Just Starting Out: Seven Letters to a New Christian

117888There aren’t too many books you can read, cover to cover, on a flight between Port Macquarie and Sydney, but Just Starting Out: Seven Letters to a New Christian by Al Stewart and Ed Vaughan is one. It’s short, pithy, punchy, and well worth the read. The book has been written for someone who has just become a Christian, to introduce them to some of the basics of the Christian life. They’ve chosen seven topics:

  1. Saved by God
  2. Trusting in God
  3. Living God’s way
  4. Listening to God
  5. Talking to God
  6. Meeting with God’s family
  7. Meeting the world

Each chapter corresponds directly to one of the seven Just for Starters Bible studies that were originally written for people who responded to the call to become Christians at the 1979 Billy Graham Crusades in Australia. These studies are more familiar to an older generation as the 7 Basic Bible Studies. Thousands of university students began Bible studies in their first year by working through these studies, and thousands more new believers have learned the basics of Christian life and doctrine by the same means. I remember these studies as a first year uni student, wondering why no one had taught me this stuff before. It was my introduction to basic Christian discipleship. I’ve since led hundreds of students through these studies, I’ve written talks to go with them, and I even worked them up into an ‘unpublished’ book in 1990! All this to say, I reckon it is so helpful for a new believer to be guided in the basics and not left to flounder around trying to work out how a new Christian is called to live.

So well done Al and Ed, and congratulations Matthias Media. This is an excellent resource. I envisage buying many, getting our church to buy many. God-willing, as we see people becoming Christians, we will pass on these books. Young people coming to grips with how to follow Jesus will find this book simple and clear. Older people, who’ve been around church for ages, but can’t really tell you what matters matter most, will benefit from reading through it. People who are unclear as to whether they are a Christian or merely a church-goer will gain clarity through reading this book. Mature Christians wondering how to get alongside a newby will do well to read this with them.

The style of the book—seven letters from a mature Christian friend, Michael, to a young believer, Dave—is reminiscent of The Screwtape Letters by CS Lewis. The conversational style is very engaging and carries the reader along. This book covers way more than 7 topics. Gems of wisdom on a range of topics are squeezed onto every page. It’s probably the type of book to read more than once, as I suspect you will pick up new things each time.

The best way to read this book is in tandem with the Just for Starters Bible studies. It’s the Bible bit that’s the most important. So use this book as a stepping stone to discovering more and more from the Scriptures.

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.

Do you have a message to share?

mic2Do you have a message to share? Is it the kind of word that puts fire in your belly? Do you wake up early wanting to spread this news to others? Is it unthinkable that you would keep it to yourself? I’m interested in the things that drive us, the messages that inspire us, and the passions that lead us to speak.

Having spent 16 seasons with the Brumbies in Canberra, I know what it is to live and breath rugby. While some shake their heads in bewilderment, others will argue and proclaim all season. Monday morning experts, as they say, who can dissect with precision, diagnose every detail, and deliver the answers with ease. For some it’s almost a cult that draws in every detail of their lives. For others, it’s on the nose, they’ve had enough, and they don’t want to hear another word.

I’ve experienced many passions shaping the conversations of my friends. During my final years in Canberra, I was engulfed in a world of cycling. My last ride was back in 2010, with the Brumbies, riding on back trails from Canberra to Kosi. Not so much post-cancer and never with the passion I see today. So many around me living and breathing bikes. Road bikes, mountain bikes, trails, single tracks, races, teams, 24 hour events, new bikes, never enough bikes, roof racks, brakes, gears, frames, wheels, bikes on weekends, rides to the coast, rides back again, early morning rides, late night rides, lighting systems, carb loading, hydration strategies, friends, coffee shops, overseas trips, getting the wife and kids involved… on and on it went. Passion, drive, energy, and Strava. Barely a conversation went by without hearing the gospel of cycling.

And now it’s surfing. My town runs on it. Short boards, long boards, SUPs (not really), comps, clubs, drinks, friends, early mornings, every Sunday, tradies, oldies, wet suits, shark alerts, rips, tides, banks, and reefs. Being accepted means joining the club, rising early, donning the suit, paddling out, watching, waiting, commentating, tracking the weather, following the swell. Do you surf? You should? Get yourself a board. You can borrow mine. Just get on board. The gospel of surfing is very compelling.

But I long to hear another gospel. A transcendent gospel. A gospel for all. A gospel beyond the tribalism of rugby, beyond the addictions of cycling and surfing, coffee or wine. I long to hear a gospel of depth and purpose and significance and meaning and life. Deep life, enduring life, life beyond trivia, life beyond material prosperity, life beyond health and fashion and money and security. I long to hear of a gospel of forgiveness, a fresh start, transformation, altruism, generosity, love for people, grace, friendship, encouragement and hope. I long to hear more about the loving almighty creator. I long to hear more about his intersecting with life, intervening in life, interupting life. I long to hear more of his coming, his living, his struggles, his actions, his extraordinary works, his deep compassion, his healing touch, his wise teaching, his passion for justice, his provocative preaching, his prophetic pronouncements, his predictions of the future. I long to hear people speak of his death and resurrection, his humility and sacrifice, his glory and power. I long to hear the gospel of Jesus, the Christ, the Messiah, the King, the Lord, the Saviour, the Son of God, the giver of life.

So speak. Share your gospel. Speak from your heart. Communicate what gets you up in the morning. Commend the very message that puts steel in your spine. Offer that word that fuels your tanks. Persuade people about what matters really matter most. Give people quality news, true news, gripping news, compelling news. Share your hope of life. And do it with clarity, and passion, and conviction, with integrity.

But don’t pontificate. Don’t pretend you have it all together. Don’t push a set of rules called religion. Share the gospel of grace. Speak of the relationship, not the rituals. And don’t talk over others. Don’t shout down your opposition. Listen, ask, respond, speak, clarify, encourage, answer, explore, commend, persuade.

Our world needs a true gospel. If you’ve got a message to share, then let’s hear it.

5Ms, 4Es, CGS2, and clarity of purpose

When you join with a group of people, a club or an organisation, it’s helpful to know what they’re on about. Join the surf club so as to save lives in the surf. Belong to the P&C to raise money for the school. Sign up with the library so as to borrow books or get free internet. Join the church so as to…

churchWaste your Sundays? Dabble in religion? Make God happy? No. No. No. If you don’t go to church, then there are far better reasons than these to consider. Church is intended to be a gathering of Christian people and people who want to check out what being a Christian is really all about. Ideally, you will meet real people who’ve become convinced that knowing God and having a genuine relationship with Jesus is the most significant thing there is. They will engage on real issues in a real way. It might even surprise you. You could find your life changed in a positive way for ever. Many have.

But again, sadly, you will find some who are simply going through the motions. The same ritual week after week, and no-one has paused to really consider why.

For those of you who are Christians, what’s the answer? What is the church on about? When people visit your church website, what does it look like? If you visit a church, what do you expect they will they be doing and what will they expect of you? If you ask the minister, what will he say is going on, and will it be the same as what the regular members say? Do people know why they belong? Do they know where the church is going, what it values, what’s most important? And if you choose to do more than turn up, do you know how to get more involved? Does the church want your involvement? Do they have a spot for you? And is it obvious?

There’s lots of talk among the churches I know about mission and vision and values. Sometimes it can sound a little corporate and crass. Other times it can seem a bit like applehood and mother pie. And sometimes it reminds me of a little girl wanting to dress up in her mother’s clothes—they look good on mum, but they’re ridiculous on the little girl. But sometimes they help. They really do.

Careful, clear, thought out, simple expressions of who we are, why we are, how we are, where we are, and where we’re going. Clarity, visibility, simplicity, logic—these are powerful things when it comes to getting people on board. I wonder how many church transfers, church shops, and church disillusionments happen because they can’t work out what the church is on about or how to get involved.

One model that has been growing larger on the church landscape in recent years is the 5Ms. Adapted from the Rick Warren, Purpose Driven Church, the Ms stand for Magnification, Membership, Maturity, Ministry, and Mission. This approach sees the Christian life expressed in magnifying God for his glory, welcoming people into the membership of Christ’s body and this church, growing one another into maturity in Christ, equipping one another to serve our brothers and sisters, and to reach out to our world in mission. It’s a continuous and repetitive journey. Every part belongs to the Christian life. There’s a logic in the flow. It’s anchored in the Scriptures. It provides shape and direction for the ministry of the church. It creates pathways for people’s participation. There is nothing sacrosanct about the 5Ms, but they help to keep focused on what matters matter most.

My early ministry years were spent shaping a ministry around 4Es. We were committed to Evangelism (introducing Jesus and calling people to turn to him), Edification (building each other into Christian maturity through the word of God made active in love), Equipping (training one another in Christian service), and Exporting (encouraging people to go into the world, literally, with the message of Jesus).

CGS2A few years back, having read Simple Church by Gieger and Rainer, we decided to align our church mission around CGS2 (though we never reduced it to CGS2). Connect, Grow, Serve, To the glory of God—that was our plan. Our church existed to build connections—connections into our community, connection with God through people responding to the gospel of Jesus, and connections with one another through regular fellowship. We existed to grow in spiritual maturity—through people responding to God’s word, coming before God in prayer, building one another in small groups, and applying the word in their lives. We existed to serve one another—to take the corporate and ‘one another’ language of the New Testament seriously, by actively investing in each other, serving the church in specific ministry teams, and reaching out to love our neighbours. And we wanted to do all this 2 the glory of God—not to us O Lord, not to us, but to you, be the glory forever and ever.

What’s your church on about? Is it clear to people? Are people consumers or providers? Are they passengers or participants? Do you know what you’re doing and why? Does it flow from the Scriptures? How is your church shaped? Does it make it easier to get involved? Are people working together in alignment? If you don’t know, then start a conversation.

 

Fighting to pray

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Those who know me well will understand that I’ve been a night owl for most of my adult life. Doing all-nighters was common place once. But ask me to come to something at 5.45am now and I’ll tell you that I can’t stay up that late anymore! I’m getting older. But we’ve moved into a beach town and life begins pre-dawn most mornings for some people. As the sun hits the water, there are already surfers making the most of the day.

fightclubWhen I was asked if I’d like to join ‘fight club’ at 5.45am on Wednesdays I was curious for more than one reason. What do they do at fight club? And why is it so important? And what would make them think I could get there if I wanted to? Now I know the number one rule of fight club is you don’t talk about fight club—but I’m going to break it, slightly. For years now, a few blokes have met every week, rain, hail, dark or shine, to pray. That’s right, to pray! To ask God to make a difference. To tune into the creator and sustainer of this universe. To ask their Father in heaven to make a positive impact in the lives of others.

They meet outdoors, at the beach, and bring their requests to God. I can think of many reasons why you’d call it fight club, not least of which is fighting to get there at that time of day, and especially when the bed is soft and warm and it’s pouring with rain outside. More significantly it’s a battle to pray. Something to strive at. It doesn’t come easily. It takes focus, effort, discipline. It takes an activist like me, the willingness and humility, to slow down and ask God. To own up to the fact that for all that I can do, there is so much more that I can’t. To cry out to God and ask him for help.

Believe it or not, I’ve actually made it a few times now. And I want to make it along regularly. So I’m going to try to keep going. It hurts, but the promises of Jesus remind me that it’s worth it:

‘Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; the one who seeks finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened.

‘Which of you, if your son asks for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a snake? If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him!
(Matthew 7:7-11)