Tuesday, 19 January 2016

What I've learnt about South Islanders

My wife and I have now lived in the South Island for two years. They've been a great two years. We've enjoyed the scenery and the people. And for the most part, these Southern folk are similar to their Northern neighbours. They share similar qualities and values: DIY, gumboots and number 8 wire, tramping and extreme sports, Tall Poppy Syndrome, L&P, Rugby and cricket. On the face of it, we are one people. But after living amongst these Southerners I've picked up on a few quirks. Let me share some of these distinctive qualities that have emerged from my engagement with the Dunedin locals.

1) The Weather
When I first arrived in Dunedin, I was given the advice to never bring up the weather. That has never been a problem for me, because Southerners seem preoccupied with the weather. I'm not sure whether it's because half of the folks are farmers and the weather is really important, or whether it's because they are in some ways constantly apologizing/defensive about the 10 seasons in one day that Duendin constantly serves up or the way the window freezes up on the inside of the house in the middle of winter.

2) Holiday Homes
I use the word 'holiday homes' to make sure we are all talking about the same thing. You see, in the North Island we call them 'baches'. In the South Island, they are 'cribs'. I always thought a crib was something a baby slept in. It made for an interesting conversation when I was first invited to stay in someone's crib...

3) The word 'wee'
Now this one, I'm pretty sure is localised in Dunedin due to its Scottish heritage. When I use the word 'wee' I mean to say 'little' or 'small' rather than something that you do in the toilet. Folks down here use that word all the time. In fact folks use it so often, they sometimes don't use it in the proper context. For example a 'wee' visit may last a couple hours.

4) Attitudes toward the North Island
The other day I was describing a recent holiday and in the course of the conversation caught myself using the word 'bach'. Well, the look I received. All I can say is 'if looks could kill'! But I think it's a pretty fair summation of a general attitude down here toward the North Island (It's pretty similar to everyone in the North Island's attitude toward Auckland). North Islanders are quick to say to tourists they should definitely tour the South Island. South Islanders are very quick to tell tourists not to bother visiting the North Island. Suffice to say, I don't often volunteer the information that I'm a born and bred North Islander...let alone the fact that I lived in Auckland for 6 years.

5) Everyone seems related
Growing up in Taumarunui I got used to everyone calling each other their cousin. Down here, everyone actually seems related.  One time I managed to introduce a sister to her brother. It does create a lovely familial feel though where cousins grow up together. The problem though is you have to be very careful complaining about someone to another person. Chances are they are somehow related.

6) Puffer Jackets
Up north, it's generally hard core adventurers and 12 year old girls who wear big, down feather puffer jackets. Due to reasons which will remain unnamed (see point 1) this is one contextual anomaly which I have whole-heartedly accepted. I'm pretty sure it must be part of the uniform down here. I have barely taken mine off the whole time since arriving. And the best bit is, you are no less of a man for wearing one.

These are just some of the quirks and distinctives of the South Island folks. I've thoroughly enjoyed the culture and my time here. It's well worth popping over the Strait for a wee visit. The scenery is amazing, and the people are brilliant too!

Friday, 27 November 2015

The curse(?) of church small groups

As a pastor, I have oversight of the small groups and small group structures at our church. One day I decided to ask our friend 'Google' what people think about them. I stumbled over a few blogs and short articles. One person reckoned they'd discerned the eights habits of effective small groups. Another article was titled, 'Fix my Small Groups! 6 Church-Tested Solutions.' Still another person had figured out eleven reasons why small groups usually fail. And then finally, one author leads to the dramatic conclusion declaring it was now time to 'euthanize this small group sacred cow' claiming they simply don't work.

Clearly, there is some feeling around the topic. I've talked to a number of church leaders from a range of denominations. Most of them believe that small groups in theory are a good thing but on the ground they're notoriously difficult. There's a range of reasons given for this. People aren't committed enough (or are too busy). There's that annoying person who always dominates the conversation (and if you can't think of anyone in your group who does then it's probably you). Groups always talk about doing something good 'out there' but hardly ever do. There's that other annoying person who always wants to talk about their foot because they think something's wrong with it and want sympathy all the time.

Small groups are messy. They involve people and so are frustrating, uncontrollable and ultimately are hard work. But then again, there is always the 5% of groups that give you hope. Everyone gets on, they talk about deep issues and have great Bible studies. And we ask ourselves why can't every group be like 'that' group (or worse, we ask how can we make every group like that one).

The question we often ask is: 'Are our small groups effective?' This question, though, misses the bigger point. I don't want small groups that are 'effective'. The question we should be asking is, 'do small groups grow good disciples of Jesus?'

A cursory look at the New Testament shows that small groups can be effective in creating and growing good disciples. Jesus had 12 committed guys who followed and learnt from him all the time. Times have since moved on. We don't see religious gurus roaming the countryside followed by their most devoted disciples. We can't simply pull the New Testament stories into our own context.

Still, small groups are important in church. David Ford in his book The Shape of Living says:

'Small groups that seek God and God's desires together have been at the heart of most of the major developments in the church over the centuries. They have also been fundamental to its ordinary flourishing, and they continue to be the most important single level of church life...Whenever such a group breaks out of routine and has an intensive time together or with others, transformations tend to happen.'

The problem with many small group structures is they become too mechanised and packaged for easy unpacking in another place with another set of people. The issues, the questions and the style of operation lack imagination and contextual significance. The hard work of figuring out what it means to 'do life together' to study the Bible and become disciples of Jesus is taken away from us, and we end up getting thrown together with a manual on how to do small groups according to the church's wishes and then left to it.

Obviously I'm being facetious and cynical, but the main point still stands. We relinquish the imaginative responsibility of being discipled and discipling others for a quick and easy pull-something-out-of-the-box approach.

So on the one hand, we see in Scripture and through church history that small groups are good things. But on the other hand, small groups are far too often routinised and dictated for them to be of any particular meaning.

So how can we redeem small groups? I would love to hear your feedback and ideas, but I have three of my own to get the conversation started.

1) Scripture needs to be wrestled with in a meaningful way
I found myself in the uncomfortable situation of realising a few days ago that a non-scripturally based 'small group' (like the 'Huddle' groups that are promoted by 3dm) could possibly do a better job of discipling Christians than the myriad of small groups where attendees supposedly gather to discuss the Bible.

Someone once said to me that in our small groups it's like we ascend Mt. Sinai, we meet with God and he gives us the glorious ten commandments, but instead of bringing them down and giving them a home in our lives, we leave them on top of the mountain and walk back down. Instead of finding ways to be shaped by Scripture as we discern it in our small groups, we tend to move on in our lives and give it no further thought.

During the course of his Master's thesis, a friend of mine asks what would it look like if small groups wrestled with Scripture together and then spent time figuring out what that would mean in their lives. Instead of going off individually to 'apply' it to our lives, what if we worked together to make Scripture meaningful in our lives, to allow it to shape us and form us in our small group.

2) The need for groups to be 'organic'
The word organic is overused and misunderstood. We assume that for something to be organic it must come about naturally and free from outside constraint and control. Unfortunately for all of us, the Christian life isn't 'organic' in that sense. The Christian life-like anything we want to achieve-has to be worked at. It requires patience, discipline and faithfulness.

In much the same way, small groups don't come about naturally. But I do think they need to be 'organic' in the sense that they reflect the individuals in a specific group. Maybe early on a group needs more guidance, but as they grow together and find their ways of relating and learning, the group itself needs to take on a life of its own that reflects the imagination, creativity and ways of being of those that take part in it.

This means there is no 'one-size-fits' all style of group. It's up to each group to work hard at figuring out what works for them, how they want to operate and what's meaningful for them. But to get to that place requires patience, grace and discipline, and even then, it won't always remain the same. As people come and go, the group will shift and change.

3) Accountability
I don't know anybody who likes the feeling of someone looking over their shoulder-especially when it comes to my Christian walk. After all, isn't the Christian walk simply about me and Jesus? Well, maybe for a select few like St. Anthony who was able to remain focussed by himself. But for the rest of us less holy folks, we need each other. Christianity isn't about me and Jesus. It's about me, Jesus and all those others who are on the same journey.

Small groups can be a great place to help keep us accountable. And I'm not talking about confessing all our sins and darkest, deepest secrets. But I'm thinking about things like, 'Last week in response to our study, you said you wanted to be more patient with your kids, and you came up with a plan. How is that going for you?'

Obviously there is always room for judging people to come in and use it as a measuring stick, but hopefully most people are generous and simply want to be supportive.

Overall, small groups aren't about ticking the 'good Christian' box. They are about growing disciples of Jesus. The question isn't, 'how can I make my small group effective'. The question is, 'how are we growing great disciples of Jesus?' Maybe some would argue they are the same question, but I think the emphases are miles apart.

Tuesday, 3 November 2015

The Listener and Preaching

So what feels like 10 years ago, I began a three-part series on preaching. This final instalment will reflect on the listener and preaching. When thinking about biblical preaching, my starting point is with God. He is the one graciously at work through the sermon event. Half the time when I hear a sermon I seem to be thinking about lunch, the other half I'm wondering what I would have said if I were given that particular text to preach--a downside of being a preacher I guess. But the problem with listening half-heartedly is that sometimes we are so focused on other things that we miss what God is calling us to, what he's saying to us that day, the type of person he wants us to be.

Now I'm not saying that all preaching is good preaching. And I'm definitely not saying that we don't need to have our critical brains functioning so we can discern whether the preacher is truly preaching Christ or something else. What I am saying is that if God is at work speaking to us through the preached word, then perhaps it's a good idea for us to sit up and listen. So to finish off this blog series, I have a list of three dispositions we should have when it comes to being listeners in the sermon event.

1) Have faith that God will speak
A lot of people in churches talk about expectation. 'We should expect God to move.' 'You should expect God to do a miracle.' The problem is that God doesn't have to do anything you tell him to do. You can't expect God to do anything. He's the boss and we are not.

The more biblical approach is faith. We believe that God has acted in the world in the past. We see how Jesus came to earth. We see how God has taken hold of our lives and brought us into relationship with him. And so we can have faith that God will continue to meet and speak with us. Faith doesn't demand anything of God. It simply understands his character and trusts that he will do what is best.

When it comes to the preaching act, we need not expect that God will speak to us because in fact he may not. Maybe the person in the second aisle from the back needs God's comfort, and he intends on speaking to them that day. But we should have faith that God is at work speaking to his people which includes you.

2) Prayerfully listen
As I alluded to earlier it can be a real challenge to listen throughout a sermon--whether that's because it's boring or that the sermon is so overwhelmed with illustrations that you aren't sure what's trying to be communicated or any number of other things. But listen we must. Not because the person up the front wields the power but because God may well be speaking to us. And how can you hear if you aren't listening.

Karl Barth once said this about Scripture:

'It is not the right thoughts about God which forms the content of the Bible, but the right divine thoughts about [humans]. The Bible tells us not how we should talk with God but what he says to us; not how we find the way to him, but how he has sought and found the way to us; not the right relation in which we must place ourselves to him, but the covenant which he has made with all who are Abraham's spiritual children and which he has sealed once and for all in Jesus Christ.'

What Barth is saying can also apply to preaching. The content of preaching should not be about how we must present ourselves to God, but about how he has searched and found his way to us. It demonstrates God's grace and love and how he has drawn us into relationship with him. Thus through preaching we are challenged as to how we live in relationship with this God and what he is calling us to. This exchange is not merely about information but primarily about relationship between God and the hearer. This requires prayerful listening.

3) 'What is God calling us to today?'
The final disposition is about asking ourselves the question, 'What is God saying today?' A lot of people decry the ineffectiveness of preaching. You often hear complaints from preachers that all their hard work counts for nothing because it never spurs the congregation to action (unless it's that theologically dubious person they are so fond of on the internet). If I'm being honest, I've felt the same thing. However, I'm also of the school of thought that for the most part, preaching is a long arduous journey that develops and builds over time. Preaching is like a coral that takes a long time to develop and take shape. People are slowly shaped and transformed as they encounter Jesus through the preached word.

Having said that, I also believe that it's all of our responsibilities to stop and take a moment to reflect on what we have heard and ask ourselves the question of what God is calling us to today. Is it to be more patient? Is it to think about how I/we (remember we don't go on the Christian journey by ourselves-we go with a community of people) can demonstrate the love of God to others through the way we live? Are we being convicted because Christ isn't the centre of our lives?

I'm not sure about anyone else, but once a sermons done, that's it, I don't give it a moment longer. I start thinking about morning tea and wondering what biscuits are being served. But, we need to take time to stop and ask God what he is saying and what he's calling us to. The only problem is that we mightn't like the answer.

Friday, 14 August 2015

10 Reasons you know you are a new homeowner

So I know we are two-thirds of the way through a series on preaching, but I wanted to do something a little different before we finish that off. Recently, Jess and I became homeowners. We are pretty stoked about it. But like any significant change in life, it comes with its own quirks and oddities.

Here is a list of 10 reasons you know you are a new homeowner:

1) You relearn the value of patience. That mortgage isn't going anywhere soon.

2) All of a sudden, things like kicking a soccer ball inside seem like a silly idea. Disclaimer to other people's houses that we have rented over the past: it was a silly idea then too.

3) You don't feel guilty putting a nail in the wall. You can put what you want wherever you want without the wrath of a landlord in the back of your mind.

4) You start wondering what projects you can undertake around the home. It doesn't matter whether you actually have any skills to be able to do it or not

5) You wonder whether you'll be able to go on holiday ever again. The bank assures us we will have financial freedom again in another 30 years.

6) Insurance is important. Only having car insurance just doesn't cut it anymore.

7) You're keen to have people come over and check out your house, except it means you have to see people. Hey, it's my personal space. Well we actually co-own it with the bank. Ok, ok, the bank mostly owns it.

8) Covering the cost of the fortnightly repayments seems reasonable enough. Until you start getting the bills for the 'hidden' costs: insurance, rates, lawyers, plumbers.

9) You're still pinching yourself about getting through the long and arduous journey of buying a house. Looking for a good house, negotiating a price, mortgage brokers, Lim reports, banks, lawyers, Kiwisaver, unforeseen circumstances and complications, etc.

10) You lie awake at night running through different scenarios to make sure you can cover the cost of the mortgage. What if I lose my job? What if my wife stops working? Heaven forbid, what if my wife gets pregnant?!

Tuesday, 11 August 2015

The Preacher and Preaching

'Whenever a human being, Bible in hand, stands up before a group of other human beings, invites the gathered assembly into a particular text of the Bible and as faithfully as possible tries to say again what the living God is saying in the text, something always happens. Something transformative, empowering, life-giving happens.' And so begins Darrell Johnson's The Glory of Preaching.

This is a huge, daring statement to make. I'm sure the only thing that happens during some of my sermons is that people have a space to take a nap. But something happens during a sermon. Something transformative. Something life-giving. That's a huge claim. Not because God isn't able. He can do whatever he wants. That's in his job description. It's a huge claim because there is one person in the middle who always seems to mess it up: the preacher.

Here are some insights I've gleaned through my research in theology of preaching and from preaching I've done.

1) No preacher is qualified enough to preach
I think some preachers pretend they know what they are doing every time they start preparing for a sermon. In many ways it's far easier than facing the honest truth. We have no idea what we are doing, and we are completely incapable of doing it. If preaching is an act of God, if it's something that God does, if it's a relational event where God comes down to speak to his people, then of course no preacher is worthy or able to stand in front of the congregation. The only one who is good enough to preach is Jesus and look how that turned out for him. No preacher is qualified or able to truly preach.

2) A preacher preaches because she has to
So, if a preacher is unable to preach, then why do we have sermons? The simple answer is because we have to. Barth speaks about the necessity of preaching. 'God gives the church the task of speaking about him' (Church Dogmatics I/2, 756).  God calls men and women to speak about him to the gathered congregation. They are tasked with opening the Bible and speaking about it. What makes this word come alive isn't based on the stylistic, rhetorical or theological ability of the preacher but solely rests on God himself choosing to take up those poor, incomplete words and use them for his purposes. The moment I start talking about God, I stop talking about him because he transcends words and concepts, phrases and clever alliterations. But the church must still preach because God calls us to.

3) Sermons and sermon preparation should be bathed in prayer
I'm not always the most spiritual person. But when I am 10 minutes away from preaching I have this sense that I am totally out of my depth. Who am I to speak about God to these people? How can I ever express the beauty of God's being? The preaching event is nothing less than God extending his grace toward us. So that means a preacher can do no other than pray that God will be with her through the act of preaching and through sermon preparation. Prayer should be the foundation of any sermon and be woven into every aspect of its preparation. Preachers need to understand the text, they need to figure out how to word things but most importantly they need the Spirit to be at work shaping the hearts and minds of the hearer. A preacher relies on God's grace. They can do no other.

In the quote we started with, Johnson reminds us that something always happens when someone stands at the pulpit, Bible in hand, ready to speak. This can happen because of the preacher and often happens in spite of the preacher. But for whatever reason, God chooses to speak his word through people. He did it with the biblical writers and prophets and continues to do it through the words of preachers. All we can do is be obedient to what he is calling us to and thank God that he is at work in our churches and in our communities. There is nothing within a human preacher that deserves it. There is only the sheer grace of God.

Wednesday, 8 April 2015

God and preaching

About 2 years ago, I completed my Master's thesis (there's a copy in the Laidlaw College Library or you could give me a yell--I have a PDF version) which included elements toward a theology of preaching from the work of Karl Barth. The following six months I worked on turning part of my thesis into a published journal article (Stimulus vol 20, Issue 3). I think it's now time to distil that further into a series of three blog posts (and possibly have more people read about it...I guess topping two people can't be that hard). The first one will focus on God, the second will focus on the preacher and the third will focus on the hearers. These three posts will be a collection of insights that have been particularly formative about the way I think about preaching.

So where is God in the midst of preaching? Here are three things I think are important when thinking about preaching from a theological point-of-view.

1) Real preaching is an event of God's doing
While I like to think of myself as a preacher, the reality is my words are meaningless. I can no more communicate God as I can tell you about atomic theory. While I might be able to use stories and other rhetorical devices to communicate something, my words are nothing compared to the infinite transcendence of God.

Therefore, and thank God this is the case, the true preaching of God's Word occurs not in my reflection and communication of a biblical passage but in the amazing grace of God adopting such incomplete words to communicate himself. In other words, God's Word is communicated when God chooses to encounter us through the words of a preacher. Barth refers to this act of grace as an 'event'. God breaking into our reality and making himself known. If it weren't for this eventfulness--this action of God--he would remain unknown to us.

2) Preaching is a deeply relational event
As a preacher I can tell you quite a bit about God. But God is not like an object we can study in a classroom. While we might be able to know some stuff about him, real preaching doesn't rest primarily in this sharing of information but in the encounter that occurs between God and his people. This means the event of God reaching into our lives is a relational event--God drawing his people deeper into relationship with himself. And that's why preaching really is an impossible task. Because preaching is not merely communicating information but a deep and relational encounter. Therefore, real preaching hinges on the fact that God is a loquacious God who is interested in knowing us and allows himself to be known by us.

3) Preaching is a trinitarian event
I believe that preaching is a deeply trinitarian event. The Father is the one who adopts our frail, human words. The Word that the Father speaks is Jesus. And the Holy Spirit allows us to hear that Word. So even in the speaking of his Word, we can only hear it by the Spirit illuminating that Word within the hearts and minds of believers.

So what does all this mean? Well a preacher stands in the pulpit, Bible in hand speaking what they believe God is saying to the church in that context and that day. But it's just words until God, in his grace, adopts those words and chooses to speak his Word through it. The Word that is spoken is Jesus Christ, the full revelation of who God is. But in that act the Holy Spirit is the one who makes such an encounter possible by illuminating the incarnate Christ in the hearts and minds of hearers.

We often think of preaching as the sharing of information. But it's much more than that. It's a relational act of the God named Trinity in the midst of human speech and action. 'Preaching is not just a human action. It is an 'event' in which Father, Son and Holy Spirit are active and draw humans ever deeper into the triune life of God.'

So where is God in the midst of preaching? He is the one who reveals himself to us in an act of stunning grace.

Thursday, 19 March 2015

Should it be illegal to indoctrinate children with secularism?

I often find Facebook an interesting (and often depressing) place to see what's trending and what people are engaging with. Like the recent example of Willy Moon and Natalia Kills. They showed up all over my feed as they were either poked fun of or abused for the absurd and, quite frankly, 'disgusting' comments they made about an X-Factor contestant. 

One day I was scrolling through my home page and I stumbled across an article from The Huffington Post. The article, Some atheists and transhumanists are asking: should it be illegal to indoctrinate kids with religion, argues that children are impressionable and so should not be 'indoctrinated' with religious ideas. It ends with the author joining with others in calling for a regulation  which 'restricts religious indoctrination of children until they reach, let's say, 16 years of age...Forcing religion onto minors is essentially a form of child abuse, which scars their ability to reason and also limits their ability to consider the world in an unbiased manner.'

Obviously, as a Christian from before the age of 16, I'm biased in my opinions, and my ability to reason has been deeply scarred. Nevertheless I feel I must say something. There are three particular ideas within the article I wish to comment and push back on. I can't speak for all religions, so I'll speak from a Christian evangelical perspective.

1. 'Religion should remain a private endeavour for adults.'
This is nothing new. The whole secular program is designed to push religion out of public discourse. Here we have a clash of ideologies. Christians believe that their faith is not merely an added side you order with your main course. It is the main course. To move away from the analogy, following Christ is what shapes a Christian's life. One's political or ethical beliefs will come out of their Christian commitment. So to simply push Christianity to the margins is not acceptable from a Christian point-of-view.

2. 'If you take "God" and "religion" out...what you'd probably find is peaceful people and communities dedicated to preserving and improving life through reason, science and technology.'
When will we ever stop with such simplistic readings of history? Even though I empathise with the author that people often use the guise of religious belief to start war and do terrible things, much of the time such things are politically motivated rather than religiously so. That's not to say that there are radical and misguided people who do do terrible things believing they are compelled to because of their religion, but that's a small pocket of terrible people.

And it's also deeply simplistic to say that if no religion existed, life would run smoothly and peacefully. Look at Hitler and the Nazis. They were scathing of Christianity and religious activity. Hitler held to a 'survival of the fittest' type philosophy which led to the deaths of millions of people: Jews, physically and intellectually disabled persons, Christians, people who disagreed with Hitler, etc. To say that religion is the cause of all horrible events in history is simply untrue. By the same token, non-religious folk are not more capable of evil as religious folk. I think events of human evil hint at something deeper that has to do with human nature. I don't think its a religious issue but a human one.

Also, Christian belief is oriented toward loving God and loving your neighbour. Christ calls us to live at peace with one another. That's not to say that Christians can't critique things in the world. But any so-called Christian teaching that deviates from this 'peace' and advocates war or hatred is no longer Christian but something else entirely.

3. 'A reasonable society should not have to indoctrinate its children; its children should discover and choose religious paths for themselves when they become adults, if they are to choose one at all.'
While on the surface this may sound reasonable, in reality it's a naive statement. It assumes that non-religious conversation and beliefs is a neutral stance. While I think 'indoctrinate' is a terrible word because of its negative connotation, to teach a secular worldview is to 'indoctrinate' a child. It will teach them that religion doesn't matter, or is merely a crutch to help you through your life. Secularism is an ideology which teaches particular assumptions about the world just like religions do. To pretend that it's something other than that is to deceive ourselves.

We all live out of a particular worldview and we pass that on to our children. As for me, I seek to live a life that produces things like gentleness, kindness, peace and self-control because that's how my God calls me to live. And I want to pass those values onto my children. If that's unacceptable to the author of this Huffington Post article, then all I can say is that's just too bad.

A final word
There are more secularists than religious people in our Western culture, so secularists can easily shout louder than Christians and thus drown out their voices. Which, if they choose to do so, is fine. But I would propose that instead of pushing religious perspectives to the margins, they should be brought into the heart of public discourse. Are we in the 21st century afraid of religion and religious perspectives? Are we afraid of engaging with them and taking seriously what they might have to offer? Throughout Western civilization, Christians have done incredible things. They were the ones who spearheaded the British fight against slavery, who advocated education for all, who established hospitals for sick people. I don't expect everyone to follow Christ (even though I'd love that), but if Christians can offer that kind of consciousness and bring it into public discourse, then why wouldn't we want to hear from those voices?

To teach children from a Christian worldview isn't any worse than to do so from a secular one. But the misuse of either is what can be damaging to children.