If I can make it there, I’ll make it anywhere

If I can make it there, I’ll make it anywhere

I’m in New York City speaking at a conference on how to mobilize a movement of gospel ministry across the city. The audience is full of church planters, clergy, and denominational leaders, all trying to figure out what Christian mission could look like today. The challenges for the church here are significant. The conditions prevalent in New York City create an interesting crucible in which to do mission. I agree that Christians ought to be present and engaged in every type of context. But across the world people are flocking to cities at the rate of millions per year. So it makes sense that Christians should be moving to cities in the same proportions as the people they want to reach. More than that, the social conditions experienced by New Yorkers are really very similar to those present in other cities, only writ large. As cities grow, and the world become increasingly urbanized, looking to what the churches in cities like New York are doing becomes important for church leaders everywhere. As the song goes, “If I can make it there, I’ll make it anywhere.” So, what are those conditions?   Transience: New Yorkers are phenomenally transient. No one stays there very long. In fact, most churches can expect to lose a third of their members every year. One church

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Christians can really suck, but not always

Christians can really suck, but not always

Last weekend I spent a few days working with a network of churches called COS I Love You (COS is the airport code for Colorado Springs). It’s a partnership between around 35 churches from across the Springs (as the locals call it), and involves them mobilizing thousands of volunteers to work in community service projects over one weekend in October. Their goal is to help beautify, rebuild, and restore special places in Colorado Springs, including public schools, parks, local businesses, and non-profit organizations in an effort to meet the immediate needs of the city. Earlier in the week, church leaders had hosted a reception, at which the mayor of Colorado Springs, John Suthers, shared both his gratitude for the work they were doing, as well as his heart for how to make COS a truly great city. Then on the Friday night, I spoke at their citywide worship gathering, a beautiful, ecumenical service that brought me to tears at one point. An offering was collected with the aim of raising half-a-million dollars for the Springs Rescue Mission, a homeless shelter downtown (COS I Love You has previously raised $750,000 for the Mission). On Saturday I spent much of the day visiting projects, including seeing people: cleaning up trash from the hiking trails in the Garden of the Gods state park; helping

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The interlocking cogs of social justice and evangelism

The interlocking cogs of social justice and evangelism

I am all for a statement that provides a clear, biblical integration of both evangelism and social justice. For most of the 20th century these two aspects of the mission of God’s people were considered to be competing interests in the life of the church. Even still today, for some people, evangelism and social justice are seen as polar opposites, so they assume the more committed you are to one, the less interested you are in the other. So when I’d read there was a new major statement being issued about these two areas of Christian responsibility I had hoped we could at last put to bed the idea that commitment to one necessarily crushes interest in the other. Imagine my disappointment when I read that one of the original signatories of the recently drafted Statement on Social Justice & the Gospel, was evangelical church leader, John MacArthur, who recently wrote, “Evangelicalism’s newfound obsession with the notion of ‘social justice’ is a significant shift — and I’m convinced it’s a shift that is moving many people (including some key evangelical leaders) off message, and onto a trajectory that many other movements and denominations have taken before.” Firstly, evangelicalism does not have an obsession with social justice. I wish we did. Anyone who has ever tried to mobilise the evangelical church in

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If Your Church is Honestly Mediocre offering sharper ecclesial infotainment won’t turn it around

If Your Church is Honestly Mediocre offering sharper ecclesial infotainment won’t turn it around

Are your singers regularly off-key or flat? Do you have musicians who struggle to keep up with chord changes? What about poor sound, poor lighting and a mediocre team running it all? A lame website? A church sign that’s advertizing out of date events? Yep, you got it… YOUR CHURCH SUCKS!!!!   Well, at least that’s according to an increasingly infamous blog post doing the rounds at the moment. In his article, 7 Signs Your Church Is Honestly…Mediocre, Canadian pastor Carey Nieuwhof identified a series of key indicators of church averageness. It’s not quite 50 shades of grey. More like seven shades of suckiness. According to Niewhof, some of the fault for a church’s mediocrity is down to sloppy admin and IT and a talentless worship team, but most of it is down to your mediocre pastor. He/she is responsible for two of the seven reasons. Niewhof says that in mediocre churches the pastors are (a) resigned to mediocrity and (b) too afraid to change. (I know they sound like the same thing, but, hey, these listicles have to have seven points so we might as well give pastors a double serving of shame). And to think people regularly accuse missional thinkers like me of being too critical of the church!!   In fact, central to the missional vision is a

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Your fixed idea of church is turning you into a marketer, not a missionary

Your fixed idea of church is turning you into a marketer, not a missionary

Quite a few years ago, together with my co-author, Alan Hirsch, I proposed a simple formula for church planters that went like this: CHRISTOLOGY (what is the gospel?) shapes MISSIOLOGY (what is the purpose of God and his people?) which in turn shapes ECCLESIOLOGY (what is the form of the church in this particular context?)   It appears in our book The Shaping of Things to Come, considered by some a minor classic in the field of missional studies, something about which I should feel proud, but the idea of having written a “classic” just makes me feel old. What lay behind our proposal was our frustration with so many church leaders being far too beholden to their ecclesial traditions. We’d hear people would say they were planting a Baptist church in a particular neighborhood because the nearest Baptist church was too far away. Or they’d say that the existing churches in a particular town were too mainline or liberal and they wanted to launch a Reformed evangelical church there. In other words, the desires, hopes, fears or pathologies of a particular community had no bearing on their strategy. They were bringing a prefabricated Presbyterian/spirit-filled/evangelical/fill-in-the-blank style of church because there was a “hole” in the existing church market. To put it simply, they were reversing the formula I outlined above.

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Losing the Battle for Hearts and Minds

Losing the Battle for Hearts and Minds

It’s greatly concerning to learn that during the very period the church has most aggressively pursued a strategy that emphasizes growth in numbers, it has also seen continued and exponential decline in size. In a previous post, I compared this situation with the American policy of relying on body counts during the Vietnam War. As Ken Burns’ recent documentary series points out, while the body count made it look as though the US was winning the war, they were in fact heading toward certain defeat. That was in part because of the American inability to win the hearts and minds of the people of South Vietnam. Not that the USA didn’t know this at the time. They had instituted an operation called “Winning Hearts and Minds” (yep, the acronym is WHAM) to pacify the increasingly disillusioned South Vietnamese. After all, there was no point killing more North Vietnamese forces if the very people you’re fighting for – the South – despise you. As we now know, that was exactly the situation. American ignorance and arrogance put the South Vietnamese off-side from the beginning. So did their support for a corrupt and incompetent South Vietnamese government. But one of the greatest problems for Operation WHAM was the immorality of the American GIs. Saigon was turned into a cesspool of prostitution and

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Body Count Syndrome:  How both the Vietnam War and the Church Growth Movement failed

Body Count Syndrome: How both the Vietnam War and the Church Growth Movement failed

I’ve been watching Ken Burns’ new documentary series, The Vietnam War. It’s ten hours of unrelenting political/military folly and unadulterated human misery. But it’s fascinating. I was intrigued to discover in Episode 4 that one of the biggest challenges for US military leaders in Vietnam was figuring out how to assess their progress (or lack thereof). Vietnam was like no war before it. Those Americans who waged it were World War II veterans who were used to assessing the progress of a military campaign by how much ground had been taken from the enemy, by how many of their cities had been captured, and how many military and industrial installations had been destroyed. But none of that applied in Vietnam. The Viet Cong and the regular North Vietnamese army waged something more like a guerilla campaign. They would ambush American forces, attack them swiftly and then melt away into the jungle. If the Americans bombed their networks of trails and tunnels, the North simply built more nearby. There was no traditional “front”, so there was no way to measure whether the Americans were advancing. No one could tell if they were winning the war or not. Back in Washington, Defense Secretary Robert McNamara and his coterie of whiz kid number-crunchers needed data desperately. With the anti-war movement building, they wanted to

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Midwife rides swan through floodwaters to deliver baby

Midwife rides swan through floodwaters to deliver baby

Yep, you can’t make up a headline like that. As the floodwaters unleashed by tropical storm Harvey inundated the suburbs of Houston, one local woman went into labor. As interstates and freeways disappeared under water, Andrea Haley began to experience contractions. She knew she was approaching active labor. Her baby was going to be born in the submerged city. But when she phoned her midwife, 63-year-old Cathy Rude, to come quickly, Andrea was told the floodwaters were too high. Cathy couldn’t get out. Her birthing supplies would become contaminated in the filthy waters if she tried to wade through it. Still able to drive the streets around their home, Andrea, her mother, and her husband Daniel climbed into their truck hoping they’d be able to get through the water to pick Cathy up, but they were stopped. Andrea’s midwife couldn’t be reached. The water was too high in her street. After a few frantic calls to friends with kayaks, none of whom could be reached, the Haleys were getting desperate. And Andrea’s labor was progressing. It was then they saw the strangest sight. One of Cathy’s neighbors was floating down her street in a huge inflatable white swan. Yes, I said a white swan. Andrea called from the window of the truck, “Hey, would you be willing to give my

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The monumental importance of being permanently present

The monumental importance of being permanently present

It started with the sparking of a faulty fridge-freezer in a fourth-floor flat. But the speed with which the fire consumed the 124 apartments was breathtaking. We couldn’t believe our eyes as we watched it on our screens. The inferno that erupted in the 24-story Grenfell Tower in west London quickly incinerated the whole building and all we could do was watch gape-jawed with horror. Families appeared at their windows screaming for help. Some people tied bedsheets into a makeshift rope to escape the furnace. Some leaped to the ground below. It was all too horrible. We know now that nearly 80 people lost their lives and many others were injured. Hundreds were displaced, escaping the flames with nothing but their lives and the pajamas they had been sleeping in. We also know that the community response to this tragedy was incredible. The outpouring of generosity and kindness was heartwarming. But it began in an interesting way. At 3.00am the night of the fire, Rev Alan Everett, the vicar of the nearby St Clements Church of England, was woken by a call from a fellow priest who lived in Grenfell Tower. The priest had called to alert Everett that he had a national disaster unfolding almost literally on his doorstep. Alan Everett ran to the church and turned the lights

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Are you willing to be sent where few can see you?

Are you willing to be sent where few can see you?

She was elderly and wore a lavender cardigan. She gripped my arm more firmly than I thought she could. She said she had something she wanted to tell me. I had just preached a Pentecost Sunday sermon about how the Holy Spirit commissions us all as missionaries, or sent ones, to alert others to the universal reign of God wherever we might find ourselves. I had preached that all vocations offer us the opportunity to mirror the work of God in the world, whether it’s to bring healing or justice, reconciliation or wholeness, whether to design and build, or to serve and love. And I threw in references to a few random vocations like stay-at-home parents and lawyers and nurses and union officials and artists and builders and teachers. I had quoted Jesus’ words to his followers, “As the Father has sent me, so I send you,” (John 20:21) and I asked the congregation, “So, to whom have you been sent?” As I was leaving the church that morning the woman in the lavender cardigan took my arm and said with great determination, “I know who I’m sent to.” We were in the church, behind the last pew, still in the whisper zone before the hubbub of the mingling space beyond the glass doors. She told me quietly that her husband has

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An open letter to moderate, peace-loving Muslims

An open letter to moderate, peace-loving Muslims

Dear moderate, peace-loving Muslims, I know every time there is a major Islamic-inspired terrorist incident you’re called on by angry radio hosts and newscasters to renounce all violence and condemn the perpetrators. And every time this happens your imams and muftis release such statements and appear before the cameras reading them to us. But I’m not writing to demand a similar condemnation from you. I already know you want to practice your religion in peace and leave me to practice mine as well. I know you are as horrified by the recent acts of slaughter in England, Egypt and Indonesia as I am. I know you want extremists to stop bringing dishonour upon Islam and attracting global revulsion toward your religion. I know you wish it would all end. But in case you think the whole world sees Islam as nothing but a hotbed of religious fanaticism and violence, I want you to know, that even though many of us won’t admit it, Christians have a very unhealthy relationship with violence too. We have tried to rule the world with a Bible in one hand and a sword in the other. We’ve fallen to the seductive temptations of violence, authority and control many times. We are addicted to the myth of redemptive violence. And I don’t have to go all the

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Blaming Islam is just too easy

Blaming Islam is just too easy

In the wake of the Manchester Arena bombing I’m seeing a lot of commentators demanding we call a spade a spade and identify Islam as the global problem of our time. Several of them claim we’ve been pandering to Muslim extremists by downplaying the danger they represent. Enough of all this political correctness, they say, we should be bold enough to use the words “Islam” and “terrorism” in the same sentence. In fact, they say, by refusing to lay responsibility for global terrorism firmly at the feet of Islam we’re setting ourselves up as sitting ducks. One columnist, Miranda Devine started her piece this way: “We can’t keep our children safe. Every concert, every train ride, every walk across a bridge, every gap year trip to Europe, every cafe visit is fraught with fear. And that is exactly how the Muslim fanatics want it, the inadequate, baselessly arrogant fans of Islamic State with hearts full of scorn and hatred for the free societies which have taken their families in, nurtured them, and offered them every freedom. They kill our children on purpose. They maim deliberately with nail bombs to rip through soft flesh, mutilate pretty faces, butcher young limbs.” Phew! Aside from the misinformation about the likelihood of death by terror attack (you’re more likely to die of the flu

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