Re-reading my intercessor’s weekly prayers brought me to my knees

Re-reading my intercessor’s weekly prayers brought me to my knees

It happens every Wednesday. Like clockwork. Reliable as ever. I get a text message from a pastor in Sydney with the prayer he has just prayed for me that morning. He’s been doing it for years. I’m not entirely sure why he decided to pray for me specifically. He had been an intern of mine when he was studying at Morling College, and we have served together in the establishment of a network of churches in Western Sydney, but his decision to pray for me, following the promptings of the Holy Spirit every single Wednesday for years, well, that’s pure grace. There are times that I genuinely question why God has been so good to me and why I have had just a blessed ministry, when I’m definitely not the holiest person or even close to being the most worthy of God’s special favor. I’ve come to suspect that the protection and unction of God’s Spirit upon me is in no small measure due to the selfless and unseen ministry of those people who have prayed for me so faithfully. Over the years, I have had many people say they pray for me regularly. I covet those prayers. I’ve come to rely on them. I need them. I feel like the Apostle Paul, the “chief of sinners” who begged his

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The Lonely Crowd: churches dying due to friendlessness

The Lonely Crowd: churches dying due to friendlessness

I’ve lost count of the number of Christians who’ve told me they either stopped attending church or left their church to join another one because they couldn’t make any friends there. They report that the church people were friendly enough. They were hospitable and welcoming. As one person told me, “They’re nice to you, but no one becomes your friend.” And it hurts when all that friendliness leads only to friendlessness. In the 1950s, sociologist David Riesman coined the term “the lonely crowd”, in part to describe collectives of people who live according to common traditions and conforming values, but who barely know or like each other. I fear the church is in danger of becoming just such a lonely crowd. I know pastors think long and hard about how to be better preachers and leaders, how to calibrate the church’s ministries to meet needs and serve others, how to be more missional, more adaptive, more innovative. These are all good things. But is it possible that all that leadership development, visioning, and ministry planning might be wasted if people can’t find friends and just drift away? Before hosting any more conferences or seminars on vision-casting, living your best life, or finding your spiritual gift, how about we start equipping people in friendship-making? Becoming and being a friend isn’t easy.

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Will the 10 minute homily be the new normal?

Will the 10 minute homily be the new normal?

There has been much discussion about the ways the pandemic lockdown has affected our approach to doing and being church. We’ve been forced to move our programs online and close any non-essential ministries that can’t be conducted remotely.  Like other areas of our lives, we’ve engaged with members of our congregation via Zoom or FaceTime or some other platform. We pivoted quickly and found ways to provide pastoral care, coaching, team leadership and Bible teaching all online or by phone. Sure, we’ve grown heartily sick of looking at faces in boxes on our computer screens, but we did it because we had to. And yet, while we’ve longed for things to get back to normal, we also keep telling each other that there will be a new normal, that in some ways things will be very different in a post-COVID-19 world. I’ve been in a number of conversations recently about what things will spring back to normal and what will be irreversibly changed by our experience of quarantine. One of the common responses I’m hearing is that a lot of church people have enjoyed just having a 10-15 minute sermon on Sundays. Their pastors have recognised that it’s challenging to listen to a typical sermon of 20-40 minutes online and they’ve shortened their presentations accordingly. Now some of their parishioners are

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Where are the true prophets in a time of coronavirus?

Where are the true prophets in a time of coronavirus?

Remember that old Bible story about the death of King Ahab? He was itching for a fight with the neighboring nation of Aram, so he enlisted the help of Jehoshaphat, the king of Judah, to march on the city of Ramoth Gilead and recapture it from the Arameans. But Jehoshaphat first wanted to be sure that God would bless such a venture, so he and Ahab dressed in their royal robes and sat on their thrones by the entrance of the gate of Samaria and had all the prophets of Israel – about 400 men – brought before them. The kings enquired of them, “Shall we go to war against Ramoth Gilead, or shall we refrain?” And the prophets answered as Ahab had hoped, “Attack Ramoth Gilead and be victorious, for the Lord will give it into the king’s hand.” But Jehoshaphat demurred. “Are there any other prophets we’ve overlooked?” he asks. Ahab’s answer is telling. “There is still one prophet through whom we can inquire of the Lord, but I hate him because he never prophesies anything good about me, but always bad. He is Micaiah son of Imlah.” It makes you wonder how the other 400 prophets got their job, doesn’t it? True prophets are annoying. They don’t offer words of comfort to kings and rulers. They speak

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Bible teaching can happen at the table not just the pulpit

Bible teaching can happen at the table not just the pulpit

I’ve written a bit lately about dinner churches, house churches, fresh expressions and other new types of churches emerging around the world. And it’s easy to see why they’re increasing in popularity. They’re lean, nimble, local and cheap to run. And they embrace all the great stuff of life like commonality, conviviality, the sharing of life and the valuing of all voices. But I’m also aware of the criticism that dinner churches don’t do Bible teaching very well. I’ve heard it said that their emphasis on conversational sharing is a kind of groupthink that just results in a pooling of existing knowledge. Theologian Letty Russell disagreed with this. She liked to refer to ‘church in the round’ and she claimed such churches are better able to do the important work of discipleship than larger, more traditional churches. That’s because, as Russell saw it, church in the round fosters deeper conversation, deeper sharing, and deeper learning. She wrote: “The metaphor of the church as a round table speaks of people gathered around the table and in the world in order to connect faith and life in action/reflection (the round table), work for justice in solidarity with those at the margins of society (the kitchen table), and to welcome everyone as partners in God’s world house (the welcome table).” It’s only when

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Coronavirus could set the church back 25 years

Coronavirus could set the church back 25 years

Twenty-five years ago, I began warning the church about its overemphasis on “attractional” strategies — that is, the come-to-us stance taken by many churches influenced by the church growth movement back then. I wasn’t the only one, I know. Other voices made similar pleas, urging church leaders to resist the temptation to become more like marketers and less like missionaries. But it was difficult for some people to hear our cry. They had been shaped by an ecclesiology that emphasized numerical growth over all else. And they had come to believe that to grow a church you needed the right-sized building, in the right area, with ample parking, and friendly parking lot attendants. They’d been taught that a growing church needed a certain kind of excellent preaching, as well as an inspiring contemporary worship experience delivered by positive, upbeat leaders. They had given countless hours to trying to deliver the best children’s and youth ministries in order to attract families, and a good program of cell groups built around a Christian education model to ensure pastoral care and a sense of community. And because they knew every other church in town was trying the same thing, they had to make sure that next week at their church was better than last week in order to keep the people coming back.

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Five cultural trends killing the church’s mission

Five cultural trends killing the church’s mission

There are forces and trends at work in our society that are killing local churches. You’ve heard people say stuff like that before, right? You know what comes next too, don’t you? Usually, it’s condemnations of the insidious effects of secularization — or sexularization as one Christian commentator calls it — descriptions of hostility toward religion, and warnings about persecution, the limiting of religious freedoms, and fraying family values. Oh, and great angst about people using the greeting, “Happy holidays,” instead of “Merry Christmas.” But while some, albeit loud, voices are telling you to look over there, you might be missing some everyday cultural shifts occurring that are having a greater and unnoticed effect on the church. In fact, it is now becoming clear that these trends are killing the mission of the church far more effectively than the hot-button issues that get all the attention. Here are five that come to mind:   1. THE DEATH OF CIVIL DISCOURSE We live in a time of extreme polarization, where it seems we can’t discuss anything – especially theology and politics – without it devolving into conflict and name-calling. Church people aren’t immune to this. It seems we too have lost the capacity for civil discourse. Sadly, this results in a rapid slide toward uniformity of thought. Because we can’t even

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Agitating as always: my top 5 blogs of last year

Agitating as always: my top 5 blogs of last year

Last year was a great year for this humble little blog. We saw an increase in readership from 2018 and a lot of engagement around a number of posts. As ever, I was agitating for people to question the things they normally take for granted, and it turned out that the top five posts for 2019 addressed hot-button issues like gender, evangelical culture, and new ways of doing church. So, here they are from 5 to 1 (click on the title to go to each one):   5  Dinner Church, anyone?  This article was really popular, with lots of people sharing it on social media. I think it was because it was a simple, accessible description of a fresh way of being and doing church, and many people are looking for examples of how to do just that. In it I shared links to six dinner churches from around the world and suggested people try it. As I wrote in the post, “You just need a table (or a few tables), some food, a basic liturgy, a welcoming spirit, lots of prayer and patience and grace, and a willingness to do life with a group of neighbors as you orient your lives around Jesus together.”   4  Brotopia: breaking up the church’s boys club  This one was a bit more polarizing

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Leave Francis alone; Jory go home

Leave Francis alone; Jory go home

Here’s a tale of two preachers. One is named Francis Chan. He’s a well-known and much-loved pastor, preacher, author and church planter. He speaks on some of biggest platforms in the country, and is the author of several best-selling Christian books. The other is Jory Micah. She is an itinerant preacher and blogger. She engages in social media to support young women and girls build self-esteem, follow God and serve the church. Both Francis and Jory dominated my social media feeds last week, for different reasons.   Francis Goes to Asia Francis recently announced that he is moving to Hong Kong to do evangelistic missionary work in Asia. It’s a bold, costly and impressive decision, prompted by his travels in Asia and in particular his recent evangelistic ministry in Myanmar. But Francis’ announcement prompted a New Zealand missionary, Craig Greenfield, who has himself served in South East Asia for many years, to post a blog raising concerns about Francis’ posture in moving to Asia. In no way was Greenfield suggesting Francis’ decision was a bad one, or that he ought not move to Asia. In fact, he encourages Francis to relocate there. But he did take the opportunity to get people to think about the approach Western missionaries need to take while in developing countries. In fact, I thought his

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The 40:40:20 Principle — reaching those you have a chance of influencing

The 40:40:20 Principle — reaching those you have a chance of influencing

There are lots of arguments being had by Christians on social media right now. And I mean lots!  Is climate change accelerated by human activity? Can women preach and lead in churches? Should the president be impeached? What does a generous Christian policy on immigration reform look like? Should we have tougher gun control laws? And that’s not to mention abortion, same-sex marriage, creation, etc. etc. And the impression most people seem to have is that all that typing and posting and sharing and venting and raging and debating achieves absolutely nothing. No one is ever convinced of the other side. No one ever changes their mind. No one ever sees both sides of the story. In other words, the conventional wisdom is that online debates are a complete waste of time and energy. But I’m not so sure. Recently, I was introduced to the 40:40:20 principle for social media discussions, which refers to the alignment of your audience in any online debate. It goes like this: When you’re seeking to influence others to your point of view, 40 percent of your online friends and followers will agree with you no matter what you say, or what you do, or how provocatively you stir the pot. That’s your base. They respect you and like you and value the same things

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Sing Freedom! Why isn’t Christian music more revolutionary?

Sing Freedom! Why isn’t Christian music more revolutionary?

Nearly fifteen years ago, I ruffled a few feathers when I criticized contemporary Christian music for its highly romanticized – even sexualized – lyrics for expressing devotion to God. In my 2006 book, Exiles, I carped about Matt Redman declaring “Jesus, I am so in love with you,” and Delirious singing “We are God’s romance,” and I outlined all the reasons why I thought the phenomenon of feeling “in love” was an entirely inappropriate phrase for Christian worship. “Jesus ain’t my boyfriend,” I whined.   But things changed after that. And not just because I didn’t like the worship-romance phase of contemporary Christian music. Let’s face it, I have zero influence on the scene. Who knows what happened. Maybe contemporary Christian music (CCM) just grew up. But today, songs like Hillsong Worship’s “This I Believe (The Creed),” and “What a Beautiful Name,” and Lauren Daigle’s “Light of the World,” and many more, combine decent theology, biblical phraseology, and engaging poetry. It’s a welcome relief to the Jesus-is-my-lover era of Christian singing. More recently, however, other critics have emerged to say that CCM lyrics are too individualistic, too pietistic, too safe. People like U2’s Bono, and Christian hip-hop artists Lecrae and Marty Mar from Social Club Misfits, have bemoaned the tame, risk-averse nature of Christian music. In a couple of recent

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Brotopia: breaking up the church’s boys club

Brotopia: breaking up the church’s boys club

Last year, Emily Chang published Brotopia, about the boys club running the tech industry in Silicone Valley. But if there is a truly entrenched brotopia anywhere it would be in the church, and specifically in the clergy. Many men have voiced their support for women in leadership in the church. Sadly, even those male allies calling for the breaking up of the church’s boys club can sound a bit hollow when they belong to teams comprising all men, attend conferences at which only men speak, sit on all-male committees, worship in churches with only men on the staff, and only read books written by men. One of the important ways male leaders will break up the boys club in our churches is to model change in their own lives and ministries. That means submitting to the leadership and insights of women. Are we learning from women? Are we being led by women? Are we modelling a more inclusive stance on gender in the church? Here are some suggestions for ways that men who wish to affirm the role of women as teachers and leaders might do that:   1. Invite a woman to be your mentor If we are serious about affirming the role of women in our churches then one small but important step could be to invite a

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