Independent churches lack accountability

AccountabilityIndependent churches lack accountability! I’ve been told this for the past 24 years. And it’s true. Independent churches often lack accountability, but so do mainstream denominational churches. You only need to look at the terrifying accounts of greed, sexual immorality, false teaching, abuse, and cover ups within churches, to see the failures of our structures to ensure accountability.

Congregations must do their bit to encourage their churches and leaders to stay on track. Bishops, synods, and assemblies can draw lines and forbid their leaders and churches from transgressing. Codes of conduct, covenants of service, rules and conditions, can all play a part in keeping churches on the straight and narrow. And, ultimately all churches are accountable to God, and pastors and teachers are especially accountable for how they exercise their responsibilities of leadership.

The stark reality is that no rules or structures, authorities or procedures will produce righteousness. Never have and never will. But if you argue for church autonomy and leave it at that, you will be both naïve and dangerous. Let me recommend four processes for increasing accountability in independent (and other) churches.

  1. Keep focused on the gospel of Jesus Christ. We are sinners saved by grace and we are being transformed by God’s Word and Spirit into the fulness of Christ. Churches must keep shining a light on the gospel, preaching the gospel, refocusing their leadership on the gospel, growing their members in the gospel, applying the gospel to conflicts and divisions, setting budgets with gospel priorities, forgiving one another with the grace of the gospel. Literally applying the gospel to everything we teach and do. Accountability comes not through law, but through gospel.
  2. Seek out fellowship with other churches. Don’t stand on your independence from other churches and other leaders. God has called us to be his holy people and to be adopted into his family. We belong to God, and by his Spirit we belong to each other. We gather separately, with distinctive names and quirky cultural expressions, but one day we will be gathered together for all eternity with no divisions. Let that future shape our present experience. Independence is not a Christian trait. We are all dependent on God and one another. Interdependence should be a more accurate description of who we are as Christians and churches.
  3. Invite a number of mature respected Christian leaders to be on a Board of Reference for your church. If you’re a new church plant, then such people can provide credibility and support to your venture. If you’ve been around for a while, they can help you see your blind spots. Such a group doesn’t have governing authority. They primarily offer support, prayer, and advice. You can insert them into your church systems, such that they must be consulted on major matters and have the opportunity to speak into the circumstances. Changing a church’s theological beliefs, sacking or choosing a senior leader, accusations made against a senior leader; these are all issues that shouldn’t be covered up or go unnoticed. Ensuring that an independent voice gets to speak on these and other major matters can provide important checks and balances for churches and their leaders.
  4. Provide for your senior pastor (and potentially all your pastoral staff) to have an external mentor, coach, or pastoral supervisor. Be generous and pay for this if necessary. Invest in your leaders. The Royal Commission into Child Abuse has made recommendations that pastors have professional supervision, and some denominations already have this in place. An informed external perspective can assist leaders to look after their churches, grow their people, and watch themselves more effectively. Seek out someone with experience whom you trust and then make yourself accountable to them as you meet with them regularly. Without honesty, accountability means nothing. So speak the truth, seek help, and invest in your life and doctrine wisely.

How many times do I have to say it?

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Just because I’ve said it, doesn’t mean that you’ve heard it!

If it’s worth saying, then it usually needs to be said more than once and in more than one way. This is my philosophy of communication. We simply can’t assume that if we’ve said something once or written it once, that people have therefore got it.

Take speaking at church for example: When an announcement is made before the whole church, does this mean that everyone has got it? Of course not. On any week there will likely be less than 75% of regulars in attendance. Of these, some will be out with children. One or two could be in the bathroom. Some might be dreaming with other things on their minds. Some might be on their phones—please no! Others could be distracted by children, off with the fairies, or not grasp the importance or significance of the communication.

The same is true of weekly emails or blog posts. I’ve seen some people’s in-boxes. One had 13,000 emails and 1000s unread. Seriously! Some people have no idea how to manage emails. Their in-boxes are so full that they’ve given up looking at anything. Others glaze over the email coming from the same person with roughly the same information week after week. Some spouses forget that they need to pass things on to their other half. Some simply don’t find the time to read them. And some don’t have email.

For these reasons, and others, we need to consider the best ways of communicating things at church. Sometimes this will involve a verbal announcement at church, followed up by a Facebook notice, text, email, blog post, leaflet or something else. Things might need to be repeated over more than one week to increase the likelihood of people hearing the news. At other times we might choose not to say things up front at church, so as to avoid clutter or people thinking they’ve heard it all before. Emails, texts, and Facebook posts are a simple means of getting information out, but they depend on people getting them and reading them, and sometimes they need to be followed up with verbal communication or discussion. Facebook groups can help alert people to things that are happening, as can an up-to-date website. How up to date is your website? Is it still advertising the Christmas service? From 2014??? Sort it out—please!

I want to suggest another means of communication at church which could be a little controversial—good gossip! Spread the word among each other. When I say good gossip, I don’t really mean ‘gossip’. There is absolutely no place for God’s people to be telling stories about one another, putting each other down, grumbling, whinging or complaining. This is why the generation of Moses perished in the wilderness. What I mean is helping to keep each other informed, know what’s happening, and be encouraged in our love and service. So when you see that someone is missing from church, why not give them a call, send them a text, pop them a visit, or message them on Facebook—tell them you’ve missed them and let them know what they might have missed.

For those of you at Salt Church, please be patient with me as I take time to get to know you, work out how things work around here, discover expectations, learn how to become a better listener, and explore good means of communication. And we will work at getting a website up soon.

May God help us to become better communicators.

What Bible will we read this year?

bibleIn 1968 my grandparents gave me my first Bible. It was a Revised Standard Version. In 1974, I began high school and we were all given a copy of the New English Translation. At university I discovered that everyone had copies of the New International Version so, of course, I bought one too. A decade or so back, most of my tribe jumped on board with the English Standard Version, and I began reading and preaching from this translation. And now there’s a new version of the New International Version to replace the one I loved for so long that’s now fallen apart. This is probably the version that I read the most. More recently, people have proclaimed the merits of the Christian Standard Bible, so I’ve been reading one of those too.

Firstly, let me say what a privilege it is to have so many quality choices in understandable modern English. Prior to 1881 there were only three choices for English readers—the KJV, the KJV, or the KJV. You could have it anyway you wanted, so long as it was the King James Version.

As I begin today as the pastor at Salt Community Church in Bonny Hills, my plan is to preach from the NIV. This will be a change for our church as we have been mainly focused on the ESV until now.

So why have I opted to read and preach from the ‘new’ NIV?

  1. You can’t buy the ‘old’ NIV anymore
  2. There are important translation improvements from the ‘old’ NIV
  3. The NIV is easy to read out loud
  4. The NIV pitches at a good reading level for the majority of readers
  5. The gender language is well-balanced
  6. The NIV is a ‘mainstream’ translation that can be purchased easily in a multitude of print options.

So why not the ESV?

Perhaps it’s just personal preference, but I don’t find the ESV a comfortable version for public reading. The sentence structure will often follow the original Greek or Hebrew—and that is a very good thing—but it can make it harder to read out loud. I believe it is pitched at a higher reading level than the NIV.

But, I’m not dissing the ESV. I’ve been using an ESV for personal Bible study and preparation now for many years, because it is a more ‘literal’ translation. It is more consistent than the NIV in translating Greek and Hebrew words and phrases with the same English words and phrases. The ESV pays greater attention to conveying original sentence structures and word order. This is excellent for study purposes and leaves the reader to do more of the work of observation and interpretation.

If you are engaged in serious Bible study or preparing studies, lessons, or talks for others, then it is very helpful to have more than one translation at your disposal.

And what about the CSB?

You haven’t heard of it? It’s the Christian Standard Bible—an update of the Holman Christian Standard Bible—and it’s only been around for a couple of years. To be honest, I love the CSB. I even bought 70 copies for Salt, before changing my mind! The CSB is a genuinely fresh translation that helps me to notice things in the text that I haven’t seen before. I appreciate the layout, where Old Testament quotations are printed in bold type. Many claim it to be the translation that gets the best balance between literally translating the text and communicating the ideas easily. So why haven’t I opted for the CSB as my ‘go to’ reading/preaching version? Probably because it’s not as mainstream or accessible as the NIV yet (compare the shelf space at your local Christian bookshop) and many already have a copy of the NIV they can read and bring to church. But, if you’re looking for a new version to freshen up your reading of Scripture, then I’d certainly advise getting an CSB.

Lots of choice. What a blessing from God. Let’s clear the dust off and start reading!

My second best friend is a puppet

puppetSo goes the name of the beach mission facebook group I joined this summer. Actually, I joined more than a facebook group—Fiona and I joined the team at Old Bar with our son, Marcus. It had been 30 years since we’d last been on a beach mission as team members. This time at Old Bar and previously at Lake Tabourie. I figured I was joining the team so as to hang out with family, but it turned out to be a great way to start 2019. It was more helpful to me than I imagined.

Beach missions are rarified opportunities to share the good news of Jesus with anyone who will listen. More than 100 kids joined in programs for all ages, learning about Jesus from the Bible, playing games, having fun, and building some awesome friendships. But it’s not just for the kids. There were teenagers, adults, and all age activities. A coffee tent turned over a heap of coffee and stimulated many good conversations. We had rock nights, family feuds, bush dances, festivals, movies, fair trade markets, and more. Some of the campers had been coming along to the different programs every year for years. Some even chose to camp at Old Bar because of the annual activities. I met people who’d had their lives changed forever through hearing about Jesus and seeing the impact he makes on members of the team.

The thing I enjoyed about this mission was how down to earth and normal it was to share Jesus with others. I get plenty of opportunities to chat about what I believe, but usually as a speaker up the front at some event, or afterwards over a coffee. At Old Bar I was one of the crew, visiting campers, chatting about what we believe, and striking up strange conversations with strangers.

One afternoon we held a Hope Beyond Cure event in the large tent. Lots of people came, and most of them had a story of struggle with cancer—either them or someone they loved. I chatted with one woman who had brain cancer followed by a stroke. She had been holidaying at Old Bar for years, but never before in a motorised wheelchair. Life is fragile and she reminded us all of this reality.

What did I take away from beach mission? The joy of being with a team of people, all intent in sharing the good news of Jesus with others, everyone with a role to play on the team, people chipping in, taking the initiative to help, everyone supporting one another, sometimes encouraging, sometimes critiquing, and suggesting things we could do better. And it struck me that this is what I’d like church to be like—everyone in a team working together using their different talents to love one another, encourage one another, and above all to reach out into our community with the best news of all.

As I reconnect with the crew at Salt Church, my prayer is that we can grow together as a team—a team, at the beach, on mission together, for Jesus.

More changes ahead

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I find it hard to sit still. I’m sure if ADD had been a diagnosis in 1967, then I would have been labelled. All my school reports said something along the lines of “He would do better if he stopped talking and concentrated more on his work…” Not to mention all those sitting close to me would have done better too.

But just when we were thinking that life would stabilise here in Bonny Hills, another change comes along. This year I’m taking on the role of Pastor at Salt Community Church. Salt meets between Bonny’s and Lake Cathie in the local primary school. This Saturday at 5pm (yes our church gets in early!) I will commence this role, as I begin preaching through 1 Peter on the theme Make Your Life Count. Tonight, Fiona and I are meeting with some of the leaders to talk ‘church’ and do some preparation together.

My role at Salt will be part-time, as I am continuing with the role of National Director of FIEC. It will mean a bit less travel than the past two years, but that is needed anyway. Together with Dean, Jim, Fiona, and our executive, I will seek to provide good leadership, support, and direction to our Fellowship. I will need to work smarter, not harder, as they say!

I am excited about regular preaching and pastoral ministry in the local context, as I have a growing passion for God’s work in the Bonny Hills area. It will be nice to have the rhythm of regular preaching to keep me growing in God’s word. I also hope that it will keep me fresh and add a new dimension in relating to pastors in my work as National Director.

Over the past couple of years I’ve been involved in some mentoring, ministry coaching, and professional supervision of pastors and Christian leaders. Most of this synchronises nicely with the FIEC role. This year I’m up-skilling by taking on some supervised training in Christian mentoring. Last week Fiona, Dean Ingham, and I, all took the first intensive in a course at SMBC aimed at improving the manner in which we support, equip, and encourage growth in other leaders.

While we miss our friends from 28 years in Canberra, we are enjoying living on the Mid North Coast. It’s a joy to wake up to the sun and the surf. We love being nearer some of our kids and grandkids, and we are eagerly anticipating the birth of another grandchild in a few weeks. The year is filling up already and we will need God’s help. If you are in the business of talking to God and praying for others, we’d value your prayers for 2019. Please pray that God will equip us to serve him competently and faithfully. And ask God to help us walk the line of going out on a limb for him, while looking after ourselves at the same time.

God save the kids

I’ve been on holidays. It’s been wonderful. I’ve been with my grandkids—swimming, fishing, camping, eating, even singing. Kids are awesome. Having kids is awesome. Having grandkids is grand awesome. Now, I know some can’t. Many suffer under the unrelenting weight of infertility, longing for children of their own. Others weep daily for their lost children due to accident or disease. The crushing pain of miscarriage and still birth haunts many, leading to deep depression and despair. And many bear the scars of being stolen children or having had their children taken away.

I’ve come back from holidays and my world has gone crazy. America, New York, to be precise. On the 46th anniversary of Roe vs Wade, abortion law has taken a giant leap. New York city is celebrating full term abortions. Not just passing law, but celebrating! Lighting up the World Trade Centre. Painting it pink to party at the passing of the Reproductive Health Act.

Donna Lieberman, Executive Director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, declared, “Today the New York legislature is poised to take a historic vote to protect women’s rights and autonomy … While there is still more to do to ensure New York can be a safe haven for women all over the country, today is a day for long-overdue celebration.” Is that really true? Wouldn’t it be more accurate to limit the safe -haven to the women who are lucky enough to be born already. What about all the unborn women? How safe is New York for them?

This is the first time I’ve ever written a post about abortion. It’s too easy to cause hurt and harm in every direction. Perhaps, the complexity of the matter has kept me quiet. Maybe, I’ve been gutless in the past. So why now? To put it simply, what has just taken place in New York Sate fills me with fear and moves me to tears. I feel compelled to cry out.

There used to be a cut off date for abortion—24 weeks. They’ve taken that away. Not that I approved of any date, but this is a step too far. The thing is, I’ve met a number of children born before 24 weeks. They are alive and healthy today. I’ve walked with couples who’ve spent weeks and months in the NICU, caring and praying for their little ones born at 23, 24, 25, 26, 27, 28+ weeks. They are precious jewels.

aujaI have a first hand, hands on, deep connection to this matter. Our little girl wasn’t due until 7th January, but she arrived early on 1st October. Do the maths. That’s early. Very very early. More than 14 weeks early. We visited our beautiful girl every single day, sometimes 3 or 4 times, for 97 days in the NICU. We stood by her as she took one step forward and two steps back. We agonised over every setback and rejoiced at every advance. We put life on hold for her. We prayed for her. So many others prayed for her. A treasured daughter, sister, granddaughter, child of God. We watched her grow, develop and mature, day by day, until the day she was due. We had the privilege of seeing what is normally kept hidden—a perfect, precious, baby growing outside instead of inside the womb.

It horrifies me that anyone would celebrate the right to terminate the life of my little girl. Sometimes, there must be an agonising choice to save a mother at the cost of the child. But celebrate? Hold a party? Light up the World Trade Centre? Really? How twisted have we become?

It saddens me that we champion the right to choose over the right to live, and right up until the due date. I don’t trust people. And it deeply worries me that this is not going to be the end.

December 2 seven years on

IMG_2831It’s December 2nd—my seventh anniversary since diagnosis. Wow! A few tears fill my eyes. This is real. And it was never going to be. Life was over. It was all downhill. There was no hope. Expectations were gone. And then…

To be alive. Intoxicating. Blessings. Fiona. Luke, Sharon, Matt, Liz, Grace, Sid, Marcus, Liam, Connor, Jesse, and the little one we are yet to meet. Family. Friends. Brothers and sisters in the Lord. Friends with cancer. Deep bonds.

Ministry. Work. Travel. Beaches. Lessons. Blessings. Opportunities. Words. Writing. Speaking. Listening. Learning.

Father in heaven, thank you for life and living. Thank you for health and possibilities and a future.

And forgive me. Yes, forgive me, for unlearning. For once more taking breath for granted, for my growing sense of entitlement, for pride, for becoming casual and flippant and attracted by trivia. 

Father, you have taught me so much on this journey with cancer. You have been with me in the valley of death, you’ve carried me through so many trials and temptations, you’ve been merciful beyond description. You have taught me lessons, encouraged my faith, and disciplined me in my wandering. You have comforted me, that I might comfort others. 

Father God, you have adopted me into your family, you have redeemed my life through Jesus, you have filled me with your Spirit. I can never thank you enough. You have reminded me that I’m not self-sufficient and shown me the your sufficiency of your grace. Thank you that my life is in your hands and teach me to number my days once more.

For you created my inmost being;
    you knit me together in my mother’s womb.
I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made;
    your works are wonderful,
    I know that full well.
My frame was not hidden from you
    when I was made in the secret place,
    when I was woven together in the depths of the earth.
Your eyes saw my unformed body;
    all the days ordained for me were written in your book
    before one of them came to be.
How precious to me are your thoughts, God!
    How vast is the sum of them!

(Psalm 139:13-17)