Tag Archives: Church

Quick review: Reading for the common good

Reading for the Common Good: How Books Help Our Churches and Neighborhoods Flourish by C. Christopher Smith

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The surprise for me on reading this book is that it’s not about reading, not primarily. It seems to me that Smith’s primary argument is that local churches can and should aim to make their neighbouring communities flourish. As part of this – a very major part of it – is to read well and to read widely. To say that reading is secondary in this work is in no way to minimise its significance, but to place reading in service of a greater purpose.

For Smith, reading is broad. He mentions material from technical manuals, through journalism, fiction and non-fiction, as well as the Bible. He is also equally generous in acknowledging the range of reading skill levels: there’s a clear effort to avoid snobbishness.

I have a couple of niggles, though, one of these is probably just a personal preference but the other is more important.

Firstly, the less important complaint, about a matter I notice in Christian books from time to time. I sense – maybe I’m oversensitive – that there are many moments of too-easy judgmentalism. There often seems to be a hidden phrase at the end of sentences like, ‘We have been poor at …,’ or ‘The church has failed in …’: ‘by we I mean others.’

The second complaint is of theological looseness, of major terms going undefined. To limit myself to one example, take ‘reconciliation.’ This appears to be a kind of place-holder for the (true) idea that God is doing something for the whole of reality (‘the healing and reconciliation of all creation’ on p.18, or ‘a way that bears witness to the reconciling love of Christ’ on p.147). But what does Smith mean by this reconciliation? And who does it? I can’t tell if he thinks churches and Christians to some extent bring about reconciliation, or if it’s a completed work of God, or some other formulation. I expect that ‘flourish’ (used in the subtitle) will always be a flexible term, but think some terms do require more precision. Perhaps Smith covered this is his earlier work, Slow Church, but it still needs some coverage here.

But moving from these matters, I think this is a book worth reading with others to expand our view of what a church can be and do. It’s full of ideas, it set me to think of ways we can be better neighbours, and it can promote something that Smith repeatedly extols – conversation!

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Church, church, church

In the last three weeks, we have had three completely different Sunday meetings as Albury Bible Church.

Week One was ‘normal’, as we used to describe it. In the hall at Albury High School. Sunday school in a classroom. Set up and pack down, including signage, PA and music. That was our week in Hebrews 9, the reminder that ritual does nothing for Christ is the real priest who does everything.

Week Two saw rules intended to slow the spread of corona virus, including a government ban on meetings over 100. We are not that large: no change for us! So we thought, until the education department decision to halt community use of buildings as another useful public health measure. Hastily, we arranged a Sunday gathering outside at the church office (aka, my backyard).

In a beautiful touch, we knew this would likely be our last gathering like this for some time, even as we turned to Hebrews 10 (“not neglecting to meet together …”). As the kids enjoyed more than 4m2 each inside the office, we discussed options for our church life. How will we stir one another up towards love and good deeds?

And so to Week Three – the ‘new normal’? – meeting online from home. Perhaps the most remembered verse of Hebrews 11 tells us that the experience of faith apprehends what we hope for and yet cannot see. Real things, that are beyond sight and touch, are known as real through trust (see Hebrews 11:1).

I love church and seeing my fellow church members. Here was ‘church’ when not one of us left home, and the ‘sight’ of my family in faith was via a screen. The gathering was not real, but virtual. The sight was also not real, but virtual. Yet, through faith, our gathering and mutual recognition were real.

Each of these three weeks differ significantly. And there are obvious downsides to every way we gather. Despite these, each week encouraged me to press on for Christ, and each week left me thankful for the body of Christ of which I am a part. At the most profound level, there is no difference between what happened any Sunday.

On the last three Sundays, we had church, church, and church. And it was wonderful!

Backyard church
Outdoor church

Protecting the kids

Australia has just received the report of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, after five years of hearings. It’s been necessary but terrible. There have been awful accounts of institutional power used to cover up abuse and protect abusers – including a number of churches or ministries. The police referrals from the royal commission number in the thousands.

As a Christian minister, and also with some junior sports involvement, I have wondered what to do to improve safety. There are a number of good and widely-known protective measures: comply with your state’s Working With Children Check (NSW here); complete safety training; have nominated safety contacts; arrange groups so children are not left alone with an adult.

But here’s an idea I’d like to suggest. It’s a message for any adult-trainer-teacher to communicate to every child and family under their care. I’d like each adult to say this:

Make sure that you tell people everything you learn here. There are no secrets!

I reckon this statement has a few good things going for it.

  • Abuse loves secrecy.
    So many accounts of those hurt include things like, “It’s our special secret”, “If you tell anyone I will …” Let’s make secrecy explicitly against our ways.
  • It’s a great way to teach.
    A child who can communicate the lesson has learnt the lesson. It might be a Sunday School message about how Jesus’ death brings forgiveness of sin, or a cycling tip about how to hold the handlebars.
  • It can develop enthusiasm.
    “Guess what I learnt this week!”
  • It tells teachers and trainers that we expect kids to share all that happens.
  • It tells parents and carers to expect communication about our program.
  • It’s good promotion.
    If you’re teaching Sunday School, surely you want more families to join in and hear the good news. Similarly for a sports team, music group, art class, … Happy participants who speak up are a walking invitation.
  • It tells the whole church/club/group that we have a culture of openness.
  • Biblically, there are no secrets.
    God’s judgement is coming, and all secrets will be revealed. Christians especially should know and live by this. Jesus said, “For nothing is hidden that will not be made manifest, nor is anything secret that will not be known and come to light.” (Luke 8:17)

This is only a small tip. But I think I will begin to try it out. I certainly pray for better protection of children in all sorts of institutions across Australia.

Speaking of church

“To the angel of the church in Ephesus write: ‘The words of him who holds the seven stars in his right hand, who walks among the golden lampstands.'”
Revelation 2:1

[To the church in Smyrna] “I know your tribulation and your poverty (but you are rich) …”
Revelation 2:9

[To the church in Laodicea] “For you say, I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing, not realising that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked.”
Revelation 3:19

These verses from Revelation demonstrate a couple of important things about church – that church is all about Jesus, and that church appearances can be wrong.

Firstly, church is all about Jesus being present. In Revelation, the image of seven stars and seven lamps symbolise the seven churches. No church is defined by its building, its programmes, its leadership, … It’s a church because Jesus is there. Take away Jesus and you have no church.

But secondly, church appearances can trick us. The church in Smyrna was described as poor – yet Jesus’ point of view was, “but you are rich”. The church in Laodicea was very confident that they had everything, and more than enough. But Jesus’ words could not be more different: “wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked”.

So how should we speak about churches? I reckon we speak in two ways: one way for our church, another way for other churches.

Talking about other churches: humility

The way to speak about other churches is with humility.

We have good reason to speak about other churches – it’s not gossip! I want to hear about churches. I try to listen and remember what I hear about churches. If I know someone moving to a new town, I want to be able to say, “Hey, when you move, try out Church X.”

On the flip side, it’s a great help to know if a church might be going astray. If I meet someone from there, or they move to my area, this knowledge gives me a head-start on what issues to be wary of, and what conversations to have.

And yet …

And yet appearances can be wrong. Reputation might be inaccurate. So while I argue that we can talk about other churches, we must be humble. In others words, we admit that we don’t know everything – only Jesus does – and we might be plain wrong.

Talking about our own church: not humility

But when we speak of our own church, let’s drop the (false) humility. If we are part of a church, it should be because we are convinced that Christ is with us by his Spirit. A church with Jesus lacks nothing.

In short, we know our church as a real and living church because of the presence of Jesus – no matter what the appearance may be.

So let’s speak up confidently!

Let’s forget the, “We’re not doing much. Nobody really knows us. You’re probably not interested in this, but I’ll invite you anyway …” Instead, we remember that Christ walks among us!

Quick review: Six steps to loving your church

Six Steps to Loving Your ChurchThis is another in the Matthias Media series of Six Steps … studies. There’s some video input (two short videos each session), as well as discussion questions. It’s well-suited to use in a group, but I reckon these questions could also work for a solo reader.

The studies are for any and every Christian. And they aim to help us move from being consumers and users of church to being loving servants of church. It aims to be a series that changes behaviour at church, as well as thinking.

Fitting in with the ‘behaviour and thinking change’ aim, these six steps do not include in-depth and lengthy study of Bible passages. A couple of the studies don’t look at the Bible at all. It felt a bit odd not to open the Bible – but perhaps that’s evidence of how I’ve been small-group-inculturated. In any case, the six weeks are all underpinned by clearly-explained biblical ideas about church.

Also fitting the aim of real change, each week has assignments. For example, don’t sit in your ‘normal’ seat at church. Or, think of people to invite to church, then share those plans with the group.

In my group, people loved the assignments. They made a strong link between the ideas we discussed and our regular behaviour. By making the link, we were better able to remember the ideas, too.

Because the ideas link from study to study, and because assignments are set and then followed-up, it really is best for people to get to each study. It’s possible to benefit even after missing part of the series – but much more possible if you can make it to each of the six steps.

The discussion guide has leaders’ notes. They proved mostly superfluous to us, but would perhaps give confidence to a very new discussion leader.

I highly recommend this short course. It can fit in well as part of an existing small group (as long as you usually spend more time in the Bible and at prayer). It can also be used as a stand-alone series, perhaps in a church ministry training programme.



The church in fiction: Home

Here’s a beautiful description of church from Home, a novel by Marilynne Robinson. I love the ways this combines the local and personal (that building and that preacher) with the unchanging doctrines of Christ.

For her, church was an airy white room with tall windows looking out on God’s good world, with God’s good sunlight pouring in through those windows and falling across the pulpit where her father stood, straight and strong, parsing the broken heart of humanity and praising the loving heart of Christ. That was church.



Church life is Easter

Listening to our church sermon on Acts 12 (our talk recordings are here) it was impossible to miss the parallels between the attack on Jesus and the attack on the church. Within five short verses, Luke artfully associates Jesus’ Easter experience with the life of the Jerusalem church. Here are the details that establish the link.

  • Herod
    When Jesus was arrested, Pilate drew a Herod – Herod Antipas – into the trial (Luke 23:7-8). In Acts 12, it’s another Herod – Herod Agrippa – who arrests Jesus’ apostles (Acts 12:1). The Herodian family can’t keep away from mischief!
  • Unleavened Bread
    Jesus’ last days before crucifixion were in the days of Unleavened Bread (see Luke 22:1, 7). The arrests in Acts were at the same time of year (Acts 12:3)
  • After the Passover
    Herod’s initial plan was to bring Peter out from prison “after Passover” (Acts 12:4). Compare this with the plans for Jesus’ arrest (“not during the feast” Mat 26:5, Mark 14:2). In both cases the planned delay did not occur
  • Prayer
    Prayer is common in the whole Bible. Praying earnestly is very rare. It’s how Jesus prayed in the Garden (Luke 22:44), and how the church prayed for Peter (Acts 12:5)
  • Death & deliverance
    Jesus was crucified, yet was delivered from the tomb. In Acts 12 James is killed while Peter is delivered from death. The experience of the church was not simply one or the other – there’s both death and deliverance.

These similarities build up a picture. Luke, I believe, wants us to see that the attack on the church in Jerusalem was like the attack on Jesus in Jerusalem. It’s not an exact parallel in each detail, yet there is a definite likeness. Jesus uniquely lived out Easter. Jesus’ death and life is the hub of God’s work. The church is built on Jesus’ Easter ministry. And also the church embodies Easter. The shape of church life is Easter.

Why point this out? So we have right expectations.

In church, and in this world, believers are not immune to unpredictable hate. James was killed, but this was not a sign that Jesus somehow failed the church. Peter was freed, but this does not constitute a promise from Jesus to ‘get out of gaol free.’

Church life, in other words, is the same turbulent and confusing and troubling life that Jesus experienced as part of the first Easter. And church life is certainly the place where God himself is at work for good.



A thought starter on church

In a specialty shop I expect to find people with working knowledge of their products. In a family-oriented park I expect seats, public toilets, and no one driving cars. In an aeroplane I expect seatbelts and a safety demonstration.

In each place, expectations shape the whole experience – and guide my behaviour too.

So what are the right expectations to bring to church? Our understanding of church will direct the way we decide to live.

Here’s an exercise I did with some people from church. We had to complete the following sentence, after filling in the blank with the various options: If church is like … then this is how I behave

  • a business
  • entertainment
  • spiritual retail (a shop for god-stuff)
  • a spiritual public service (like a hospital or employment agency)
  • a family
  • a club

I won’t unfairly influence your thoughts by listing what we said! But I am interested in what you think. What insights jump out for you?



That confusing church meeting

At Albury Bible Church, we recently put together a tool to help us plan what we do. We think there are three main things: Welcome. Grow. Serve.

Welcome: in the gospel of Jesus, God welcomes us to his family. Therefore we will tell people of that welcome, as well as welcoming them into our church family.

Grow: it’s normal for God’s children to grow in the obedience of faith. Therefore we will make Christian growth normal for our church members.

Serve: Christians do not grow for their own sake, but in love. Therefore we encourage and train for service, both in church and in the wider community.

‘OK’, I thought, ‘when we launch this, I’ll talk about how it works for Sunday’s 10am church meeting.’ So I spent time pondering how our Sunday morning expressed these plans. What we do – and we’re not very unusual – is a mixture. And that mixture is both a help and a hindrance.

alburybiblechurch_leftThe mixture
Sunday church is a mixture. We welcome, because people walk in off the street. We announce that Jesus is Lord and invite people to follow him. We grow because we always read and hear God’s word for instruction, encouragement and challenge. We serve because … well, have you seen how many people it takes to run even a simple church service! Sunday at 10am is everything – welcome, grow, and serve.

So helpful
It is very helpful that Sunday @10 is such a mixture. It contains elements of all the things we want to do. If you wanted a full taste of Albury Bible Church, but in just one meal, the best place to go would be Sunday church. Despite being nowhere close to perfect, you’d find out what we say about God’s great welcome. You would also see something about the ways we encourage Christian growth. By looking around, you would also see quite a lot of serving going on. I hope you would be able to say, ‘I get what this church is about.’

That has to be a good thing. It also is an encouragement to be very clear in church each week. Church is not humdrum – it is a bright spotlight on ourselves and what we think really counts.

The three-in-one nature of Sunday @10 is helpful in another way: for a church health test. We should ask ourselves how we are going at welcoming, growing, serving. Easy to ask – not always easy to answer. Perhaps the place to start is at church. Is there evangelism on the agenda on Sunday mornings? Are new or shy people welcomed further into relationships? Do Christians grow there, or do they stagnate? Are more people serving? Are long-term servants receiving support to stop burn-out? The answers might be confronting. But good to know.

A hindrance
The three-in-one nature of Sunday morning is also a hindrance, a risk to our church ministry. Simply because it can’t do any of these three things at great depth. Church is good, but it’s not enough.

If we were to rely on Sunday mornings to do our evangelism, we would be doing very little evangelism. If Sundays were the only point of welcome, our relationships would be paper-thin. If Sunday morning was the only time of help for Christian growth, we would all be stunted in faith. If this were the single focus for service, the opportunities would be limited and the people soon exhausted.

I reckon that to think ‘Sundays are going OK’ is a risk to ministry. The risk is a false equation – that ‘Sunday is OK’ equals ‘We are going OK’. They are not equivalent!

How this factor works out will vary from church to church. For our church, we see the need to complement Sunday morning with a whole range of further ministry. We specifically evangelise in a dedicated programme called Connect, reading Mark’s gospel together. We need to make more of our church membership. We emphasise our Open Bible Groups as the primary growth-focussed ministry. And Night Train is just one way we support and develop serving. As the fanatical texters say, YMMV* but, to thrive as faithful communities, all our churches will need to do a good job away from the main Sunday meeting.

It feels like I have re-discovered what is obvious. But that’s the type of discovery I like to major in! What are your thoughts? I’d love to hear more and to engage in discussion about this. Comment away!



Church & football (OK, soccer)

Source: http://flic.kr/p/cGGisb

For readers who are part of a church, have you ever thought that your church is just like a soccer team? Because I have.

In a soccer team, everybody gets to put foot to ball. We all work so our team can score. In other words, the small skills are the same (kick!) and the big aim is the same (score more goals!).

Sure, there are differences. Left-footers, right-footers, and ambidextrous freaks. Some run faster, some defend better. But whatever position you are on the team, you kick the ball.

This reminds me of church because everyone who trusts Jesus has the same tasks: live in godliness and speak about Jesus. One might struggle with greed and another with anger – but both seek the Father’s help to struggle well.

And, I’m convinced, God wants us all to speak. Here are some of the types of speech: prayer in Jesus name (private or in groups); singing that encourages faith and gives thanks to God; answering questions about ‘God-stuff’; teaching Sunday school; preaching; leading a Bible study group; sharing a Bible passag to encourage a friend; door-knocking the neighbourhood; teaching your own family the Bible; etc. Some speech is more flamboyant – like the flashy football striker. Some is really high pressure – like taking a penalty. Some is essential but almost unseen – like the hard-working defender. Yet it’s all speech for Jesus.

Now, every soccer team has one odd-bod. The goalkeeper. The keeper also gets to kick the ball. And the keeper has the same aim – that the team score and win. But they also get to handle the ball, and wear funny clothes. They’re a bit different. Just like paid ministers (that’s me). There are many similarities between goalies and ministers/pastors.

  • Most kicks take place away from the ‘keeper: church is not about ‘the minister’, but everyone taking every opportunity
  • A keeper does not take the most kicks, but these kicks are often set-pieces and kind of predictable
  • When a keeper makes a mistake, the consequences for the team are usually immediate and severe
  • Have you seen the funny clothes we ministers sometimes wear?
  • In the end, the goalie is just another player

Words for all team members, from Colossians 3:15-17:

And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in one body. And be thankful. Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God. And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.