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We actually need a reformation of Christianity so our institutions better reflect the intention that was always meant to define them

We actually need a reformation of Christianity so our institutions better reflect the intention that was always meant to define them

So much has happened for us as a family, and for me as an individual since we left Melbourne in 2010. This photo is almost surreal.

As I write I am sitting aboard the Spirit of Tasmania II after a whirlwind visit to Victoria to celebrate my daughter’s 22nd birthday.

We came across on Tuesday evening and spent much of Wednesday driving as we visited the Mornington Fusion centre where we had lived for five years before travelling up to Bendigo to be with Maddi.

Seeing my little girl now all grown up and returning to Victoria, where I led the Fusion team for five years put me in a reflective mode, particularly in light of what I have been thinking about as I prepare for Sunday.

There has been a lot written about the church and what it is, or what it isn’t and mostly people are responding to the institutions they have encountered.

One of the features of institutions is that they are built for permanence. They were initially established in response to an idea or vision someone had, and then they take on a life of their own, and sometimes the idea or vision can go missing but the institution trundles on.

In order to lead we need to take a look at the original visions or ideas that built our institutions. This is definitely true of the institutions of church.

It was fascinating and a little disturbing for me to uncover the original idea behind what many of us call church while I was in Canada. In the 1950’s Donald McGavran blended sociology and marketing principles with simple theology in a way that made sense to a lot of people. While very few people know his name, almost every modern church has been influenced by his “Church Growth” paradigm.

Bono sang, in the song “Cedars of Lebanon”:

Choose your enemies carefully ’cause they will define you
Make them interesting ’cause in some ways they will mind you
They’re not there in the beginning but when your story ends
Gonna last with you longer than your friend

While Donald McGavran is not exactly my enemy, the paradigm he proposed definitely is because it produced institutions shaped by quite a different vision than I understand what the church is meant to be focussing on.

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Don’t give up, but step up, into the wrestle for the future of the church

Don’t give up, but step up, into the wrestle for the future of the church

Today I shared some interesting findings about people who have left the church. The response I received indicates that the findings are right on the money.

Josh Packard’s book Church refugees focussed on the significant number of people who are done with church, but not done with Jesus.  Some of the key findings from the book were that:

  • “The Dones” say they left because of the judgmental posture of church people individually and collectively which assaulted the communal experience they longed for.

  •  “The Dones” say they left because they are tired of trying to serve Jesus through the bureaucratic methods of church organizations which stifled progress and often gave little attention to what they cared for most. Many wished to build the Kingdom but were only offered opportunities to build someone’s church empire.

  • “The Dones” say they left because they want to answer questions about God through dialogue and struggle, not though prepackaged lectures and the predetermined positions of their community.

  • And “the Dones” say they left because their church only understood “morality” in terms of substance abuse and sexual activity with a common disregard to systemic issues of equality, poverty and unjust economics

I am increasingly convinced that we are reaching a tipping point.

The majority of followers of Jesus I talk to inside the church are just as concerned with the kinds of things that those who Packard calls “the Dones” name as their big questions.

What we call “church” has been shaped by all kinds of cultural influences. I don’t know many people who disagree with Priscilla Shirer:

“In the first century in Palestine, Christianity was a community of believers. Then Christianity moved to Greece and became a philosophy. Then it moved to Rome and became an institution. Then it moved to Europe and became a culture. And then it moved to America and became a business. We need to get back to being a healthy, vibrant community of true followers of Jesus.”

What we call church has been shaped by all kinds of influences… Dare we question our assumptions?

I don’t think it is just me, I truly do think that the majority of church leaders are conscious of the gap between where their church is and what they long for. It’s just that there are not many viable models of church done differently.

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These five practises that make Church harder are a good thing.

These five practises that make Church harder are a good thing.

We live in a culture where commitment is not normal. This is not news. The decline in commitment has been well documented.  Social researcher, Hugh Mackay, says that this current generation is…

“growing up in a world of ever-expanding choices, they have made a virtue of keeping their options open, and they have adopted “what else is there?” as their general catchcry. It’s a question that comes up whether the topic is a course of study, a job, a sexual partner, a musical genre, an outing, a set of religious or political beliefs, a fashion label, a food fad or a make of car.”

It is interesting that Mackay added religious beliefs to the list of things that people don’t want to commit to. One way we could respond to this trend would be to make it as easy as possible for people to say they are part of our churches.

There are five practises at my church, and many churches, that run directly counter to this temptation. Each one of these practises  demand a level of commitment that is increasingly counter-cultural.

The five practises are baptism, child dedication, communion, giving money and church membership. Other churches do some of these differently, but all churches have practises that demand commitment.

As a Pastor I often feel the temptation to make it easer for my people, but the more I am honest both about what the bible says and what my experience is, I know that reducing committment is not a path that ultimately makes life better.

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This is an important moment for the church to have a long hard look at itself and how it relates to same sex attracted people.

This is an important moment for the church to have a long hard look at itself and how it relates to same sex attracted people.

Up till now, I have been avoiding writing directly about the current same sex marriage and homophobia.

One glimpse at Facebook will tell you that this is an issue that divides friends and even divides families.

The reason this issue is so intense, is that on both sides people feel as though they are fighting a battle that goes to the very heart of their beliefs about themselves and the world.

For many Gay and Lesbian people, the question of whether they are able to marry seems like the final battle in the war to be accepted as full members of the society.

Things have come a long way in a short period of time. It is only 20 years ago that homosexuality was decriminalised in Tasmania. It is important for the whole community to acknowledge that same-sex attracted people have been treated in ways that have been blatantly dehumanizing.

We have heard a lot about “homophobia” in this debate. The word means “dislike of or prejudice against homosexual people.” While the term has been inappropriately extended to anyone who might want to vote “no” in the postal plebiscite, we need to acknowledge that there has been real homophobia in the Australian society and also in the Christian church.

For Christians particularly, who proclaim a gospel of love and grace, there simply is no excuse for dislike or prejudice against any category of people.

It is true though that questioning the nature of marriage goes to the heart of how Christians interpret the bible and understand their role in society.

The question of the Bible’s guidance for Christians who want to take their faith seriously is not a small thing, particularly for those of us who see the Bible as something more than a collection of historical manuscripts.

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The only kind of church that will actually work here is a Fair Dinkum one.

The only kind of church that will actually work here is a Fair Dinkum one.

Our family is orienting to church in Australia

We’ve been back in Australia for one month.

We’ve been surprised at how big the adjustment has been, however it does feel like we are starting to find our bearings.

Part of the adjustment has been the different place that the Christian church has in Australian society. The Aussie church is much more on the fringes here than it is in Canada.

Our church has a “men’s shed” program, which is pretty much what it sounds like: a shed in someone’s backyard that blokes get together in. In some places guys get together and build stuff or fix stuff… fortunately in our church the guys get together to eat, drink and watch footy.  (I’m not the most practical person in the world.)

It was at my first visit to the men’s shed and while I was there I had a conversation I have been thinking about ever since. One of the guys opened up with me about why he didn’t like going to church. He has shown up occasionally,  but found that the words people spoke were very different from the way they acted.

He spoke about his own personal experience of trusting a church leader who he invited into his home and spend hours with on the golf course, only to find out that all the while this guy was having an affair. He also spoke about the ongoing revelations of abuse that seem to get back to into the headlines every couple of weeks. There is no excuse for either of these things, and the fact that he was so disturbed by them are actually sign of his integrity.

Australians don’t have an issue with Jesus, they do have an issue with His church.

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If we are not continually seeking and learning and changing, we are not actually followers of Jesus, and we are certainly not seeking first the Kingdom of God.

If we are not continually seeking and learning and changing, we are not actually followers of Jesus, and we are certainly not seeking first the Kingdom of God.

Last week’s induction service was very encouraging, but now the real work starts…

It is Saturday morning and I am preparing for my first “normal” Sunday as the Senior Pastor of Citywide Baptist church.

As I was reflecting on what my first sermon should be about, I realised that it needed to come back to what has been the central question of my life since Leeanne and I were married: What does it mean to seek first the Kingdom of God?

Regular readers of Faith Reflections will know that Leeanne and I had Matthew 6:33 engraved on our wedding rings after deciding that we wanted that truth of that verse to be our point of orientation for the rest of our lives.

Only 11 months ago, as I was ordained in Canada, Leeanne gave me a plaque with the verse on it, kind of as a re-affirmation that we are still on the same journey we started in 1994. As I sit here on our bed tapping away on the keyboard, the plaque adorns the wall opposite our bed, as a daily reminder.

Eugene Peterson (the author of The Message and a bunch of other books I appreciate) believes that every preacher who has been at the task of preaching for a while, really has only one sermon. He believes that each Sunday they just find a different way of delivering the same message, because that message is the core story of their lives.

I think I understand what he means. The wrestle for faith, the wrestle to seek God’s will above my own, the wrestle to seek first the Kingdom of God, has been the defining question of my life. I started Faith Reflections as a way of expressing the wrestle, and every time I get up to preach I am basically covering the same ground.

My dream for Citywide Baptist church is that we would be a bunch of people on the journey to put Jesus first in every area of our lives, and because we are doing that, we are learning to love each other, love our neighbours and change the world.

This Sunday I will quote Jaques Ellul who wrote:

Christians were never meant to be normal. We’ve always been holy troublemakers, we’ve always been creators of uncertainty, agents of a dimension that’s incompatible with the status quo; we do not accept the world as it is, but we insist on the world becoming the way that God wants it to be. And the Kingdom of God is different from the patterns of this world.

That’s the kind of church I want to be part of.

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There is no question that women have not been seen or valued by the church in the way that Jesus saw or valued them. #ThingsOnlyChristianWomenHear

There is no question that women have not been seen or valued by the church in the way that Jesus saw or valued them. #ThingsOnlyChristianWomenHear

Wendy Thomas is one of my heroes

Often in brain-dead moments I will scan my Facebook or Twitter news feed. This morning I came across a post from Michael Frost which linked to the twitter hashtag #ThingsOnlyChristianWomenHear, and intrigued, I clicked on the tag.

If you are not on social media you can look at this blog by Rachel Elizabeth Asproth  where 55 of the top tweets are collated. It is an interesting list, mostly of direct quotes that women report being said to them in the context of church.

Apart from the odd one (and some were very odd), the overall sentiments could be summarized as:

  • Women shouldn’t teach men (either because the Bible says so or because they are too emotional).
  • Women shouldn’t be in leadership
  • Women are responsible for the sexual behaviour of men
  • A Women’s identity should be defined by marriage and children

There is something confronting about hearing these messages put into verbatim quotes by real people. While I understand the theological position that some of these views come from,  as I hear the actual words I can only imagine how painful they would be to hear.

I work on a pastoral team with some remarkable women. One person in particular has been a mentor for me and has been a pioneer in the denomination I have been working with.

Wendy felt God calling her to pastoral ministry long before women could be pastors in my denomination, in fact its only been in the last decade where she has finally been recognized as a Pastor, and only a couple of years ago that she was officially ordained. Despite this Wendy has faithfully served the function of pastor both in local churches and also at the denominational bible school.

Wendy turns 60 this weekend and is getting ready to retire. She has spent her whole life in a system that didn’t have a way to officially recognise the obvious call of God on her life until her last few years of ministry. She doesn’t make a big deal about it, but it is obvious that it has not been a simple journey. In a culture where women were meant to be married with children, Wendy was single and exercising leadership in churches that didn’t know how to recognise what she was doing.

Wendy will tell you about the men along the way that encouraged her and made space for her, but she will also (if you ask enough of the right kinds of questions), give a little glimpse into the pain of trying to follow God’s call on her life in a world that didn’t really understand or appreciate what it meant for her.

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The Awkward Truth about Churches in North America: lots of bonding, not so much bridging.

The Awkward Truth about Churches in North America: lots of bonding, not so much bridging.

Article published in today’s St. Albert Gazette 

As you have no doubt heard and also experienced for yourself, relationships matter. In fact the University of Minnesota published data to demonstrate that having a number of strong relationships significantly increase health, decrease crime and corruption and increase generosity and reciprocity.

Relationships are so beneficial that to almost every area of life that they are a real form of capital, in the economic sense of the word. The term “social capital” has been used for at least two decades to describe the number and strength of relationships people have.

As you would probably expect, going to church produces social capital. One study found that those who attend church on a weekly basis have 25% larger networks of relationship than those who rarely or never attend church. Those who go to church also trust about 20% more people than those who never go to church.

Robert Putnam was the social researcher who coined the term “social capital”, and he believes it takes at least two forms. The first, Bonding Social Capital, refers to the strength of your relationships and how likely people are to sacrifice themselves for you. The second, Bridging Social Capital, refers to the number of different kinds of relationships you have and the ease with which you make new connections.

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is the church the moral compass for the world? I hope not.

is the church the moral compass for the world? I hope not.

Last week I wrote about pornography and received a lot of feedback, some of which focussed the question of whether the church should be trying to be a moral compass.

In a world where we see different wings of the Christian church lining up against each other on  almost every issue you can name, it is an obvious question.

That question though, leads to another… what is “the church”?

I think what most people mean by “the church” is the organizational structures that are represented by personalities we see on the television or at events in out local communities. When we get most frustrated with the church, my guess is, it is that structure we are getting frustrated with… and often with good reason because the people we see representing that structure often seem to be out of touch with the reality that most of us experience on a day to day basis.

Would you trust someone who doesn’t seem to understand the reality of your life to be a moral compass?

This weekend I am preaching from the last couple of chapters of a pretty confronting book of the bible called Galatians. The author, Paul, was writing out of deep frustration because the little bunch of Jesus followers had started to focus on rules and regulations, and on systems and structures, rather than on the heart what he tried to teach them which was to live their life only in and through faith in Jesus. In fact he says “the only thing that counts is faith expressing itself in love.” (Galatians 4:6)

My guess is that part of the reason people have pushed back against the organized expression of the church is that they have hit the kind of things Paul was hitting with that little church. Rather than experiencing a radical kind of faith expressed in real love, they experience systems and structures, rules and regulations.

One of the regulations that the religious people were trying to put in place was that followers of Jesus should have a painful operation where they cut off the foreskin of the penis off (called circumcision).  Out of complete exasperation he finishes his tirade by saying “I wish they would go the whole way and cut the whole lot off….” (Galatians 5:12) Who says there isn’t humour in the bible?

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A healthy church doesn’t fit into business as usual… it sets an agenda that changes every aspect of life.

A healthy church doesn’t fit into business as usual… it sets an agenda that changes every aspect of life.

Introducing Erion at Taylor Seminary
Introducing Erion at Taylor Seminary

I like to read. I’ve read lots of books about church history and moments when it seemed like God was working in a special way. It often seems that these moments all happened long ago. This week I was reminded that is not always the case.

This past week I had the opportunity to reconnect with my friend Erion for the first time since we spoke together at Palm Beach Atlantic university.

Erion is one of my heroes. Together with his wife Melodie and his two partners in leadership, Lorena and Lucy, Erion has been at the forefront of what can only be described as a remarkable movement of young people in Albania.

According to the 2011 census, Albania has a population of 0.14% Christians who are not Catholic or Orthodox. Erion believes that in total there might be 30 healthy protestant churches in the whole country. By far the majority (over 56%) religion is Islam.

As I sat down with Erion this week, I was challenged by the reality he was describing.

In this country where by far the majority of people have no Christian history, God is at work in a way that sounds a lot like the early church.  A movement that has primarily started amongst young people is seeing hundreds of people come to faith and impacting whole cities and towns.

Erion estimates that over 500 young people have come to faith over the last 8 years, and most of them have become members of a team who are serving their city in lots of different ways. Each summer they run numbers of camps and day trips for local young people. They spend hours cleaning streets. They put on highly professional musicals that tour the country. They run festivals that build bridges in highly divided communities.  Over the last 12 months 100 of them have been taking turns to travel the 2 1/2 hours to the massive refugee camp on the Greek/Macedonian border and simply serving there. They do so much more than turn up at a church on a Sunday morning.

Since I last met with him, Erion had left his hometown because the size and competence of the team had grown to a point where life was just too easy. He wanted to plant a church in a neighbouring town where the team had been running festivals and day trips for a few years. His church started 12 months ago with four young men. Now that church averages between 90 and 120 people each Sunday.

Leeanne and I sat down with Erion for a couple of hours on Monday night. Catching up with him this time was different, because I am now a pastor and I am continually wrestling with how to build a church that is healthy and growing.

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Ordination, while indeed symbolic, truly does matter, at least to me.

Ordination, while indeed symbolic, truly does matter, at least to me.

Being prayed for by the elders of the Church, Tim from the District Office, David from Taylor Seminary and Marty from Fusion.

It has been an unusually long time since I wrote a Faith Reflection.

This has largely been because I have been deeply engaged with what I have been doing over the last few weeks, but also because it has taken a bit of processing to come to terms with it.

You see, in addition to running our first one week Foundations course at the church and leading the church to run three Open Crowd festivals simultaneously across the city, and engaging with an annual planning retreat, I got ordained.

Since I started as a Pastor three years ago, I knew ordination was going to be something that needed to happen. It certainly was not something I had ever seriously thought about before starting at the church, and it was not something that naturally fitted my picture of myself.

Ordination is a recognition by both our local church and also by the denomination that I have been called to ministry in the church, and in particular to “called to a preaching or theological ministry.” At one level ordination is largely symbolic and doesn’t change my job at all.

In the lead up to the ordination service I really didn’t have much emotional space to process what was going to happen.  I was quite surprised how big an impact the moment actually had on me.

That morning Leeanne had given me a plaque with the words of Matthew 6:33 painted in a black script on a white background. It was the verse that we had engraved on our wedding rings in 1994 and it was the verse that had been our point of orientation since that special moment. On the back of the plaque, Leeanne wrote:

I am up for the adventure… wherever it takes us. Let’s keep trying to live out this verse.

I am proud of my wife. She is one of the bravest people I know. Trying to “seek first the Kingdom of God” has not been simple for either of us. As regular readers of Faith Reflections would be aware, we served with international mission organization, Fusion, for 21 years, and had expected to be doing that for the rest of our lives.

The fact Leeanne wrote those words on the plaque on the day I was being ordained in a church in Canada, is a testament to how much she truly has been “up for the adventure.”

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I love the heart, vision, challenge and pathway that I am seeing.

I love the heart, vision, challenge and pathway that I am seeing.

There was a two week period where I attended two conferences that were quite different but at the same time similar, and influenced by a very challenging author and what I was preaching about at the time.

The first conference was the National Assembly of the Christian and Missionary Alliance. That was followed by the Deepening Community conference hosted by the Tamarack Institute for Community Engagement. While I was doing all this I had also been continuing to preach through Ephesians chapter four and was processing two books by Danny Silk (Culture of Honor and Keep Your Love on) which have been challenging and inspiring.

These diverse experiences and inputs somehow wove together, and a picture is emerged that had me feeling both excited and daunted.

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I am glimpsing both the kind of family and kind of church I want to be part of

I am glimpsing both the kind of family and kind of church I want to be part of

Dinner on our first night
Dinner on our first night

I loved the week I spent with my two eldest children, driving 2,500 km from Edmonton to Vancouver and back in 5 days. My daughter Maddi needed to renew her passport, which must be done in person and at the consulate.

24 hours in a car gives a lot of time for incidental conversation. It also gives a lot of time to listen to music any anything else we happened to have on our phones. I felt old.

We caught up with friends in Vancouver. Sam and Danni both worked with Fusion in Australia and are closer in age to Josh and Maddi than me. It was helpful for me to see the way that Sam and Josh chatted about the podcasts they listened to.

Maddi and I listened to a couple of Josh’s podcasts on the way home and it dawned on me that there is a whole other digital world that is largely invisible to me.

The podcasts were basically groups of people seemingly talking about nothing for a couple of hours at a time, and yet enjoying audiences of millions of people. It is a whole new form of media that doesn’t really make sense to me.

It struck me that groups like Rooster Teeth and people like Pewdiepie are the Beatles and Elvis Presley of this generation… and most of us have never heard of them.

If I am to be honest I have thought that these people were simply a distraction that Josh would grow out of, and maybe they are, but they are part of his world at the moment and to know him I need to know the things that shape him.

In my last reflection I wrote about creating a culture of honour in my family. It’s an idea that has continued to frame my thinking. As one of my readers commented last week, creating a culture of honour is not only the key to a healthy family, it is the key to any healthy group. It is also much easier said than done.

The phrase “a culture of honour” was coined by Danny Silk, one of the pastors from Bethel church. His book “Creating a culture of Honour” has challenged me and provided a vision of the difference between how people normally relate to each other and how a group of people shaped by the truth of the gospel would relate to each other. His book has given me a vision both for my family and also for what the church should be.

The fundamental difference between a culture of honour and what is normal is that in a culture of honour people are trusted and people are different.

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Heaven on Earth, we need it now. I’m sick of all of this, hanging around.

Heaven on Earth, we need it now. I’m sick of all of this, hanging around.

It’s interesting to search for “Ephesians 4” on this site and very quickly you discover just how much God has brought me back to this book, and this particular chapter since I started writing. This coming Sunday I will be launching the series by doing an overview of the profound vision that Paul paints in the first three chapters.

I was privileged to share a sermon series both in Canada and at my church in Hobart that explored this one chapter.

The central idea of the whole sermon series was that Paul’s vision of the church is radical in the proper sense of the word.

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The six sick practises we have developed to avoid conflict, which eat away at the church like cancer.

The six sick practises we have developed to avoid conflict, which eat away at the church like cancer.

Yesterday I sat in a room with a bunch of pastors as we tried to work out what it meant to genuinely be in fellowship. For a number of years we had met and been warm and polite, but yesterday something shifted, just a little bit, and we were starting to be more real than we had ever been.

Later in the afternoon I sat with another pastor as we reflected on the Christian church, and together we agreed that one of the biggest challenges we faces is that we are generally isolated as individuals. We agreed  that this was largely because we avoid the potential for the pain that conflict might bring.

I am increasingly convinced that the big challenge facing the church is not theological so much as relational.

Jesus said that the relationships between the members of his church would be so different to the norm, that people would believe just on the basis of what they were seeing:

“By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”
(John 13:35 NIV)

“I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me.”
(John 17:20-21 NIV)

The corporate life of the Christian church was to be the main argument for the truth of the gospel.

Our problem is that we don’t know how to cope with difference and still be one. We don’t know how to allow room for individuality because we don’t know how to have the right kinds of conflict.

I believe there are six sick practises we have developed specifically to avoid conflict, that are like cancers eating away at the very life that is meant to sustain us.

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