Dear Sisters and Brothers in Jesus,
I’ve just returned from a couple of days in Christchurch. Superficially much of the city looks fine and would have to be a tribute to good building standards and adherence to them over a number of years. There are chimneys down and the occasional pile of rubble where there was once an old building. A couple of our churches have very obviously been badly affected – Beckenham and Oxford Terrace. However it’s really stuff you don’t see that can be very critical, buildings that have been weakened and the trauma that a number of people are experiencing. A very large number of people for example have no insurance. Small businesses have lost their homes. Looking into the faces of a number of the pastors you sense a real weariness as they cope with what they and their families are experiencing plus the care for their church families and the desire to serve and be a distinctive witness to the people of their communities.
When I heard of the earthquake in Christchurch I immediately thought of Oxford Terrace. My mother grew up in a little house in Chester Street at the back of the church. She was one of 10 and her parents who had no interest in church sent her off to Sunday School, presumably to get some peace, on a Sunday morning. She became a follower of Jesus and was baptized and married at Terrace and Terrace became my spiritual home through formative years.
I knew Terrace would be vulnerable because it is just a huge brick room without internal supporting pillars. One of the miracles of the quake is that no-one was killed. There is a homeless man who sleeps in the porch of Oxford Terrace, masonry was dropping around him but he was unhurt. Inevitably people have been asking if this is some kind of warning - is God wanting to say something to us. I’m more comfortable with some things I believe we can be sure about. First - God is always wanting to say something to us and it’s a question of whether we are prepared to listen. Second – God unquestionably meets us in crisis. This was affirmed very movingly recently by Digby Wilkinson at the Pastors Conferences as he shared something of his journey. Digby took us back to the first beatitude You’re blessed when you’re at the end of your rope (Peterson – Matt 5.3). That text was a big focus for me last year. I think its most probably going to be the most important text for me through the period that I am National Leader because there has been crisis after crisis that have impacted us as followers of Jesus. Should we be dismayed – we can be pretty bruised, but I don’t think we should be dismayed because the church has always proved itself in crisis. That may seem little comfort to the people of Canterbury but already I am hearing great stories of innovation as our people find ways to serve their communities and be innovative in their worship of our great God and proclamation of the Gospel. And, as so often in crisis there are people and churches from all around the country who are showing support in generous and innovative ways.
The church in the affluent west is living through a time of crisis. It’s one of those hinge periods of Christian history. We’re told that we’re living in a post Christendom world, that the church which for about 16 centuries was at the centre of society is now at the fringes. This brings challenges but they are not new challenges. They are the challenges that the early church faced until the time of the Roman Emperor Constantine. The Christendom period began when Constantine decreed that the Roman Empire should become Christian in about the 300s AD. However the first three centuries AD were a period of phenomenal growth of the church and this period was characterized by natural disasters that were the norm for the ancient world. This was the context in which the early Christians lived the gospel in a way that convinced their peers to become followers of Jesus.
I have recently come to believe that one of the facets of living through the ‘post Christendom era’ and the challenges it brings is that we are seeing more of our churches experiencing internal conflict. I’ve a theory or two that I’ll foist on you with regard to this. With the changed landscape we have to explore fresh approaches to mission and in particular evangelism for the very good reason that much of our evangelism of the past was based on the church occupying a central place in our communities and people being invited to church to hear and experience the gospel. Many of our churches, because of the outstanding relationship they have with their communities are still able to operate effectively in this mode, but there are many of our churches who struggle to have significant connection with those who could be on a journey towards God. (It’s very noticeable in the book of Acts that evangelism took place out where the people were.) With our evangelical dna we become restless and sometimes fractious when people are not coming to faith and the church is not growing. Often the pastor will be blamed for inadequate preaching of the gospel or equipping of the saints. Many of us today would see a key role of the pastor to be the equipping of their people to be missionaries in a secular society where knowledge of God and the bible has long since disappeared. What I often find as I work with churches where there is conflict is that good people have competing visions and sometimes different theologies (generally here I’m thinking of pastors and key leaders and the differences will often be around reformed v charismatic or grace v perceptions of truth or sometimes you are simply dealing with difficult people with their own issues). If a church is growing you can generally cope with some differences.
It’s stating the obvious to say that we want our church communities to be characterized by love and grace so that we can face the challenges of post Christendom together, truly functioning as a coordinated body of Christ. As evangelicals we can very easily move into judgement mode. Jesus told us not to judge for the very good reason that when we judge each other we often get quite a bit of it wrong. In a lighter vein - Even a wonderfully designed piece of technology makes mistakes. I recently discovered that my computer or the spam filter system was firing off good and valid emails to my junk mail. It’s given me a wonderful excuse for the notes I should have replied to. Having heard that this happens I had a look at my junk mail and discovered some of your notes to me and they were definitely not junk. I’d like to know what is the basis for the judgements made by my spam filter. It’s most probably looking for something a bit out of the ordinary. I’d be happy enough for my spam filter to have the gift of generosity so that I could decide on some occasions which emails I didn’t want to receive. Don’t you long for your people to have the gift of generosity so that our communities are truly welcoming and open to innovation when it comes to mission in our current context. What about us – are we instinctively generous or suspicious, do we need to pray for some additional gifting in this regard. Our churches can be a bit like the spam filter. Through our systems and the messages we give to people, we’ve sifted through so that only the right, nice people will end up feeling welcome. God may feel a bit miffed with that as the biblical invitations are generally pretty open. We will ferociously guard our own perceptions of theological correctness and be suspicious of mission endeavours which may strive to be relevant to our current context. Nothing new in that. In biblical terms – who welcomed Jesus and who opposed him? I believe this is a deeply challenging period for us as pastors and for our churches but it is also a period of wonderful opportunity.
It was great having the opportunity to be on the road recently for the Pastors’ Conferences and catch up with many of you. Those of us who were travelling together enjoyed the experience of being with each other in a different environment. It’s good to get away with your teams. Do you do that with your key leader groups? Do you go to conferences or The Gathering and take the opportunity to simply be with each other as well as reflect with each other on what you are receiving. It’s one of the simplest and most rewarding team building exercises. Can I suggest that some of us wouldn’t be experiencing tensions within our teams if we simply did a bit of hanging out together and got to know each other a bit better.
One of the poignant aspects of our recent road trip was sharing just a bit of the ultimate crisis of one of our intended conference speakers, Robyn Lewis. Robyn contacted me about a week out from our Dunedin conference to say that her cancer had developed to an extent that it would be impossible for her to share with us. She was disappointed as she had wanted to talk about what she understood to be her final journey. Even although she was not present her ministry had a deep effect on us and Grahame Walker continued something of that journey going to Northpoint for Robyn’s funeral and also recently going to spend further time with the Northpoint team. Again God met us through Robyn’s crisis as he did through the untimely death of another of our pastors Gordon Mill. During Gordon’s funeral at Thames, Ian Brown who was leading asked those of us pastors whose lives had been impacted by Gordon to stand. A lot of us stood. There is a wonderful continuity about God’s work. Remember that when the going is tough and you seem to be going through the motions. Robyn’s and Gordon’s work continues.
Talking of the Pastors’ Conferences – we’re getting in early with dates for 2011 Dunedin – August 9/10; Hanmer Springs – August 11/12; Waikanae – August 16/17; Rotorua – August 18/19; Auckland – 23/24. You’ll notice there are no Saturdays or Mondays. Book the dates now – come to enjoy, receive and share – not to judge! We received a lot of affirmation over the balance of the program, so it will be the same next year with Soul Food, Tools for the Trade, Story. Hopefully that mix is relevant to anyone involved in ministry.
I look forward to seeing you at the Gathering in a few weeks time. At the Pastors’ and Spouses’ Day there will be the opportunity to visit significant spiritual, historical sites as part of a coach tour arranged by Craig Vernall. There will also be an opportunity to pray with our Canterbury brothers and sisters. One change from previous years -Thursday night will be a celebration meal where we welcome new churches, affirm and commission individuals in their ministry. We wanted to do that at the beginning so people can have a sense of being full participants and enjoy the welcome of others through the Gathering. We also wanted to avoid the Sunday morning drift as some pastors head home. Our theme is incarnation with a focus on incarnational ministry/mission but as with last year we want to hear from ‘the God who speaks’.
The Lord bless you and sustain you in your ministries.