Fellowship of Independent?

It’s been fun trying to explain to explain my new role in our organisation to people.

“I used to work for an IEC”, I say.
“But now I’m employed by an F.”

Each letter of our acronym and each word in our title is significant. I wouldn’t say that they each bear equal significance, but together they paint a picture of who we are and what we are on about.

Let’s start with independent. This doesn’t, or at least it shouldn’t, mean that we are a bunch of lone rangers. We’re not to be a motley bunch of mavericks who despise denominations, resent others having input to our decisions, or simply can’t get along with anyone else. ‘Independent’ mustn’t describe an unwillingness to fellowship with other believers or an isolationist mindset—this is profoundly unChristian. It simply affirms the fact that each church is self-governed, with its own constitution, leaders, and ways of doing things. I’d like to think that we are little ‘i’ independents!

So how do we function as a fellowship? While upholding the independent governance of each church, we share a vision for reaching Australia with the gospel of Jesus through planting and building healthy evangelical churches. We understand that together we can teach and learn, and give and gain, to and from each other. We can pool resources, encourage one another in our shared vision, share our joys, and carry one another’s burdens. We can seek to build one another through teaching from God’s word at conferences and courses, and commit to regular prayer for our members. Together, we can share ideas, learn from others’ experiences, cooperate in ventures, and provide help to those who need guidance and support.

Ours is a fellowship that is shaped by firm beliefs. We are unashamedly evangelical. We are persuaded that true Christianity is evangelical in its very essence. That is, people are reconciled into relationship with God, and churches are created and grow, through the work of God’s ‘evangel’—the good news that Jesus Christ was crucified for the forgiveness of sins and was raised physically from the dead to rule over God’s world. We learn this good news from the Bible—not people’s best ideas about God, but God’s specific revelation of himself.

Finally, we are a fellowship of churches—evangelically persuaded and independently governed churches. We don’t view FiEC as ‘our church’, ‘the church’, or even ‘a church’. Rather, we are a network or ‘denomination’ comprised of many churches who voluntarily take steps to fellowship with one another in various ways. It is impractical for all of our churches to meet together—we are scattered across this vast country. However, we seek to gather members of each of our churches together at different events during the year so as to encourage personal and practical fellowship. The official representatives of each church—usually the senior pastors—meet together at formal meetings of the FiEC to review, plan, and pray for our fellowship.

Gospel DNA

gospeldnaDNA is who we are. It’s you and I boiled down to our most basic fundamental parts. It’s our point of difference, our unique identifier. It’s the building block of our health and biological integrity. DNA gets passed from generation to generation during reproduction. Zillions of pieces of code are transmitted intact so that new things grow. Occasionally there are mistakes in the code. Sometimes things go wrong—like in me! I have a genetic mutation. My second chromosome has flipped around, fused with the fifth chromosome, and created a genetic short circuit, thus producing cancer of the lungs.

What about other bodies? What about the body of Christ we call the church? How is it reproduced? What keeps it healthy? The answer is Gospel DNA. The gospel gives spiritual life to churches. People respond to the gospel in repentance and faith, are thereby incorporated in Christ’s body, and knit together by his Spirit. Healthy churches reproduce this gospel DNA without allowing mutations to develop.

Richard Coekin’s new book Gospel DNA is a spiritual health manual for evangelical churches. He focuses on what he calls an ‘electrifying training seminar’ for church leaders. You and I might know it as the Apostle Paul’s words to the Ephesian elders recorded in Acts 20:17-38. In a handful of verses, Paul condenses the essence of what it takes to grow and reproduce healthy gospel-shaped churches. He identifies the matters that matter to God, responsibilities of leaders, the convictions that must shape all we do, and the threats to healthy church growth and reproduction. Richard Coekin spends 22 chapters exploring 22 verses of the Bible that are nothing less than a masterclass for gospel ministers.

I’ve long turned to Acts 20 for encouragement and inspiration for the work of gospel ministry. Simply being reminded that the church belongs to God and has been purchased by his blood, is enough to call me back into line. Paul’s words refocus my lens when I’m pulled here and there by the pressures and challenges of leading a church. They retune me to the matters of first importance to God. They remind me what the church is, why it matters so much to God, what will see it grow bigger and stronger, and warn me to stay alert to attacks.

This book isn’t so much a commentary on Acts 20:17-38 as it is a reflection on the Apostle Paul’s ‘ministry values’. No doubt Paul had more to say to the Ephesian elders, but the message that Luke records takes us deep into his core values of gospel ministry. Richard Coekin works off Paul’s script to explore these values in greater detail, by taking us to other parts of the Bible that expound each value. He explains their significance for promoting faithful and fruitful gospel ministry, often illustrating from his own experience with the Co-Mission network of churches in the UK.

I’m keen to get multiple copies of this book so that I can start reading it with others. In fact, I recommend the churches and leaders in our FiEC network make use of this book as a training manual. It’s a book to read slowly, chapter by chapter, pausing to review, discussing how we can apply its lessons, and making plans to change for the better. Gospel DNA is an excellent resource to use in personal ministry, training our leaders, enriching our elders, inspiring our potential missionaries, and preparing our future church planters.

(Richard Coekin, Gospel DNA: 21 Ministry Values for Growing Churches, The Good Book Company, 2017)

New job

Many of you will know that I’ve recently taken on a new job. I’m now over 3 weeks into working as the National Director for the Fellowship of Independent Evangelical Churches in Australia. This is a ‘start up’ role and I’m currently working out where I need to get to, checking my bearings, and mapping out the routes I will need to take.

A big part of this role will focus on communication. Sharing the vision for who we are and who we are seeking to become. It will be my job to be the CRO of the organisation—what Patrick Lencioni describes as the ‘Chief Reinforcement Officer’. It’s easy for us to grow forgetful, get distracted, experience mission drift, live off the past, or get tired and merely go through the motions. God’s word calls us not to grow weary or stop caring.

Our vision under God is to grow healthy gospel-shaped churches throughout this land (and beyond). We need to keep one other on target, on mission, and focused on what matters most. I pray that God will use me in a small way to keep reinforcing his message.

 

Gratias – Dr James Howard Bradbury (AM)

howardIt was my honour and privilege to speak at the thanksgiving service for Howard Bradbury at the Australian National University last Saturday. I first met Dr Bradbury (as I knew him then) early in 1975 when we moved to Canberra. I last met Howard (as I’ve known him for some time) at the ICU at National Capital Private Hospital only days before he died. Our lives have connected in so many ways over so many years, and I truly thank God for our friendship and his lasting influence upon me.

Dr Bradbury completed a PhD in polymer chemistry at Birmingham University in record time. After a postdoctoral fellowship at Harvard University, and working at CSIRO Wool Research Laboratories, he joined the Chemistry Department at the ANU in 1961. He has pursued sabbatical research at Cornell and Oxford Universities. He has been award a DSc from both Melbourne University and ANU. He received the David Syme Research Prize from Melbourne University and the Rennie Memorial Medal and H G Smith Memorial Medal from the Royal Australian Chemical Institute. In 2007 he was appointed a Member of the Order of Australia for his contributions.

The Director of the ANU Research School of Chemistry, Professor John Carver, was Professor Bradbury’s PhD student and friend. He spoke highly at the thanksgiving service about Dr Bradbury’s lasting impact in the lives of so many people—both academically and personally. Dr Bradbury was a scientists’ scientist. And yet, I knew next to nothing of this influence prior to his passing.
I’ve been aware for some time of Dr Bradbury’s extraordinary commitment to using his science for humanitarian good. He retired from his salaried position at the ANU at the early age of 61 so that he could devote himself more fully to exploring the chemistry of food and providing solutions to the plight of the poorest people in the world. He continued this brilliant work, unpaid for another 28 years, inventing and producing simple and affordable techniques to remove cyanide from cassava. Thousands and thousands have been rescued from the debilitating paralysis of konzo. It was deeply moving at the thanksgiving service to be reminded of the generous humanitarian impact of his work.

Yet my experience of the impact of Howard Bradbury, together with Ruth—his wife of 64
years—began with their hospitality. As a young teenager I was welcomed into the world of university student ministry at Reid Methodist (Uniting from 1977) Church. Howard and Ruth would reach out to students in the colleges, invite them into their home, provide transport, cook meals, offer support, encourage fun, and generously pour out Christian love. Howard and Ruth loved students and, even more, they loved students to enter into a real relationship with God through Jesus Christ. And this has left its legacy on me.

When I left home for university it made sense to seek out a church that understood university students and that had a passion to see their lives transformed. This I found at the University of NSW with the ministry of Phillip Jensen and St Matthias. Howard’s passion to impact students with the message of Jesus became my passion. I pursued this with vigour and eventually moved back to the place where I had seen it first—the ANU—where I started the ministry of FOCUS and later Crossroads Christian Church.
Howard and Ruth supported Fiona and me as we began this new work in Canberra. They would ask us how we were going and pray for us. Howard joined the committee to support the university ministry and, together with Ken Mackay, opened up many doors for ministry on the campus.

Version 2Over the last decade or more of Howard’s life our friendship has been enriched in new ways. Being unimpressed with the compromise of the Uniting Church on some matters of biblical importance, Howard led the planting of a new church called the Canberra Christian Fellowship (in the Methodist Tradition). I would visit this congregation often, regularly providing preaching support, and always dropping the average age significantly! While small in numbers, this body of believers has always been big in heart, no doubt encouraged by the wisdom, grace and love of Howard and Ruth. Each time I would join with this fellowship I would come away encouraged to keep on going myself.

Howard Bradbury was a man of science, esteemed across the globe. He was a man of the people, loved by his wife, children, grandchildren, and 20 great grandchildren. His love for people shaped his application of his science to the needs of others. But deeper still, Howard was a man of faith in God through Jesus Christ. His knowledge of God laid a solid foundation for his scientific passion. The mercy and kindness of his Saviour pushed him to love, respect, and invest in people.

At a time when it is normal to view Science in opposition to Christianity and reason as the antithesis of faith, Howard causes us to pause and reconsider. Here was a man whose faith was founded on good reasons. Jesus Christ, who died and was buried, was raised and appeared to eye-witnesses, who testified to what they saw. These events in history transformed Emeritus Professor James Howard Bradbury AM, PhD (Birmingham), DSc (Melbourne), DSc (ANU), to apply his immense scientific brain to consider the claims and promises of God.

Will you do the same?

Endings and beginnings

thanksToday marks the end of another chapter of our life—a significant chapter that in many ways has felt like a bonus. Less than five years ago, I believed that my ministry days were done and dusted. I didn’t anticipate preaching again, far less leading a congregation or pastoring a church. Today we received special thanks from our brothers and sisters at Stromlo Christian Church for the past three years of serving among them. I preached my final sermon as lead pastor at Stromlo and later this week we will head away for a few weeks leave before commencing a new role in 2017.

It has been a privilege to exercise this ministry and we thank God for equipping and enabling us to do his work. Two years of juggling the impact of chemo around preaching, leading, pastoring, equipping, outreach, and other ministry commitments. It has been hard—at times very hard—but God’s grace has been sufficient. We’ve been blessed my people’s understanding, encouragement, and response to his word. We’ve been spurred on by many people, generously offering their time and resources, and using their gifts to build the church.

We are thankful to have had godly leaders to serve alongside, who have invested in our lives and the lives of others. I have not felt pressured to meet others’ expectations—it has only been my own that I’ve had to manage. The decision of the Stromlo Admin Committee to provide me with extra ‘Chemo Leave’ has helped refresh my body, but also my spirit, as I’ve worked to do what I can. God has enabled me to do more than I imagined, with the help of others’ support and the prayers of many.

We believe this is the right time to hand on the reigns of leadership and spiritual oversight to others. We thank God that Dan Evers has been appointed to become lead pastor in the new year, and Paul Avis to support him as associate pastor. We also thank God that Sarah Rootes will continue her wonderful work with the children and youth.

So what does 2017 hold?

In February 2017, God-willing, I am taking up the inaugural position as National Director of the Fellowship of Independent Evangelical Churches (FIEC). My role will be to help define and shape the  manner in which our churches ‘fellowship’ and work together, and to lead both in strengthening our churches and their leaders for the long haul, and in developing and driving strategies for extending the reach of the gospel through church planting in Australia and beyond. This will be a full-time position. I will be accountable to the FIEC board, and will work together with Jim and Lesley Ramsay, FIEC pastors, and others.

We plan to remain based in Canberra as we explore what this role will involve. Canberra seems a logical place from which to lead a national organisation—I seem to remember it being built for this purpose some years back. Our hope is to continue involvement in the Stromlo church community, but there will be times when we are away with other churches around our nation. Our youngest child has now finished school, so Fiona and I are moving into new territory as parents and grandparents. We are keen to share some aspects of the ministry within FIEC together, and for Fiona to help provide support to ministers’ wives.

As we reflect back on our lives, the experiences God has given us, the churches we’ve been involved in, and the struggles of life and ministry, we think that God has equipped us in so many ways for the challenges that lie ahead. But we are also very aware of our weakness and inadequacy. We will need to rely on God’s strength to do this work.

Please partner with us in this next chapter, asking God to strengthen and sustain us, and provide us with everything we need to lead with humility, integrity, grace, and wisdom. We approach the future with a mixture of excitement and enthusiasm, but also fear and trepidation. It will be very different not leading a church. I expect to miss the weekly preaching and teaching of God’s word. We anticipate feeling a little isolated and we feel pulled in many different directions. So please pray for us and encourage us in this new role. We will not be able to do this alone—and nor do we want to!

Five Years

IMG_0542I lay alone in my hospital bed, the words and music of David Bowie filling my headphones…

Pushing through the market square,
So many mothers sighing
News had just come over,
We had five years left to cry in

News guy wept and told us,
Earth was really dying
Cried so much his face was wet,
Then I knew he was not lying

We’ve got five years, what a surprise
Five years, stuck on my eyes
We’ve got five years, my brain hurts a lot
Five years, that’s all we’ve got

Five years
Five years
Five years
Five years

I wept to the music. Five years seemed so far away. A future I would never experience. A very remote possibility at best.

I’m listening to it again now. Bowie has gone. Another lost to cancer.

Five years is a landmark for those with cancer. We measure the statistics for five year survival. Early detection increases the odds. Isolating the cancer and effective surgery seem the keys to success. Sadly, many cancers are detected late. Symptoms go unrecognised. Patients and doctors assume there must be a simple explanation. It’s only a cough. You’re probably just tired. Don’t make things worse by worrying about it. You’re just unfit. The blood tests seemed good. The x-ray didn’t show anything. You’ll be over it in no time.

Lung cancer is too often diagnosed too late. Many of the symptoms resemble a common cold or flu. And, if you don’t smoke, then why would you even contemplate the idea of lung cancerLate diagnosis takes options off the table. If it has already spread, then surgery is normally not an option. A stage IV diagnosis is considered terminal. Metastatic (spread to other organs) lung cancer requires a chemical strategy, but it’s not considered curative. Until very recently this was only chemotherapy but, in many cases, this is now moving to targeted drugs that work on the cancer at the genetic level. Another frontier is immunotherapy that strengthens the body’s own defence system to attack the cancer. Combinations of strategies are being tested. Cure, however, still seems a long way away.

In many ways five years is merely arbitrary, simply a number—like a cricketer who reaches a century, 100 runs. Statistics are only descriptors of what has been, not predictors of what will be. Nevertheless, five years is five years. It’s five years of life. It must not be taken for granted.

Cancer.org lists the five year life expectancy for non-small cell lung cancer. This is my particular cancer type. This is what people like me are told they can expect. It’s not pretty.

  • The 5-year survival rate for people with stage IA NSCLC is about 49%. For people with stage IB NSCLC, the 5-year survival rate is about 45%.
  • For stage IIA cancer, the 5-year survival rate is about 30%. For stage IIB cancer, the survival rate is about 31%.
  • The 5-year survival rate for stage IIIA NSCLC is about 14%. For stage IIIB cancers the survival rate is about 5%.
  • NSCLC that has spread to other parts of the body is often hard to treat. Metastatic, or stage IV NSCLC, has a 5-year survival rate of about 1%. Still, there are often many treatment options available for people with this stage of cancer.

So, you see, five years was a lifetime away. Five years was out of reach. Five years was a dream and a prayer.

Today marks FIVE YEARS since I was admitted to hospital and diagnosed with stage IV NSCLC. FIVE YEARS. FIVE YEARS. FIVE YEARS.

I remain NED (no evidence of disease).

It’s a year since I last had chemo.

IMG_2721Time to say “Thank you”.

I thank God for giving me life, forgiveness, a relationship with him, and the real hope of eternity. I thank God for giving me purpose in life.

I thank God for my beautiful wife—who researched options, sought the best care, stuck by my side, urged me on, watched over our family, worked hard to pay for my medical costs, prayed for me, and kept on going even while everything hurt her so much.

I thank God for my awesome children and daughters-in-law. I thank God that he upheld them in the brutal reality of their dad having ‘incurable’ cancer.

I thank God for my two beautiful little grandsons. Boys I never expected to meet, who bring me such joy.

I thank God for my father and mother, for their prayers, visits, phone calls, and compassionate support, while facing many difficulties themselves.

I thank God for my family and friends, who have suffered alongside my suffering and rejoiced in my progress and healing.

I thank God for my church, and my other church, and praying people everywhere who have taken the time to ask God to heal me and help me. It blows my mind.

I thank God for my oncologists, my nurses, my surgeon, my exercise physiologist, my acupuncturist, and my many helpers.

I thank God for my cancer buddies. Some I’ve shared with face to face, some who have not lived to see five years, some I only know through Facebook. I thank God for their friendship, their generosity, their tenacity, their compassion, their faith, and their hope.

I thank God for giving me Hope Beyond Cure and then giving me time to share this with others.

I thank God for my five years!

And, dear God, please can I have some more.

Too much, too little

screen-shot-2016-09-18-at-2-45-24-pmMy new year resolutions for 2016 included reading a book a week. The plan was to finish 52 books before the end of the year. I wasn’t following a recommended reading list, but there were a few books that I was keen to knock over. Someone had suggested mixing things up with a range of genres and topics. There were issues I was interested in researching and their were numerous new books that piqued my interest. During this time I also discovered audio books and bought myself a kindle. So my list represents an eclectic mix of styles, difficulty, issues, media, and… quality. Yes, I also discovered that some books had done little more than steal my time.

Here is my list:

1. Forever, Paul Tripp
2. The Story of Everything, Jared Wilson
3. Why Trust the Bible, Greg Gilbert
4. Ordinary, Michael Horton
5. Seven Practices of Effective Ministry, Andy Stanley
6. The Martian, Andy Weir
7. Brothers, We Are Not Professionals, John Piper
8. The Rider, Tim Krabbé
9. The Churchill Factor, Boris Johnson
10. The Pilgrim’s Progress, John Bunyan
11. Sex and Money, Paul Tripp
12. Side By Side, Edward Welsh
13. Dangerous Calling, Paul Tripp
14. Lectures to my Students, Charles Spurgeon
15. Creating Community, Andy Stanley and Bill Willits
16. Knowing God, J.I. Packer
17. Do More Better, Tim Challies
18. Teaching Isaiah, David Jackman
19. Organising love in church, Tim Adeney and Stuart Heath
20. Mission Drift, Peter Greer and Chris Horst
21. Why bother with church? Sam Allberry
22. The Cross of Christ, John Stott
23. Taking God at his Word, Kevin DeYoung
24. Zeal without Burnout, Christopher Ash
25. Living Forward, Michael Hyatt and Daniel Harkavy
26. Seeking Allah Finding Jesus, Nabeel Qureshi
27. Praying the Bible, Donald S. Whitney
28. Word-filled Women’s Ministry, Gloria Furman and Kathleen Nielson
29. Living in the Light, John Piper
30. What’s Best Next, Matthew Perman
31. The Ideal Team Player, Patrick Lencioni
32. Who Moved My Pulpit? Thom Rainer
33. Strong and Weak, Andy Crouch
34. Big Blue Sky, Peter Garrett
35. Wild at Heart, John Eldredge
36. The Life You Can Call Your Own, David Aspenson
37. I am a Church Member, Thom Rainer
38. Unashamed, Lecrae Moore
39. Autopsy of a Deceased Church, Thom Rainer
40. The Gospel, Freedom, and the Sacraments, Barry Newman
41. Fool’s Talk, Os Guinness
42. How to Read Proverbs, Tremper Longman 3rd
43. Life Together, Dietrich Bonhoeffer
44. Shattered Shepherds, Steve Swartz
45. Canon Revisited, Michael J. Kruger
46. What is a Healthy Church Member? Thabiti Anyabwile
47. Center Church, Tim Keller
48. The Gospel and Mental Illness, Heath Lambert
49. True Friendship, Vaughan Roberts
50. A Model of Christian Maturity, D.A. Carson
51. Why Your Pastor Left, Christopher Schmitz
52. Independent Church, John Stevens

I’m not planning in this post to a comment on each of these books, but rather to share some overall observations, and in no particular order.

True to form, I didn’t read many novels. It’s rare for me to read fiction. But, on reflection, it would do me good to read more. Sitting in a hammock, reading The Martian, took me to another place! This book, together with Boris Johnson’s riveting biography, The Churchill Factor, were my most relaxing reads of the year. They both helped me to forget about my life for a while.

Audio books have been a great find. They’ve made long car trips pass effortlessly and they’ve redeemed so much wasted time in daily commutes. Some books are more suited to this media than others. If you’re grappling with a new topic and need to take notes, then it’s probably not the best approach. I’ve found great reward in using audio books to ‘re-read’ a few important books that I have been deeply influenced by in years past. Packer’s Knowing God, Spurgeon’s Lectures to my Students, Stott’s Cross of Christ, and Tripp’s Dangerous Calling had all previously left their mark on me. Hearing them over again was an excellent way to refresh.

Much of my reading has focused on thinking through ministry, mission, and leadership matters. Life Together is a classic that I come back to regularly. What’s Best Next is full of wisdom, but way way way too long. Zeal without Burnout is a simple book that I anticipate revisiting over and over.

Center Church has been sitting on my shelf for a few years. It’s been too intimidating to start, but people keep referencing it, so I decided to dig in and give it a go. This is Keller’s magnum opus on church and his philosophy of ministry. I haven’t digested everything as yet. Much was stimulating, but some parts were just annoying. Maybe I will attempt a serious review sometime in the future.

I will offer three awards:

  1. Diamond Award—a small and precious gem.
    Shattered Shepherds, Steve Swartz.
    A must read for those who’ve been devastated by their ministry going wrong.
  2. Kodak Award—for under-developed and over-exposed ideas.
    Wild at Heart, John Eldridge.
    A best seller that is more pop culture than biblical wisdom.
  3. Orange Award—fresh and healthy, but could sting if it comes into contact with an open wound.
    The Gospel, Freedom, and the Sacraments, Barry Newman.
    A very fresh socratic-style approach to revisiting what the bible says about baptism and the Lord’s supper.

Overall, I think I’ve probably read too much too quickly and taken too little in. I don’t remember much about some of these books and I haven’t allowed sufficient time for important discoveries to take root. Unlike previous efforts, I’ve neglected to annotate most of these books, failed to record important ideas and quotes, and not written summaries or reviews. For these reasons, some of these books are going back onto the desk for another go next year—a little more slowly, and a lot more carefully.