Unsung Heroes

kirkby-stadiumI’m reasonably confident that you’ve never heard of John and Doreen Mallinson, Ginger Hewitt or John Geddis. Am I right? I hadn’t until I read Chris Boardman’s autobiography over Christmas. They were stalwart members of a group of volunteers at the Kirkby Stadium, a cycling velodrome near the Wirral (now closed down). It’s where Boardman learnt to compete. He went on to become very accomplished at going round in circles very quickly.

You can trace the contemporary supremacy of British Cyclists and the growing popularity of recreational cycling to this man. He won individual pursuit gold at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics. He was the first man in the Yellow Jersey at the Tour de France since Tom Simpson in the early 1960s. After him came the household names of Bradley Wiggins, Sarah Storey, Chris Froome, Laura Kenny (nee Trott), Chris Hoy, Victoria Pendleton, Jason Kenny and may others. Boardman is partly responsible for the success of British Cycling, having worked quietly behind the scenes fuelling the research and development to give cyclists a technical edge as well as implementing recruitment systems and training processes and raising up and developing coaches. He’s responsible for the affordable range of bikes that bear his name sold at high street retailer Halfords. They’re very, very good bikes evidenced by the fact that the Brownlee brothers, Alastair and Jonathan, use them in triathlon. And Boardman has become an outspoken advocate and vocal campaigner for the social benefits of cycling.

But without John, Doreen, Ginger or John none of this would have happened. And Boardman knows it. They are the unsung heroes so beloved by Sports Personality of the Year. It’s the bit in the show that makes me well up. That phenomenon causes extreme embarrassment to my children and great amusement to my wife. But for me it’s fast becoming the sole reason to sit through SPOTY. But that’s a gripe for another day. But hear what Chris Boardman has to say about these volunteers,

‘Just a handful of individuals presiding over a low key activity on the outskirts of Liverpool helping people take their firsts steps in the sport. What they didn’t realise was that they were the true pioneers of the Olympic success to come, quietly preparing the ground for Britain’s cycling revolution’.

I couldn’t help but spot some parallels with our own situation at CCB. Nearly fifteen years ago people like Gordon, Phoebe, Christian, Helen, Jenni, Rosslyn and Rufus were part of small group of twenty who were planted into Balham to start a new church. None of us imagined that we’d be where we are now. It’s a wonderful work of God’s grace. I’m not going to claim that we were quietly preparing the ground for London’s evangelical revolution. But it’s great testimony to God’s goodness that he’s caused us to grow, enabled us to plant both Streatham Central Church (SCC) and Brixton Local Church (BLoC) and participated in the training of individuals for full time gospel ministry. That’s not nothing. At my last count we’d trained twelve people as ministry apprentices. And we have three currently ‘in the system’. That’s an average of one per year. I think we can and should do more. But that’s also for another time. And we haven’t even mentioned the conversion of individuals wo’ve come to trust in Christ, people who’ve been maintained in their faith, who’ve have grown in maturity and been equipped for the works of service that God has prepared for them to carry out in their homes, among their friends, at work and in the community.

I suspect that few of us in churches think much about what our participation in our local church will produce. We’re pretty short sighted. Church is part of the routine of life. Like work on a Monday morning. But take heart. Lift your eyes to the future. It is your very great privilege to be a participant in a divinely instituted organisation through whom God is building something significant for the future. One day we will be able to trace the value of our contribution into eternity. And it’ll be amazing to see how God has sued what we’ve down as He brings all things together under the saving reign of His Son, Jesus Christ. And in all likelihood we’ll probably even now have some inkling of what He’s doing in the present. But many of us don’t feel that we’re doing anything that important. Our name might appear regularly on a rota. We might be part of a team that runs a small ministry. But what we do just keeps things ticking along and the show on the road. But presumably that’s what the Mallinsons, Ginger and John thought.

In 1 Corinthians 15:58 the Apostle Paul wrote this, ‘Always give yourself fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labour in the Lord is not in vain’. None of it is wasted. It all counts. The Lord will see to that. And who knows, your church may be somewhere from where the evangelical equivalent of a Chris Boardman develops!

Three Ways to Stifle your Brotherly Love

i-love-my-churchThrust into the middle of his main exhortation to love the church family, Paul gives three somewhat unexpected commands. Have a gander at what I mean. In 1 Thessalonians 4:9-12 he writes,

Now about your love for one another we do not need to write to you, for you yourselves have been taught by God to love each other. 10 And in fact, you do love all of God’s family throughout Macedonia. Yet we urge you, brothers and sisters, to do so more and more, 11 and to make it your ambition to lead a quiet life: you should mind your own business and work with your hands, just as we told you, 12 so that your daily life may win the respect of outsiders and so that you will not be dependent on anybody.

It’s not immediately obvious how those three commands in (11) are related to the pursuit of brotherly love. Is it? Is brotherly love really only possible if we become rural reclusive manual labourers?

What did he mean?

  1. ‘To lead a quiet life’ doesn’t mean that we should retire to the country and settle into our forever house. Our forever house is in glory not in Glyndebourne, Glenridding or Guildford. A quiet life is the opposite of a noisy one. It’s not one in which we draw attention to ourselves by making a lot of noise. Contemporary culture is a celebrity culture in which people do precisely that so that we notice they’re there. It’s all about gathering a following. And social media now allows us to do the same. But who wants to be a minor celebrity when we could love our church family. We do judging by what we post on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. Isn’t much of what we post on there the virtual equivalent of being a ‘show-off’? If we did what we do online in real social situations it would be painfully obvious just how noisy and attention seeking we are. But we can’t love our church family if they’re simply our audience. We can’t serve them if what we’re really interested in doing is getting them to focus on us.
  2. ‘To mind our own business’ doesn’t mean that we can’t be meaningfully involved in others’ lives. We can. What Paul is prohibiting is meddling in other people’s affairs not providing them with the support, encouragement and occasional correction that we all benefit from. Minding your own business is about keeping other people’s private stuff private and not making it public. It’s about not gossiping or trying to get to the bottom of every rumour that comes your way. We need to be involved in each other’s lives for sure  otherwise how else can we know what people need in terms of help? But we can’t love our church family when we’re little more than a nosey parker!
  3. ‘To work with our hands’ doesn’t mean that we need to become a potter, a chef or a horticulturist. Though you could. And that would be fine. The issue is working hard. It seems as though some of the enthusiastic well-meaning men of the church family were so captivated by Jesus’ imminent return that they decided to down tools in eager anticipation of that event. That’s fine, except that the rest of the church family had to compensate for their spiritual zeal by using their wages to put a roof over their heads, clothes on their backs and food on their tables. And that didn’t seem fair when they could work but wouldn’t. Working hard when we can to support ourselves and our families if we have one is good and godly. And working hard to have money to support those in our church family who can’t work for whatever reason is also a good and godly thing to do. But we can’t love our church family when we’re sponging off their generosity!

So there you go. Paul was right. Transgress over any one of these three boundaries and we stop loving our church family; whether we’re an attention seeking self-promotionalist, an interfering busy body or a work shy dosser. But keep within the line and we’re in a position to love our church family in a rich diversity of ways.

The Silver Bullet of Gospel Growth – Not Having a Building

centrifugal-vs-centripetalI’ve been putting together the preaching programme for next term. And we’re heading back into the book of Acts. We won’t finish it this time round. But it’ll take us into uncharted territory as we progress through chapters 14-20. And some of that will be hugely encouraging as we trace the spread of the gospel through 1st Century Europe.

One of the things that I’ve had my eye on as I’ve read through these chapters is Paul’s missionary strategy for reaching people with the good news of the gospel. It seems as though he had a twofold strategy. He went first to the Jew and then to the Gentile. In other words, for as long as he was able he preached the gospel in the religious institutions of the day. He ran Christianity Explored in the synagogue while he could get away with it. But sooner or later that became unwelcome. And he was kicked out. But it didn’t matter. Paul then concentrated on taking the gospel to the irreligious; the Gentiles. To that end he was forced to use other buildings. If the gospel wasn’t welcomed by the religious establishment he’d have to use secular space. In Corinth he made much use of the house of Titius Justus, a God fearing convert. And in Ephesus he hired the Hall of Tyrannus (a person not a place).

There are clear parallels with our own situation at Christ Church Balham (CCB). We do not have a building. Our gospel ministry is not welcomed by some of the religious establishment. Historically the Diocese of Southwark and some local churches find our biblical  convictions and patterns of ministry offensive and have refused us use of their buildings (even though some of them are dying on their feet).

Our situation here at CCB is not that dissimilar to that faced by Paul. We meet in many locations. We meet in a (currently) ropey but in the fullness of time shiny new school hall in the morning, we meet in a dark and occasionally distracting pub function room in the evening, we meet in homes midweek for Growth Groups, we meet in a drama studio for ‘Knowing God’ and we meet in a curry house for the ‘One Life Suppers’.  That’s terrific. It gets the gospel out of the four walls of a church building and into the local community. And I have to keep telling myself that. Because as a recent post has  revealed, I occasionally hanker after a building, convinced that it’s the silver bullet to church growth. But it didn’t seem to be in Paul’s day. The gospel seemed to get along alright without the church’s need to call a place their own. And I have to keep telling myself that too! It’s no secret that I’d love us to have a permanent base in Balham. There are things that I think we could do that we can’t do at the moment. For example, I imagine ‘Boppers‘ would be easier with our own space in which to store the toys and a kitchen from which to serve an arresting array of homemade baking options! But I strongly suspect that one of the things that we’d continually have to fight against is the building-centric dynamic that would very quickly become the norm. I fear that we’d fall into a pattern of centring everything on getting people to come to our building rather jettisoning people out into the community. Our challenge is to continually remind ourselves that we’re meant to be a centrifugal church rather than a centripetal one (see diagram above for Physics lesson). In other words not merely sucking non-Christians into our building and church life but spitting Christians out from our building and church life. We must never become a holy huddle that retreat to the safety of our bunker to escape from the hostility of ‘the world’. If we ever have a building it’ll be nothing more than a base camp from which we strike out to explore the community around us and hit them with the good news of the gospel of peace.

There are implications to not having a building, of course. We’re unlikely to reach those who are keen for church to take place in church buildings. Obviously. And that’s ok. We can’t do everything. There are churches near us that can provide for people like that. St Nicholas’ Church in Tooting is a Church of England one that I wholeheartedly recommend. And Trinity Road Chapel is an FIEC alternative. But CCB can reach people who wouldn’t normally darken the door of a church building.

And that’s our challenge.

‘If you’re not here, please raise your hand!’

absenteeismWhat’s the single most important question to ask of your small group?

Who’s not here?

I was once accused of keeping a register for church attendance from a Christian man in our church family who clearly thought that was a bad thing. I started to defend myself (it’s my default response). But I caught my inner lawyer mounting my defence and thought ‘why?’ It’s true. I do keep a register. It’s not actual. It’s mental. Mental in that I keep the information in my head not mental as in I’ve lost my head. Just to clarify. And it’s not so much concerned with who’s there but who’s not there.

And I’ve made sure that we ask the same question at our weekly Monday afternoon staff and ministry trainees meeting. We review the previous week’s events. We talk about what happened on Sunday; what went well and where there’s room for improvement. And it’s always exciting to ask ‘who was new?’ But one of the key questions is to ask ‘who wasn’t there?’ I’m not sure anyone should go to a church where the ministry team haven’t got their eyes peeled for who’s away each week.

Of course, the people in our church family are grown ups. They make choices. Each week they make a decision about whether to come to church or not. I can’t make that for them. And they’re responsible for what they do. But we don’t always make great decisions. Sometimes we make bad ones. And, from time to time, we need others to talk some sense to us.

There can be lots of reasons why people aren’t there. They’re unavoidably busy. They’re on holiday. But sometimes it’s an indication that something’s not quite right, or something’s wrong. Perhaps it’s an indication that they don’t feel part of the church family, or the small group. Perhaps it’s an indication that they’ve got their prioties mixed up and small group is only ever fitted around the social programme. Perhaps it’s an indication of the kind of drift that the writer to the Hebrews warns us about (Heb 10:25). We’re not meant to give up the habit of meeting together. And so every week we’re either reinforcing or undermining the formation of a habit. The habit of going to church. Actually we’re reinforcing one of two habits; that of going to church or skipping it.

Christ Church Balham is not a large church. It’s not a small church either. But we’re at that size where even the staff can’t quite keep an eye out for everyone. And even though my mental register is pretty much up to date, people get in under the radar. That is, they sescape detection. And that’s alright if the reasons for being away are good. But what if they’re not? What if people are struggling? What if people are failing? What if people need help, or correction or rebuke. Not being at church or small group week after week can be an indication of that. And so it’s a question I want our small group Bible study leaders to be asking. I think it’s what you do when you love your church family.

Four Characteristics of Authentic Pastors

pastorI’m preaching my way through 1 Thessalonians at the moment. It’s a good length for the spring term. It’s not too intellectually demanding but, as we’re finding out, it’s challenging in other ways. Last week the challenge was felt particularly by me. But also by our small group leaders, kids’ ministers and others involved in pastoring.

In chapter 2:17-3:13 Paul is on the defensive. He has to explain why he’s not been back to visit the church he planted through his short term evangelistic mission (Acts 17). The implicit accusation from this young church plant seems to be that because he left in a hurry and hasn’t been back since that he simply doesn’t care. It’s an understandable conclusion. It’s just wrong. As Paul goes on to show. His response gives us a glorious insight into the emotional life of a genuine gospel minister. This is what it ought to feel like to lead a church family.

Paul’s pastoral care amongst them was marked by four features.

First, it was personal (2:17-20). Paul was into people. They were his pride and joy. That’s why he made every effort to try to see them. They mattered to him. They were what gave him greatest pleasure. He knew that in eternity the thing that he’d be most proud of was them. So he was a people person. He longed to see them because he knew there were some things that can only be done in person. He invested in people. He poured his life in people. They’d last for eternity. But isn’t it the case that much of what we make our lives about simply won’t. For example, the Bible study we do with our kids will matter infinitely more than whether they got into Cambridge or the local Grammar School.

Secondly it was sacrificial (3:1-5). It’s hard to think of anyone that Paul would have found harder to give away than Timothy. He was one of his cloest friends and his best ministry colleagues. But needs must. And their needs were greater than his. He was struggling to come to terms with the rampant idolatry of Athens but they were under satanic attack. And so he sent Timothy to encourage and establish them in the faith. That was costly. It’s worth asking where the costs are in our ministry. I suspect there are many. But that’s normal. What’s abnormal is the comfort and ease that we crave!

Thirdly it was emotional (3:6-9). Paul was ‘in bits’ for the time when he had no news of their progress. Literally it was killing him, which was why he was able to say ‘now we really live’ when Timothy brought back good news of their progress. It was as though he’d received a new lease of life. Ministry is an emotional rollercoaster. Beware of the instinct for self-preservation. There are times when, to protect myself from the hurt that sometimes comes with caring too much, I’ve kept my distance and become a little professional rather than personal in ministry. But I’m afraid that, like loving kids, you’ve got to take the rough with the smooth.

Fourthly it was prayerful (10-13). He may have been away from them for months but not a day went past when he hadn’t prayed for them. Ouch! In fact it was even more impressive than that. Paul said that night and day he’s continually been praying for them. Do you pray for those in your small group? Have you got a list somewhere that you work your way through? There’s surely no greater indication of our love for those we serve, is there?

Most of us will read this and ought to admit that we’re found wanting. But it’s what we’re aiming at. It’s what we’d like to be. It’s what our church, our family and our Christian mates need us to be. So let’s press on. And pray.

What’s not to change?

HEADER-repentance1I spoke at our recent annual church dinner on the subject of repentance. A cheery night then? For sure people were thoughtful after I spoke. But a handful sought me out to express their appreciation at dealing with the issue. What follows is the text from which I meandered as the mood took me!

The theme I’d love us to think this year is the subject of repentance.

When I mentioned this to Alex, he gave me one of those looks with which I’ve become increasingly familiar over the last few months. Though very much unspoken, it clearly said ‘we won’t be doing that in Streatham!

And he might be right.

Repentance is one of those Bible words in the same category as remorse or regret. They don’t exactly conjure up a vision of the Christian life that’s instantly attractive, do they? Words like that colour the Christian life in grayscale. And who wants grey when you can have colour.

And yet, repentance is essential. In Acts 20:21, the Apostle Paul is recorded telling the Elders of the Church at Ephesus that he had ‘declared to both Jews and Greeks that they (simply) must turn to God in repentance and have faith in our Lord Jesus’. He knew that repentance is fundamental to our Christian life.

The reason I want to talk about repentance is because I don’t think we’re very good at it! ‘But we do it every week’ was Alex’s reply when I suggested that. He was referring of course to that moment in every one of our Church meetings when we confess our sins and say words such as

Heavenly Father, you have loved us with an everlasting love, but we have gone our own way and broken your laws. We are sorry for our sins and turn away from them. For the sake of your Son who died for us, forgive us, cleanse us and change us. By your Holy Spirit, enable us to live for you, and to please you more and more; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen

And I believe we mean them. But that’s corporate (it’s what we do together) and public (it’s hard to dissent) and verbal (it’s just words). We all say it because it’s the kind of thing you say in church. But I want us to think about individual, private and actual repentance. That’s much harder to do every week!

I think we’re much better at self-justification – presenting reasons why we don’t need to repent and self-deceit – pretending to everyone else that there’s nothing we need to repent of! But perhaps you think I’m being unfair or unduly harsh. Perhaps I’m just confessing my own sins. I am. But I don’t think I’m the only sinner in our church! So let me ask you some analytical questions.

  • Do you think our church is a place where it’s easy to admit that you’ve got something wrong? If so, when was the last time you confessed to something and asked for help in repenting? And if you’re struggling to think about when that was, ask yourself why!
  • Could you confess to a big sin and be as confident of receiving support and acceptance as if you’d committed a small sin? Or do you think you’d be shunned and side-lined?
  • Do you feel that you could be open about a besetting sin and get the encouragement you need to help you to repent? Or would you fear being viewed as a lesser Christian for doing so?
  • Let’s get really real for a moment. Could a wife commit adultery and be helped to repent here? Could a man be convicted for some form of abuse and be helped to repent here?

I hope so. But I’m not absolutely certain.  Are there some sins that we’d find manageable but some that would be simply beyond the pale?

If a bloke in your small group confessed to struggling with pornography and asked for your help in repenting, how would you respond? Initially we’d all be incredibly discomforted at his honesty. Deep down we might admire him. Some of the women might think he’s a borderline sexual pervert. But we’d all want someone else to be the first to respond, wouldn’t we?

Very briefly in the few minutes that remain let me define repentance, and describe what it might look like in practice

Repentance: what is it?

In his Systematic Theology, the theologian Wayne Grudem defines repentance as

‘a heartfelt sorrow for sin, a renouncing of it and a sincere commitment to forsake it and walk in obedience to Christ’

It involves our intellectual understanding that rejecting God’s rule over our lives is really wrong. It involves our emotional response of regret and a hatred of what we’re doing when we sin. And it involves our personal decision to turn from our sin. It’s nothing short of a complete turnaround and the reinsertion of the rightful rule of Jesus Christ into our lives.

Repentance: why does it matter?

It matters for two reasons. First and foremost, we cannot be saved without it. Scripture puts repentance and faith together as the one act of coming to Jesus Christ for salvation. Conversion involves both faith and repentance. They are two sides of the same coin. If faith is turning to Christ then repentance is turning from sin. And so when we receive Jesus as Saviour, at the very same time we’re submitting to him as Lord. When the Bible speaks about one, the other is invariably assumed. Repentance and faith can be distinguished from one another but they are never separated. They’re like the spiritual equivalent of Ant and Dec.

But I think we already knew that. Not the bit about TV’s finest early evening entertainers. The bit about the inseparability of repentance and faith. What we may not have thought about is not so much the initial act of repentance but the ongoing necessity of repentance. Repentance isn’t simply the way in to becoming a Christian it describes the way of living as a Christian. And whilst the decision to give our lives to Christ at conversion is not easy, doing that consistently is much more demanding.

And so we need a church culture in which repentance is encouraged and it’s commonplace. It ought to be normal that we repent. We’re Christians. That’s what we do. We don’t want to be a church where we’re all very good at justifying why we’re never in the wrong. And we don’t want to be a church where we all pretend that we’re not doing anything wrong.

And wonderfully we don’t have to be. Because the gospel not only requires our repentance it encourages it. Jesus assumes that we’re sinners, which is why he died for us. And he assumes that we’ll carry on being sinners, which is why he sent his Spirit to help us to live for him.

Prison Chaplains tell me that there are no guilty people in prison. Everyone says they’re innocent. That can never be the case in church, can it?

Repentance: what does it look like?

What would it look like for us to create a culture of repentance?

  • It looks like the man who’s failed to read the Bible with his kids or pray with his wife confessing to his Growth Group that’s the case.
  • It looks like the woman who’s been dating a non-Christian bloke say to her small group Bible study ‘I was wrong and I need your help to live wholeheartedly for Christ’
  • It’s the couple who only ever pitch up at church when it’s convenient making sure that nothing short of a contagious disease saying to their church leader ‘we got that wrong, we’ve been flaky and unreliable’.

I suspect our eyes might be out on stalks the first few times it really happens. But then we’d love the fact that people had been honest. And we’d do what we can to help them. And pray for them. Wouldn’t we?

I want this church to become a place where we’re all about the rightful reinsertion of the rule of Jesus in our lives. I think you do to. Together we can create a culture where repentance is expected and encouraged.

Beyond Welcoming

‘I don’t think we’re very good at getting people involved’.

Not my words. They could have been. But they weren’t this time. They came, not from a disaffected newcomer who was disappointed that we hadn’t provided her with the warm welcome she was hoping for. It was the mature reflection of a woman who’d been around at church for a while. As it happens, I agree with her.

One indication that we’re not the best at CCB at including the newcomers that the Lord has been bringing us could be their attendance over the last few weeks at our start of term events. I’m talking about things like the Autumn Bible School, the Annual Dinner, the Thanksgiving Prayer Meeting and so on. People have come on a Sunday. But they’ve not wanted to join us at the more ‘intimate’ family events.

Who’s to blame? Is it six of one half a dozen of the other? Or should we slice the percentage somewhat differently? I’m not convinced that’s a helpful approach. But what I am clear about is that there’s more that those of us who are part of the furniture could do to help incorporate newcomers into our church family.

I don’t want to teach Grandma to suck eggs. But at CCB, we don’t seem to have a surplus of octogenarians inhaling any ova! (Latin plural of ovum which, according to Microsoft Word Thesaurus, means ‘eggs’) It might be different for you at your church, which is great. So forgive me if you feel patronised but I’m going to remind us of some of the kinds of things that we could be doing to help incorporate newcomers into our particular body of Christ.

1. Seek out unfamiliar faces at church – you may have been doing church with them for donkey’s years and perhaps you should really know their names by now but every church is founded on forgiveness so we can afford to risk a few errors. Don’t let that stifle your efforts to approach people you don’t normally spend time with.

2. Engage them in conversation – ask them who they are, what they do for a living, how they came to hear of us, whether they’d normally go to a church, where home is and so on. Just ask, ask and ask. It’s the way to find out more, show an interest and get to know them!

3. Encourage them to join your Facebook group (if you have one) – I know; it’s awful isn’t it. But it’s actually a hugely effective way of getting to know people’s names as well as letting them know what’s going on. Stuff happens online. Virtual relationships get formed and then (who knows) they can be pursued in real life!

4. Get their e-mail and phone number – it’s quite forward but when the request is attached to an offer of meeting up for a coffee or dropping them a line about some of the things we do at church it won’t seem so odd.

5. Include them in an event – it could be a social event like someone’s birthday drinks or it could be an invitation to the Autumn Bible School. But we have a fairly packed church programme and a personal invitation from a member of the church family could make all the difference to them feeling included.

6. Invite them for a meal – you could meet up in town, near where they work or if you’re fortunate to have a home to which you can invite people for a meal then do that. It doesn’t have to be Sunday lunch but that’s as good a place to start as any!

This issue is a problem for us at the moment. But the bigger issue is whether we want to be part of the solution. Let’s pray that the God who has gone to incredible lengths to include us in His family might begin to see His character reflected amongst His people.