In response to an earlier post, a colleague reminded me that the future does not rest upon ministers and church staff working harder but upon upon the whole people of God. He also stressed the importance of training so that the tasks of ministry can be shared more widely allowing freedom and space for all of us to exercise our gifts.

Training is vital. Without it, the suggestion of the wider church taking on the tasks of mission and ministry is wishful thinking or even a cost saving, cop-out. But with the right support ‘whole church’ ministry could be incredibly effective. I say this not to be elitist, but to recognise that Jesus trained people to continue his mission. Training is not the opposite of relying on the Holy Spirit, although we must beware of replacing faith with competence.

In the church we have a particular type of training; we call it discipleship. The two terms are not synonymous; discipleship has a particular relational dimension which should make it even more powerful than training. Churches that train without discipleship have missed a vital ingredient of developing followers of Jesus.

Discipleship was key to Jesus’ ministry. It was integral to his announcement of the Kingdom of Heaven’s proximity. Based on his apparent priorities, it was possibly more important to him than his many miracles. And, according to Matthew, discipleship was core to Jesus final instructions to his followers: “as you go, make disciples…” Perhaps it’s too much of a stretch, but might that even qualify discipleship as a sacrament?

However, churches often do discipleship badly. In the UK we have succeeded in forming Christians as church-goers, consumers, activists and theological zealots. But how well do we nurture disciples?

Church-goers are a dying breed, in part, due to the removal of the cultural expectation of Kirk attendance. The few remaining church-goers make occasional visits, often preceding the request for a family ‘Christening’. Church-goers may enjoy the familiar hymns and the historical continuity of attending the church where they were married or held a funeral. But for them, church is an activity devoid of deeper meaning beyond personal sentimentality.

Consumer Christians follow Jesus for the fringe benefits. The purpose of Church is to meet their needs or provide a desired experience. They follow Buddy Jesus, who is way to busy being a dude to demand much. The Christian community provides them with entertainment, friends, child-care, a worship hit or spiritual safety-net but if these wane, so will their allegiance.

Activist Christians are ready to co-opt Jesus and his Kingdom in support of whatever cause is close to their hearts. Their’s is woke Jesus, libertarian Jesus, culturally affirming Jesus, culturally conservative Jesus, environmentalist Jesus etc. To them, Jesus does make demands, in particular that everyone should join him in support of their chosen movement or cause.

The theological zealots perfectly fulfil Phil Collin’s lyric “Jesus he knows me and he knows I’m right“. Queuing to burn their copy of ‘Velvet Elvis’ the zealots form a theological Stasi, too busy thanking God that they are the right sort of Christian to get out the tweezers and remove any stray opthalmological planks.

This list of the product of churches is not exhaustive. We might add the ‘church-hoppers’, the choral-union Christians, the historical re-enactment Christians or the novelty seeking, Prophecy or Mission junkies.

If truth be told, most of us will fall into some of the above categories. Are any of us immune to seeking novelty, co-opting Jesus to our cause, enjoying his community for the sake of its benefits, or thanking God that we are the best sort of Christians? We need the scriptural scalpel in the skilled hands of the Spirit to cut away our baser motivations and sinful self-centredness.

And this is the work of discipleship. Discipleship requires a holistic community commitment to the learning of Scripture and the discipline of prayer. It demands faithfulness to God and each other and valuing both our collective and individual relationship to God. Discipleship requires sacrifice in an age of procured personal fulfilment.

And discipleship is the only future for the church. Only a church based on discipleship will withstand the discomfort or even trials to come. If Jesus is the solid ground and cornerstone, discipleship is the building blocks that will allow us to withstand hostile elements. But it is also the source of flexibility that will allow necessary change to occur. Because discipleship keeps the main thing the main thing. It recognises what can be left behind on the journey.

Discipleship has perhaps never been so vital. In an age of competing identities and the last gasps of institutions nostalgic for Christendom, discipleship forms and reforms Jesus’ followers with common purpose and a shared identity transcending all earthly divisions and intersections.

As we plan and cast vision for 2022. As we formulate mission goals and prepare sermon series. As we consider how to enthuse and entertain the Covid beleaguered congregation. Spare a thought for the unglamorous, unfashionable, donkey-work of discipleship. It is the key to unlocking the riches of God’s kingdom, not just for the Church, but for the whole world.

For you

It’s become a cliche to say, ‘the church is the people.’ But it warrants repeating. The Church is nothing without people!

The Church is not the building or administrative structures, important as these are. Neither is the Kirk the sum of her courts, councils, fora, committees or Presbytery offices.

At this time of celebrating the incarnation, we remember that God became flesh in one human so that through his life, death, resurrection and ascension, by the power of Holy Spirit, we all might embody the presence of God. The people of God; rough around the edges and spiritually impoverished, are a holy community to be cherished and revered. Against them, the gates of hell shall not stand.

The preservation of power structures, the maintenance of national influence, the longevity of valued buildings, even the safekeeping of the ‘Third Article’, should not be achieved by disregarding the holy worth of God’s people. God’s own Son died for them.

This knowledge should be at the heart of our dealings with each other. And this knowledge must be at the heart of our planning and restructuring. But, for the sake of efficient planning, missional success and personal achievement are we sometimes guilty of forgetting the divine value God has placed on each person? Do we too easily behave like the institutions around us, become self-servinging, detached from the people we are charged to support; serving cheese and wine while the hoi polloi self-isolate?

Today, in particular, I want to spare a thought for colleagues under pressure this Christmas. To those, in this precious week, questioning their worth and their life’s work. To those worrying about their future. To those who feel like collateral damage in the attempts to save the Kirk.

You are of infinite worth!

For you Jesus Christ came into the world: for you he lived and showed God’s love; for you he suffered the darkness of Calvary and cried at the last, ‘it is accomplished’; for you he triumphed over death and rose in newness of life; for you he ascended to reign at God’s right hand. All this he did for you.”

The Church’s greatest resource is her people. Through them the power of the Gospel is demonstrated. Through them the Word is remembered. Through them the Spirit is embodied. Without people, there is no future for the Kirk. What benefit will there be in having efficient management of the right barns in the right right places if tonight, God requires lives?

Sharing Jesus’ ministry

I pulled the bin liner, tight, up to my elbow, closed my eyes, and plunged my hand into the toilet. After a couple of grasps, the blue paper towels were out and the U-bend was clear.

That’s the last thing I did last night before leaving the church building. I had been doing a Covid clean of the often-touched surfaces. And just when I thought it was finished, I saw the blocked loo.

I’m neither boasting or complaining; this is just the reality of parish ministry. I’m certain that colleagues across the country regularly clean loos, fix light switches, sweep halls and hoover offices.

I don’t mind that stuff. What I find most difficult is failing to live up to the expectations of others. And in particular failing to meet the expectations of the authors of ministry books.

A friend and I are re-reading the superlative ‘Working the Angles’ by Eugene Peterson. This book deeply affected me when I read it as a probationary minister. Reading it fifteen years later, I’m struck by how much more it resonates.

Peterson makes a compelling case for a ministry focussed only on Prayer, Scripture and Spiritual Direction. He talks of being sent home from church finance meetings because he was not to waste time on such distractions. Combine this with the advice from older ministers that we should spend the morning in the study, afternoons visiting and arrange meetings for the evening. Then there’s the mantra that there should be an hour of prep for each minute of your sermon. Or the example of scholarly pastors that manage to publish, in their spare time, entire translations of scripture or multiple books.

Now, I love sitting in my study, but I have no idea how these ministers have managed to stay true to such convictions. And as I absorb their advice I find the initial admiration soon this turns to self-loathing. Why don’t I work like that?

But, on reflection, I’m not certain this is entirely biblical advice. I think of Jesus’ ministry. He certainly prioritised prayer and scripture. He sought quiet places for reflection and solitude. But his compassion regularly compelled him to disrupt his plans in order to meet the needs of the people. I also think of his example of feet washing, which of course had spiritual significance. But it was also a regular practical act of service to others.

And I think of the setting apart of Deacons in the New Testament church in order to release the Apostles from table service. We are taught this as a good model for ministry but I can’t help but think it was not Jesus’ model. I suspect he would have willingly waited on tables and expected church leaders to join him. I find it significant that the two main Acts stories about Deacons have them preaching and evangelising, not making lunch. Is it possible that the church was not supposed to separate preaching and practical service?

Ultimately, I do think ministers are supposed to try and jealously guard time for engaging with God through prayer and Bible study. And I do think, also, that we should value highly times of spiritual direction. Jesus tried hard to protect these activities. But like him, perhaps we should not be ashamed of engaging in more practical activities and demonstrations of compassion through service.

And perhaps we should give ourselves a break from self-recrimination when we fail to live up to the expectations of others or even our own. Perhaps, also, this will redress any pressure that my last post loaded on hard pressed clergy-folks to achieve spiritual greatness!

Clergy-self care, for want of a better title

This is not a cry for help. Or if it is a cry for help, it’s a collective rather than personal appeal.

Over a decade ago, I attended one of the Scottish Ministry Assemblies in Glasgow. It was the first time I’d heard Tim Keller speak and it was revolutionary. I’ve never forgotten, admittedly in theory rather than practice, his call for ministers to rest on the Gospel; on the finished work of Jesus Christ. He reminded us to preach the good news to ourselves not just to the congregation. A while later, Rob Bell (he who must not be named?) repeated this message in his own inimitable way, “are you smoking what you’re selling?”

This is a salient message for every pastor in every era. But in the Kirk today it seems especially relevant. Was there ever such a ‘performance driven’ church? We may not have started appraisals or the line-management of ministers: yet. But with constant reminders of the condition of the Church of Scotland and the vast expense of Ministers and MDS staff, the message is clear. “The Kirk is dying and it’s your fault!” And the solution? Work harder and we just might turn this tanker around. But let’s be honest, the ship is not simply off course, it’s sinking.

But while the ship is going doing, the Kirk is not simply playing on like the Titanic’s band. We are throwing on additional weight. Prove your worth! Form hubs! No form clusters! No form networks. Don’t form hubs, form groupings instead. Display the five marks of mission. Restructure your Presbyteries. Cut off the dying branches. Plant new churches. Innovate! No, interim moderate! Oh, and if you’ve got time would you consider serving a central or presbytery committee? Now stop everything, get rid of nearly 40% of staff and then do better with less!

I’m not pointing the finger at anyone. We’re Presbyterians, we voted for this!

Recently in our church we’ve been talking a lot about Mary and Martha. And it seems to me that Martha has taken over the Kirk. I don’t want to sound like a naive pietist, but what about the one thing that is truly needed. Are we sitting at the feet of Jesus? I know I’m not. Martha and I are moving furniture, making rotas, attending Presbytery meetings, trying to fix the church heating and planning the biggest Christmas Eve service yet. To be clear, these activities are not beneath me. But sometimes they’re not the most important thing.

And what’s my concern?

I have this sneaking suspicion that while we try to strategically restructure the church, we may be trying to force the wrong wine into the wrong skins. And when we do that, something’s going to crack or explode. What happens once we’ve culled 40% of ministries? If we don’t seriously alter our expectations, one result will be putting a whole lot of pressure on the remaining 60%. What if the current pressure leads them to think, “this isn’t what I signed up for?”

I also have this nagging question about the retirement cliff edge. I’m sure this has been said before, but if so many people are about to retire, why can’t we just let that happen and work with whoever is left? Because it’s possible that restructuring simply loads stress and uncertainty upon the Ministers and MDS that are not retiring soon. That could seriously backfire.

Some will answer that I’m being too ‘ministries’ centric and that the wider people of God can take on additional responsibility. But many congregations are already near capacity. And most able volunteers are over committed. But also, that’s a denial of the need for leadership and God’s call to individuals.

I honestly think that if there is a solution to the present crisis, it’s for those involved in ministries and church leadership to be able, without guilt, to carve out more time sitting at the feet of Jesus. The Kirk needs leaders with spiritual depth not better parish managers. We need ministers that are working from freedom, joy and forgiveness rather than guilt and fear. We need leaders that have returned to their first love rather than developed a more efficient strategy.

This is not a call for a new corporate training course. This is not a call to heap new tasks upon already burdened pastors. This is an aspirational statement, that I, that we might tend to our faith so that we can sleep even when the ship appears to be sinking. Because we know he commands the wind and waves.

(Sub)Urban spirituality

A while back I mentioned commentators that suggest contemporary representations of Celtic Spirituality probably say more about the felt needs of Christians today than they accurately describe historical Celtic practice (here).

I’m not sure who I may be plagiarising here, but I’m certain many have noted that with increasing urbanisation, industrialisation and rapid technological advances, there has been a tendency to reminisce fondly of a pre-industrial idyll. This nostalgia may account for some contemporary presentations of Celtic Christianity. They attempt to ground faith on something less transient and manufactured.

For evidence, just look at the images selected for most homemade YouTube worship videos; it’s all seascapes and sunsets. Very seldom will you see a building, let alone a housing estate or factory. Why is it that we prefer a rural conceptual context for expressions of faith and prayer when most of us live in urban and suburban areas? Is it because, to us, rurality expresses the otherness of God?

I don’t know enough about the Iona or Northumbria communities and perhaps they successfully translate their liturgies for the Gorbals or Newcastle? But, I wonder how often we alienate ourselves and our faith from our daily context by focussing on the green pastures and still waters of David’s youth, rather than the roughcast and steel of our own.

Does anyone express well a liturgy of the city? I’ve seen some of the City to City theological material which argues strongly for a focus on civic, economic and cultural centres. But apart from the name, I don’t see much ‘urban’ in the New City Catechism. And what about a liturgy of the suburbs where the sparkling lights and cultural variety fade to grey homogeneity?

It’s interesting that the Bible is perhaps less sentimental than most of our worship. Scripture recognises the draw of the city or at least the reality of urbanisation. I wonder how many of us relate Christian spirituality with the natural or rural world while Scripture describes a holy city the context for the ultimate presence of God with humanity.

Greater love

There is no greater love than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.

John 15:13 (NLT)

If we asked Jesus who are the friends in question? He would probably reply with a story, “a man was travelling from Jerusalem to Jericho…”

I think a big question for the Kirk today is whether we are willing to follow Jesus’ example and lay down our life for our friends. In the same way as the Kirk, in relation to climate change, asks us to consider future generations and also those worst affected by climate change (for example). Are we also willing to consider future generations and the vast number in our nation today, that are yet to meet Christ?

A friend of mine once questioned whether it is fair to ask churches filled with septuagenarians and octogenarians to change to become the source of mission to young unchurched familes or fresh expressions of Church. And although I have known some spritely and missional seventy and eighty year olds, in most cases the answer is no. However, we must avoid forming similarly immutable communities amongst the newer communities we are planting or nurturing.

Like Peter trying to build structures to contain the wonder of the transfigured Lord, we have formed congregations which are monuments instead of temporary accommodation for pilgrims. In the next generation of churches might we encourage the formation of communities that are willing to sacrifice their own preferences and comfort for the sake of the lost.

It does already happen. I’ve heard of elderly congregations that were so committed to the spread of the Gospel that they essentially gave their buildings or resources to new growing churches. But I suspect that is not the norm. Indeed most of us struggle to give up our usual seat for a visitor let alone hand over the entire building to a community that will not maintain worship as we know it.

Having said all that, perhaps you will remind me of this, and keep me accountable, when you next find me moaning about the younger generations who don’t appreciate Star Wars or 90s guitar bands and try to make me look happy during worship.