Carry on baggage

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Independent churches tend to attract people with baggage. At least that’s been my experience, having pastored two of them and now attending another. I suspect most churches attract people with baggage, in the sense that everyone has baggage, but I think independent churches are especially ripe for the experience.

Why so? We live in an age of church shopping. People are seeking a church that’s just right for them. If they don’t like what they get in one place, then it’s not hard to shop for another. If you are living in the bush, where there is only one church for the next hundred kilometres, then this probably isn’t your experience, but it’s certainly common in cities and larger towns.

Some of our independent evangelical churches have arisen because of perceived needs in certain areas. Existing churches aren’t growing, or aren’t preaching the Scriptures, or aren’t reaching out to the community, or aren’t providing anything for children and youth, or keep stubbornly riding their ridiculous hobby-horses, or something. When a new church is planted it isn’t too long before people are leaking out of other churches. Drifters, who’ve left their churches some time back, dribble into the new church, aiming to give it another go. All these people bring baggage. They might recognise it or they might not, but it will surface soon enough.

The baggage comes in different shapes and forms. Firstly, there is the idealist. They’ve created a picture of what church is to be like. Sadly, their last church didn’t live up to the ideal. Neither did the one before, or the one before. There will be a honeymoon period where they give you time to impress them. You might even find that you are the best church they’ve ever been to. You’re a breath of fresh air; an oasis in the desert. You might start to hear stories of the horrors of the past, the problems of their previous church, the failings of the pastor. Beware—you might be next!

Secondly, people come with an attachment to how things have been done. They might have left their denomination, but they haven’t necessarily discarded what attracted them there in the first place. It won’t be long before you start hearing what you ought to be doing and how church should function. You see, there is a right way to do things. It’s stunning how often I’ve heard ex-Baptists tell us we must baptise for membership, or ex-Presbyterians insist we have a council of elders, or ex-Pentecostals tell us we need to be more open to the working of the Holy Spirit, or ex-Anglicans tell us we should follow a particular liturgical form, or ex-Salvos tell us we should all wear uniforms and play brass instruments. OK, I made the last one up.

People move because they are unhappy, but they may remain deeply attached to familiar practices, forms, structures, and values. The independent church is considered a clean slate to be filled. People with baggage cling to ways that things should be done and feel strongly about ways they shouldn’t. Transfer growth is usually accompanied by excess baggage. History is often the strongest predictor of the future, and discontent will likely lead to more discontent.

Thirdly, people move churches because they’ve had a bad experience with a previous church. More often than not, they feel hurt or grieved by things that have been said, or done, or not done. In reality, the pain is mainly about people—being treated poorly by someone, often in leadership. They’re likely leaving because they haven’t resolved the conflict or haven’t dealt with the pain. So if you are a leader, it’s possible that you will be tested. Are you going to be just like the perpetrators of previous pain? Can you be trusted? Will you repeat the patterns of the past? It’s too easy to get these things very tangled when we leave matters of the past unresolved. And maybe they tried to resolve things, and it didn’t end well, and they are broken, and seeking care and compassion. They are looking to your church to be a safe haven.

So what can independent (and other) churches learn? Here are a eight suggestions:

  1. If people come to you from another church, then have a conversation with them early. Listen to them. Where did you come from? What was it like? What happened? Have you worked through these things? Does the church know you have left? Have you spoken with the pastor or leadership? Do you think you need to go back and work on things? Maybe, let them know you will give a courtesy call to their previous pastor. Be strong, but gracious and caring. Don’t be bullied by people seeking a platform for themselves. Don’t become a bully to people who are seeking refuge and help.
  2. Communicate clearly what your church is on about. Speak to the things you value. Make clear what you won’t fight about and what you will. Share your theological convictions, your mission, and your vision. Don’t just tell people what you do, but how you do things, and why you do them. Excite people about gospel priorities. Aim for simplicity and clarity. Draw people into God’s agenda. Explain that your church is not a place for competing human agendas, but a place to draw together in the one Spirit.
  3. Invite people to become part of the church on the church’s terms. Tell them where the church is at currently and where you are hoping to get to. Let them decide if they want to go on the journey. Of course, this means you need to know where you’re headed and how to communicate it.
  4. Hold orientation meetings for newcomers where you can share the matters of importance. This might be an evening in the home of the pastor or a course over multiple weeks in small groups. Whatever it is, create an opportunity for people to know who the church is and who it’s not, so they can be clear about what they are joining. Some people will leave early, saving you and them the pain of breakup down the track. Others will join more enthusiastically because they love the vision and appreciate your communication.
  5. Have a clear website that outlines what you are on about. Websites are the noticeboards, the yellow pages, the advertising brochures of the past. The flavour of the church should be clear before someone visits. If people want to dig deeper then they should be able to find your beliefs, values, priorities, and other essentials. Or at least they should know where they can find out more.
  6. For those digging deeper, consider an FAQ page or link to position papers on matters that might divide. This is not shop window stuff, but it is what you keep on your shelves inside. If need be, spell out your beliefs about things like church governance, tithing, communion, baptism, spiritual gifts, roles of men and women, creation, predestination, or whatever hot button topics are relevant in your context. If you take a position, then explain why it matters, how much it matters, and what it looks like in practice. If you are inclusive of different views, then make it clear why you accept different views, and what this will mean for unity in your church. Most importantly, work out what you believe and be prepared to explain this to others. If you leave a vacuum, then someone else is going to fill it.
  7. Be clear on how people can get involved. If you need to be a ‘member’ before you can exercise caring ministries, then explain how and why? Some churches are quick to rope people into various ministries, either to make them feel involved or because they can fill a pressing need. If you need to join a small group before you join a serve team, then explain why and help people navigate the steps. Go slow. Not too slow, but go wisely and carefully. Take the time to get to know people. Let them know the pathway to involvement and walk with them.
  8. Most importantly, be motivated by love, not suspicion. Knowing that people have baggage that they carry around with them, gives you the opportunity to help them lighten their load. Everyone has a history and every history is burdened by pain. Remember that we are called to share one another’s burdens. It’s the gospel that frees us from every weight. So speak and act from the gospel of grace. Don’t add further burdens, but help people to find freedom that comes from Jesus.

Reflections on the beginnings of Crossroads

DM2In 1996 we planted Crossroads in Canberra. It was among the earliest of the now FIEC churches. Its origins are found in Dickson Baptist Church and a growing university ministry at the ANU and UC. In the lead up, I had been working as an associate pastor at Dickson as well as working with the Australian Fellowship of Evangelical Students leading the campus ministries. Dean Ingham worked alongside me in the church and on the campus.

Throughout the previous year Dickson Baptist had engaged Les Scarborough from John Mark Ministries to review and make recommendations about various ministries in the church. He spent many months surveying and interviewing pastoral staff, deacons, leaders and congregation members on a range of issues. Through this process, six recommendations were made for the church leading into the future. One of these was to plant a new independent church, with a particular focus on university ministry, under my leadership. A Dickson Baptist congregational meeting voted about 96% in favour of starting the new church, and it was launched on February 11, 1996.

Allow me to reflect on a couple of matters associated with this plant.

Firstly, it was a plant that had grown out of some adverse circumstances at the Baptist church. Not everything was going well, and the regular influx of students over the previous few years had changed the culture of the place. Some members wanted their old church back. Others were keen to see the strong synergy between church and campus ministries continue to make an impact. I suspect that the strong vote to plant Crossroads was shaped by both these desires.

Secondly, it was a careful process. Les Scarborough was able to guide us every step of the way. He continued to mentor me in the years following the plant. We had detailed conversations with AFES (my employer) about what this church plant would mean for interdenominational ministry. It was agreed that AFES wasn’t planting this church, and that I would cease to be employed by AFES and move to full employment by, and funding from, Crossroads. This took place over a few years. We held prayer meetings, vision meetings, planning meetings, and asked many from outside the core team to give advice and feedback.

Thirdly, planting independent evangelical churches wasn’t really a ‘thing’ in those days. We didn’t set out to be independent of other denominations—just independent of Dickson Baptist. In fact, we explored options with Presbyterian and Anglican denominations and talked with other churches, before settling on the decision to incorporate separate from existing denominational structures.

Fourthly, we realised that being independent had the potential to suggest that we were anti-denominational, divisive, or even cultish. For this reason we worked hard to establish ourselves carefully as a mainstream evangelical church. We wrote letters, made calls, and had meetings with pastors around Canberra. We chose a name that was conservative, but that stood out from the pack, without sounding whacko. Crossroads Christian Church was chosen over other options. We hoped that this would shrink in people’s memories to one word – ‘Crossroads’ – and it has.

Sadly, Crossroads quickly developed a bad name in Baptist circles, as did AFES. Some were spreading the perspective that Crossroads was a church split and that AFES (ie, me) had divided and damaged a Baptist church.  This happened despite the careful planning and congregational decisions by the Baptist church to plant Crossroads.

Fifthly, the risks associated with isolation and independent-mindedness, led us to engage a Board of Reference to increase our broader accountability. We invited men and women who weren’t part of Crossroads and who had a strong reputation for being mature Christian leaders to stand with us. We asked them to pray for our ministry, take an interest in what we were doing, consult with us if they saw problems, advise us on matters of doctrine, speak into any major changes the church might be considering. They had no governing authority, and weren’t required to meet as a group, but they stayed in touch with us. Let me say, this group was so helpful in our early days. We called on them as we established our constitution and shaped the directions of the church. We continued to draw on these people in the years to come as we faced some significant and difficult decisions as a church. We sought their input in times of staff tensions and we considered their advice with some major staff changes and appointments.

There is no doubt that risks are plenty among independent churches. Many of these risks can be avoided or overcome by pursuing fellowship with other churches. In 1996 we were pretty much just doing our own thing—going it alone, so to speak. Now, in 2018, independent churches are being planted with a view to being interdependent with others. While the churches are independently governed, many churches are choosing to join a fellowship with other independently governed churches. They recognise there is strength in numbers, pooled resources, and the wisdom of those who’ve gone before. They are making a choice to limit their absolute autonomy for the good of the gospel witness in our land. It’s been exciting to visit theological and Bible colleges and to invite students to consider joining a new movement of evangelical ministry in Australia through joining with the FIEC. We are independent churches, but in active fellowship with one another.

Along with the benefits of being a part of the fellowship, I am encouraging each of our independent churches to engage an external board of reference, or something equivalent. To have godly, experienced, mature, Christian leaders who will stand by us, help us to see our blind spots, offer support or advice in a crisis, pray and invest in our ministries, and more—is invaluable. I’d say that it’s basic common sense. And I’d worry about why a church might oppose such an idea. We need to be above reproach in our lives and ministries. Our decisions and processes should be open to scrutiny. And it’s so valuable to have others to speak into our circumstances because they are committed to our churches and the good of the gospel. In FIEC we are looking to encourage each of our churches into practical fellowship and to connect regularly with their external board of reference.

Our prayer is that we will keep growing churches for Jesus’ sake and that we will grow them in godliness and truth for the sake of all.

Fellowship or denomination

helena-lopes-459331-unsplashSome of us have been on a date, a third date to be precise. It’s been a date of ‘fellowships’, or should that be ‘denominations’. The Fellowship of Independent Evangelical Churches has gone out with the Fellowship of Evangelical Churches of Australia. We had three leaders of each group meeting, listening, talking, exploring, wondering what it might be like to be in ministry together. Two of their leaders attended our national conference, then two of our leaders shared in their conference. We’ve begun to explore matters of unity in the gospel and what matters are non-negotiable when it comes to getting hitched. There has been much to thank God for and there is much more yet to be considered.

There have been lots of questions in the mix, but I’d like to focus on one in particular. It’s an issue that has concerned both groups at different times and, in some cases, has led to a separation and parting of ways between churches. It has to do with whether our groups are ‘fellowships’ or ‘denominations’ and how that might be expressed in financial terms. The mindset of some appears to be that ‘fellowship’ is good, but ‘denomination’ is bad. Perhaps there have been fears of centralism, external controls, wasted resources, inertia, growing bureaucracy and the like. If so, then these are legitimate concerns and need to be taken seriously.

To put a sharp edge on it, if a fellowship gathered fees from its members, would that make it a denomination? Is giving money to the centre so as to resource the ministry of the fellowship a step too far? Does it boil down to taxation, socialism, control, establishment, or some other negative idea?

It strikes me that we need to renew our understanding from the scriptures. But we wont get very far searching for ‘denomination’ in the Bible. We’re better off looking in a good dictionary. ‘Denomination’ is literally concerned with naming things or designating something. It can be used of different categories. For example, when we speak of denominations of bank notes, we are describing notes with the same value and appearance. Likewise, a denomination of churches could be simply a collection of churches that share a name and the same values. Our government recognises formal denominations in this way, and affords certain privileges and sets obligations and expectations accordingly. The reality is that both the FIEC and the FECA are denominations.

What about fellowship? I grew up with a weak understanding of what ‘fellowship’ meant. Sometimes it meant having a coffee and biscuit after church. Other times it seemed to be a name given to a group that was more fun than work—a fellowship group rather than a Bible study. But the Bible offers us much greater clarity when it comes to understanding ‘fellowship’. The word for ‘fellowship’ in the Greek New Testament is koinonia. It appears in English versions translated variously as ‘fellowship’, ‘sharing’, ‘participation’ and ‘contribution’.

The book of Philippians is a good case study for the use of ‘fellowship’ because the word appears on six occasions. Each highlighted word below is a translation of koinonia in the New International Version:

In all my prayers for all of you, I always pray with joy because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now (1:4-5)

It is right for me to feel this way about all of you, since I have you in my heart and, whether I am in chains or defending and confirming the gospel, all of you share in God’s grace with me. (1:7)

Therefore if you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any common sharing in the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion,  then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and of one mind. (2:1-2)

I want to know Christ – yes, to know the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, attaining to the resurrection from the dead. (3:10-11)

I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want.  I can do all this through him who gives me strength. Yet it was good of you to share in my troubles. (4:12-14)

Moreover, as you Philippians know, in the early days of your acquaintance with the gospel, when I set out from Macedonia, not one church shared with me in the matter of giving and receiving, except you only; for even when I was in Thessalonica, you sent me aid more than once when I was in need. (4:15-16)

We discover some profound and powerful things about ‘fellowship’ in Paul’s letter. Fellowship is a unity in the Holy Spirit. It’s a reality of being Christian that we are united to brothers and sisters in the gospel. God’s work in us means that we arein fellowship together. All Christians are joined together in having received God’s grace. We are brought into partnership with others from day one of our new life in Christ. So fellowship is first and foremost not something that we create, but a gift from God in the gospel.

However, expression of this fellowship can be sought, developed, offered and maintained. It is to be given observable and practical expression. Paul seeks to share in Christ’s sufferings and he is united with fellow believers who are similarly focused. He was in physical need, not discontented, but definitely in need. And the Philippians showed him fellowship. Their fellowship with the Apostle cost them as a church. It meant giving gifts and aid to their brother. In other words, sharing resources was what fellowship looked like. It’s a fundamentally Christian attitude and behaviour.

It seems bizarre, therefore, to oppose churches giving money to each other, or committing together to provide common resources for gospel work, or ‘giving to the centre’ to help the gospel work grow and develop in health and numbers, or setting fees to share the costs of working well together, or taking up a collection to assist other churches. Yes, we are to be careful and prudent with our funds. No, we don’t want to throw money away or waste it on bad ideas. But sharing money doesn’t tip us into becoming a ‘denomination’—it’s simply what Christians and churches and fellowships do.

Returning to the scene

IMG_8551It’s been an anxious week as I’ve anticipated returning to the exact place and the same event where I first noticed the symptoms of my cancer. It was the Geneva Push church planting conference and I was speaking on leadership, church planting, and the vision to reach Australia with the good news of Jesus. It was the end of November in 2011 that I climbed the three flights of stairs at Scots Church in Melbourne, stopping on each landing, completely breathless, not knowing that within a few days I’d be in hospital fighting for my life.

Fast forward six and a half years and here I am at Scots Church, speaking on ministry, team work, and persevering as a Christian, and listening to others teach about the urgency of sharing the message of Jesus with those around us. I walked the same stairs to get to lunch today, pausing on each landing and reflecting on the amazing kindness of God. Wow! Who’d have thought I’d be remission? But more than this, I mean the wonder that God cares so much as to reach out to us, send his Son to die for us, welcome us into his family, gather us together in unity, transform his children into the likeness of Jesus, and equip us to work together to build something that will last for eternity—the church of God. Not human institutions, but the gathering together of people belonging to him.

We’ve been reminded once again that God’s vision for this world is to restore broken relationships. Primarily our broken relationships as sinners to a holy God, but also our relationships with one another. In days where the church seems out of touch and past its use by date, we are encouraged to understand our world, to listen to others, to show kindness, love, and patience, as we seek every opportunity to share the amazing news of Jesus Christ. No, not religion—Jesus!

davemaccaIt’s a joy and honour to be able to gather with men and women, young and old, to spur each other on to reach Australia with the life transforming, eternally consequential message of Jesus. People are getting jaded by the endless cycle of meaninglessness promoted by our society. People are searching for meaning. Surely there has to be more that work, sleep, eat, over and over again. Or are we just caught up in an endless Groundhog Day?

Our scientific materialism has ripped us off. It can’t deliver answers to the questions that matter most. It doesn’t offer meaning or purpose. It leaves us rudderless, lost, and unsatisfied. No, the truth is there is much more to life. The transcendent, living, almighty God has entered our world in Jesus Christ. Jesus has shown us what it really means to be human. He’s taught us what life is all about. More than this, by giving his life for us, and through rising from the dead, he has placed God within reach. He’s made peace with God possible. He’s gathering people to himself. He’s planting, growing, and building churches—gatherings of weak, ordinary, forgiven people. People who deserve nothing but are given everything. That is such good news.

Thank you God for bringing me back—not simply to Scots Church and another church planting conference—but to you, to Jesus, to your family, to a certain hope for all eternity.

Blindspots

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Planning is now well underway for the FIEC 2017 National Conference. It will take place at Stanwell Tops in NSW, from Monday 4 to Thursday 7 September.
This is the one time of the year when we get together with our brothers and sisters serving in FIEC churches across our country. It’s a time to catch up with old friends, make new ones, and encourage one another to keep serving our saviour, the Lord Jesus. 2017 marks 500 years since the birth of the Reformation, when Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the door in Wittenberg. We thank God for calling his people back to the truth of his word, and we are calling on God to keep us reforming.
This year’s conference is based on the theme of BLINDSPOTS. Where do we need to be changing? What are the threats to the spread of the gospel? Why might we need shaking from our complacency? How will we persevere in bearing testimony to Jesus in an increasingly hostile world? These are some of the challenges we all face. And there are many more we probably don’t even see.
We will be asking what God’s Spirit is saying to our churches. I will be opening God’s Word from the book of Revelation, asking God to shine a light on our blindspots. Peter Jensen will speak in the evenings, and many of our pastoral staff will lead us in sessions designed to get us reviewing our ministries, planning for the future, and prayerfully advancing in the strength God provides. There will be seminars, workshops, and opportunities to connect with others doing similar stuff to you.
Whether you come from a small church or a bigger one, whether from the country or the city, whether you’re encouraged or struggling—this conference will be designed to spur you on in your service of God.
Please plan now to come. Set aside the dates. Budget for the opportunity. Consider who to invite.
Full costs, details, and registration will be available on our website soon.

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.

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.