Sticky Church

Last year, I purchased the ‘wrong book’, and read it by accident – and I’m so glad I did. Sticky Teams had been recommended to me as a helpful book to consider our organisation and direction as a church, but I mistakenly ordered Sticky Church by Larry Osborne instead! It took me a while to appreciate that this was a different title by the same author. And it proved to be even more important in thinking about how we were doing church.

As a senior pastor/team leader/preacher I’ve applied myself to the crafts of leadership and communication over many years. There may be 100 or more books on my shelves touching on these areas. But I’d probably only read 3 or 4 books on the topic of small group ministry, and none that had really explored the strategic importance of a well integrated small group ministry in a growing church. Sticky Church has begun to fill this void and pushed me to explore other material in this vital, and yet overlooked, area of our ministry.

The book begins by tackling the matter of how we grow our churches. While many churches work hard to get people in through the front door, they leave the back door wide open and people don’t stick around. By contrast, Osborne’s church does no marketing, gets plenty of visitors and inquirers, and focuses on building genuine connections with those who come. In short, small groups are seen as the key to closing the back door, by building real relationships in a context of ministry, Bible, prayer, and life experience.

For the statisticians among you, think about this one:

Imagine two churches that each grew in attendance from 250 people to 500 people over a 10 year period.

Church A is a revolving door. It loses 7 people for every 10 it adds. To reach 500, it will have to add 834 new members of attenders.

Church B is a sticky church. It loses only 3 people for every 10 it adds. To reach 500, it has to add 357 new members or attenders.

On the surface, both churches appear to have doubled. But the revolving door church had to reach reach 834 new people to get there, while the sticky church only needed to reach 357.

Obviously, doubling attendance is a lot easier for the sticky church than for the revolving door church. No surprise there. But here’s the kicker: After ten years, the church with the big back door will have 500 attenders and 584 former attenders! And every year after that the spread between the number of ex-attenders and the number of current attenders will grow larger.

No matter what that church does to expand the size of the front door, it’s going to be hard to keep reaching people when the predominant word on the street is, “I used to go there.”  (p17-18)

Osborne is committed to having 80% or more of church attenders actively involved in small groups. He sees the groups as the hub of the ministry. And he sees this model as fully scalable. The same principles that make a church sticky with a hundred or so in attendance, continue to work as the church grows into the thousands. Osborne’s church, North Coast Church, is a mega church in Aussie terms and may lead some of us to tune out as to the relevance to our contexts. However, it took them five years to reach 180 attenders and another five to reach 750, and they worked hard at the small stuff along the way.

Sticky Church presents a model of sermon based small groups, where the preaching on the Sunday is followed up in people’s homes throughout the week. We can argue about the ups and downs of groups being sermon based, but let’s not miss the primary observation. Osborne writes:

It doesn’t matter if the groups are sermon based or not. Ours weren’t initially. All that matters is that a significant percentage of the congregation begins to meet in small gatherings outside the church building to share life and study the Bible together.  (p49)

I read over this book a couple of times, gave copies to all our pastoral staff, and used it as the basis for evaluation and planning at our staff week away last year. Here are some comments, relevant to our situation, that I pencilled into the inside cover of my book for our discussions:

How do we convey the value and importance of groups to the life of our church and the spiritual vitality of our members?

  • teaching ‘one another’ the word of God
  • developing authentic relationships and Christian community
  • encouraging people to share their lives and faith with others (in the groups and beyond)
  • helping more people take up opportunities to serve in the life of the church and our outreach
  • decentralising leadership and care of one another
  • experiencing more personal prayer in relationship with others

Growth in churches is often crippled by what Osborne describes as the ‘holy man myth’. This is the idea that pastors have a more direct line to God. They are seen as the ones who must teach, visit, pray, counsel, and do pretty much everything. Especially if we’re paying them to do it! Aside from the poor theology driving this myth, the harsh reality is that one man simply can’t do all these things. My observation is that if a church or its ‘holy man’ thinks he must do everything, then we are not likely to see the church grow beyond 100 to 150 people. Healthy small groups are a valuable means for decentralising the ministry, and empowering people within the church to use their gifts in service of one another.

This book promotes sermon based Bible study in small groups. Our church had only done this occasionally, usually for a specific purpose such as focusing the whole church on a theme. People expressed appreciation for the guidance and resources, but we’d never managed to keep it going. From my perspective it was hard enough getting the sermon done well, let alone adding the preparation of small group material. I’d seen others committing to it over the years, week in week out, and in some cases preparing their whole series of Bible study notes before the preaching even began. I would just sit back and marvel at how they could pull it off. I’d leave it for the Phil Campbells, Steve Crees, Craig Dobbies… it wasn’t for me!

But, Sticky Church has pushed us out of our comfort zone to develop a sermon linked small group Bible study strategy. We haven’t managed to write a series in advance yet. Mostly the studies are produced and distributed week to week, ‘just in time’ for leaders to work over material and prepare for their groups. They are sermon linked, rather than based, because we don’t want people just rehashing what the preacher said on Sunday. We want people getting back into the text, doing some work themselves, and applying it in their lives. Some groups like to follow the sermon with the emphasis on further exploration and application. Others have opted to precede the sermon with the study, aiming to get people more engaged in the observation and investigative processes, raising their questions, and whetting their appetite for a sermon to follow. Horses for courses, but I think that in our context we will benefit from a greater commitment to applying the Word in the context of relationship with one other after the sermon. So I’d tip the scales towards sermon first – small group studies afterwards.

There are a few things that have moved us in this direction. Feedback from some of our leaders has shown that they have worked hard on preparing Bible studies from scratch and devoted little or no time beyond this to leading and caring and promoting the ministries of others in their groups. Some haven’t even seen this as their role. (This probably says more about our poor communication of expectations and encouragement of leaders in their roles). Just focusing on preparing and leading studies is commendable at one level, but if we are seeking these groups to become ‘little church’, where people are being fed, encouraged, caring for one another, and encouraging each member to be connecting with people who don’t follow Jesus… then the leaders need to be helped to embrace a larger job description. Not simply preparing and leading studies, but leading people, and this takes time. If we can resource the leaders with material, this will give them a leg up. Some leaders follow our material pretty much as provided, while others use it as an aid for their own specific preparation.

We’ve also seen the positive benefits of having the entire church learning together the same or similar material. In fact, on the occasions we have been able to integrate youth and children’s material with the adult preaching and small groups, we’ve had great feedback from families. By linking to the sermons, people have had the benefit of the preacher’s hard work combining with the group working through understanding and application of the Bible together. As we put our sermons on line, people who miss church are able to download the talk before attending (or even leading) their small groups. This seems to be increasing people’s engagement with the Bible and with working through its implications for life.

Osborne’s church has worked to keep their groups aligned with the mission of the church. They are not seen as optional accessories, but integral to the church fulfilling its purpose. They desire to 1) enlist new followers into God’s kingdom; 2) train them how to live the Christian life; and 3) equip them and deploy them into service. Small groups are vital to this process.

There are some interesting particulars how about how North Coast Church groups function. People sign up for a term at a time, and are then asked to provide feedback at the end of each term, which includes indicating whether they will be remaining with the group the following term. Osborne says that providing a clear way out of groups has led to more people staying in. Groups are not divided into two as numbers increase. In fact, he has a whole chapter on Why dividing groups is a dumb idea. He notices that some people take forever to click with a group that works for them, and then we cruelly split their group and they’re lost again. Their answer lies in two strategies: starting new groups for new members, and hiving off leaders rather than dividing whole groups. We’ve basically adopted this approach and begun to see the advantages of moving newcomers through an introductory ‘connect’ course into a small group with the people they’re already getting to know.

There is some good stuff on finding and developing leaders. Look for spiritual and relational warmth in prospective leaders. Avoid hyperspiritual God-talkers and single-issue crusaders. Look to apprenticing leaders within existing small groups, or else find people with few preconceived ideas or baggage about how groups should be run and prepare them to play on the team. Grabbing a leader who did things differently in their previous church, without engaging them with the vision of your church, can spell disaster! And it’s better to ask for recommendations, rather than asking for volunteers.

I also appreciated the creative rethink on how we go about training leaders. The emphasis is on preparing leaders on the job, for the job. Keeping the information flow with resources, encouragement, tips, suggestions, and ensuring that groups are well connected with the wider ministries and mission of the church is vital in equipping our leaders. This hasn’t been our strength to date, and we’re seeking to improve. Osborne also addresses the different needs of rookie and veteran leaders. This is something we should probably consider more.

Finally, the last section of the book includes tips for preparing sermon based studies. For mine, this is not the high point of the book, but it’s worth reading as we review our approach and strategies. And there are a number of appendices that show how North Coast Church puts their model into practice.

I’m very glad that I stumbled onto this book. Not simply because of it’s great ideas and practical common sense, but especially because it reminds me that if we’re expecting our small groups to be the hub of our ministry, and a primary pastoral care context, and the leaders to run with this vision, then we must invest more in helping them to work well.

Suffering sermons

For years now, my family have had to put up with being my ‘go to’ sermon illustrations. Especially when the kids were younger, and didn’t know much about it. I’ve heard that some preachers pay their kids for the privilege of speaking about them in talks. I’d have gone broke a long time ago! Anyway, my wife was very excited recently to hear me being used as the introduction to a couple of very encouraging, insightful, Biblical and helpful sermons on the topic of the why and how of suffering. These talks were given by a good friend, Rob Smith, in Sydney earlier this year. We commend them to you. Rob doesn’t speak from an ivory tower on this topic. He is well acquainted with personal suffering and, most importantly, he has soaked himself deeply in the Bible. You can download and listen to his talks at…

Rob Smith: The how and why of suffering #1
Rob Smith: The how and why of suffering #2

Journey with cancer 18 Apr 2012

Dear family and friends,

This has been a heavy week. CT scans on Monday of chest, abdomen, pelvis, and brain. Maintenance chemo on Tuesday with Alimta and Avastin, no more Carboplatinum. Appointment with our oncologist this morning, to interpret scans, check how I’m going, and confirm plans looking ahead.

I say it’s been a heavy week, because it has been focused on the disease and it’s been a reality check. We’ve been able to (largely) forget the seriousness of the cancer in recent days, especially as we spent a lovely family time at the beach over the Easter week. But then, we come out of holiday land and back home to face facts. And some of the facts aren’t too good. We keep being reminded that the treatment is not considered curative and that the best we can hope for is to slow down the progress of the cancer, while seeking to minimise the bad effects of treatment. Of course, this is still good. I do thank God for the availability of quality medical care, access to good information, the support of others who understand all this stuff (especially my wife), and the hope that comes from the treatment available.

People often ask what they can pray for me. There are lots of things: patience, good use of my time, strategic ministry opportunities, the capacity to love and serve my wife and children, the strengthening of my (and my family’s) trust in God, availability of the targeted Crizotinib drug (currently only approved in the US, and made available in Australia within certain trials or after evidence of cancer progression from standard chemo), and other things. But high on the list I keep asking people to pray for complete healing. That God will, either by medical means or a complete miracle, free me from this disease.  Many of us have been praying this for 4 months now, and I keep hoping that it will either keep shrinking every day, or that one day I will wake up and it’ll all be gone!

This week has been tough because we’ve been reminded that the cancer is still there. The CT shows a very small reduction in the primary tumour and no evidence of any new tumours or spread to the brain. However, it has highlighted a couple of nodes with evidence of cancer, and we are unclear as to whether this is new, whether they have increased in size since the last scan, or whether they were present earlier without being clearly detectable. I think I was hoping for a profound reduction in the cancer. Perhaps for them to say that it’d almost disappeared!

So far the new chemo regime seems like it will be more manageable. Although it is normally 2 or 3 days after treatment that the side effects start to get bad, and they can last for more than a week after that, so I shouldn’t make too many predictions here! My ‘muck in the lungs’ problem is still evident, but I’m about to take a fourth course of antibiotics and it does seem to be slowly getting better. Please pray that it gets completely cleared up.

I’ve been a bit miserable over the last few days. For some reason last night I was picturing my own funeral in my mind, with Fiona and the kids deeply saddened at my passing. This led to a few tears and me being rather melancholic today. My kids are too young for this, I thought. I want to enjoy more time with them yet. I need to make a priority of investing in my family, filling their minds with the promises of God, and depositing good investments into their memory banks. Of course this is true whether I have a months, years or decades. And I need to keep reminding myself that God will look after them. He is an expert at it, with or without my help!

IMG_4963And we’ve had some good times recently. The family escape to Broulee was nice. We spent time lazing in the sun, walking the beaches, the kids surfed each day, everyone but me swam in the ocean (I wimped out, blaming my chest infection and reduced immunity), we read books, watched Sherlock, completed a WASGIJ (a back-the-front jigsaw), and Marcus caught a couple of fish. It was especially nice to have Matt home with us for a week or so before returning to uni.

On Sunday I gave my second sermon for the year on Connecting with God and each other, based on Ephesians 2-3. It was exciting to be able to open God’s Word with the church again, though it left me exhausted after repeating the talk at night. We also had a wonderful time over lunch catching up with 3 families who are long term friends, including a special friend who became a Christian in the first year of our ministry here in Canberra. I hope to be speaking again in a few weeks, as we begin a series in Genesis.

The following prayer featured in my recent talk on Sunday. I am keen to be praying this myself, and I recommend it to each of you also.

 14 For this reason I kneel before the Father, 15 from whom his whole family in heaven and on earth derives its name. 16 I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being, 17 so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith. And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, 18 may have power, together with all the saints*, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, 19 and to know this love that surpasses knowledge—that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God. 20 Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, 21 to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever! Amen.  (Ephesians 3:14-21)

(* saints doesn’t refer to dead Christians who have done special things they’re remembered for – it refers to living Christians in this prayer)

Thank you again for your support. We are continually humbled to hear of people praying all over the world, some every day. We love getting messages of encouragement via cards, email, facebook, now twitter :), and especially in person. Please feel free to drop in and share a coffee!

With love,

Dave (and Fiona)

Body Image

Having cancer doesn’t do much for one’s body image. Shortly after coming home from hospital I visited a friend’s pool with my family. I’d undergone 2 surgeries and had some good looking scars where the tubes went between my ribs. I’d lost about 13 kilos, but without becoming trim and taut. It was like my muscles had melted and disappeared, and those that were left had slipped down my body and become fairly useless. I didn’t much like what I saw in the mirror. And neither did my youngest. Sitting beside the pool he said to me, “Just as well you’re married dad. Otherwise you’d never get anyone to marry you, looking like that!” Mmmm! 😦

And a strange thing happened on Saturday. We’d been out watching the Brumbies demolish the Rebels in an awesome game of rugby, and I came home planning to check out the highlights on the television. As I was watching the wrap up after the game, the camera showed one of the Rebels players speaking with a bloke wearing a Brumbies hoodie on the field. I looked closely trying to work out who it was. And then I realised… it was me! I didn’t recognise myself on the TV. A serious lack of hair. An unwanted increase in girth. And I seemed to have aged 10 years in 4 months.

Today I felt like a human pin cushion. One injection for blood tests. A cannula to pump radioactive fluid into my veins for CT scans to the torso and brain. A needle full of vitamin B12 to help me make blood cells. 29 acupuncture needles to strengthen my immune system and alleviate pain. Another 9 tiny needle tabs to continue the benefit of the acupuncture. All that in one day!

And the killer chemo drugs, the ‘weed killer’ they pump into my body. The steroids, anti-nauseals, antihistamines, pain killers, vitamins, iron tablets, herbal medicines, laxatives, reflux tablets, and more. My kitchen resembles a pharmacy. The only drug I enjoy is the one that comes out of the shiny machine in the corner!

It’s not just the treatments, or people’s comments, or looking at myself in the mirror. I know that things aren’t what they once were. Shortness of breath, aches and pains, muscular weakness, nanna naps during the day, waking up during the night to visit the toilet, and the list continues. I keep hoping things will get better, but they might not. Somethings improve, and others get worse. And I’m not going to reverse the ageing process. None of us are!

There are some things I can do. Eat less, or at least cut out some of the ‘comfort’ snacks. Exercise more, without compromising my capacity to recover from chemo and fight the cancer. Not get hung up about what I look like, although I am under instruction to have a shave every day!

Our culture makes things harder for us. We are obsessed with image. We idolise youth and we’re constantly being tempted by strategies to make ourselves look and feel younger. But, why can’t we face the reality? People get sick. People grow old. Bodies wear out. One day we’ll die. We don’t like it, and nor should we, but we can’t change it.

The Bible candidly reminds us of this reality. One day every one of us will die and meet our Maker. We’re called to live in the light of this reality, not to try to hide it or avoid it. The ageing process reminds us to consider God while we can, to enjoy God as we live this life. Not to ignore him, or put him off until it’s too late. As it says in the book of Ecclesiastes:

 1 Remember your Creator
in the days of your youth,
before the days of trouble come
and the years approach when you will say,
“I find no pleasure in them”—
2 before the sun and the light
and the moon and the stars grow dark,
and the clouds return after the rain;
3 when the keepers of the house tremble,
and the strong men stoop,
when the grinders cease because they are few,
and those looking through the windows grow dim;
4 when the doors to the street are closed
and the sound of grinding fades;
when men rise up at the sound of birds,
but all their songs grow faint;
5 when men are afraid of heights
and of dangers in the streets;
when the almond tree blossoms
and the grasshopper drags himself along
and desire no longer is stirred.
Then man goes to his eternal home
and mourners go about the streets.
6 Remember him—before the silver cord is severed,
or the golden bowl is broken;
before the pitcher is shattered at the spring,
or the wheel broken at the well,
7 and the dust returns to the ground it came from,
and the spirit returns to God who gave it.
(Ecclesiastes 12:1-7)

These words were written hundreds of years before Jesus. The author reflects on the meaningless emptiness he sees in life. Life’s experiences can be wonderful, they can be awful, but either way death bringing everything to a halt. We come and go so quickly, like a mist or a vapour. Death is the big full stop to life.

Jesus frees us from this depressing analysis. Life is no longer without meaning or purpose, because we see clearly that death is not the end. The resurrection of Jesus offers purpose and hope, both for this life and the life to come. We don’t have to panic and fight the decay of our bodies at all costs. This life matters deeply, but it’s not all there is.

The Apostle Paul speaks of our bodies as being like a tent, a temporary dwelling. He contrasts this with the image of a permanent home, a heavenly building, a resurrected body:

1 Now we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, an eternal house in heaven, not built by human hands. 2 Meanwhile we groan, longing to be clothed with our heavenly dwelling, 3 because when we are clothed, we will not be found naked. 4 For while we are in this tent, we groan and are burdened, because we do not wish to be unclothed but to be clothed with our heavenly dwelling, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life. 5 Now it is God who has made us for this very purpose and has given us the Spirit as a deposit, guaranteeing what is to come.
6 Therefore we are always confident and know that as long as we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord. 7 We live by faith, not by sight. 8 We are confident, I say, and would prefer to be away from the body and at home with the Lord.  (2 Corinthians 5:1-8)

Jesus can free us from being obsessed with how we appear, with trying to stay young at any price. He can lift us beyond the depressing observation that one day we will be dead and gone, and ultimately forgotten. More than this, he reminds us that life is not all about our self image or how others see us. What matters much more is how God sees us, and what God is doing in and through us. If we’re willing to put our trust in Jesus, then we can be confident that…

Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. (2 Corinthians 4:16)

QandA – Dawkins and Pell

As I watched QandA last night on television, I was reminded that Australia is a great country to live in. Professor Richard Dawkins, probably the world’s most famous atheist, debating Cardinal George Pell, head of the Roman Catholic Church in Sydney. Religions in conflict. Worldviews clashing. Freedom to speak your mind. This would never happen in some parts of the world. People are threatened with censorship, imprisonment, beatings, even death if they challenge another’s beliefs. Australia is a great country to live in because we are free to disagree. We are free to argue and persuade and critique and defend our beliefs. May it ever be so.

The debate itself left me somewhat disappointed. My chief concern was that Biblical Christianity was not well represented. Cardinal Pell made some curious comments about ‘atheists’ going to heaven, a place of purification for people not ready for heaven, bread and wine turning into the body and blood of Jesus, and the like. Dawkins was also bemused by Pell’s equivocation about a real Adam and Eve.

At times both Pell and Dawkins seemed to argue the case in areas beyond their expertise. Dawkins conceded that he was not a physicist as he sought to explain, in ‘layman’s terms’, how something can be created out of nothing. Pell got drawn into justifying scientific standpoints, when he was clearly unclear about the details. He had obviously done some homework in preparation for the debate, but it reminded me of a student swatting up a few exam questions, knowing they would likely come up. Dawkins was challenged with the ‘why’ question about existence. The question of meaning and purpose. His response was to ridicule the question as a ‘non-question’. At this point he had assumed his conclusion that there is no God. If you postulate a creator God, then the ‘why’ question is very meaningful indeed.

As could have been expected, Pell was challenged about his personal views on global warming, about the church’s attitude toward homosexual marriage, and there were snickers when he spoke of ‘preparing boys’ for their first communion. Sadly, religion was pitted against science, on the assumption that faith is incompatible with a scientific worldview. This wasn’t a debate of Christianity versus atheism. It was much murkier than this.

My biggest concern was that the very heart of Christian faith was largely ignored in this debate. While being promoted as an Easter edition of QandA, the events of Good Friday and Easter Sunday were not properly addressed. Sadly, it was Dawkins, not Pell, who most accurately described the meaning and significance of the cross for Christians. The Cardinal didn’t focus people’s attention on Jesus. The evidence of the empty tomb and the witnesses who claimed to have seen the risen Jesus didn’t rate a mention. All in all, it was most unsatisfying.

My hope and prayer is that this debate will stimulate discussion, thinking and investigation. There must be better answers than what we heard last night. What does the Bible actually say? Who was Jesus? How is it that one man has left a mark on billions? Are we simply the product of time plus matter plus chance? Is death really the end? Is there evidence that Jesus rose bodily from the dead? Is there more clarity available?

And for Christians, let’s open our Bibles and read. And let’s listen to what others are saying, to understand their arguments and concerns, and to seek to understand them. Let’s take the time to truly know more of what we believe and what others believe. Let’s take the opportunities to talk rationally and clearly about the genuine hope that we have. Let’s seek to point people to the one we follow, Jesus Christ. As the first follower of Jesus, the apostle Peter, said:

But in your hearts set apart Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect…  (1 Peter 3:15)

Clumsy Christians

My experience of Christians is that many of them – including me – are really quite clumsy. Not literally stumbling or falling over ourselves, but often doing the social equivalent. We put our feet in our mouths, we make others feel uncomfortable, we have a knack of saying the right thing at the wrong time, and vice versa.

It may be the exuberant charismatic Christian who just assumes that everybody else is on the same page as them. It might be the type who drops Christian jargon and ideas into every conversation. It could be the awkward, shy, ‘uncomfortable to be around’ Christian. Or even the one who seems embarrassed to be, or at least to be known to be, a Christian.

I suspect that whether you’re a Christian, not a Christian, or not sure what you believe, you can at least identify with my experience. That is, we Christians can be quite clumsy. In fact, as I read back over this, I’ve used the word Christian eight times already – am I just proving my point?!

Of course, there are all kinds of reasons why some people gel together and others don’t. Like attracts like. We feel comfortable with our ‘tribe’. We get nervous around people we don’t understand. We fear the unknown. We want to be accepted, and fit in, and have people understand us – and sometimes we just try too hard. These things can be the same across all sorts of groupings – political, sporting, work, ethnic, hobbies, you name it. Sometimes it’s just really awkward to bridge the gap.

But, to be honest, these factors don’t get to the very heart of my clumsiness. I think there is something more profound that often makes things awkward for me in relating to others – and that is, what I believe. You see, I sincerely believe in many things that others will find quite unusual, maybe even absurd. Let me offer a list to start with:

I believe in God.
I believe he made everything.
I believe that he made everyone – including me and you – to be able to relate with him.

Apparently, most Aussies still believe something like this. But then my Christian beliefs start to get a little more uncomfortable, more pointed:

I believe we all push God to the periphery of our life, if not shut him out altogether.
I believe we get what we ask for when we choose to reject him, and it’s serious – separation from God in this life and beyond.
I believe that without God, we are without hope.

These beliefs are foundational, but they’re only the prelude to the most important message I want people to know and embrace:

God has not left us without hope.
He sent Jesus into this world so that we can know him.
Jesus was crucified to show us the depths of God’s love for us, to  personally pay the cost of our rejection of God, and to overcome all barriers separating us from God.
God physically raised Jesus to life, opening the door for us to have a genuine relationship with him, and real hope for life now and in eternity.

I know that when I speak with some of my friends about these beliefs they will glaze over. They won’t understand. They’ll put me in the weirdo box.  “He seems an otherwise normal bloke. How can he possibly believe this stuff?” Santa Claus, flat earth, tooth fairies, Harry Potter, religion, Jesus, resurrection!

Some probably think I’ve been brainwashed into believing a fiction, that I am willing to base my life on a myth or fantasy or fabrication. Some explain it to me as, “You’re into religion, but I’m not.”  Some of my friends might even feel a bit sorry for me. I don’t know!

Let me say this. I hope that none of my friends dismiss the Christian message simply because of my clumsiness. I pray they’ll put up with some of my mistakes, my awkwardness, even my selfishness, and hypocrisy… and look beyond me to Jesus.

As I read more and more of Jesus in the Bible, so I get to know the one who came to bring reconciliation, to break down walls and hostility. He is the one who made religious people uncomfortable, and yet welcomed the outcasts and despised. Jesus connects people to God. He breaks through our tribes and divisions. He builds genuine community. I’ve seen and experienced this in profound ways, that cross all kinds of barriers and boundaries. In fact, this community and depth of relationship has been one of the real joys of my Christian experience. My desire is to enjoy this more and more – not by keeping things ‘in house’, but by sharing the reality with others.

I’ll keep making mistakes. I don’t want to, or plan to… I just will!

Please, don’t be put off by my Christian clumsiness.

Don’t waste your sport

dont-waste-your-sports

I’ve always loved sport. Playing it, watching it, watching my kids play, cheering on my favourite team or athlete. Sport is one of the great pleasures God has given us to enjoy. Playing sport keeps us healthy, entertained, connected with others. But like so many of God’s wonderful gifts, we can get into trouble when we start to replace the giver with his gift. If my passion for rugby, or fishing, or golf, or cycling began to overtake my passion for my wife, then I’m sure you’d agree that I’d developed a big problem. My worry is that we can do this with God and not even notice.

Last year I picked up a helpful little book called Don’t waste your sports, by an American author called C.J. Mahaney. Yes, I am a fan of small books! I’d like to spotlight this book for a few reasons. It addresses the young person feeling their way in the world of sport and grappling with their identity and self-esteem. It has wise words for parents about how we encourage and shape our kid’s lives and values. It will challenge the elite athlete with their aspirations and goals.

As a ‘would have been/could have been’ sports person, as a father of some very capable athletes, and as a chaplain to elite sports people for over a decade – I’ve found this booklet to make a wise contribution to an issue we rarely consider. Mahaney introduces his booklet with these words:

Athletes, this booklet is for you. Parents and discussion leaders, this booklet is also for you. It’s for anyone who wants to learn, or help others to learn, about what it means to let a right knowledge of God shape the way we practice and play our sports.

Sport seems to be able to bring out the best and the worst in people. One of the most moving images I’ve seen in sport was a paralympic race when a competitor fell, the others stopped, picked him up and they all finished the race together, arm in arm. Of course, this is contrasted with an arrogant pride that we see in some of the most highly paid and acclaimed sports people.

It’s important for us to remember that God is our creator, we are his creatures, and he has given us his good creation to enjoy responsibly. This booklet is anchored on a Bible verse that puts our lives into perspective.

So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God. (1 Corinthians 10:31)

Whether it’s cricket, tennis, basketball, motor racing, rugby, swimming, athletics, surfing, soccer, AFL, darts… each of them is a gift from God. They can be enjoyed and used to bring honour and glory to God, or they can be used to replace God and to seek to bring honour and glory to us. These are the extremes.

This booklet offers helpful direction to those wanting to honour God with their sport. We should start by thanking God for his gifts and the opportunities he gives us. Thank him for the fun it brings, the rest, the refreshment, the opportunity to keep in good health, and the joy it brings to ourselves and others.

Humility is the key to glorifying God with our sport. Mahaney suggests what this might look like on the field:

The humble athlete recognises his limitation.
The humble athlete welcomes correction and critique from coaches and teammates.
The humble athlete acknowledges the contributions of others.
The humble athlete is gracious in defeat and modest in victory.
The humble athlete honours his coach.
The humble athlete respects officials.
The humble athlete gives glory for all his athletic accomplishment to God.

I’ve noticed that Aussies can be rather cynical of Christians in sport. We don’t quite know how to respond when a South Pacific team kneels down to pray after a game, or when a rugby player points to heaven when he’s scored a try, or when a winning athlete thanks God during an interview with the press. But this booklet is talking about more than the public displays of faith in God. It’s about addressing our hearts, who we are, what we are living for, who and what matters most. When we lose touch with God we go searching for replacements and, where I come from, sport is a prime candidate.

So, don’t waste your sport. Recognise God’s gift to you, thank him for it, and seek to play, watch, support and use your sport in a way that honours him.