Humilitas

It’s hard to know how to review John Dickson’s book, Humilitas. With humility I suppose, or at least without humiliating myself! It’s hard because I’m not much of an expert on the topic, and it’s doubly hard because the author is a good mate whom I greatly admire. I’ve always been stimulated through reading John’s books. I confess to having envied John’s capacity as a preacher, didgeridoo player, author, and general all round talent. But mostly I just like having the occasional catch up, coffee together, and being encouraged by an old friend.

Well, Humilitas is not what I expected! I’ve grown accustomed to John writing books on the life and teaching of Jesus, books that answer difficult questions, and books seeking to persuade others to follow Jesus. I quickly discovered that this is a different type of book, pitched at a different audience. This is not so much for the enquirer into Christianity, as the one who is seeking to grow as a leader and build stronger relationships with others. (Not to suggest these are mutually exclusive, by the way.) I’d expect to find this book sitting comfortably alongside books by Ken Blanchard or Max de Pree in the leadership section of your local bookshop… if there are any local bookshops still in existence!

I found Humilitas a good read and completed it in a couple of sittings. John is self-effacing as he writes, only too aware of the sitting duck he has become in presuming to teach on humility! He writes with grace and style, colouring his work with historical and contemporary examples of humble men and women. Indeed, I loved reading some of my favourite anecdotes from A Sneaking Suspicion now providing powerful illustrations of humility in action! But this is not a repackaged, ‘slap together’ paperback by a prolific author. It shows evidence of serious research over many years, much of it historical, laying a foundation for an academic and yet highly practical work. As I was reading this book, I also listened to James O’Loghlin interviewing John about the topic on ABC radio. It helped bring the book to life even more. You can listen to the interview online.

John writes of humilitas in the positive sense of humility, rather than its negative sense of humiliation. He provides his own working definition that he expounds throughout the book…

Humility is the noble choice to forgo your status, deploy your resources or use your influence for the good of others before yourself. More simply, you could say the humble person is marked by a willingness to hold power in service of others. (p24)

Three thoughts are inherent in this definition of humility. Firstly, it presupposes your dignity. The humble person begins by being aware of their worth and abilities. Secondly, it is a choice. Otherwise it would simply be humiliation. And thirdly, it is social, as it’s shown in putting others before yourself.

John argues persuasively that humility is a necessary ingredient to truly successful leadership. He demonstrates that it’s common sense to cultivate humility in our personal and professional dealings with others. He highlights the aesthetics of humility, not as an ornament to be worn, but as an inner virtue that is attractive to others. The historian in John comes to the fore as he reveals how humility wasn’t always a prized virtue in the ancient world. In fact, self-congratulation and boasting (that would often be despised today) was much more common and accepted in the ancient world. However, something happened to change this perspective, such that humility is widely recognised as a beautiful and desirable virtue today.

John presents a strong case for the impact of Jesus changing people’s perspective on humility in the first century. Mind you, he argues as a historian, and not as a preacher, Christian apologist or evangelist. This is not to say that Christians have a monopoly on humility – they certainly don’t! He writes…

My point is not that Christians alone can be humble; rather, as a plain historical statement, humility came to be valued in Western culture as result of Christianity’s dismantling of the all-pervasive honour-shame paradigm of the ancient world.

Put another way, while we certainly don’t need to follow Christ to appreciate humility or to be humble, it is unlikely that any of us would aspire to this virtue were it not for the historical impact of his crucifixion on art, literature, ethics, law and philosophy. Our culture remains cruciform, long after it stopped being Christian. (p112)

The latter chapters of the book reveal the some of the practical benefits of humility for life, love and leadership. I will simply refer to the chapter headings to highlight the trajectory of his arguments:

Chapter 7 – Growth: Why humility generates abilities.
Chapter 8 – Persuasion: How character determines influence.
Chapter 9 – Inspiration: How humility lifts those around us.
Chapter 10 – Harmony: Why humility is better than “tolerance”.
Chapter 11 – Steps: How it’s possible to become (more) humble.

I was anxious to dip into the final chapter and come away with some tips on becoming (more) humble! Something I need, I’m afraid to say – in fact, we probably all do. John leaves us with six thoughts to consider. Firstly, we are shaped by what we love. If humility doesn’t appeal, then we are hardly likely to become very humble. Secondly, reflect on the lives of the humble. Jesus, is undisputedly humble and reading the New Testament Gospels offers an excellent insight into humility in action. And, John mentions other more recent examples, people such as Mahatma Ghandi and Nelson Mandela, along with some notorious counter-examples! Thirdly, John suggests conducting thought experiments to enhance humility. Perhaps, another way to put this is, is to exercise our empathy muscles, so as to consider how we will relate with others in advance. Fourthy, act humbly. This doesn’t mean we should pretend. Faking it would hardly count as humility! Rather, humility becomes easier and a more natural response the more we put it into practice. Fifthly, he suggests we invite criticism. It’s not easy, and we won’t do it naturally, but seeking feedback from people you respect and trust is very worthwhile. And sixthly, forget about being humble. He quotes C.S. Lewis on this point:

If anyone would like to acquire humility… the first step is to realise that one is proud. (p183)

I found myself wanting to add another thought to this list. Pray. God wants to transform us into the likeness of his son, Jesus. The Bible teaches that to become more and more like Jesus involves becoming increasingly humble. So I recommend we ask God to grow an attitude of humility within us. In fact, I must confess to often praying something like: Dear God, please make me more humble, but without humiliating me. A dangerous prayer, perhaps!

This is a helpful book. It’s not a religious book, and it should appeal to people of many walks of life, cultural contexts, and different philosophical and religious persuasions. It’s a book I would recommend or offer to others, especially those in positions of leadership. As a Christian it whet my appetite to learn more of what God says about humility. To look more closely at the life and teaching of Jesus Christ, and what others have said about him, inside and outside the Bible (especially in the Apostle Paul’s letter to the Philippians). In fact, I would like to see a follow up or addendum to Humilitas. Perhaps John could produce a study guide, or discussion questions, or a specifically Christian booklet, that would take us deeper into the the Bible’s teaching on this important topic.

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)

Deliberate Simplicity

deliberate_simplicityThey say you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, but I confess to buying and reading this book because of its cover! Deliberate Simplicity – How the Church Does More by Doing Less is a catchy title and the image of the paperclip on the cover captures the essence of functional simplicity. This book aims at getting the church and its leaders to be intentionally aiming to fulfil our mission in the simplest ways possible.

Last year I focused on reading books and resources aimed at clarifying and refocusing our ministry. We seemed to be doing a lot, but it wasn’t always clear why we were doing what we were doing, or how some of the things we did related to other things we did. Life and ministry were feeling cluttered and busy, and I was keen to stocktake, prune, reorganise and rebuild for the future. I’m sorry that I didn’t know about this book then.

Deliberate Simplicity identifies six factors that describe the successfully Deliberately Simple church. These are:

Minimality – keep it simple.
Intentionality – keep it missional.
Reality – keep it real.
Multility – keep it cellular.
Velocity – keep it moving.
Scalability – keep it expanding.

Browning identifies these six things as his new equation for the deliberately simple church. He contrasts his approach with that of ‘traditional’ churches, mega churches, and other sorts of churches. At times there seems a measure of arrogance or smugness with his approach, like he has discovered the key to doing church properly, or that his ways reconnect with the church of New Testament times. However, despite the ‘we’ve got it right’ feel about the book, it does contain many helpful perspectives on church, and it offers a helpful diagnostic tool for refreshing our ministries. Let me share a few ideas that I found helpful from the different sections of this book.

Minimality

Deliberate Simplicity aims at restricting the activities of the church instead of expanding them. The goal is to prioritise what’s important and get rid of extraneous junk. Browning’s church values small groups as the centre of church life, so they deliberately remove things that get in the way of small groups functioning well.

The book rejects the way that many large churches have moved toward a professionalism that only allows for the most gifted and talented to be actively involved in ministry. In contrast to the ‘Search for Excellence’, they proclaim that ‘good enough is good enough’. The desire to have everything well resourced, carefully measured and planned can make churches too complicated. In contrast…

We keep asking, “What is the simplest thing that could possibly work?” We try to have just enough to facilitate our mission. Just enough money. Just enough time. Just enough leaders. Just enough space. Just enough advertising. We don’t want to stockpile assets.

They also aim for doctrinal simplicity, majoring on the majors, and not being dominated by peripheral teaching. While it’s true that there are doctrines central to Christian faith, and others are less so, we need to be careful here. I don’t know the teaching agenda of Browning’s church, but being too selective can easily lead to neglecting scripture that is difficult or awkward, and to merely preaching our hobbyhorses.

Intentionality

By making an up-front investment in unusual clarity, a Deliberately Simple church reaps the benefit of spending less time and energy trying to figure out what it’s trying to do and more time doing it.

This quote resonated with me. I look back over many years of ministry and think about how many things we’ve done that have been a waste of time, or a tangent to the main game, and how much has been absolutely central. I think some of our busyness and distractedness came about because we hadn’t adequately clarified or communicated our mission.

Peter Drucker says that every organisation needs to be able to answer two questions: What business are we in? and How’s business? We can’t answer the second unless we are clear on the first. Some of the books I’ve read on ‘church’ suggest that the answer to the first question is subjective, particular to each and every church. I disagree. The church belongs to God, and we’re called to be on about his business, not ours. The answer must come from the Bible. We’re called to discern God’s plans and purposes for his church, and then to put that into effect in our own context. The power of the vision lies in its divine origin. The role of the leaders is to align and engage the church with God’s vision.

Browning’s church is intentionally mission-focused. He sees the church existing for the sake of those who aren’t in it, and he prioritises outreach (care for those on the outside) over nurture (care for those on the inside). A big part of the pastor’s job is to keep the church focused on the outsider, because it is more natural and comfortable to look after our own needs first.

Reality

Many look at the church and see something that seems artificial, hypocritical or contrived. Why is that? If God is real, if the gospel is real, then why don’t Christians get real in how we go about church? Deliberate Simplicity is aiming for WYSIWYG (what you see is what you get). Our personal and public presentation should be sincere.

People need to understand that it’s not about religion. It’s about a personal relationship with God through Jesus Christ. It’s about loving God and loving people. Church should be come as you are. It should be an environment of grace. Posing and artificiality need to be rooted out. Church should be less like the formal living room, and more like the lived-in family room.

The reality of Christian faith and experience should come across in what we do and how we do it. Church shouldn’t be cluttered with fluff. At Browning’s church, straightforward messages are given in a normal tone of voice and in conversational style. I like that! Our sermons aren’t lectures. We’re not presenting papers to a symposium. We’re not reading someone else’s work. So let’s get real about how we communicate God’s word. My belief, is that we need to let God’s word work on us first, and thenwe are much more likely to communicate in a real way to others.

Multility

I didn’t recognise this word, and neither did my spell-checker. Browning defines it as…

mul•til•i•ty  n:  a commitment to multiples of something, instead of a larger version of that thing

He believes that more is better than bigger. This is a methodological commitment that differs from the megachurch approach. He illustrates this strategy by reference to the McDonalds restaurant franchise that keeps reproducing more of the same-size outlets in new locations, rather than up-sizing the outlets. He advocates a multi-location church, with multiple smaller centres, and multiple teachers and leaders, as the pathway for growing the church. His church has many such parts throughout the US and many other countries. He calls it a church, but I think I’d call it a denomination!

The rhetoric of this approach says more instead of bigger, ministries instead of programs, empower instead of control, prosumers instead of consumers, decentralised instead of centralised, and yes instead of no. Who can argue with that?! I’d be an idiot not to follow this model, wouldn’t I?!

There is much worth digesting in this section. It’s important to ask questions about our churches and our culture, about our ability and what we’re attempting to do, and about what is working and not working as we look at our church and others. As our churches get bigger, so they also need to get smaller. We need to keep people connected and engaged, to make it harder to be a passenger, and easier to be a participant.

Velocity

Many traditional churches don’t seem to change at all, and they take forever to do anything. By contrast, there’s a real energy in the Deliberately Simple church. They’re committed to growing, and growing quickly. They are always aiming for more – more people, more groups, more congregations, more people serving more people.

And they plan for this to happen. They keep asking questions like What will be need to do to double this congregation? This means they’re preparing for the future rather than simply catching up with the present. They see the need to let leaders lead, to streamline the organisation for action, to step out in faith, to be ready to respond to opportunities, and to keep the church from institutionalisation. These are risky ideals. But risks are needed.

I believe we need a greater sense of urgency in our churches. We move so slowly sometimes that it doesn’t seem like we’re moving at all. We act like we have all the time in the world. But, the truth is we don’t! We need to number our days, to seize our opportunities, to live as though each day is our last.

Scalability

Can the church think forward and outward instead of inward and backward? Can we start thinking about those we are to serve instead of how they can serve us?

The deliberately simple church is called to look beyond itself, to increase its reach and influence, to multiply and grow.

Browning uses the image of a network of ‘terror cells’ and flips it to describe the church. He calls us to create a ‘global unterror network’. His mandate for leaders is to create organisational structures that support consistent, small-scale, organic, growth in our churches. This contrasted with church structures where small congregations and groups exist to support hierarchy and bureaucracy at the top.

Perhaps controversially, he argues for rapid leader deployment. His model is IDTS (identify, deploy, train, support) rather than the traditional ITDS (identify, train, deploy, support). There’s a momentum in this approach that gets people engaged in ministry quickly. The one deployed is the one who understands the need to be trained. In my experience, we sometimes run training courses, qualify and equip people for ministry, but then fail to deploy them. Or else people get bored by the training and fail to take the next step into service. There’s much to be said for training on the job.

And so?

So what do we make of this book? It’s a stimulating read, littered with good ideas, helpful critiques and pithy quotes. But, I found it annoying too! I came away feeling like Browning thought he’d rediscovered the ‘right’ way to do church, especially when he described his church as being similar to the early church in the Book of Acts. I’m left with many questions about how things really work in practice, and whether there are substantial differences between what they are doing and many other churches.

I was left unsatisfied that the ‘equation’ of six factors really defines a Deliberately Simple church. It was hard to clearly distinguish between ‘multility’ and ‘scalability’. And I think six things isn’t simple enough. Our church once had a five point vision. We reduced it to four points, to make it more memorable and functional. Our last change was to get it down to three points, and I think people are starting to get it! But I do commend this book to church leaders. We could all do with little more deliberate simplicity.

Journey with cancer – Easter update

Dear family and friends,

This week marks 4 months since I was admitted to hospital with cancer and it’s certainly been quite a ride! We are so grateful for your ongoing prayers, support, encouragement and practical help from so many of you. It would be a very lonely experience without you.

I’ve just completed my fourth and final ‘full’ round of chemo – on carboplatinum, alimta and avastin. While this has knocked me round pretty seriously each time, I’ve been able to push on knowing that if it’s hurting me, then it should be hurting the cancer even more! Scans after the 2nd cycle showed that it was working, with the tumour shrinking substantially, and we are hoping for more of the same the next time around.

I go back for further scans on 16 April. They will do a CT of my chest and abdomen, so as to measure any reduction or growth of the tumour. They will also do a brain scan – just to check if I have one – so as to rule out any spread of the cancer! Please pray that the cancer will not have spread anywhere else in the body, and that the lung tumour will have shrunk even further.

The results of these scans will determine the best form of treatment to undergo next. Recent conversations with our oncologist suggest that they will simply drop out the carboplatinum and continue the other chemicals on a continued 3 weekly cycle. The idea is to try and keep the cancer from growing or spreading and, potentially God willing, to poison it out of existence. We don’t know how long this will continue, but we will have periodic scans to monitor what’s happening. Our hope and prayer is that these ‘maintenance cycles’ will have less severe side effects, and enable me to do a bit more.

On the family front, we continue to be encouraged. We thank God for our kids and continue to pray that God will help them to trust him through these events and circumstances. We’re all looking forward to a few days together at the south coast over the Easter week. A change of scenery, the beach, some surf, and some fish n chips, won’t do us any harm!

I’ve enjoyed getting back involved with some ministry at church and at the Brumbies. This has mainly involved meeting with people to encourage them, work through issues, or to discuss Christian beliefs. Ironically, having a life-threatening illness seems to open more doors than it closes. It has also been good to meet with some of the pastoral staff in a ‘mentor’ type capacity. After we get back from the coast I’m very excited to be giving my second talk for the year, on the topic of ‘Connecting’. You can tell I’m a frustrated preacher! Writing this blog is also becoming more and more enjoyable. Initially, I wasn’t keen to do it. In fact, I didn’t want to do it at all! But it’s been exciting to be able to encourage people, provoke their thinking, and support others in similar circumstances, through this medium.

Over the past few days, I’ve been involved in a few conversations about the heart of Christianity. Some have wanted to say that Christianity is just one religious phenomenon among others, that it’s not much more than good ethical teaching. Some have spoken of Jesus as an influential and important figure of history, but don’t believe we need to make anything more of him. I understand these perspectives are widespread and common,  but I worry about these assessments. I don’t think it’s fair to Christianity (or Buddhism, Hinduism, Judaism, Islam, or any other religion) to put all ‘religions’ in a bucket and assume they are different expressions of the same reality. Nor do I think it takes Jesus seriously to consider him ‘just a good man’ or an amazing moral teacher. A closer look at the New Testament reveals Jesus making claims to be God and the only way for people to know God personally. If I was to make these type of claims for myself today, then I think people would rightly see me as either crazy or dangerous – certainly not the ultimate good man.

Yesterday, I was having lunch with a mate, enjoying the beautiful sunshine. He and I believe very different things about God and Christianity. But we agree on one thing especially – the importance of keeping an open mind and being open to persuasion. In fact, it is very refreshing to be able to have honest conversation without covering over our differences. Can I ask you this week, is your mind open to the possibility that there is a God? Would you be willing to take a fresh look at the evidence for Christianity, at the claims and teaching of Jesus? Would you have a think about why Christians bizarrely call the execution day of Jesus, Good Friday? Would you consider the importance of this early * Christian record describing the events and meaning of the first Easter?

3 For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, 4 that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, 5 and that he appeared to Peter, and then to the Twelve. 6 After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. 7 Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, 8 and last of all he appeared to me also… (1 Corinthians 15:3-8)

* The creed of verses 3-5 is normally dated before the year AD 35 by Christian and non-Christian historians alike.

The truth or otherwise of Christianity is inextricably linked to events of history. It cannot be detached and left in the realm of ideas or philosophy. If Jesus died for our sins, and if he was raised on the third day, then it makes all the difference. But, if there was no resurrection, if the whole thing has been made up or misunderstood, then we need to take these words seriously:

13 If there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. 14 And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith. 15 More than that, we are then found to be false witnesses about God, for we have testified about God that he raised Christ from the dead. But he did not raise him if in fact the dead are not raised. 16 For if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised either. 17 And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins. 18 Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ are lost. 19 If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are to be pitied more than all men. (1 Corinthians 15:13-19)

Christianity is based on verifiable events. Historians engage seriously with this stuff. They check out the sources, both Christian and and non-Christian sources. They assess the possible explanations, consider the impact of the events, and weigh up the evidence. I’m encouraged that world-class historians take the person of Jesus and the Gospel documents very seriously as facts of history. The question is, what do they mean and what difference does it make?

I believe the answer is as big as the difference between life and death for all eternity and something that big has to be worthy of serious investigation.

As I reflect on life and death this Easter, my prayer continues to be that God will take away my cancer – that I will be fully healed. But I want you to know that I thank God that he has already taken away something far worse than my cancer. He has healed me from my sin, from my selfish hostility to him. And while the price of chemotherapy is very high, the price of my spiritual cure is unbelievable – that Jesus should give his life for me, dying in my place, on that first Good Friday.

My prayer for you is that this will be the best Easter you have ever known.

Love from Dave

Sticky teams

I’ve been a pastor in an independent church for some time now. We don’t own any property, but we’ve been meeting regularly in community centres, clubs, schools, and universities. Our church is free of many of the trappings and restrictions of traditional churches. We’re not big on ceremony. We’re not into dressing up to go to church. You don’t have to be a card-carrying member of a particular denomination to get involved. In fact, a lot of what we do is being worked out ‘on the run’ and could probably described as pretty amateur.

Our church culture and community doesn’t have a lot of history. We’ve had to invent a few wheels and learn a fair bit from trial and error. It’s not that we’re making up new doctrines or teaching. We’re not abandoning the traditional understanding of the Christian faith. In fact, we’re very keen to be shaped and directed by the Bible in all we believe. It’s more to do with how things are done around here. 

Many of my friends in ministry don’t have to think too much about leadership structures in their churches – they simply are what they are. They’re Presbyterian, so they have elders, sessions, presbyteries and committees of management. Or they’re Baptist, so they have deacons and congregational meetings and pastors and water! But how do things work when you’re independent?

Last year, I made a particular focus of reading widely on issues of leadership and church life. I read, so as to better diagnose our own condition and to digest ideas and input for moving our church forward. One book that was very stimulating and resonated with many of our issues and concerns was, Sticky Teams by Larry Osborne.

The basic idea of Sticky Teams is to achieve unity in alignment. Getting people on the same page, with the same goals, and headed in the same direction. In particular, it focuses on getting the church, the staff, and the governing body of the church united in vision and purpose. A number of our leaders read this book and they had various reactions to it. Some were sold on the ideas, while others were more reflective and circumspect. The value lies in working through these things together.

Unity is fundamental to the church. At heart, it’s not something we can create for ourselves, but something achieved by God himself. As it says in Ephesians 4:4-6:

4 There is one body and one Spirit—just as you were called to one hope when you were called— 5 one Lord, one faith, one baptism; 6 one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.

God unites Christians together spiritually, but then he calls us to live this out practically. It’s not enough to pay lip service to unity. It raises real challenges for how we treat one another, and how churches are to function. See the previous verses in Ephesians 4:1-3:

1 As a prisoner for the Lord, then, I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received. 2 Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love. 3 Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace.

Osborne values three types of unity in the church – doctrinal unity (what we believe), respect and friendship (how we treat each other), and philosophical unity (how we do things around here). The importance of philosophical unity is often overlooked, but it is critical to getting people headed in the same direction. It is often harder to achieve than the first two.

There’s nothing academic about this book. It’s been worked out in practice and we’re invited to learn from the experience of the author. It offers many practical tips and great ideas that we might easily take for granted. For example, as we seek to build unity in our church leadership teams and meetings, consider if these issues might be making it hard:

Does our venue help or hinder our meetings?
Are we ignoring the relationships of the people on the team?
Are we meeting often enough or too often?
Is there a constant turnover of people or is it a closed group?
Are there too many members on the team to be productive?

If you want to avoid politics shaping the agenda of your church’s governing body, then there are lessons to be learned here. One gem, is the importance of looking for leaders, not representatives. Representatives are more likely to see themselves as lobbyists for their particular area. This can reinforce the silo mentality, polarise areas of the church, and hinder progress through controversial issues. Leaders should be people of spiritual maturity, who fit well into the team relationally and organisationally, and who are aligned with the vision of the church. And remember that CVs always look better than people, and that character matters more than ability.

Osborne offers helpful insight to how an organisation changes its shape and function as it grows. He illustrates this with a sporting analogy:

The changes we had to work through at each stage of growth resembled the changes an athlete must make every time he or she switches from playing one sport to another.

Growth produces predictable changes in the way leaders and leadership teams relate and carry out their functions, changes that are remarkably parallel to the changes an athlete must go through to transition from running track, to playing golf, basketball or football.

How does this translate? He sees a solo leader or pastor as being like a track athlete, who works with others, but basically performs alone. As things grow they become more relational, like a game of golf, where buddies work together doing much the same thing. As we grow further, we resemble more a basketball team, where complementary roles and positions are vital to making things work. With significant growth, multiple staff, congregations, departments and so on, the organisation resembles more the complexity of an American Football team. The important thing is that we must change as we grow, and we must help people navigate these changes.

There is so much detail in Sticky Teams worth digesting. But it’s also worth highlighting its overall shape and structure. There are three parts. The first highlights the problems, the second seeks to get people on the same page, and the third aims to keep people aligned. We mustn’t stop with the first bit. Diagnosing a problem is not enough – we need to prescribe a way forward. This book works to help us stay united through clarity about where we’re going, equipping people to get there, and communicating what is expected.

Sticky Teams can be treated as a workbook or a manual. It’s worth picking up again and again, reading and re-reading, with a highlight pen or a pencil. I suggest it’s best read in community with others – there are discussion questions at the back of the book. Remember, it’s not the Bible. It’s not fool-proof. And it’s not the only way to think about or do things. But it’s aim is to get us thinking and doing, and not to leave us stuck in the vortex that simply repeats the same old failures year after year.

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.