Incarnational Church – UK Context FOUR Growing Pains

Growing Pains

‘Numbers are not important’. How many times I have heard that statement in connection with church growth? At one level I agree with the sentiment but not as an excuse for stagnation. I speak from experience because not everything we have done in our local church has produced numerical growth.

Growth, of course, is far more involved than merely the numbers of people who attend. There is a breadth to growth than needs to be seen in every area of the life of the people.
If we again take the life and ministry of Jesus as our example we can understand more of the implications of growth. There is a core of mystery as to why God sent the Son in the way that he did. Why did he come as a baby? Why did he live for over thirty years?
It seems to me that the context of the incarnation has significance. I am struck by the words of Hebrews chapter 13, verse 8 that describe Jesus as being the same ‘yesterday, today and forever’. At first glance it seems that change is out of the question.
Yet we also know that change took place. The Word ‘became’ flesh.[1]
The unchangingness of Jesus is to be seen in his essential character. His goodness, his truth and his faithfulness are all undiminished by the passage of time. In fact he is completely unaffected by the constraints of time other than in his own choice to be self-limited by it. The Kenosis[2] is the expression of this absolute commitment to his mission. The act of ‘becoming’ is the important factor for us here. God is showing to us in graphic and eternal terms how we are to ‘become’. The eternal, creative Word has become flesh in order to fulfil the will of God. We, the church, are to follow a similar path. We are to be unchanging in the essential nature of what God has made us to be yet, at the same time, we are to become a willing vessel for God.
The development of Jesus the man is shown to follow a similar pattern to that of other human beings. He is shown to learn, grow, hunger, cry and feel fatigue: the full range of humanities experiences. This means that the incarnation was not merely some singular event but a pilgrimage.
It is in this context that we in the Pentecostal church can learn a great deal about church growth. Pilgrimage is essential. We expect if of our natural children when we encourage them to explore and learn about themselves and the world around them. Parents and teachers consider the appropriate lessons that need to be learned at each stage of the growing process. So it is with those who come to faith and begin a journey within the community of the church. Richter and Francis speak of the importance of journey in their writings dealing with those who leave the church. ‘The church that is best at retaining its members is one that presupposes that individuals grow in faith, in their own time and in their own way.’[3] This is often a difficulty for Pentecostal churches. As with other revival movements a great deal of emphasis is made upon the crisis of conversion. Even where there is talk and consideration given to discipleship it is often done in very narrow terms with them emphasis placed heavily on conformity of belief. People find acceptance when they jump through a series of evangelical hoops and so even where doubt exists there is a pressure to conform.
Pilgrimage, however, is a life giving experience. It is possible to both hold to the idea of a cross encounter whilst encouraging an Emmaus Road journey.


[1] John 1:14
[2] Philippians 2:7
[3] ‘Gone but not Forgotten’ Philip Richter and Leslie J Francis Darton, Longman and Todd 1998
pg152

Incarnational Church – UK Context FOUR The Way You Start.......

Birth
My wife is a qualified midwife and when she was training I spent many hours listening to her descriptions of the birthing process. She always used to remind me that pregnancy was not an illness but a beautiful experience. I have to say that much of it sounded like an illness to my inexperienced mind. Some years later, at the birth of our first child, I saw the beauty for myself. Amazed to see this human being who previously ‘wasn’t’ now taking her first breaths. Now, four amazing daughters later, I am still completely in awe at the birth of baby.

We know, of course, that the birthing process can be problematic and every health care professional watches for the tell tale signs of danger.

The birth of a church should be watched in a similar way. Yet ultimately it is not the possibility of danger that should occupy our minds. This is a wonderful and awesome event as God breathes new life into the lungs of an infant church family. Its birth has to be inspired and managed by the Holy Spirit who blows wherever he wills. If a church begins for any other reason than the will of the Spirit then the results can be quite horrendous. A group of people might start to meet together after separating from another church. There may have been hurt and disappointment during the birthing process. Although this is not always the case the group can end up congregating around their disaffection for the previous group. Many of these people might have very little else in common: they may not have received prophetic input into their new situation. They are simply together because they no longer want to be with the previous church. This cannot be an acceptable birth and quite often groups like this either fold or they have to revisit the issues raised by the events of their beginnings. It must be an act of God that births a church. Schillebeeckx highlights the importance of the work of the Spirit even above an actually confrontation with the historical Jesus. His point is valid because only the very first churches were directly influenced by those who had seen Jesus in his physicality. One would expect that seeing Jesus would be the ideal beginning for any new group, but the plan of God did not contain this component.

In a similar way some of the things that we value most within our church communities can seem to be non-negotiable when it comes to forming churches. There is a heavy sense of value given to a particular style of corporate worship within the Pentecostal and charismatic movement. No doubt most Pentecostal worshippers would include this in what they consider to be an effective church. However a church that is conceived of by the Holy Spirit can be birthed and established even if there is a paucity of skilled musicians. On the other hand a church with the highest standard of musical expertise can flounder because it is not built on the right foundation.

I am committed to finding ways of raising the standard of the functions of the church but that in itself will not determine its success.

Incarnational Church – UK Context THREE A Genius Genesis

Conception


As soon as we begin our new-life journey we are faced with the frightening concept that we are joined together with a group of other people; the church. The moment I call God my Father I have to accept others as my sisters and brothers. Our union is as complete as our belonging to God.


Belonging is, in fact, a key mark of the New Birth event. Our sin, having separated us from our creator, has been defeated and the spoils of this cosmic war are that I am now re-connected to God. Not merely in a creator-creature relationship or a master-servant contract but as Father and beloved child. The cross, the greatest equaliser of all, demands that everyone who dares approach should bend the knee to the one Lord. Our self-sufficiency, our abilities, our wealth, our depravity, they are now neither aid nor hindrance to us. We all come through the same door, Christ Jesus.

As we embrace the Christ we have to embrace the idea that the church is a conception of God. It is often so easy, whether through disappointment or fear, to see the church as an optional extra in the plan and purposes of God. No matter how many times we experience the failure of the church we have to face the unending reality that it is God’s idea.

There is no ecclesiological failsafe on offer. This is not in anyway to excuse the church, including my own, from past errors and faults. It is just that we must begin our journey with this knowledge in our minds to ever have enough strength to allow God to finish the work he has started. If we believe that the church is somehow inferior to our own experiences and relationship to God then we will all to readily give up when difficult times appear. It is my continual sadness to meet Christians who have embraced the idea of personal salvation only to reject the church in response to the pain of rejection that they themselves have felt.

This in no way excuses those who have given up ‘meeting together’, but those of us in church leadership have to face the fact that we have often left a wake of disappointed and disconnected sisters and brothers behind us in our search for the holy grail of visionary success. I face the same question every time I think of those who have left our church feeling hurt and bruised. We pray for them often that they might know the blessing of God in a church family that can offer them what they need at that time.

What ever our experience of the church, the body of Christ, it was conceived of by God.

Incarnational Church – UK Context TWO Heavenly Branding

The Marks of Incarnation



If the incarnation story continues in the church then surely it follows that there will be indicators that can be seen within the life of the church.


Snyder proposes ‘While the Incarnation is a mystery, it provides the essential model for the believer and especially for the church’s corporate life and mission in the world.’


I have never particularly enjoyed looking at my own reflection in the mirror. I like it even less now because the passage of time brings me greater distress. The recurring thought that springs to my mind is that I look like my father more than my father’s son. I am not saying there is anything wrong with this, should he read these words, it continually reminds me that I am connected to my parents. I recall one day waking up from one of those mid-day naps that seem to be the comfort of middle age, looking down at my hand in that half asleep half awake state and thinking that my dad was in the room.


In a similar way, if we care to look, the whole of creation bears the impression of the thumbprint of God: every galaxy, star, planet, flower, animal and sunset, every human being reflecting God. Both in terms of physiology and history all created matter and therefore human life images our creator.


In the incarnation the Word, the second person of the Trinity, embraced this ‘creative’ fingerprint personally and thus reflected the creative act in both physique and purpose.


As we look at the life of Christ we can see the mind of a purposeful God. Every aspect of the life of Christ has the thumbprint of God upon it: from conception, through death, to resurrection. At conception we see the will of God unfold in a manner that although spoken of by the prophets of old was, in many ways, unimaginable to the human mind. His birth, so ordained to fulfil the prophetic utterances of the people of Israel, bringing together Divinity and humanity. His growth as a child: expressing his willingness to be self-confined within the human condition. His ministry: breaking into the mundane of human frailty, yet always with a mind upon the ultimate goal of the cross. The passion of the self-sacrifice of the creator God, as a seed dies in order to produce much fruit. The stunning glory of the resurrection: with all its mystery and wonder. These are things that surely no human mind could have conceived. God, the author and finisher, has been at work.


As I have already stated, what can be said of Christ, the Head, should be said of his body, the church. The incarnation continues and thus, the marks of incarnation, the very thumbprint of God, should be visible in the church. Locally we should touch our communities with these marks. Globally, we should shape and guide our world towards the creator.

To be continued............


‘Liberating the Church’ Howard Snyder Marshalls 1983 pg109

Incarnational Church – UK Context ONE - An Everyday Uniqueness

There should be little doubt in the mind of the Christian as to the uniqueness of Jesus Christ. To the Church, the whole of history and eternity are held together in this unique act of incarnation. Jesus: fully human and fully divine.
McFarlane observes that ‘never before had such an event required expression. Something hitherto unspoken broke through the established markers concerning God’s being.’
In essence this unique event has no parallels from which comparisons might be drawn. No precedents to which can be referred. It is the most important component of the Christian gospel in its unique quality.


Yet, as Bosch asserts, protestant churches have ‘by and large had an underdeveloped theology of the incarnation.’ Within evangelicalism there has been a great stress placed upon the eternal work of Christ often to the detriment of teaching regarding his compassion for those in need in this life.
Before I made a decision to become a Christian as a fourteen year-old youth I, oddly enough, gave out leaflets on behalf of a local church at the Whit Walks in my home village. Here I was, someone who knew very little about Christianity, someone who wasn’t even sure if I wanted anything to do with it, giving out leaflets to others.
During this somewhat unregenerate evangelistic d├ębut I realised that it would be a good idea to read the words on the leaflet for myself.
The tract was called the ‘Incomparable Christ’. For the first time I had been made aware of enormity of the person of Jesus.
His uniqueness is a challenge to us all and we in the church should never allow such revelation to fade with familiarity. It is striking that many of the groups that wander off into what is perceived as doctrinal heresy do so at this point; the person of Jesus, though still often highly esteemed, is reinterpreted as less than the divine character accepted by historic Church belief.
The uniqueness of Christ, the head, is reflected by the uniqueness of the Church, his body. None of us can claim to be perfect or, indeed, to be part of a church without faults. But ontologically the church is unique. Although not to be confused with the Kingdom of God the church, as the body of Christ, is unique in its calling and in its relationship to God. It is my conviction that whatever can be said of the character and ministry of Christ should be said of his body.
 Of course no individual can rightly compare with the Incarnate One yet we are all designed to image God. In terms of design and purpose the church is to continue all that Christ has begun and finished. When we look at his life we must be moved to respond in kind. When we look at his character we must be charged to walk in his footsteps.


The New Testament gives us a good deal of help in trying to navigate this journey. Jesus is described as our great High Priest and in this he is depicted as unique. No one else was found good enough to break through the veil into the Holy of Holies and thereby blaze a trail for us to follow. The church on the other hand is to be a Priestly Nation and in that role we follow Christ in making intercession for a world that does not understand. Great High Priest and Priestly Nation: an incredible relationship.
Jesus again is described as our Apostle being sent as a messenger on behalf of the Father to this prodigal world: unique in his place of departure and also in his arrival at the cross. We, his body, are also sent and therefore Apostolic by design and purpose. We are called to continue this message of grace and hope.
The first chapter of the book of Hebrews tells us that God spoke to humanity in many different ways through the Prophets of old but now he has spoken to us by his Son. Ephesians chapter three tells us that it is God’s intention that now, through the church, the manifold wisdom of God should be made know.
This tells us that the story continues and that the manifold things that God has in store for his creation are to be shown through the church. They resonate through the words of the Prophets; we have seen them and have access to them, in the finishing work of Christ. Now the world can touched them through his body the church. In this there is something of a tension. How can we communicate such a unique event? What symbols, motifs and analogies can we utilise in order that such a unique story can be embraced?
To be continued……………………….






References


‘Christ and the Spirit’ Graham WP McFarlane Paternoster 1996 pg10


‘Transforming Mission’ David J Bosch Orbis Books pg 512

Approaching Fifty - It makes you want to sigh!

I have noticed over recent weeks that I have been sighing a great deal.
Not with sadness you understand. This expelling of air is a totally
involuntary action and seems to be linked with nothing more than having
moved in some small way.

It’s as if I need to make a comment about how old I am starting to feel
but can’t find the words to fully express it; and so I sigh.

What made it slightly worse is than I have noticed that my dad does the
very same thing and has done so for some time.

Then, last week, whilst in the supermarket I overheard someone describe me
as ‘That old man’.
They meant no ill by it and I took into consideration that they were
merely a teenager and thereby new little about life.

I am just under a thousand hours from my fiftieth birthday so I really
don’t want to be know as ‘that old man’ at this stage of my existence.

I ask my wife whether I deserved such a descriptor and she was supportive
to a point but reminded me that I am technically in my fiftieth year and
about to start my fifty-first. Not being interested in technicalities I
ignored her comment.

Ignoring the fact that I was ignoring her Mrs M went on to ask what
description I would have liked them to use.

I thought for a moment and then conceded that I couldn't find one that was
both accurate and didn't cause me offence.

Describing me as 'that middle-aged guy' might have been truer but it still
would have marked me as older than I want to be. In truth the word old,
from the teenagers perspective was accurate.

I suppose it’s mildly better than ‘the fat guy!’

I mistakenly said that last sentence out loud to my wife and she chuckled
as she pointed out that I was taking comfort in grading the possible
adjectives.

She was right: I was performing mental gymnastics trying to work out
whether it was better to be called balding than old.

I made the mistake of asking Mrs M what words she would find acceptable
about herself.

This was not a bad thing in and of itself but because it lead to my bride
asking the following question.

'How would you describe me?'

'A beautiful lady' I said, hoping that would put an end to it.

'Lady' she commented sounding a little disappointed 'that makes me sound
ancient'

'Well you are married to and old man' I replied.

Then as if we couldn’t find any more words my bride and I sighed at the
very same moment.

Jesus Didn't Write A Book

Bishop Lesslie Newbigin on how to bring the gospel to the culture:

If the gospel is to challenge the public life of our society, if Christians are to occupy the “high ground” which they vacated in the noon time of “modernity,” it will not be by forming a Christian political party, or by aggressive propaganda campaigns. Once again it has to be said that there can be no going back to the “Constantinian” era. It will only be by movements that begin with the local congregation in which the reality of the new creation is present, known, and experienced, and from which men and women will go into every sector of public life to claim it for Christ, to unmask the illusions which have remained hidden and to expose all areas of public life to the illumination of the gospel. But that will only happen as and when local congregations renounce an introverted concern for their own life, and recognize that they exist for the sake of those who are not members, as sign, instrument, and foretaste of God’s redeeming grace for the whole life of society.

Bishop Newbigin was one of my favourite pastoral theologians. He had a pastor's heart and a theologian's thought process.

He said that to understand the gospel correctly we need to remember that Jesus didn't write a book. He invested in people!



- Posted from my iPhone

What type of twitterer are you?

What type of twitterer are you?
I have been twittering for the best part of a year now and have noticed a distinct pattern starting to emerge when it comes to the ratio between followers and following.
At the start of my social media journey I was blind to much of what was happening and merely selected people to follow with who I had an interest. Added to this was the small band of family and friends who had already entered this world of self edited comments.
There seems to be several different types of twitterers and I shall do my best to categorise them here.
The Free Twitterer. These are the ones, famous or not, who just say what they think. They mix the profound with the mundane and present their followers with a glimpse into their otherwise unseen world. They may occasional use the 140 characters to get your attention on a favoured issue of concern or the launch of their latest book, but these are the exception rather than the rule. They are usually following more people than they have followers, in the case of the non-famous. Or, if a Celeb, they have several hundred, some times thousands, of fellow twitters they have chose to follow.
The Self Publicist: These are the twittering equivalent of the insurance salesman. Every word is aimed at getting you to know how good their products are. They are often following more people than they have followers in a hope that they will build a greater client base through which to grow their business.
The Reluctant Celeb: They seem to be entering an unfamiliar world because they have been encouraged to do so by their agent or another celeb. Their tweet to follower ratio is low having only managed a minimum of messages, usually declaring how much they don’t understand modern technology. They tend to be following less than fifty people
The Celeb Wanabees: There seems to be a goal amongst this group to follow less people than they are following as if it makes them look more important. They only seem to retweet the more famous and rarely respond to direct messages.
The Guru. Every word they offer is a profound statement about life, love, and the universe. You never see anything that reveals who they truly are. I suspect they make maximum use of the scheduling function so that they can reveal their pearls of wisdom on a regular basis.

The Mutual Admirers Club: They too tend to be following only a few select people with the result that they comment on, and retweet, a small number of twitterers. You see the same names and tweets recycled time and time again.

The Leave it to my PA Twitterers: At first it seems as if they are doing all the work themselves until a hasty comment by their PA reveals that they have help in providing regular tweets. The clue is in the lack of personal detail offered in their comments.
What type of twitterer are you?

It's only a lentil field.

Some three thousand years ago a middle-eastern warrior took a stand against some foreign invaders. He was probably full of both fear and anger at what was taking place and these emotions lead to action on his part.




The story would be ripe for a Hollywood film script had he drawn the line at the gates of a great city or similar important location, but our would-be hero's choice seemed a little less glamorous.



In the midst of all the blood, sweat, and tears he realised he had been pushed too far when the invaders tried to take over his lentil field.



He stamped his feet in the middle of it, took out his sword, and prepared for battle, as if saying 'this far and no further'.



It seems that the rest of his kinsmen continued their escape and he was soon alone to fight off the enemy.



You could almost imagine the others shouting as they ran away 'but it's only a lentil field', inferring that it wasn't worth risking your life over.



I like to think that, if the warrior had time to reply, he might have told them 'Yes! But it is my lentil field'.



The end of this story delivers victory to our valiant hero and the supply of lentil soup continues in that region of Palestine. He knew that the battle wasn’t about lentils but about inheritance.



Sometimes we have to take a stand in the oddest places. Often others won't understand why. But we have to realise where the true value is in our lives.

How not to MAX out your team.

Several thousand years ago a tribal leader instructed his people not to gleen to the edges of their fields. The intention was for a small amount of food to be left for the poor.

Today such a rule would be met with protests from several sections of society. We are encouraged to max out in every area of our lives.

No wonder managers and leaders feel the need to push their staff progressively harder season after season.

This approach has never made a lot of sense to me but how should we lead and motivate our staff.

I think our ancient tribal leader can offer us a clue here.

If we take the view that each team member, like a field, has a limited amount of resource to offer each day we can make the decision not to gleen to the edges.

People cannot work at 100% all of the time, but they can give a great deal if they know that such effort is only needed for a defined period. If you consistently max them out there will be nothing left for them to give when the situation demands it.

People also need natural breathers in their working day in order set themselves for the next phase of work. Managers think that tea/coffee breaks and lunch times provide this but staff see these occasions as belonging to them.

Here are five tips on how NOT to gleen to the edges of your team's resources:

1. When calculating the length of a process ensure that you include some breathing time.

2. Take into consideration the time-scales involved in any project. Longer projects need moments that can be used as mini re-launches, giving staff the time to pause and take stock.

3. At the busiest times choose to outsource some of the work rather than maxing people out with excessive amounts of overtime.

4. Be considerate towards the personal needs of team members and make appropriate allowances. This will pay dividends in getting commitment to the cause. For example; offering understanding when someone has just returned from a time of bereavement or when their spouse is ill can help to build staff up towards full commitment.

5. Measure every process but be consistent ensuring that you include your team in the process. Measurement can help to show members how your philosophy works for them, thus gaining their respect and commitment.


These soft skills are not easy and they don’t produce immediate results. They do, however, help to create a culture of commitment.

Don’t use the Big Rule to manage your team

Some years ago I worked for a company that had a positive attitude towards it's staff. Providing free tea and coffee along with allowing occasional personal telephone calls helped to create a positive culture and plenty of good will from the staff.

A problem arose when it was discovered that a member of staff had been making long distance calls during work time; and plenty of them. The departmental manager had to decide how to deal with the situation and chose, in my opinion, the wrong response.

He made the decision to stop staff using the telephones for personal calls even though most people used them for minor things such as booking a dentist appointment, checking on their children, or similar.

He chose to make a BIG RULE and within minutes had lost the good will of his department. The rest of the management team were placed under pressure to adopt the same policy and one by one departments were told that this small privilege had gone.

It never ceases to amaze me that managers take this route; by doing so they are abdicating their leadership responsibility.

Phrases like ‘fair and consistent’ are trotted out in order to justify their decisions. All of this just to avoid doing would managers are paid to do; manage.

It would have been far more productive to deal directly with the person concerned. This would have kept the good will of the department and given a clear signal to the rest of the team what ‘occasional personal calls’ meant.

I held out against the pressure to conform and didn’t instigate the new rule in my department, knowing that within a few weeks things would return to normal.

They did as, one by one, the rest of the managers realised what they had lost in operating the BIG RULE instead of being leaders who manage people.

How you treat those who leave you has a direct effect upon those who stay

I don’t know what it is with leaders and managers but there seems to be a consistent inability to let people leave well. Understandably we have an emotional connection with choices made by others but it is important that we see a bigger picture.

Remaining team members will watch how we respond to those who leave and make their own conclusion. Even if they don’t comment the judgement they make will be store up and form the basis for their future trust in you as the leader.

Here are five ways to let people go well, each of which will have a positive effect upon the rest of your team or group.

1. Don’t cut them completely out of the picture. The temptation is to Tippex them out of your world as if their contribution wasn’t important. This will only serve to make you team feel like commodities; only valuable when they are of use to you.

2. Only communicate the leaver’s own reasons for their decision. Never add your own commentary to it. This will only serve to make you look bitter. If their reasons are of a difficult nature then take the time to agree together what you will tell people.

3. Celebrate with them about their future. This allows other team members to talk freely to you about what will happen next.

4. Try not to take things personally. Often people will take the opportunity to offload on you about their frustrations. Try not to over respond.

5. Take the opportunity to learn. There are many reasons why people move on and therefore many things we can learn from the process. Change will always happen; how we deal with it can strengthen what we do in the future.

How to hide your wealth behind false frugality!

As we head towards an election year here in the UK expect to see politicians doing incredible things to attract your votes. We will be treated to wealthy individuals living on benefit for a week in order to convince us that they know the pressures faced by the common man (or woman).

If that isn’t enough we will probably find a batch of them sleeping for the night on the streets so that they can show sympathy with the most disadvantaged in our society.

Either way the rest of us will know that one week on less than the minimum wage proves nothing when you have bags of cash stored up in all your nineteen bank accounts. And 12 hours under the railway arches is not exactly hardship when your champagne is on ice back in one of your four houses.

I wonder, if like me, you have met people who have a similar approach when trying to prove that they live a frugal life. They display all the signs of being understated in both dress and lifestyle yet every now and they you get glimpses of hidden reserves.

So if you want to look frugal when you are really quite well off here are my top tips:

1) Buy an old car and gradually replace all the parts. People will think that you are very frugal. You will be like the man who had the same brush for twenty-five years even though it had had ten new heads and twelve new handles.

2) Visit the local charity shops but only buy items that would have been expensive when originally sold. This means that you can brag about getting them on the cheap. You do have the luxury of buying anything you want so, unlike truly poor people, you can take the risk on second hand.

3) Buy all your Christmas presents in January. Again another opportunity to brag about all the bargains you have managed to find.

4) Buy all your summer holiday clothes at the end of summer ready for the following year. In addition to those much longed for bragging rights you can buy in a couple of sizes just in case you put on a pound or two over the Christmas period.

5) Visit all the supermarkets in your area in order to buy your weekly shopping. That way you can get all the bargains that are on offer. Don’t be concerned that you can only do this if you have a car enough petrol available. The poor don’t have this luxury because they don’t have the access and to do so on public transport would take three times as long.

How frugal are you?