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.

Evangelism on Fire

Fire TriangleEver heard of the fire triangle?

For a fire to burn it needs three essential ingredients: fuel, oxygen and heat. If you remove any one of those three elements then the fire goes out. Fire extinguishers work by removing one or more of those three from the equation. The fire blanket smothers the fire by removing the oxygen. A CO2 extinguisher cools the fire by drastically reducing the heat. And a foam extinguisher isolates the fuel. As you can see, my time in the Combined Cadet Force wasn’t wasted!

For a fire to make progress you need each one of those three elements. In the same way, for a church to make evangelistic progress it needs three essential ingredients: good news to proclaim, a messenger to share it and an audience to engage with it. Take any one of those three elements away and the fire goes out. Where do you think that your church is weakest?

Are you clear on the gospel? Are you good to go with the gospel? And are there people willing to listen?

Where do you think you’re weakest?

For me, it’s the audience bit. I know the gospel. And I’m willing to share it. But I have become aware that although we know and are known by lots of people in and around Balham, we know far too few at anything more than a superficial level. We simply haven’t invested as we would have wanted to in deep non-superficial relationships. There are lots of reasons for that which I won’t bore you with. But we’re determined not to make those reasons excuses. Excuses won’t ignite the evangelistic fire that we long to see burning in our lives.

But the summer offers lots of opportunities to strengthen the audience component. We’ve got more time. There’s opportunity. And lots of the church events that usually fill up our diaries simply aren’t happening. The church programme is considerably lighter than usual. And so it’s a great time of year to be able invest in non-superficial relationships with friends that God has brought into our lives. So why not host a BBQ and have both those from your small group Bible study and your workplace along? Why not go cycling with a bunch from church as well as others who also love time spent on two wheels? Why not take a longer lunch break with a colleague in the park? Why not organise a game of frisbee on the common and then share post match analysis with a drink at the local? Why not go for a summer walk along the coast with a gang from church and friends you’ve made at your spin class? Why not have a picnic in the countryside with the family of your son or daughter’s best friend from school? The possibilities are seemingly endless.

I take it that we all want the evangelistic fire to burn bright in our church. And so I wonder whether we could all spend the summer paying more attention to the audience component.

Out of the mouths of babes …

In my life as a failing evangelist, there are times when I simply feel outgunned. These days I’m faced with so many people who simply aren’t where I am. They’re not even within a country mile of sharing the same convictions as me about God, Jesus and the Bible. I feel I haven’t got the firepower. I stand there feeling a little weak and pathetic as the ‘so-called’ wisdom of unbelief imposes itself. And it’s unopposed by anything sensible that I can think to say in defence of my position. At the moment, in London, the numbers of unbelieving people are huge. The church, though growing, is massively outnumbered. The strength of feeling about Christianity, though mixed, can be really negative; perhaps especially so in the media. The arguments offered against Christian faith are complex and overwhelming. We can be viewed with such dismissive scorn. I don’t like that. It can feel too much at times. I feel like the little Dutch kid with his finger in the dyke as the water gushed through. It’s hard to believe that we’re making progress with the gospel.

But do you think that God is unsettled by this? Does it mean that His strategy for reaching His world with the wonderful news of Jesus Christ needs a re-think? Is it a case of ‘back to the drawing board, let’s come up with plan B?’ Not a bit of it. The God of the Bible is so magnificent, so worthy of praise that He’s woven our weakness and works through our weaknesses as the means by which He’ll bring Himself glory. He’s that magnificent.

We were studying Psalm 8 in Growth Group this week when it hit me. Verse (2) is one of those verses that makes you go ‘what?’ Initially perplexing but actually quite brilliant. We’re quite used to the idea expressed in verse one that God displays His glory through the heavens. Creation is God’s bling after all. We get that. But we’re less familiar with the idea that God uses weak people as part of his strategy to glorify Himself. But listen to what the Psalmist says, ‘Through the praise of children and infants you have established a stronghold against your enemies, to silence the foe and the avenger’. God uses kids to defeat those that oppose Him and His plans. He’s not averse to using the weak things of this world to shame the strong. I read that somewhere! And Jesus picked up on Psalm 8 in his confrontation with the religious authorities. It’s in Matthew 21. They were in the Temple. Jesus had just performed some miraculous healings to show that he was the one in whom the glorious New Creation was to be found. And it had gone down a storm. As usual, the kids were running around after church, shouting. And what they called out was ‘Hosanna to the Son of David’. The religious authorities didn’t like it; not the running, the shouting. But the kids got it. The grown ups didn’t. Sometimes kids just say what has to be said and they nail it.

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to work out that none of us, if we were ever appointed an Army General, would choose to go into battle with troops consisting of toddlers barely out of nappies. But that’s whom God has recruited to His cause. That’s what the Psalm says. And that’s who He continues to use. Us. Figuratively we’re like toddlers barely out of nappies. And sometimes, faced with those who aren’t exactly for God, Jesus and the Gospel it can feel like that. We look at the size of the enemy, or the task before us. And we despair. But this is all part of God’s wonderful plan to bring glory to Himself. As one learned contributor in our group said last night, ‘it takes someone very powerful to use weak people to display His power’. He’s incomparably powerful. So much so that He’s even prepared to use us, weak as we undoubtedly are.

Oxford Brookes University Mission – Day 5

Well I wasn’t expecting that. Three people said they wanted to follow Christ after the suffering talk on Thursday. Isn’t that amazing? And wonderful? And a whole load of others have signed up for the Christianity Explored course being run at a local church after the formal dinner in the evening.

After some late night alteration, I was pleased with the apologetic talk this time round. I’d managed to work out how the cross significantly helps us to understand God’s purpose in suffering. I’m pretty sure that Henri Blocher says something very similar in his book ‘Evil and the Cross’. But if I’ve read it (which I doubt) then I’d forgotten all the useful stuff he says. But the impact of the cross on suffering meant that I could spend some time legitimately explaining what was going on in Jesus’ death, which is not only more familiar territory for me, it’s also what people most need to hear!

I explained that three wrong answers are usually given to explain the existence of suffering in the world. There’s the ‘get rid of God’ approach so that suffering just is. There’s the ‘get rid of God’s power’ approach so that he’s well-meaning but impotent. And there’s the ‘get rid of his compassion’ approach so that he’s mighty but merciless. None of those tallies with the presentation of God in the Bible. The God of the Bible exists, for starters. So that’s a problem for solution one.  And the Bible records his mighty acts of power. So that’s a problem for solution two. And he is love, which rules out solution three. And so I suggested the Bible gives us another option. It’s that this God is not only almighty, all loving but also all wise. And in his wisdom he has good reasons for allowing suffering in his world. To establish that this is the answer we looked at the cross.

As you might expect, given the subject, there was a tangible sense of engagement with the issue. And there were a number of quality conversations afterwards.

Friday’s talk was entitled, ‘Exclusive: Is Jesus the only way?’ This was the talk I was most anxious about. It has the potential to make people disproportionately worked up. I’d also left the preparation of the talk till the last minute. It was the first issue that I’d thought about during half term. And it all made sense back then. I’d even sketched out the rough outline of a talk. But I hadn’t looked at it in over a week. So it was far from fresh in my mind. And by the end of the mission my brain was nearly cooked. In the end I was greatly indebted to Paul Williams’ book ‘If You Could Ask God One Question’. He has a terrrific chapter in there on the issue of sincerity. He looks at Jesus’ encounter with Nicodemus in John 3. Jesus tells this moral, sincere, devout devotee to another faith that he needs to be born again if he’s ever to see the Kingdom of God. And so Jesus answers the question of who will be accepted by God for us. The talk I gave wasn’t quite plagiarism. But it would be fair to say that Paul would recognise much of the better material in the talk!

And so the week came to an end. When I get some time. And after some sleep, I’ll share my impressions of the week.

Is Christianity Good for the World?

That’s the question of this year’s Balham’s Big Question.

We’ve posed it online here, on various social media sites and in person on the streets of Balham.

But how has it got to this? Honestly, how on earth have we got to a situation where people are genuinely asking the question ‘is Christianity good for the world?’ To us Christians, it’s inconceivable that anyone should be in any doubt about the answer. After all, when Mark began his gospel he started with these words, ‘the beginning of the gospel about Jesus Christ – the Son of God’ (Mark 1:1). Mark wasn’t unsure. He was convinced that Jesus Christ is good news. That’s what the word ‘gospel’ means. Jesus Christ has always been and will always be very good news for the world.

But in our neck of the woods, the good news has become the bad news. At least that’s the perception. And we’d like to change that. We’re putting on a week of mission events as one of the things that CCB can do to help the people of the Balham area hear the good news of Jesus Christ. We want to do so with events that they can access, in language that they can understand and in venues with which they’re familiar.

We’ve got a Question Time tonight at which people can pitch their questions and hear some answers from our panelists Andrew Nicholls, Leonie Mason and Nick Tucker. We’ve got a Men’s Curry Night on Friday at which I’ll give a talk entitled ‘Is Jesus just for girls?’ (The answer is no – but I’m planning to have a bit more to say than that). We had a women’s evening last Monday with their ‘Girls’ Night In’. I’ve blogged about that here.  On Sunday we have a guest service in the morning when I’ll speak on ‘Christianity: a faith for people who don’t do religion’. And Sunday night we’ll reveal the results of Balham’s Big Survey and Dan Strange will answer the question ‘Is Christianity good for the world?’

We’re pleased with what we’ve ended up with. We’re hopeful that this will work. But please pray so that our efforts to help our friends, neighbours and colleagues are not in vain? We’d love to help them see that the answer to the question ‘is Christianity good for the world?’ is emphatically yes.

Madagascar Diary – Post 1

An inauspicious start, it would be fair to say. It’s five o’clock in the afternoon and I should be in the air somewhere over Africa. I ought to be reclining in a comfortable seat, gin and tonic in one hand enjoying a film I’d never pay to see, and due to arrive in Madagascar in a few hours’ time. But I’m not. I’m in Paris. Charles de Gaulle airport to be precise. Fog over France meant that my connecting flight from London Heathrow didn’t get here in time. We were delayed by over an hour and they left without me. But the wonderful customer services staff of Air France has found an alternative way to get me to my destination. And so, instead of arriving tonight, having a night in a hotel and travelling up to Mandritsara in the morning, I’m going via an Island in the Indian Ocean I’ve never heard of. Sadly there won’t be an opportunity to stop off and savour the delights of the beach but I may make up for that in Madagascar.

I guess I need to back track and say something about why I’m going. The church of which I’m the senior minister supports a medical missionary couple who we’ve known and loved for years. Peter and Claire-Lise Judkins were some of the first people to join us when we planted CCB. A few years later they headed off to Benin for a years’ short term mission project. And they got the taste for mission. Peter then did a two year part-time apprenticeship with us, funded by working part-time at St George’s Hospital Tooting. He and Claire-Lise, now with their two girls Keziah and Naomi, are living in a town called Mandritsara in the north of Madagascar. They’re involved in the Good News Hospital, which was set up twenty years ago by Dr David Mann, a missionary from the UK. I’ll say more about this work in subsequent posts. At this stage all I know is what I’ve read and what others have told me. I’m looking forward to getting some firsthand knowledge of what’s going on there. David has kindly asked me to come out to Madagascar and teach on the spiritual retreat for the missionary staff. The CCB elders were enthusiastic, the International Support Group from Co-Mission was supportive and David was persuasive. I took it to the Chief of Staff and she wasn’t obstructive! She actually thought it’d be a good thing for me and a real encouragement to Peter and Claire-Lise. And so, it was an invitation I didn’t feel I could turn down.

Until very recently I’ve been reluctant to go on missionary trips. At university I developed a suspicion of the enthusiasm shown for short term mission trips. I nearly went on one. I’m glad I didn’t. I went to camp and have turned out much more useful for the gospel than I suspect I would if I had gone to West Africa as I’d planned. For me, and for my peers, short term mission had much more to do with going somewhere exciting than telling people the gospel. I’m not saying that everyone who goes has that motive. But I am saying that it’s a risk. For my money, people do more evangelism on a UK beach mission than those who sign up for missionary tourism. Don’t misunderstand me, I believe in missionary work. After all Jesus told us to make disciples of all nations and I’m not going to correct him. I support overseas mission; four of the guys we’ve had as apprentices are currently overseas. It’s just that my heart is for the church and the people in our neighbourhood. I’m not a Jonah; honest. Madagascar is not my Nineveh. I believe that the Malagasy people should have the gospel preached to them in a language that they can understand. I’m thrilled that Peter and Claire-Lise, and others like them are over there working flat out in gospel ministry. And I’m really looking forward to being a part of that. It’s just that I want the church and the congregations I serve back in the UK to believe that they’re doing missionary work by explaining the gospel to their neighbours. Mark Driscoll says something like ‘missional living isn’t simply crossing the world to take the gospel to the nations but also crossing the street to take the gospel to our neighbours’? I don’t agree with him on everything but I’m with him on this one. And so I want every Christian in our church to think of themselves as a missionary and to commit to the mission of the church. I don’t want to be one of those Christians who communicates that all the action is overseas. So I guess my lack of campaigning on the overseas mission of the church and my moderate temperature for it derives from a good and godly desire to emphasise the evangelistic mission of the local church. Don’t nail me for that. But I guess it doesn’t need to be an either-or and so I’m exploring the both-and! And for what it’s worth, one of the aspects of the missionary work in Madagascar that I’m most looking forward to is the work that Mat Linley does with the local Baptist Pastor in training church leaders. I think I‘ll have lots to ponder after seeing what they do.

But back to my reluctance. Up until five this morning, when I kissed goodbye to Rosslyn, part of me really didn’t want to go. And then it was too late; the taxi was waiting outside. I’m not sure many people are persuaded by my lack of enthusiasm for going. They couldn’t get passed the opportunity for travel. But I’m not that enamoured by travel; people matter more to me than places. And so I really don’t like leaving my family and I don’t like the disruption it causes. They need me and I enjoy having responsibility for them. I feel like I’m ditching that by being away for almost two weeks. The kids are still pretty young and can be quite full on when they want to be. And I do feel like I’m dumping Roslyn in it. And knowing that at least part of my time away won’t be spent in impoverished Malagasy countryside but on an idyllic island paradise does little to assuage my guilt! But that’s not going to stop me from making the most of it!

As you might expect, I didn’t sleep brilliantly last night. I was a little preoccupied. I spent a lot of the evening sorting and packing. I got up at five so that I could grab a shower and some breakfast before heading out to the airport for check in. I needn’t have bothered. I could have left London at the time of writing this and I’d still be able to make the flight out of Paris. But the Lord knows what He’s doing and I trust Him. It makes no sense to me whatsoever to get me out of the house before the kids were up after a weekend where I was away with our evening congregation to spend the day wandering around Paris CDG. But I’m not omniscient. And I’ve benefited from pondering that! Sadly, I’ve not been able to work as I’d hoped; a combination of standing in queues, collecting baggage and just being plain bushed. I’m currently stood in the check in queue for the 7.45pm Austral Airlines flight to St Denis de la Reunion. No? Me neither! I’m hoping to get a bit of work done on the plane but I’ve just heard the wailing cry of a small child. Forgive me for a moment, I just need to pray! OK, done.

On the spiritual retreat, I’m giving seven talks on 1 Corinthians 1-4.  Don Carson’s written a book for pastors on those chapters. I suspect it’ll be helpful. I’ve loved working hard on the text over the last couple of weeks. And I’ve been profoundly challenged by some Corinthian tendencies in my own motives and methods. But Carson’s a genius with the Bible and he gets ministry so I owe it to the missionaries to at least have responded to his material. He may have some helpful pointers on lines of application. On the first flight to Paris I began Paul Miller’s book ‘A Praying Life’. It’s been an encouraging start though the combination of turbulence and a craving for a cup of tea did little to aid my concentration. But these were only the opening chapters. He’s just limbering up. It’d be good to have finished the book by the time I get back. For that reason I only brought one secular book with me; an Alistair MacClean. I don’t want to waste the time and regret feeding my spiritual flabbiness!

Anyway, I’ll keep you posted on what we do and what I made of it. I board, God willing in 45 minutes.

Balham’s Big Survey

Our annual mission kicks off this Sunday. It’s called ‘Balham’s Big Survey’. Essentially we’re encouraging anyone who’s willing to respond to the question ‘If you could ask God one question, and you knew you’d get an answer, what would you ask?’

We’ve launched a website so that people can submit questions. We’re attempting to help people engage with the big issues of life. We’re encouraging church punters to use all manner of social media to get a response. My Facebook news feed has included a steady stream of congregational members using their status to promote the events. Happy days!

We’re going to respond to the two most popular responses on Sunday 22nd Many; in the morning, when Pete will tackle the second most popular response, and the evening when I’ll have a stab at the most popular one.

This Saturday we’re going to be out on the streets of Balham, trying not to make a nuisance of ourselves, asking people to submit a response to the big question. We’ve been out a few times before, so we’re hoping that people have got used to us pestering them for 30 seconds of their time! We’ve got a team of nearly 30 people who are giving up their Saturday morning to listen to the people of Balham and gather data. That’s hugely encouraging. I’m a bit of a statistical geek. I love graphs and pie charts and so on. They may already be dated, but I love a good ‘wordle’ as well. I  may try to get some of the creative collective to produce an infographic! But I’m looking forward to the analysis once it’s been done. We’ve got a wonderfully helpful congregational member who works for the National Audit Office so she can churn out the facts in the blink of an eye!

But there are more events in the week. ‘Question Time’ should be good. On Wednesday 18th May we’ve hired Chestnut Grove School Theatre for the evening. We’ve got three panel members, with expertise in different areas, to come and respond to questions posed by the audience. Rev Dr Steve Jeffery, a PhD Physicist, Church Minister and author of ‘Pierced for our Trangressions’ will be joined by Martin Ayers and Debs Stein. Martin is an ex-lawyer and now Anglican Clergyman who’s recently published book ‘Naked God’ responds to common objections raised against the Christian faith. Debs Stein is studying for her PhD in Church History, she’s married to an Anglican Clergyman and became a Christian after pursuing a reckless hedonistic lifestyle during her young adult years. I’m going to host and there’ll be a mixture of written questions submitted by the audience and then opportunity for further supplementary questions from the floor. The unpredictability should make for a great evening.

We’ve also got two gender specific events, though we don’t call them that!

The girls are having an evening devoted to fashion called ‘Frock Chicks’. It’s on Monday 16th May. Hilary Nicholls is the co-founder of the company with the same name. Frock Chicks is a fashion consultancy with a personal shopper service. Hils is married to a good friend of mine, Andrew, who also happens to be on the C0-Mission staff. That gave me sme useful leverage! Before being married to Andrew and raising their two boys, Hils was a UCCF staff worker in London. She’ll give a style presentation and provide some fashion advice and then speak on the subject ‘Dressing up? Who are we really?’

On the Friday night (20th May), the boys are having a curry! Why wouldn’t you? We’re only a stop away from Tooting, one of the best areas in London to enjoy South Asian Cuisine. I’m speaking at this event. So it could go either way. I’m going to try to convince the gathered crowd that Christianity isn’t for religious people, which I hope will come as refreshing news to everyone there!

And the kids haven’t been left out. They’ve got Balham’s Big Bounce this Sunday afternoon (15th May). We’re transforming the school gym at Chestnut Grove School into a giant playground with soft play, a bouncy castle and a massive inflatable assault course. Simon, our children’s worker apprentice, is going to compare the fun we have at parties with the joy we have in knowing Jesus.

If you’re around, come to the events. You’d be most welcome. If you like what we’re doing, pray for us. And if you’ve got a question; submit it here.