Monday, November 6, 2017

What I Really Learned at Seminary.

To be honest, while I'm relieved to have received my masters degree in theology and thankful that my thesis was well received, graduating has all felt a bit anti-climactic. It's been eight years, thousands of dollars and hours, and a fair few tears along the way. I've found myself asking whether it was all worth it. My family have paid a massive price having me tucked away in my office for so many late nights. My youngest son Levi has only ever known me as a Dad who works long days and studies most nights. I don't think the words cum laude on the certificate that will hang on my wall can make up for the many hours that he could have been playing soccer in the yard with me. I think my church has benefited broadly from the study because it's sharpened me as a preacher and leader, but my 180 page thesis which took 4 years to research and write, may never be read by anyone except my Dad. (Thanks Dad.) 

So what makes this all worth it? Why would one study theology for that long and what does one really learn that applies to real life and work? 

Well, for me, there were at least 5 valuable lessons.

1. I learned to love God with my mind. 

I don't aspire to be the stuffy academic type - tweed jacket with elbow patches and pipe. I'm a heart guy. I feel deeply. I'm a strength guy. I like to get things done. But there's another part of the Great Commandment, 'You shall love the Lord your God with all your mind,' that I've learned to obey better these last eight years. I've learned that clear, wise, Biblical thinking is part of the way we are called to love God. God is not glorified by falsehood or foolishness, no matter how passionate or energetic we are. God is wise and he wants His people to be wise about His Word and His world. Leaders in the Church should be able to guard sound doctrine, refute heresy and give reason for the hope of the gospel. That requires a clear head. God forbid that I have a swollen head and a hollow heart. But neither do I want a swollen heart and a hollow head. 

2. I learned I was an expert on Model and a novice on Message

I spent my formative ministry years as a leader in a movement that taught me a lot about a  model of doing church. We were big on building healthy cultures of leadership, prayer, worship and community. We taught on how to raise up leaders, work as a team, practice spiritual gifts and plant churches. So much of what I learned I still carry with me today.  But what I began to realize was that I was an expert on church model and a novice on the message of Christ. I remember an amazing man called Michael Eaton saying to our leaders in 2008, "Your tribe has an over-realized ecclesiology (model) and an under-realized Christology." (Christ and His message) I was stopped dead in my tracks. Perhaps I'd become a model pharisee?  I am still passionate about church model, but I hope I am now more passionate about Jesus and His gospel. All church models are not equal, but no model is a silver bullet. It cannot save. It is only the power of the gospel that saves. And God also seems quite happy to work powerfully through church models that seem less Biblical than mine. How inconsiderate of Him!

3. I learned that God is in the details

I've never been all that great at details. I'm more of a big picture guy. So the pedantic nature of academic writing, referencing and citing was infuriating to me. The endless corrections on dates and bibliographies and quotations, and grades taken off for incorrect line spacing felt completely divorced from reality! Here I was  leading a growing multi-site church as well as traveling the world helping other churches, and I had to make sure my margin indents were properly justified! But I began to realize that having an eye for details was actually very connected to reality and that my lack of attention to detail sometimes hurt my credibility in reality. Get a quote or fact or verse wrong in the pulpit, even if it is minor, and people can begin to question the bigger things you say. I still think academia is pedantic, but I'm glad it forced me to realize that God is in the details. 

4. I learned to Reason with differing ideas instead of simply Denouncing them

One of the things that theological study forces you to do is to take seriously ideas that challenge yours. I know that some seminaries are so critical that students end up losing any prior faith they had and that seems tragic. Pay thousand of dollars to become a cynic? My seminary was not like that, but it did force me to consider other angles and to reason with other ideas instead of simply denouncing them. By the time I presented my thesis I realized I had become more sure of what I believed because I had had to defend it critically against other  schools of thought. I believe this skill of engaging reasonably with different ideas instead of denouncing them is greatly needed in our pluralistic world. We need less heat and more light in our civil discourse with each other. 

5. I learned Resilience 

I hope I'm not being overly dramatic  but with the relentless pressure of deadlines and balancing work/family/study over eight years, I felt at times like I was doing violence to my soul. It didn't help that I was doing distance education and never once had a conversation with another student in eight years. All of my correspondence with professors was via email, with the exception of two Skype calls that whole time. I would never recommend that to anyone. I missed the comeraderie of fellow students and there were many times that I wanted to give up. If it wasn't for my wife's constant encouragement, as well as that of my parents and supervisor, Vernon Light (I still think he may be a guardian angel), I think I  would have quit. But above all, the sustaining grace of Jesus was so real on this epic marathon. He enabled me to persevere through exhaustion and discouragement, and in doing so built resilience into my soul. I hope that resilience will spill over into every facet of my life.

Of course, I also hope that my specific area of research will benefit our church and many churches beyond us. I also hope to write a book to make my research more accessible.  But if for some reasonI none of this happens, I feel that these lessons I've learned have made the process all worthwhile. But you'll have to ask my wife if she agrees.


Monday, October 16, 2017

An Ordinary Unicorn: The Call for Medium-Size Multiplying Churches

The clever people say that only 5% of multi-site churches are under 1000 people in size.*  For obvious reasons, the vision to be a multiplying church (multi-siting and/or church planting) is generally a large church phenomena because it is such a resource rich vision. Generally, churches under 1000 in size have a vision for addition rather than multiplication, because multiplication feels like subtraction of their already limited resources. In the West, where the mega church looms large, it's easy for small or medium size churches to think, "Maybe one day when I'm big and have lots of margins  I'll think of multiplying, but for now I must grow by addition." That's why churches in the 5th percentile; those under 1000 in size that have a multiplying vision, are a bit like unicorns. But for multiple reasons, I don't think they should be so rare. In fact, despite the resource challenges, I believe medium size churches are better suited to multiplying than mega churches and I believe that figure of 5% will grow much higher in the future. Essentially, I'm calling for these unicorns to become more ordinary, but for that to happen we'll have to change the way we think.  

So, I want to suggest three ways of thinking that can catalyze a movement of medium size multiplying churches.

1. A willingness to let Jesus invade our margins

Southlands began multiplying under my watch in 2012 when we were around 500 adults and 100 kids in average attendance. We sent 3 pastors, 90 adults and 15 kids down the road to start our first multi-site community. It was a shock to the system to send just under 20% of our church to a neighboring city; so much so that after a month I asked one of the three pastors to come back! Four years later though, by God's grace, we've multiplied 4 times. One of those was an autonomous church plant into Thailand. The other two were multi-site communities into neighboring cities. It's been incredibly costly because every time we've multiplied we've had to yield our margins of leadership, people, finances and ministry. And in a medium-sized church, they are margins we can ill afford. It can leave you breathless. But to see Jesus' life in these new gospel communities is breathtakingly beautiful. We feel that we've been an integral part of Jesus' multiplying miracle of the 5 fish and 2 loaves. We've had to put the loaves and fish we have into His hands to be broken, but He's blessed that. It's then that subtraction begins to turn into multiplication. Isn't it interesting that Jesus used every bit of that little boy's lunch for his multiplication miracle? He could have left him with a loaf or a fish, but he used it all. Of course, it's easier for large churches to multiply without invading their margins too much, but apparently that's not the only way Jesus works.

2. A motive for mission not expansion

I'd be lying if I said it wasn't fun to be growing and to have a footprint in four cities, not to mention a  church plant in a virtually unreached nation. But the kick we get out of expansion isn't worth the price, in all honesty. There are cheaper ways to build your brand if that's what you're trying to do. The thing that keeps us multiplying is a nail-hard conviction that the most Christ-like way to really reach people with the gospel is to go and dwell among them. The 50 or so cities in the region of the Southland are distinct and proud of it, so we believe planting smaller, more incarnate communities that feel more like their city is a better way to do mission than expecting them all to flock to one big vanilla-flavored church center. Having a multiplying dream means dying to a mega church dream, which requires eating a slice of humble pie with a side of obscurity. 

3.  A new definition of health  

While gospel mission is the main motive for multiplication, a serious side benefit is that people are less likely to fall between the cracks of church life. I've led in small, medium and large church contexts, and personally I prefer large. But I've found in churches that grow beyond 600 adults, it becomes more difficult to keep people feeling vitally connected and needed. They start to feel like the whole thing will keep running irrespective of their attending, serving, giving or praying. And when you feel less vital it's easy to act less vital, and so the vital signs of church health can easily decrease.  Because multiplication keeps invading the margins of leaders, givers, servers and prayers in a church, you are seldom at risk of people feeling comfortable. The down-side is that folk can begin to resent the constant calls for people to 'step up to the plate'  because we've just sent another crew out, but the up-side is that everyone feels vital to the mission, whether they go or stay. And that's healthy. 

The world needs many more healthy churches and I'm thankful for many large churches that use their resources to multiply them. But I'm calling for medium-size churches to stop dreaming about growing up to be mega-churches one day, and to begin dreaming about becoming multiplying churches now. The medium-size multiplying church doesn't have to be a unicorn. If we change our way of thinking, it can become something gloriously ordinary.  


Wednesday, September 13, 2017

'Grant us a little Reviving' : A Prayer for Revival that doesn't Freak me out.

I once took part in a week long fast during which people prayed day and night for revival up in the mountain kingdom of Lesotho. All I can remember of the time was feeling really hungry and a little freaked out. Because of that, the idea of praying for revival conjures up images of many loud prayers and many loud preachers, waving big black bibles and making big promises in a dusty tent, and a hollow sense of anti-climax, because nothing really happened. Because of those memories, I generally steer clear of praying for revival for fear of hyping people into a kind of  expectation that inevitably ends in jadedness.

I'm nervous of the Pentecostal approach to prayer that expects God to change everything in one sudden, cataclysmic moment. Truth be told, I've found much of the life of prayer is about inheriting the promises of God little by little through faith and patience.  However, I'm equally nervous of the more popular Contemplative approach to prayer that insists all change must be slow and gradual. Biblically and in Church history, we have to acknowledge that there were times when God did in fact come and dramatically change everything for His people in an instant. These times were described as Revivals, and God wants us to persist in praying for a suddenly;  a dramatic in-breaking of His power and mercy, even while we labor in the slowlies. God is the God of slowlies and suddenlies.

Today in the book of Ezra, I found a prayer for revival I can pray without nervousness. It is so beautifully understated. Twice, Ezra uses the phrase, "Grant us a little reviving." He is not asking for God to come down and build the temple all by Himself. There is not an ounce of abdication in Ezra's prayer.  It is prayed before Israel return from exile to rebuild the temple in Jerusalem and they know that it will not be done over-night. So they are asking to be revived so that they can re-build. 

Ezra prayed that God would revive His people by satisfaction, for mission and for re-building.  

1.  Revived by Satisfaction 'That our God may brighten our eyes and grant us a little reviving in our slavery" 9:8  This  request comes off the back of Israel's repentance from idolatry. It is a prayer for personal revival. When Saul's son Jonathan ate from honeycomb after battle in 1 Samuel 14, he said, "See how my eyes brightened when I tasted a little of that honey." Ezra borrows from this idea, praying that Israel would not only be cleansed from their sin, but that they would turn to God and be revived by Him as they feast on the honey of His goodness. Revival begins as God's people are broken out of  slavery to sin and find satisfaction in Jesus.  

2.  Revived for Mission 'Our God has not forsaken us in our slavery, but has extended to us his steadfast love before the kings of Persia.' v 9 Can we see how God is taking His people's eyes off their own slavery and has started to set it on doing a work in their city? This is a key in revival, where our satisfaction in Jesus turns to a desire for transformation in our cities.  This desire was met with  favor from 'the kings of Persia.' Note that favor with those in authority does not mean we automatically get a Christian government. The Babylonian empire did not become Jewish, but their king looked favorably upon the Jewish exiles and granted them finance and permission to carry out their mission. This is something we can be praying for the Church, not necessarily that we would be in positions of power, but that we would experience favor with authorities rather than persecution.  "Pray for those in authority that we may have  live quiet and godly lives. This is pleasing to God who wants all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth." (1 Tim 2:3-4)   It could be argued that revival begins when the Church is free to get on with the job of being the Church, proclaiming and demonstrating the gospel in all sectors of society, re-building the cities ruins. This includes a harvest of salvation, the upholding of godly values throughout society, and a rise of mercy and justice in the face of corruption and oppression. 

3. Revived for Re-building "Grant us some reviving to set up the house of God and to repair it's ruins."

The returning exiles not only re-built the city walls, they also rebuilt the House of God. This parallels God's purpose for His Church to be restored to a place of His glory. A glorious church experiences a restoration of robust gospel proclamation and a demonstration of the Spirit's power that results in a harvest. Worship is restored to reverent passion and community becomes authentic, sacrificial and bold. Revival must include a revival of the builders of the church.  Let's ask that God would energize us to be builders.    

This prayer is so faith-filled, yet so responsible. No freak show here. Just an earnest plea for revival.
Let's pray it together.