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.

Presbyterianism: a multiplicity of committees

I like a good meeting. In fact, I don’t even mind a bad meeting. To me, it always feels like something has been achieved when a topic has had a good airing. Sometimes it doesn’t matter whether any action follows, so long as a good chat was had by all. This is not satire it’s the confession of a woolly Presbyterian. Yet I am, a little, apprehensive about the potential to multiply meetings found in the proposed CofS Mega-Presbyteries.

Our Presbytery has already been divided into networks (aka hubs or clusters). These have been adopted with varying levels of enthusiasm. Now it seems that, as predicted, these will be joined by, not only a new gargantuan Presbytery but also, more accessible local groupings. I’m not alone in having noticed that Mega-Presbyteries sound a lot like the return of Synods, supplemented by local groupings that sound a lot like Presbyteries. This is not a criticism, it was inevitable that a bloc from Stirling to Angus would still require smaller regional meetings.

Recently, while browsing the ‘Effectiveness of the Presbyterian Form of Government’ report, I noticed the suggestion that Mega-Presbyteries may require a group of Presbytery Trustees to provide oversight. Will this replace or supplement the Business Committee? There was also the suggestion of Presbytery bodies mirroring national bodies, which I assume means some form of regional duplication of the national structures. And there appears to be the suggestion that the Mega Presbyteries may also need governance that allows them to interact at an international level? Is it envisaged that the central belt Presbyteries will eventually make a bid to rejoin the EU?

Then at a recent Presbytery meeting it was suggested that it might be necessary to form a national forum for Presbytery executive bodies. Perhaps this committee will also liaise with the central structures? Or will we also need additional bodies to allow, for example, the Presbytery Faith Nurture Forum to communicate with the National Faith Nurture Forum etc? And we haven’t even begun to imagine the additional fora and committees that Mega-Presbyteries may precipitate within 121 George Street or the myriad committees within those Mega-Presbyteries.

Admittedly, I am probably unaware of the various meetings and bodies that already exist to oil the wheels of the Kirk governance machine. But it strikes me that the rationalisation and efficiency gains expected through the Mega-Presbyteries may have already been squandered. I suspect it’s typical of ageing administrations, but we appear to be multiplying bureaucratic levels to administer ever diminishing resources and people.

I understand that at its best Presbyterianism aims to maximise participation and disperse authority. This can help to avoid fiefdoms and authoritarianism. But at its worst, Presbyterianism institutionalises the failing to which I admitted above. We multiply meetings, initiate commissions, form forums and create committees and feel that we have achieved something. But these structures are supposed to support an end beyond themselves. They are supposed to free the church to worship, witness, serve and glorify God.

As we make plans for the future shape of the Kirk, how will we ensure that the administration gives life to worship, mission and Kingdom growth? Otherwise, along with a sizeable property portfolio, we will be left with a convoluted bureaucracy having no purpose beyond self-perpetuation.

Choose your crisis

Is it too early to gauge whether Cop26 has been a success? I’ve been persuaded to abandon cynicism by a more optimistic friend who suggested that the fringe activities may have helped encourage and inspire people to care for our world. However, I’m unqualified to comment on whether, or not, the interactions of world leaders will prove effective.

Climate Change has certainly been front and centre for the last few weeks. And amongst the throng of campaigners, activists and protesters, have been churches and Christian organisations. Again, I’m persuaded, for a number of reasons, that this is positive. Perhaps it verges on ‘climate heresy’ to suggest a need for persuasion. But the church should always be wary of uncritically adopting perspectives based on popularity.

For example, while it’s vital that Christians engage with the issue of environmental degradation and climate change, we should not indulge into the wailing of the apocalyptic cult that surrounds it. Care for God’s world and its inhabitants is worship. Engaging with the concerns of our neighbours is an act of love and mission. But we must not live as those without hope.

Despite my thoughts on ‘bannergate‘, there are more pressing crises facing the world. This is where my sympathy emerges for those mildly exasperated by the present emphasis of many churches. Long before Cop26 there existed a trend for churches to express greater concern for the fashionable issue of the day, than for the core message of Jesus. It’s not that these concerns cannot coexist, but arguably some Christians appear more eloquent and confident in sharing the need for climate justice than in sharing Jesus Christ.

There is a great need to care for our environment, but the Gospel teaches that there is an even greater existential crisis at the centre of each of our lives. We are all going to die! And, in geological terms, very soon! If we have been marching, tweeting, posting or blogging about saving the earth, do we exhibit half that passion for the salvation of the lost? It’s not either or, but when I look at my own denomination, climate and other justices are often much more prominent than concern for the ultimate justice of God.

And for me, here’s the clincher. Of those who have read this far, how many are rolling their eyes and thinking that this view is terribly passé and unreconstructed. Because in reality many of us have grown a little ashamed of a simple Gospel. We are uncomfortable with its lack of sophistication and the hint of literalism about sin, death, heaven, hell and salvation.

The World’s most urgent need is…not Climate Change!

Twitter is mainly enraged at what appears to be a banner outside of a church building in Glasgow. It reads:

The World’s most urgent need is churches preaching Christ crucified not climate change

To be fair, some opponents have agreed with the exact statement, if not the sentiment. The world really does not need climate change!

If the banner is meant to enrage the masses, it’s a spectacular piece of trolling which is having the desired effect. But if you’re enraged by this message, don’t be, it’s probably not for you! I doubt that the church in question believe that President Biden is going to pass in his motorcade and ask the driver to pull over while he contemplates the possibility that his policies are flawed.

Instead, the banner is probably a comment on the poor state of the UK church. But again, I doubt they expect it to encourage errant christians and churches to return to a more conservative fold.

Most likely this communication is a form of virtue signalling, admittedly a charge more often made against liberals. The banner sends a clear message, to supporters, that they are standing fast in the face of the misguided woke church and climate alarmists.

And part of me gets it. I have been concerned about the environment for many years. But I am getting a little sick of churches trying to be ‘relevant’. It’s hard to get through a month without being told you need to dedicate the following Sunday to an issue, charity or campaign. And environmentalism constitutes the motherload for activist Christians.

For Christians, preaching Christ crucified is vital. So, instead of trying to argue the importance of mitigating climate change, I want to take the banner at face value.

The reason I wanted to respond is because the banner deals with preaching, one of the main topics of this blog. Sharing the Good News about the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, is a core activity for the Church. Many associated churches will take this statement as affirmation that they are on the right track. We preach Christ crucified at every service. But the question is, who is listening?

Many of us speak mainly to Christians each week. Sunday services are no longer the ‘shop window’ for sharing the Gospel, they are mainly the opportunity for teaching Christians God’s word. Care for God’s world is a Biblical imperative. In fact as Graeme McMeekin recently reminded us, God so loved the world* that he gave his only Son. God’s love for his world is central to the Good News! That’s why all creation is waiting in anticipation of Christ’s return; the world seeks redemption. Therefore, to meaningfully preach Christ crucified to disciples requires us to speak about climate change. And I’m sure the church in question do just that.

But if it’s true that most of us predominantly speak to Christians in our services. How well are we communicating with those who are not part of our churches? How are we engaging outside of our eco chamber (excuse the pun)? And what impact might our external communication have on those outside the Church? This is where the banner becomes interesting. As internal dialogue it is effective.

But will it really encourage unbelievers to take the Gospel seriously? It’s possible some will understand the banner to be promoting the importance of Christ over everything else. But how many will read it as confirmation that Christians don’t care about the planet? How many will see it as underlining that Christians don’t care about matters close to their heart.

The intention of the banner may not be trolling or virtue signalling. Perhaps they are simply trying to remind people of the greatness of Jesus Christ and his Gospel. That may be the intent, but the particular delivery may actually dissuade people from listening the very message the banner seeks to promote.


* I’m indebted to a colleague for the caution that John is talking about ‘humanity’ when he writes ‘world’. It’s probably wishful thinking on my part that the use of cosmos instead of anthropoi might hint at something bigger than just human beings. If I have engaged in eisegesis on this point, I trust it doesn’t detract from all the other biblical evidence for God’s love for all creation.

Salty

You are the salt of the earth, but if salt has lost its taste, how shall its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything except to be thrown out and trampled under people’s feet.

Matthew 5.1 ESV

The Church of Scotland seems to be in disarray. There is panic at the rate with which we are shedding members and haemorrhaging cash. In response, we are seriously restructuring; nationally consolidating into mega presbyteries and locally culling posts and buildings. And as with many traditional denominations we seek hope in new forms of church and ministry.

During the Q&A at a recent book launch, it was remarked that we must beware relying upon our own innovation instead of the Holy Spirit. That’s an important comment; not simply as a biblical precept but also because it may be a prophetic statement to the Kirk today. Restructuring or new ministries may be answers to the wrong questions. Because the main issue appears to be, we have forgotten that God is living. We are not dealing with a machine. We are not dealing with a maths formula. It’s not just a matter of tweaking the equation or checking that we are inputing the right data.

Scripture testifies that God is a living being with whom we are in relationship. Rebranding, restructuring, refreshing and reforming will make no ultimate difference unless we prioritise our relationship with him. Perhaps another better question we must answer today is are we in good relationship with God? Because if our restructuring is an act of faithful obedience then it may be blessed. But if it’s simply about saving the Kirk, why do we presume that God will bless it?

In our planning for the future of the church there is very little discussion about our obedience and faithfulness to God. Perhaps like prayer at the General Assembly, it is simply assumed? It is also seldom considered as an explanation for the problems we face as a denomination. Why do we ask how to fix our decline without starting with consideration of the quality of our obedience to Scripture? The Scriptures are full of prophetic warning to God’s straying people, calling them to lament, repent and reconcile with Him. Do we imagine that Jesus’ atonement relinquishes the requirement for his people to be faithful?

So, before we invest too heavily in restructuring might we consider the personal and corporate call for the church, in response to God’s grace, to be faithful, holy, just, generous, humble and pure. In other words, as the Scottish nation in general, we should first consider our salt content.

The monastic shift

Over the years, I’ve followed with interest, and occasionally dabbled in, the popular shift towards new monasticism.

In this movement, I’ve found much to commend and imitate and some things that are best left alone. Some of the practices related to new monasticism have become increasingly mainstream, for example, Lectio Divina or the Examen. While Centring Prayer has intrigued and concerned me in equal measure.

I am challenged by those who have adopted a rule and by those who have embraced movements like 24/7 Prayer. But at the same time, the disconnect between some new monastic ideas and biblical Christianity is worrying.

Mike Cosper, the narrator of the deeply significant ‘Rise and Fall of Mars Hill’ recently commented that monastic practices provide a “provocative contrast to the hype, entertainment and expressions of power that drive much of evangelical life.” Along with the growing interest in spirituality, this critique of church life is surely a major cause of Christianity’s rekindled interest in monasticism.

Now, I’m not sure I want to join the new monastics but I do want to help reform the church to value every day along with Sundays. And I seek communal life, work, worship, learning, creativity, hospitality and service that encompass the whole week. And I want to learn to embrace Christlike patterns of prayer, retreat, rest and reflection equally matched by a passion for mission, discipleship and action (social or otherwise).

This thinking has combined with another concern: under used church buildings. Surely, predominately empty church buildings risk becoming a sinful indulgence.

So, like many churches, we have worked hard to populate our buildings with groups and activities that share some of our goals. This has culminated in plans to open a cafe at the centre of our building and communal life.

Initially, we spoke in terms of being a community centre. And to an extent we fulfil that function. But more recently, it has become clear that, without accepting the language or label, our vision sounds a lot like a monastery.

This conception of our building and grounds, acknowledges their central role in mission and Kingdom growth. That’s not to imply an attempt to shove our faith down people’s throats. But it indicates that the wider context for using our building is the rolling of heaven and earth into one.

So, two weeks ago we began daily morning prayer. This is the first step towards establishing rhythms and patterns of Christian faith that weave through the life of our community and facilities.