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Sermon: Acts – Supporting Mission (The Church At Antioch)

Acts 11:19-30

Knowledge

Knowledge by Jean-Jacques Halans on Flickr. Some rights reserved.

We Know More Than Our Pastors’. That was the title of an article written ten years ago by a former pastor who argued that Christian participants in the emerging world of social media on the Internet (at that time, largely confined to blogging) had a greater reach and a greater access to knowledge than the typical church minister.

Actually, ‘we know more than our pastors’ isn’t a recent phenomenon. There have been many occasions in church history when new vision has come not from the centre but the margins of the Christian community.

And we have one such example in today’s reading. We have spent the last few weeks caught up in the apostle Peter’s agonies over taking the Gospel beyond the Jewish community to Cornelius the Gentile Roman centurion. But today we discover that some anonymous disciples had shared the Good News of Jesus with Gentiles before he had!

Now those who had been scattered by the persecution that broke out when Stephen was killed travelled as far as Phoenicia, Cyprus and Antioch, spreading the word only among Jews. 20 Some of them, however, men from Cyprus and Cyrene, went to Antioch and began to speak to Greeks also, telling them the good news about the Lord Jesus.21 The Lord’s hand was with them, and a great number of people believed and turned to the Lord. (Verses 19-21, italics mine)

Stephen is killed in chapter seven, and the persecution breaks out in chapter eight – all before Peter is challenged to visit Cornelius. So-called ‘ordinary Christians’ are miles ahead of the apostle here.

When that happens in our religious institutions today, the common instinct is to come up with a set of rules, many of which are about prohibitions to make sure such messy and disorderly behaviour doesn’t occur again. But thankfully, the reaction of the early church was positive. It recognised a work of God. And rather than trap people with regulations and tie them up with red tape, the dominant tone of our reading is encouragement.

And encouragement is a vital quality when it comes to Christian mission. Which makes this an appropriate reading for a service I am sharing with the church Mission Team. I think it’s fair to say that most of what our Mission Team doesn’t so much involve us in direct mission, but in encouraging others who are involved in mission. That isn’t to say we should use that as a cover for not engaging in mission ourselves, but it is to say we need to draw attention to the importance of encouragement in the sustaining of Christian mission.

So if we’re talking about encouragement, then step forward Barnabas, whose name means ‘Son of encouragement’, and who has lived up to his name earlier in Acts. How does encouragement work in relation to Christian mission in this passage? Here are three ways:

Teach/Learn

Teach/Learn by Duane Schoon on Flickr. Some rights reserved.

Firstly, encouragement is needed in the teaching of new disciples:

News of this reached the church in Jerusalem, and they sent Barnabas to Antioch.23 When he arrived and saw what the grace of God had done, he was glad and encouraged them all to remain true to the Lord with all their hearts. 24 He was a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and faith, and a great number of people were brought to the Lord. (Verses 22-24)

The missionary task of bringing people to faith by evangelism isn’t enough. Any church that is serious about mission will also be serious about teaching the faith to the congregation, old and new. It won’t usually be in some detached, theoretical, academic style. It will be teaching with a specific purpose. And that purpose is one of discipleship. It will be teaching how to live in the ways of Jesus. After all, that’s how Barnabas encouraged the people here: he ‘encouraged them all to remain true to the Lord with all their hearts’ (verse 23). Christian teaching that merely tickles an intellectual fancy is a waste of time. (Which is not to deny that we should think hard about our faith.)

After all, what are we about as a church if we are not about making new disciples of Jesus Christ and growing in our discipleship? It’s why the teaching ministry is so vital – whether from the pulpit, in the home group, or one on one as mature individual Christians teach newer Christians how to walk closely with Christ. This teaching ministry takes precedence over institutional requirements, administration, socialising, and all sorts of other areas. If our church is doing too many things to squeeze this in, then we need to look at our priorities.

Furthermore, it needs to be a priority among ordinary Christians. Each one of us ought to be able to answer questions such as these: what have I done in the last twelve months in order to be more like Jesus? How have I changed? (Granted, that one might better be answered by those who know us well.) What am I doing in my life right now that is an intentional step in learning the way of Christ? If this is so important and I am not doing it, what will I give up in order to focus on being more Christ-like? What trade-off will I accept? What sacrifice will I make? Have I filled my mind with too much trivia?

In terms of the wider mission of God’s church, this is why we release church leaders such as ministers to go to areas of the country and of the world where there are new disciples of Jesus. Help is needed to establish new converts in the faith. It’s something we can support when we give to World Mission or Mission In Britain, and when we pray for it.

Following the leader in sunset reflection

Following the leader in sunset reflection by John on Flickr. Some rights reserved.

Secondly, encouragement is needed in the development of new leaders.

Then Barnabas went to Tarsus to look for Saul, 26 and when he found him, he brought him to Antioch. So for a whole year Barnabas and Saul met with the church and taught great numbers of people. The disciples were called Christians first at Antioch. (Verses 25-26)

Saul still isn’t Paul. He may have begun preaching soon after his conversion, but he isn’t the hotshot apostle yet. He is someone of whom the early church leaders were understandably suspicious. But just as Barnabas vouched for him in the early days, now he encourages him again by giving him a chance to spread his wings and develop as a leader in God’s mission. Barnabas sees that potential in Saul, and recruits him. It looks like he is spot on, given both the year that the two men spend teaching in Antioch, and of course subsequent history when Saul became Paul.

The work develops – don’t just assume it’s a note of historical detail when Luke says, ‘The disciples were called Christians first at Antioch’ (verse 26). They take on a new name and a new identity. This is probably a group of Jesus followers who are a mixture of both Jews and Gentiles – remember that those who came to share the Gospel there spoke not ‘to Greeks’ but ‘to Greeks also’ (verse 20, italics mine). No longer is this merely a Jewish sect, but a group of Jews and Gentiles who, though previously enemies, have been reconciled to God and to one another through Jesus Christ. As such, they are a new entity, and they take on a new identity with a new name: ‘Christians’.

It is a rôle of Christian leaders to help disciples grow into their new identity as Christ’s followers. It is a calling, if you will, to help people ‘become who they are’ – that is, to become who they are in Christ. Jesus Christ gives us a new identity when we turn our lives over to him. We become children of God, and this is not only a new individual identity, it is also a new identity as a member of God’s pilgrim people.

It is not a rôle of Christian leaders to baptise every new and existing idea in the congregation. It is not part of the job description to turn up like Young Mister Grace in ‘Are You Being Served?’ saying, “You’ve all done very well” at any and every social function. It is not the rôle of church leaders to be managers of a building, but leaders of a movement. Nor is it the place of Christian leaders to be the ones who do all the witnessing and evangelising, as if that lets everyone else off the hook. It doesn’t.

What, then, are the practical implications for church members here? Allow (and encourage!) your leaders to concentrate on the essential tasks of leading God’s people. Let them have resources to develop themselves and so develop others – time for reading, time to go to training courses and conferences, time for sabbaticals and retreats. Support fund-raising for world mission so that leaders can be nurtured and supplied in developing churches around the globe. Support the Methodist Fund for Training in this country to provide good quality training for ministers, Local Preachers and others.

And most of all, pray for those in leadership. During my ministry, I have known of four people who have committed to pray for me every day. There may well be more than the four who have privately identified themselves to me over the years. However, two of them are now dead. Could you take it on board to pray regularly for people you know in Christian leadership? I can’t tell you what a morale-booster it is to hear that people are doing this for you.

Famine Memorial

Famine Memorial by Tobias Abel on Flickr. Some rights reserved.

Thirdly and finally, we move from Barnabas to Agabus. The third and final encouragement is the provision for the suffering.

During this time some prophets came down from Jerusalem to Antioch. 28 One of them, named Agabus, stood up and through the Spirit predicted that a severe famine would spread over the entire Roman world. (This happened during the reign of Claudius.) 29 The disciples, as each one was able, decided to provide help for the brothers and sisters living in Judea. 30 This they did, sending their gift to the elders by Barnabas and Saul. (Verses 27-30)

Agabus will turn up in one more incident later in Acts. He will have another prophetic message, when he warns Paul that suffering and imprisonment is awaiting him if he takes a particular proposed decision. He is proved right, and he is shown to be right here. We have other New Testament references to a collection for those suffering the effects of a famine, especially those in Judea. Paul’s teaching on Christian giving in 2 Corinthians 9 has this particular tragedy as its backdrop.

Of course, giving to disaster relief is one expression of Christian mission with which we are sadly too familiar. We have just had plates out in recent weeks for Christian Aid’s Iraq appeal. We are used to televised appeals from the Disasters Emergency Committee. But millions of others do the same, who do not claim the name of Christ, so what could be explicitly Christian about our acts of giving for the relief of suffering?

I guess there has to be a Christian dimension to the giving and a Christian dimension to the people using the gift. The Christian dimension to the giving is perhaps something we shall only know in our hearts. It is the concern to bring things in this world in alignment with heaven – ‘Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as in heaven’.

The Christian dimension expressed by the people using the gift means, I think, that we are talking about giving to organisations that act in the name of Christ. It may be those that simply are Christians who engage in disaster relief (and, perhaps, some political campaigning), such as Christian Aid. To do so may bring a visible sign of encouragement to the downtrodden.

Or it may be an organisation that sees all Christian mission as a whole, and integrates disaster relief with uniting the churches in a particular area of the world and proclaiming a gospel message that calls people there to find hope in Jesus Christ and follow him. Here I am thinking of outfits such as TEAR Fund. And what better word of encouragement is there to someone than Christ? We just need to remember the words of William Booth: ‘If you want to give a tract to a hungry man, make sure it is the wrapping on a sandwich.’

So – in conclusion, let’s go back to the beginning. I began with that slogan, ‘We know better than our pastors.’ I rather feel that what I have presented to you this morning constitutes only some very basic ideas about the place of encouragement in the development of Christian mission. Giving, supporting, encouraging, praying – there is nothing new or unusual in the applications I have suggested.

Now if that’s the case, I think you can prove the virtue of ‘We know better than our pastors.’ Because you can do all of these things. And with baptised imaginations, you can dream, think, and do so much more. We haven’t even mentioned prayer, nor even the possibility of answering a call to mission ourselves.

So why not get dreaming? After all, you know more than me.

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Nancy Duarte: Christian Values In Business Leadership

A while ago, I saw a great TED Talk video on ‘The secret structure of great talks’ by Nancy Duarte:

I didn’t need much persuading to buy her book Resonate, about improving your presentations. (It’s not a book of PowerPoint techniques, it explores the principles of good presentations instead.) I recommend it highly to all public speakers.

Now, I have seen an amazing interview with her on The Good Life Project. I wouldn’t normally sit through thirty-eight minutes of video on a computer, but this had me hooked. I had no idea Duarte was a Christian (that confession comes about twenty  minutes in). What is so wonderful about this interview is the way her Christian convictions have so permeated the way she leads and runs her business:

* She sees her job as to shepherd her staff. It is her duty to make sure the work is there so her one hundred employees can put food on their tables.

* She has a place both for the outgoing, quirky people who are good to put before clients and also the introverts who will hunker down and get a job done.

* Having been told by a coach that the two verbs applicable to her are ‘conquer’ and ‘liberate’, she uses these, not in what she calls an ‘Attila the Hun’ mode, but in terms of what she wants to do for others – again, specifically including her employees.

* When asked near the end what ‘the good life’ is, she emphatically rejects the notion of ‘bling’ in favour of generosity.

So put the kettle on, make a drink, and watch this inspiring video:

Benjamin Zander On Leadership

I came across this TED Talk by Benjamin Zander via Nancy Duarte‘s book ‘Resonate‘. Zander, an orchestral conductor, has a big vision for leadership that he doesn’t doubt. He wants everyone to love classical music. And he knows he is doing his job when the eyes of his people are shining. Quite a challenge for any leader.

Enjoy the video.

Courageous Leadership

Read this: Lessons About Courage From A Former High Diver. Follow the link to Jennifer’s newsletter about courage for the full article. Not an overtly ‘spiritual’ piece, but plenty of application for church and church leaders.

Introverts In Leadership And Ministry

Earlier this year, I chronicled as part of my sabbatical my investigations into ministry and personality type. My current reading is Adam McHugh‘s book Introverts In The Church, which Scot McKnight has picked up on.

Now I find I’m by no means the only Methodist minister interested in this topic. American minister Beth Quick posted an article last week entitled Introverts Can Make The Best Leaders, in which she cited an article from Forbes Magazine entitled Why Introverts Can Make The Best Leaders.

By way of a quick exercise, I thought I would take the five characteristics that the Forbes author and muse briefly on them.

1. Introverts think first and speak later. Well, sometimes a calm, measured approach is welcomed. When life is complex (and it is), careful reflection should be valued. I’m not sure it always is, especially in an always-on, text-sending, 24-hour-news-channel world.

2. Introverts focus on depth. I like this and I think it’s important. However, some people want ministers who are strong on chit-chat. They think it is a sign the minister is interested in people. It can be, but it can also be about a church that can’t get beyond superficiality.

3. Introverts exude calm. I haven’t often been told this! Although when I worked in an office and someone phoned in with a complaint, I was often the person who dealt with it. Many outwardly calm introverts are paddling furiously beneath the waves. There may be a genuine air of calm about a lot of introverts, but a lot of us have coping strategies, especially when calm is required in a group setting. The article quotes some examples. I rehearse conversations before I have them.

4. Introverts let their fingers do the talking. Yes. I love preaching, but I love writing. Given time, I can order my thoughts better that way.

5. Introverts embrace solitude. Please stop pejoratively calling the introvert a ‘loner’ and the extravert a ‘people-person’. You know the prejudice: serial killers turn out to be loners. When we withdraw from the exhausting task of being with people, we reflect and think.

None of this is meant to demean extravert leaders, but it is designed as a plea for people to widen their vision about the people who can lead and appropriate styles of leadership.

What do you think? What is your experience?

The Starfish And The Spider, Part 1: Some Introductory Notes

As reported in recent posts, I have been typing up some quick notes on The Starfish And The Spider as part of my sabbatical work. I have split them into several parts. They will appear over the next few days, one part per day. You will find certain themes recurring, not least those of humility and trust.

I am following a convention in that my comments should appear in a different colour from the rest of the text.

I would be very interested in your comments.

So here goes with some introductory words.

The main thesis of the book lies in the metaphor to which the title alludes. Historic organisations are like spiders, with a central control point of a brain. If the legs are progressively removed, the organisation is crippled more and more. Starfish are different. There is no central nervous system. Neural characteristics are distributed throughout their body. Cut a starfish into two and they will both grow into new, separate creatures. Today, we are seeing similar changes in companies and organisations in society. On the Internet, P2P networks, eBay, craigslist and others all exhibit this starfish characteristic. Similarly, political campaigning organisations such as the Animal Liberation Front and terrorist groups like al-Qaeda operate like this.

Historically, tribes like the Apaches were able to survive the attacks of Cortes because they were decentralised and ‘leaderless’, unlike the Aztecs and Incas, who were simply weaker spiders than the Spanish spider.

The book examines the characteristics of starfish groups in more detail, considers how they might be countered and looks at hybrid companies that combine elements of starfish and spider.

My interest in the book comes from it having become influential in emerging and missional church circles. I want to consider how far its models are consonant with a biblically rooted faith, and how far it is simply a business management model that has been as uncritically adopted in these parts of the church as the consumer corporation approach, where the senior pastor is the CEO, has in megachurch and other post-Enlightenment style churches.

Centralised organisations have a coercive structure and they need this to function well. Decentralised groups have an open structure. Leaders have influence through their example but not power. Rules exist, but they are not enforced from the top, they are distributed across the network. Decisions can be made anywhere. How does this compare with apostolic ministry? Paul has authority, but he has to plead and exhort; he also calls people to imitate him as he imitates Christ. It is not completely decentralised, although Paul himself pops up separately from the original apostles. However, it seems far from later and contemporary authoritarian or centralised models of church and leadership. There is a question here about the biblical appropriateness of much church leadership. 1 Thessalonians 5:12ff talks about ‘leaders’ in the church who ‘are over you’, but the basis for their receiving respect is their ‘hard work’.

What Kind Of Leadership, If Any?

So a church member says to me, “The church needs leadership. We’ve had it up to here with namby-pamby enabling.”

And I think, I don’t think he’s saying I’m namby-pamby. But – since I’m going to think a bit about our understanding of ordained ministry and its relationship to missional Christianity and Fresh Expressions during my sabbatical – maybe this helps set some direction as I boil down my reading list.

Wait – because before I can think down any tangents, he dismisses Fresh Expressions. Since none of the examples on the (first) DVD were outright revival and because the Holy Spirit is the same today as in Wesley’s day, it’s a dead end. Fresh Expressions are clearly both namby and pamby. And furthermore, I’m fairly sympathetic to them.

And I make some connections with a brief conversation I had earlier that day with my friend Nigel, whose church has been growing numerically in recent years. We were talking about books on leadership. “Spend two days with Bill Hybels‘ ‘Courageous Leadership‘,” he advises. “You won’t regret it.”

Looking up the book on Amazon (see the link above) leads me to the solitary review of it there. The reviewer quite likes it, but there are a few caveats. One: can it be translated from American to British culture? Two: Hybels, as senior pastor of a megachurch, has the privilege of recruiting staff from a huge pool, within and without the congregation. Three: he quotes a senior churchman who says it’s a management book with a bit of Christianity bolted on. Hold that last thought.

Saturday comes, and my wife Debbie visits the local library, because the previous evening an automated phone message informs her that two books she had reserved were in for her. When she returns, I’m pleased to see that one of them is a book I’d decided to read during the sabbatical, but had saved money by ordering it on her library card. It’s one that is popular in missional and emerging church circles. It’s not a Christian book, but – guess what? – a business book. ‘The Starfish and the Spider‘ by Ori Brafman and Rod Beckstrom. Subtitle? ‘The Unstoppable Power of Leaderless Organizations’. Leaderless. That’s right.

So here’s the contrast, and it’s familiar to many. Megachurches have a business approach to leadership. The senior pastor is the CEO. Emerging and missional churches like to be leaderless and resist the ‘head honcho’ approach.

But … missional Christians are just as much taking their ideas from business books as megachurches.

Both would claim biblical support for their approaches. Megachurches would find some support for a directive approach. Missional churches can find enough evidence for a servant style (if servant leadership isn’t an oxymoron, but that’s a debating point).

Therefore, what makes one choose a particular school of business thought? Is it about theology or culture or both? Is it about what fits Scripture or what fits preconceived ideas – or both? And do we then try to fit this stuff to us, like Cinderella’s ugly sisters trying to wear the glass slipper?

And haven’t we been this way before? Theologians have often overtly adapted a particular philosophical school and done their theology within it. Thomas Aquinas framed his work within Aristotle. Rudolf Bultmann and John Macquarrie saw everything through the lens of existentialism. The difference this time is the unknowing adoption of secular philosophies. Earlier iterations of this debate about leadership led to concepts of clergy professionalisation that have become debatable and divisive.

Maybe missional Christianity needs to keep an eye out for when it is unknowingly adopting cultural preferences.

Meanwhile, the approach to leadership remains unresolved.

Links

OK, here’s another round-up of links I found during the last week. Have fun.

A Theremin (remember Good Vibrations?) inside a Russian doll. (Via Mojo.)

A friend of mine once rewrote Monty Python’s Dead Parrot Sketch as the Dead Church Sketch. But now we learn that the ancient Greeks pre-empted the dead parrot sketch.

Jesus spoke about lust as ‘adultery of the heart’. Now, a ‘virtual affair’ in Second Life has led to a divorce.

The Today programme on BBC Radio 4 ponders great drum solos.

Remember the Johnny Cash song ‘One piece at a time’? Well, a Russian Orthodox church has been stolen, brick by brick.

Once it was pizzas looking like Jesus, now it’s Buddha bee hives.

You want a prayer movement – how about this? Artist creates ‘public prayer booths’ in NYC. They look like phone booths, apparently.

If only this were true: hoax New York Times newspaper proclaims end of Iraq war.

My father has a life-long interest in astronomy. Doubtless he will have been excited to read about the Hubble Telescope spotting a planet orbiting the star Fomalhaut and the planetary system discovered by the Gemini Observatory in Chile. (Both links via Personal Computer World‘s weekly email.)

Ruth Haley Barton has written on the loneliness of leadership: loneliness drives us to seek the presence of God rather than any notion of the Promised Land.

Unhappy people watch more TV. ‘TV doesn’t really seem to satisfy people over the long haul the way that social involvement or reading a newspaper does,’ says researcher John P. Robinson.

Go on, you want to make cake in a mug.

MyBloop – unlimited free online storage, max file size 1 GB. Via Chris Pirillo.

Twenty hated clichés. In contrast, here are James Emery White’s top five irritating Christian phrases.