time, they are essentially separate. Perhaps this is close to the imagined scenario of demonic key thievery that you allude to in your question.

It’s the same with the word “spiritual.” We take this word and we often make it mean something like “ethereal” or “out there” or “other.”  So “spiritual blessing” becomes something pie in the sky and “spiritual warfare” makes us think of some Greek-legend type battle going on in some distant galactic plane; we participate by making sure our little patch of the here-and-now on earth is backing the right side.

I don’t see any of that in Ephesians.

Rather, for Paul, the idea of “heavenly realms” and spiritual things is fully intertwined and interconnected with real-world experiences, and real-world “powers and principalities.” He uses language that draws on a cosmology in which the earth itself is immersed in the “heavens”, plural.

In this framework, one of the heavens is the very atmosphere we breathe. After all, you can’t see the wind, but you can see what it does; it’s an unseen power, intertwined and interacting with all that exists and all that happens. And so Paul speaks of a spiritual power in Ephesians 2:2 as the “ruler of the kingdom of the air.”  He literally means the air. The word “spirit” in the Greek is “pneuma” – meaning “breath” or “wind” – from which we get words like “pneumatic tires.”  Your car tyres are filled with the heavens, and your lungs are spiritual pumps. We live, breathe, and are immersed in this spiritual realm.

Paul’s worldview simply extrapolates this. The wind speaks of unseen power, and Paul sees other unseen “powers and principalities” that are, nevertheless, real and present and intertwined with our existence. Think of how we talk about people being affected by “market forces” or having circumstances that change with the “political atmosphere” and you’re starting to get a glimpse of what he’s talking about. We talk about the scourge of “long-term unemployment” or an “epidemic of alcoholism” or an “hypersexual milieu” or “a patriarchal culture” and we have a sense of encountering powerful things that are real but invisible. For Paul these grounded, connected, intertwined-with-reality heavenly realms are a location for God’s activity and intervention.

These “heavenly realms” include “spiritual forces of evil.” I can imagine the winds of the military conflict, or engrained injustice, or the bondage of addictive behaviours, being expressions of demonic activity as well as human sin. That’s Ephesians 6. But I also see God’s assurance to his people: “I have blessed you with every spiritual blessing” in these heavenly realms. God’s intervention in his creation is through his new people, brought together in Jesus. Against the injustice, and cruelty, and diabolical hatred of the image of God in humanity – i.e. against the powers and principalities – God has made his people not to be caged and slaves to fear, but blessed and victorious. We now put on the armour of God, and live and work towards extending that blessing in the power of the Spirit.

So, to return to your question, what’s my take on “spiritual attack”? It is the very essence of growing the Kingdom of God. As we worship, and proclaim, and act in accord with God’s truth and purpose, we impact and overcome the unseen powerful things that are in the air around us. We look to see lives, families, communities, cities, nations moved by the right Spirit. After all, that is what it means to “baptise nations in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit” (Matthew 28:18-20); it is to immerse nations in God’s character, under the authority of King Jesus, and “teaching them to obey everything that Jesus commanded us.” Just as Jesus rose from the dead, just as the earth and the heavens will be made new at the end, so this evangelistic good-news bringing mission overcomes these unseen evil powers.

I can imagine some of those unseen powers wanting to undermine that work: lie instead of truth, bondage instead of freedom, cruelty instead of justice, chaos instead of peace. When we encounter those strongholds, or when they encounter us, that’s what I think of as “spiritual attack.” This is where Ephesians takes me.

But secondly, to reflect, just quickly on our PERSONAL EXPERIENCE OF SPIRITUAL ATTACK.

Often this comes into play when we have a negative experience: e.g. We experience loss, bereavement, disappointment, hurt, pain, frustration, sinfulness.  Maybe we even lose our car keys (I once couldn’t find my car keys and missed out on an important family occasion, that certainly felt like a loss).  We interpret this pain as “spiritual attack” and somehow deflect the pain and attempt to give it some meaning. Sometimes we are grasping at something that’s not there.

Are negative times like these “spiritual attack”? I have a “yes” and “no” answer.

My “yes” comes when I can discern an active aspect of those powers in Paul’s heavenly realms.

I have, for instance, seen good people, doing good things for the kingdom, facing vehement accusation and even hatred. It’s a step beyond mere frustration, it is almost irrational; something in the atmosphere shifts and it is conceivable that something unseen is out to get good people, and tear them down. It makes me want to put some Ephesians 6 armour on.

Similarly, I have seen people battling addictive behaviours and the general malaise of life; I have seen them begin to lift their heads, breathe some freedom, get some vision, only to be broadsided by something and brought back down. It’s as if something has reached up, like the Balrog with Gandalf, and dragged them back into bondage. It makes me want to pick up some of God’s truth, and fight for them.

My “no” comes when I discern other things at work:

We live in a fallen world. Bad things happen to good people. Sometimes, simply, detritus happens, as the saying goes. The focus at these times is to bring it all back to Father God, the source of the evil is neither here nor there.

Sometimes the adversity is a “time of trial.” Was Israel’s wandering in the wilderness “spiritual attack”? Was David’s time in exile “spiritual attack”? Is Job’s story a story of “spiritual attack”? I’m not sure I’d even classify Jesus in the wilderness as “spiritual attack”, despite the actual demonic presence! Rather, these are often times when the devil must beat a hasty retreat! It is in these times that the Lord builds our faith, bolsters our reliance on him, and draws us to himself. If there is any “spiritual attack” on the church, it is not so much in the adversity we face, but in our addiction to comfort and our demand to meet God on our own terms! Be wary of the evil one when things are easy, not when things are hard.

Thanks for the question.

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Alan asks:

Just read your blog. It sounded very true to life in the church. I have a couple of questions.

Is a prophet under the New Covenant different to one under the Old Covenants? The Old Covenant prophets had the potential to write Scripture. The word of the Lord came to them. In the New Covenant the church is required to weigh prophecy and is not allowed to become Scripture. How do we recognise the genuine prophecy from the mistaken or deliberately misleading. For example, it is easy to find prophecies on the internet about the rightness of Brexit. Given the divided opinion of Christians on this issue, how would the church “weigh” such prophecy?

[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/]

Hi Alan, thanks for the question. What I offer here isn’t particularly systematic, but it’s how I’ve wrestled with it.

The tricky thing is in the definition of “prophet.” The term can get used very broadly and also very narrowly, and while neither use is improper, we need to understand what is meant. I’m going to work from broad to narrow:

BROADLY SPEAKING a “prophet”…

  • speaks truth. This is often in adverse circumstances; a prophet often speaks truth to power. The “speech” may not actually be words, e.g. prophetic “speech acts” are recognised in the Bible, but it does involve communication.
  • guards values. There is an idealism in the prophetic, and lip-service doesn’t count. Prophets tend to understand and call-out motivations as well as actions.
  • expects movement or change. Whatever a prophet says has a landing point, a point of application, a place to repent, or from which to be spurred on.

We can refer to “prophetic people” or even “modern day prophets” in this broad sense. Think of the agitators and dissenters in society, the “activists.” Their activism may be misplaced, or not, but they are acting “prophetically”; they are guarding values, speaking truth, expecting change.  It can look like environmentalism, or speaking out on the hypersexualisation of society, or civil disobedience against compulsory school curriculum, or any number of things… you know what I mean.

Interestingly, perhaps, recent thinking about the “fivefold” ministry of Ephesians 4 considers the fivefold to be a recapitulation of human gifting more generally. At this broad level we are recognising the prophetic in humanity more generally. This is certainly Hirsch’s position in his exhaustive, although somewhat flawed, 5Q.

Let’s keep NARROWING IT DOWN, though.

The Bible recognises, in both the Old Testament and the New Testament, charismatically gifted prophets.

  • They speak truth, as some sense of divine truth. They bring a “word from God” in some sense.
  • They guard values, as some sense of God’s values. They often articulate the gap between our wayward hearts and idolatrous attitudes, and God’s call, purpose, and instruction.
  • They expect movement or change. Sometimes encouraging, sometimes warning, always showing the way for people to draw closer to God. Often kind and encouraging, occasionally a tough-love “Stop! Turn around!”

This is where I would locate the exercise of prophetic gifts in today’s world.  It is also where I would locate most of the New Testament prophets.

I don’t like demarcating things here at the “Old Covenant / New Covenant” line, though. There are many examples in the Old Testament in which the term “prophets” means what I think it means here. e.g. 1 Samuel 10:10-11 refers to Saul’s Spirit-filled prophesying; in and around Elijah and Elisha there are “groups of prophets” who are clearly prophets of a less authoritative sort (1 Samuel 10:5-6); Ezra 5:2 talks about attempts at rebuilding the temple being supported by “the prophets of God.”

In the New Testament, we can see people like Paul encouraging God’s people to exercise the gift of prophecy, because “the one who prophesies speaks to people for their strengthening, encouraging and comfort.” (1 Corinthians 14:3). Indeed, the meaning of Pentecost in Acts 2 is explained using Zechariah’s words that “in the last days… your sons and your daughters will prophesy” (Acts 2:17-18). Prophecy is not only listed in the fivefold giftings of Ephesians 4, but also within Paul’s gift-lists of 1 Corinthians 12 and Romans 12; “If your gift is prophesying, then prophesy in accordance with your faith” (Romans 12:6).

The example I like the most is found in Acts in the person of Agabus. We encounter him twice. The first is in Acts 11:28 where he prophesies (accurately) that a famine would spread over the whole Roman world. This prophecy prompts the Christians in Antioch to “provide help for the brothers and sisters in Judea.” Our second encounter with Agabus is in Acts 21:10 where he binds his hands with Paul’s belt, as a speech-act, and declares “The Holy Spirit says, ‘In this way the Jewish leaders in Jerusalem will bind the owner of this belt and will hand him over to the Gentiles.’” It is an accurate warning, it steels Paul’s resolve, and he sets his face for Jerusalem.

It is this form of prophecy that I recognise today. Some would assert that prophecy of this sort is now only expressed as preaching and exposition of Scripture. I don’t disagree that preaching is often prophetic, but I don’t apply the same restriction. Certainly Agabus was doing something different than delivering a sermon.

What I do see are members of God’s people who are moved in a prophetic way to speak truth, guard values, and provoke movement. Oftentimes (but not always) their ministry is exercised through insights, understandings, and knowledge that are also ministries of the Holy Spirit. Sometimes it is a prophetic word for the whole church or for a congregation. A lot of the time it is for a person or family, and the spiritual insights express a profound and personal care in God’s heart for the people who are being addressed.

The thing is, of course, that like every exercise of every gift in the church, it is done by fallible people. I have come across prophetic people (in the broadest sense) whose passion has turned into anger, bitterness, or even self-protective apathy. I have come across prophetic people in this narrower sense, who have acted impulsively, immaturely, and without due care. But I have also come across flawed evangelists, preachers, and pastoral carers!

Sometimes prophets get it wrong. And this informs the second part of your question: How do we weigh prophecy?

Firstly, we must recognise the final step in my movement from broad to narrow. There is one more sense in which we use the word “prophecy” and that is with regard to AUTHORITATIVE PROPHECY. This is, as you allude to in your question, related to the authority of Scripture.

In the Old Testament God ordains certainty people to act as Prophet (with a capital P) to his people. Like every prophet, they speak truth, guard values, and expect movement. In the sense we mean it here, however, these things come with the weight of divine imprimatur.  The truth that these prophets spoke was of such weight, that they came to be recognised as authoritative instruction to God’s people, and applicable outside of their original context. Their utterances were proven by accuracy, adversity, and consistency; they were true, they were often true despite the resistance of the people who were meant to hear them, and they were consistently true.  Take a look at Elijah and Elisha (in 1 and 2 Kings) and the written-down prophecies of Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel and the rest. You will find a consistent exhortation based on the promises of God and the identity of Israel as God’s covenant people.

Any other form of prophecy that does not heed this authority, therefore, is suspect. Ultimately, such “prophecies” are a rejection of God’s promises and the call of the covenant, and end up being a rejection of God himself. I don’t mean the sort of times when a “prophetic word” is given and it’s a little bit haphazard and not quite holding the sword of God’s word by the correct end. I do mean the sort of times when we hear “prophetic” words that seek to place us over and above the Scriptures, rather than under them to be shaped by them. This is not fanciful. I have heard people say “the church wrote the Bible, the church can rewrite it.” More gently, but perhaps more insidiously, I have heard people exhort that to step away from the Bible is to embrace a positive trust in the immediate inspiration of the Holy Spirit. Such an exhortation is not only self-defeating and self-serving, (it asserts that we cannot trust the Holy Spirit to talk to anyone else, including those who came before us in the biblical era), but cannot avoid undermining the (historic) promises of God, and our identity in Jesus as God’s covenant people. Such things are, by definition, false prophecy.

Beyond assessing prophecy by the authority of Scripture, however, it comes down to common sense. Each of us ministers according to the diverse gifts of the Spirit. Each of us started off immature and green, and (hopefully) we have grown in maturity, capacity, and ability. Young prophets need to be guided, just as new pastoral carers, and apprentice preachers. That guidance is not only about things like technique, but about deeper things of identity: a pastoral carer needs to identify when they are risking codependence, a prophet often needs to discern between godly zeal and the churn of their own brokenness. We give more weight to a seasoned, mature prophet, and generous attention and care to those who are first stepping out in faith to offer a word. We embrace all with a caring, loving, edifying community which desires everyone to grow in gifting.

For my part, I have appreciated when people have called me out on my own brokenness – it was motivated (usually) by a desire to see me heal and grow. In turn, I always try to keep an open door with prophetic people. Sometimes, having received “a word”, I might even say “I’m not sure you’re right, can you go back to God and seek more insight.” Or I might say, “I think you’re holding some truth there, I wonder if you need to hold it some more until God releases you to speak it, and shows you what to do.” Or I might say, “I think you’re catching a glimpse of something, but you need to go through some of your own fire before you can fully grasp it, or have the authority to speak it.” Hopefully, at the right time, these are constructive things!

Prophecy best works when the prophet is in “in the family.” There they have the freedom to speak prophetically, and the context in which it can be weighed up, clarified, and responded to. I have seen big meetings set in one direction, suddenly shift as a gentle but powerful word was shared.

Again, it’s common sense: The mature prophets I know have been through the fire, they have had their edges knocked off, and you can see the fruit of the Spirit in them as well as the prophetic gift. Younger prophets tend to catch the big picture (“God is calling us to love!”) and the more mature prophets begin to get a track record of well-hearted Jesus-honouring specific accurate words.

And this is how I weigh controversial prophecies about things like Brexit and Trump. Is it lined up with Scripture (e.g. are they blessing what cannot be blessed, trying to trump the Bible with their own agenda)? Are they speaking gently, from maturity, or grandstanding out of brokenness? Is the word hope-filled or fear-mongering, even if it is a “hard word”? Is it a word from them alone, or do I see the “family” moved? Is there accountability and relationship and a willingness to “let it go” and weigh it again? These, I think, are questions of common sense more than anything else.

In the end, which was the point of the original blog post, we need our prophets. We need them in our world and society. We need them in the church. We need them in our lives. We need God’s word.

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