Category Archives: Culture
Some years ago I posted here about Vocational Discernment as a vital piece of intentional discipleship. This is the ongoing conversation focused on the question: What is God calling you to do? (And what steps are you taking?)
Without a tailored conversation around each individual disciple’s unique shaping, gifting and calling by God, discipleship mentoring so often loses intensity in the following ways:
1. It gets lost climbing the asymptotic mountain of theoretical perfection. The trainee is measured up against a long list of ideals and spends huge energy trying to make 1% improvements towards an imagined ‘ideal Christian’ that God does not expect of any of us individually.
2. It wastes time and energy shaping the trainee into a body part they’re not made to be – often the part that the mentor is.
3. It gives a false impression of non-urgency where the trainee has their whole life to plod towards general ‘fitness’, rather than training for an event (or events) that God has entered you for in his great Games.
Years later I still passionately believe this. But I’ve come to see that Vocational Discernment is just as important for churches as it is for individuals.
Typically churches use the term vision to describe the bigger and future direction for a church. But I think vocation is better. It asks the question “What is God’s vision for this church?” “What has he put us here and called us together for?” It helps in the following ways:
1. It centres the process outside of ourselves, reminding ourselves that there can be a significant difference between what we’d like to do and what we ought to be doing.
2. It invites a uniqueness and contextualisation of ministry, rather than every church trying to be a replica of some other (often imagined) ‘successful’ church.
3. It lasts longer than the current leadership. Often in our churches there’s a new era and a new focus with each new pastor. But where a church knows its vocation, it has a reference point for the appointment of pastors and other leaders.
So what’s your vocation? And your church’s? And how do they intersect?
Many years ago I was chairing a committee that was tackling a complex problem. As far as committees go, it was a good one, well stocked with highly intelligent people and united in our purpose. It didn’t take too long before they came up with a very clever approach to overcome the problem. “Well done! Sounds like a great way forward,” I said.
The next month we met again, and to my surprise the problem hadn’t been overcome. “Oh, I said, did it prove to be more difficult than we thought?” But they assured me it wasn’t, and in fact it wasn’t very difficult at all. They laid out the series of simple steps needed and again I said “Go for it.”
After another month you’d think that this brilliant committee would have knocked it on the head, but once again there was our problem, undented. “Well this one really is mocking us, isn’t it? We just can’t seem to win,” I said. But again they assured me that this problem would really be no problem, no problem at all. Then it began to dawn on me. “Could it be,” I asked, “That you’ve found a great plan for solving the problem, and it’s not that the steps are too hard for you, but rather that they’re too easy?” Their eyes brightened. You see, this group of great thinkers were not great doers. The actual steps, once found, required little thinking, and thinking was their thing.
And it got me thinking about mission, because, well, everything does. Does the mission of our largely white, educated, middle class movement suffer because our task is too difficult? Or is it too easy. People like us – like me – enjoy a good puzzle, a good debate, the wrestling with ideas, but not so much the wrestling with a lawnmower. If there’s a process, and it’s simple, then it should be automated. Done by robots. Or just by ‘others’. Once we’ve thought up a good way, well, the rest is boring.
There are a lot of good books and conferences and discussion groups about mission, but the truth is that the way the Lord has given to us isn’t rocket science. It involves taking an interest in others, sharing meals, asking questions, serving, praying, and the talking needed is hardly ever hifalutin. It’s labour-intensive. God wants to reach out to each person, to connect personally with them, through people. That will take many of us, even for a small suburb, but we prefer to fantasize about God ‘sweeping his hand across the suburb’ and getting it done without anyone having to get their fingernails dirty. But that’s not his way. I’m not saying we should stop reading, or doing great thinking about mission. But if we’re dreaming that our lab will suddenly mass-produce a vaccine to automatically Christianise everyone, we need to wake up. And attend to the patch that the Lord has assigned to us. There’s someone at hand that you can visit, call, share a meal with, share God’s love. Too easy, eh?
The Korean pastor handed his business card to me, and immediately two words jumped out from his vision statement: Powerful church. I found myself recoiling, the words grated on me. ‘How arrogant!’ I thought, judging before even thinking.
“You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you,” says Jesus at the start of the Book of Acts, “and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” If Pastor Park was arrogant in his vision for a powerful church, then how much more Christ himself?
It’s interesting and wonderful how it takes believers of other cultures to see the ways in which we have sold out to ours. Australians value humility. We really value it, and are at our most powerful when we’re pulling down someone who’s up themselves. We hate pride and arrogance, and sometimes so much that we forget to love God.
You see, we tend to draw a straight line from strength and success to pride and arrogance, so much so that we often can’t tell the difference. Someone who’s successful is obviously proud. And therefore, one way that we can cleverly avoid that deadly sin is to not be successful. To not strive, nor pursue excellence. The words “powerful church” grate on us, because we can make a virtue out of our churches being weak, disorganised and unfruitful. We congratulate ourselves, agreeing that “we’d rather be like this that like one of those try-hard churches.”
Yes, churches and Christians who make efforts to love the Lord their God with all their heart, all their soul, all their mind and all their strength are obviously doing it wrong! Believers who study the Scriptures hard, pray regularly and work on sharpening their ministry are clearly mistaken and trying to build up Brownie points with God. Don’t they know we’re saved by grace, and our Master loves it most when we bury our talents to show our trust in him?
Sacred agents, let’s try to recognise this idiocy when we see it and repent from it. God is calling us to step up and grow up, strive forward (1 Co 9:24-27), and actively seek his empowering. “Strengthen your feeble arms and weak knees,” says the writer to Hebrews “…so that the lame may not be disabled, but rather healed.” In Christ it is perfectly possible to be both strong and humble, powerful and noble, excellent and gentle. Worth a shot, despite what the Aussies around us will say?
For more on the pursuit of true humility, rather than pride-in-shame, see Dan Kent’s provocative little book Confident Humility. And while I’m plugging books, keep an eye out for Taking the Plunge: Baptism and Belonging to Jesus. Coming soon!
Let’s get the shameless plug out the way – I’ve a new little book coming soon. It’s called Taking the Plunge: Baptism and Belonging to Jesus, and it’s a guide for enquirers and new believers. Keep an eye out for it!
Have you noticed, though, that for many people, baptism is coming a long time after the decision to entrust themselves to Christ? In Scripture we see people being baptised quite immediately upon receiving Christ. In fact, it’s presented as the way of receiving Christ – faith and action, mind and body together.
A similar shift has happened with weddings, that other ceremony of initiation, and I think there’s a cultural correlation. Many used to marry in their early 20s, or even teens, but now wait much longer. Marriage is no longer seen as an initiation into a relationship, but the culmination of it. So what’s happening? Why the mass outbreak of gamophobia (fear of commitment)?
It may be the fear of failure. Divorce is so painful and costly. Why not wait to be sure that your partner is the right one, and that you yourself have the strength to make it work, before ‘sealing the deal’? At one level it’s understandable. It could even be seen as respecting commitment, not just fearing it. But it’s worth us resisting this trend – particularly with baptism. People will never have a better option than Jesus. It’s a pathway we can encourage without reservation, its difficulties notwithstanding.
I like to tell this story: A young woman had a medical condition that made her hands shake continually. She was told that it could be cured, but would require brain surgery. Disturbed by the thought of such an invasive step, she put it off continually and just put up with the shakes. Eventually in later life, she came to her senses and had the surgery. And she was cured! Suddenly some new hobbies were possible for her. But one thing she’d missed: The possibility of becoming a brain surgeon herself and helping others like her. So don’t spend your life deciding whether or not you’ll be in with Christ. Not only is it disrespectful to expect a bridegroom to wait decades at the altar for you, even if he does, you’ve also missed out on some incredible, noble, adventure with him.
FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out) should rightly overcome KOOO (Keeping One’s Options Open), and people should take the plunge. There is no fuller or freer life than wholeheartedly belonging to Christ, so encouraging people to whole-body-and-heartedly decide is rightly a part of our gospel.
We’re becoming familiar with confinement – in one way or another all of our worlds have become smaller. Our wings have been clipped, options limited, movement restricted and circles tightened. Most of us long to be beyond this, past the labour pains of this confinement, and birthed into the new. But what will that new look like?
For better or probably worse, what Christians are most distinctively known for is going to church. Gathering together has been fundamental to, and the main measure of, our faith. Now for worse or possibly better, all that has been pulled from beneath us, shaken up to reveal what cannot be shaken.
When churches are able to regather in person, the “One per 4 Square Metre Rule” will effectively mean that all our church buildings have effectively shrunk. The chapel that used to seat 100 is now good for 30. The 500-seat auditorium will now hold only 125. When church walls are closing in on us; what room does it leave for our movement?
Given we don’t know yet whether these restrictions will be temporary, permanent or intermittent; here are three thoughts:
1. If we’re broadcasting, we might as well do it online. Where our ministry has been stage-focused, with attendees mainly observers, it’s been relatively easy to transport this online in a kind of ‘verch church’. Don’t get me wrong, this has and can continue to be a significant blessing. The making of strong disciples requires effective Bible teaching, where most of us need to shut up, listen and take notes. We will always need to tune in to gifted teachers and truly prophetic leaders.
2. We need other things as well, however: Interactive spaces where each one can be known and heard, questions asked and lives shared. This necessarily happens in smaller groups (we have the tech to talk to many people at once, but can still only really listen to one at a time). Home groups are great for carrying much of this, but also have their limitations: They can be hard for many to access, and struggle for quality control.
3. During restrictions at least, what if we kept the big-long-talk online, acknowledging its value (edifying for adults, with good English, Christian background and attention span, less so for others) but no longer centre-of-worship? Some churches may piggy-back on the teaching of others. And what if we kept the prayerful intimacy of home groups with all they offer? But what if we also offered medium-sized services with a short homily, sure, but a stronger focus on communion – and concomitantly on the child, the newcomer, the migrant and the struggling? They could be simple, 45 minutes perhaps, and repeated as needed.
Imagine the discipleship benefits of small, medium and large-format ministries spread across our weeks and across our land? Might these closed-in walls actually open up some wide new possibilities?
Often the life of a sacred agent is simply ‘a long obedience in the same direction.’ (Eugene Peterson) There’s much to be said for faithful perseverance. But what about when the world gets turned on its head? What do good representatives of Christ do in times of upheaval? Here are some preliminary thoughts, given that the heaval is still currently on the up:
Be Still -When everything’s blown apart by a storm, and there’s so much to check up on and so many loose threads to tie down. It’s tempting to go into ‘heroic’ mode, and some of us need to – for instance medical and essential services workers. But weirdly, this particular crisis is calling for the majority to stay put and slow down, which is very hard for heroes. But it can be a great gift to those around you to stand firm, to be still. If this season allows you some rest, take it. There’s no doubt there’ll be much to do before long, needing many good people who are refreshed and ready to go. Sit with Psalm 46 for a bit.
Be Constant -Many people are feeling like the rug’s been pulled out from under them. When everything’s shaking, people look to hold onto something that’s not. Are you able to be unshaky? Keeping to good rhythms, and particularly your spiritual disciplines (holding to One who is unshaky) will help not only yourself, but also those around you.
Be Wise – I wonder whether owls are associated with wisdom because their eyes open so wide. It’s not becoming for sacred agents to be in denial, or to bury our heads in the sand or our hands. The shrewd manager in Jesus’ parable(Lk16) saw what was shifting in his life and made adjustments. If God is using this time of shaking to shake off of us stuff that’s been holding us back, let’s cling to it no longer. Keep seeking wisdom, which is to say, God’s perspective.
Be Kind – Under stress, it’s easy for people to go into survival mode and become ruthless, selfish and sharp. We, whose ultimate survival is guaranteed, need not be drawn down that path. More than ever seeking the Spirit, let his gentleness, peace, joy and love flow through us. We will shine especially bright when we’re determined to respond to unkindness with kindness. Our God fights fire with water.
Be Confident – Sacred agents may well weep and lament alongside the suffering, and in our own suffering too. But we do so still knowing that Jesus’ kingdom will ultimately triumph in a renewed creation. This calls us to be hopeful, and hopeful in a way that is more than wistful or wishful. We should plan. Plan banking on Jesus winning. What might mission and ministry and church look like on the other side of this? Perhaps we were blind-sided by the storm; let’s not be blind-sided by the calm after it!
It’s not downhill from here till the lights go out. No, even in the pitch black, we sacred agents look to the East.