Archive for the Church Category

Inclusive Church Communities

Posted in Church, Life with tags , , , , , , on June 10, 2011 by stephengardner

Christian Blind Mission has launched a fantastic new initiative called Luke 14 (See the video below). The purpose of Luke 14 is to help churches to care for disabled people.

20% of Australian’s live with a disability – is that reflected in your church community? I’m assuming its not and so, Its worth asking why not? Is your building wheelchair accessible? Does the service exclude those who live with a particular disability? They’re the more obvious questions to ask, but what about at the level of personal contact. How are people with disabilities welcomed by others?

I was part of a church community of around 120 people some years back. One of the people from the congregation, lets call him Brad, had a profound disability. Brad was wheelchair bound and had great difficulty speaking. It was hard work to hear and understand Brad. Perhaps thats why out of a church of 120 people only 3 people would speak with him. Perhaps thats why Brad stopped coming to church after persisting at it for a number of years.

Last night I stumbled upon these helpful words from Jurgen Moltmann:

The first thing that people discovered in Jesus, according to the synoptic gospels, was the healing power of the divine Spirit. That is why people who come into contact with him are revealed not as ‘sinners’ (as they are in Paul), but as ‘the sick’. Out of the corners into which they had been forced, out of the wilderness to which they had been banished, out of the shadows into which they had crept, the sick and possessed emerge, and try to be near him. In the neighbourhood of Jesus men and women reveal themselves, not as people who fulfil the Greek ideal of the healthy mind in the healthy body, but as sick, suffering and in need of help. In the vicinity of Jesus, people do not show themselves from their sunny side but from the sides that are dark and shadowed (Jurgen Moltmann, The Spirit of Life, 189).

O that our churches were free of superficiality. O that the divine Spirit would change God’s people that we would look at the world with the same paradigm shifting eyes of Jesus. O that God would forgive us of excluding other image bearers of communion with their Maker.


One size doesn’t fit all

Posted in Church with tags , , , , on May 16, 2011 by stephengardner

A few years ago, when I began to get involved in pastoral ministry I very quickly began to feel a kind of frustration. I had taken on an assumption that progress in the Christian life looked the same for everyone. Effectively I believed that because each believer has God’s Spirit dwelling in them, that progress for each believer should look the same. I say ‘effectively’ because if you had asked me ‘is this what you believe?’ of course I would have said, ‘no!’ But my expectations of the Spirit’s work in my own life and particularly the lives of those I ministered to, revealed that there was an enormous gulf between what I thought I believed and how I acted.

It didn’t take very long for very real furstrations to appear – I found that people’s messiness didn’t disappear. People, myself included, continued to struggle with the same behaviours; lack of generosity to those in need, pride that manifests itself in a lack of compassion toward others, lustful eyes; And people continued to struggle with the same emotions; doubt, guilt, depression, anger. I think what I believed was that progress looked like ‘tidiness.’ I had taken on two assumptions that turned out to be massive ministry mistakes.

1. An over-realised eschatology

I didn’t take into account that during this life sin and brokenness will always be. Rather, what I was looking for in people, and in my own life, was something that only Jesus will bring, removal of sin and brokenness.

2. The Spirit manifests himself differently to each believer

I didn’t take into account the reality of the ‘body language’ the New Testament uses to describe the nature of the Church. There is on the one hand a real ‘oneness’ to the Church that Paul speaks of unashamedly in Ephesians 4:

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

But at the same time, this same Spirit brings a diversity to the Christian community, expressed by Paul in the outpouring of gifts:

7 Now grace was given to each one of us according to the measure of the Messiah’s gift. 8 For it says: When He ascended on high, He took prisoners into captivity; He gave gifts to people. 9 But what does “He ascended” mean except that He  descended to the lower parts of the earth? 10 The One who descended is the same as the One who ascended far above all the heavens,  that He might fill  all things.  11 And He personally gave some to be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, 12 for the training of the saints in the work of ministry, to build up the body of Christ,  13 until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of God’s Son, [growing] into a mature man with a stature measured by Christ’s fullness.

Growth and progress in the Christian life is not a ‘one size fits all.’ We are each thoroughly sinful and broken people who will continue to struggle with these things in our own particular way. Of course, being complacent with this state of brokenness is a horrible mistake, but so too is having a universal approach to what growth and progress will look like in each person.

Just a thought.

Reconciliation and Truth

Posted in Australia, Church, Reconciliation with tags , , , , on March 15, 2011 by stephengardner

I’m currently thinking a lot about the Australian Church and reconciliation. At the more theoretical end, I’m thinking through what the essence of the Church’s ministry of reconciliation is; and to what extent can we presently experience the final reconciliation that God promises when he makes all things new. While, practically, I’m fascinated by what are our particularly Australian stories of reconciliation that need to be told; what opportunities there are for reconciliation to occur in our societies; and how the Church can be involved in all of this. A big chunk of my time at college this year will be thinking through these things – and I hope to post some reflections from time to time.

Today I had the great joy of reading Colonisation and Christianity by 19th Century, English Author William Howitt. It is a painful read – recalling to mind seemingly endless evil often committed in the name of the Church’s Master. But Howitt zealously called into question European colonisation, and its relationship to Christianity – and named it for what it was, evil.

To comprehend the full extent of atrocities done in the Christian name, we must look the whole wide evil sternly in the face. We must not suffer ourselves to aim merely at the rediness of this or that grievance; but gathering all the scattered rays of aboriginal oppression into one burning focus, and thus enabling ourselves to feel its entire force, we shall be less than Englishmen and Christians if we do not stamp the whole system of colonial usage towards the natives, with that general and indignant odium which must demolish it at once and forever (Colonisation and Christianity, 10).

How many Waterloos can the annals of the earth reckon? What Timour, or Zenghis Khan, can be compared to the Napoleon of Modern Europe? the (sic) greatest scourge of nations that ever arose on this planet; the most tremendous meteor that ever burnt along its surface! (p, 4)

But most monstrous of all has been the moral blindness or the savage recklessness of ourselves as Englishmen. (p, 6)

In hindsight, Howitt’s attempts to bring into light the evil of the past did not go far enough, but it is a valuable example of, what seems to me, to be a universally recognised essential starting block; That in order for reconciliation to occur between two parties with a history of bad blood, then there must be a revelation of the truth. A painful, honest look at the past – painful for the offender, reminding themselves of guilt and leaving them vulnerably in the hands of shame. But likewise, and particularly, painful for the victim – again, leaving them in a vulnerable position where they might be forever labelled as ‘victim.’ But if a genuine reconciliation is to occur then this pain must be exposed.

the line is fine between zealot and jerk

Posted in Church, Leadership on February 9, 2011 by stephengardner

Mike W has a great post called gospel assholes which has prompted me to post some thoughts on leadership and jerkiness and how all too often the two seem to be intrinsically connected. Mike reflects on how easy it can be for a preacher/minister to take pride in any conflict/’persecution’ they might encounter – telling themselves ‘oh, its for the gospel’ when really it could just be because they’re being a jerk.

I am increasingly convinced that the number one problem in Christian leadership is a lack of clear, Jesus formed identity. To steal from Larry Crabb – this becomes a problem when one ceases to find their security and significance in Jesus Christ. Personally, as I look to head out into parish ministry, God willing, for the rest of my days, I know this is something I will need to keep coming back to, daily. The temptation to find security and significance in anything but Jesus is massive in Christian ministry. How much easier it is to have your identity shaped by your effectiveness, your successful track record of church growth, or even in Mike’s example, your jerkiness.

There are lots of ways we can see this insecurity in Christian ministry but, I want to suggest just two symptoms.

1. an inflated sense of your own importance

The minister/preacher/wannabe minister/wannabe preacher becomes the centre of the universe for his/her congregation, or anyone who will listen really. They must contribute to every conversation, they must not ever appear to not know the answer to someone’s question, they seem to delight in people needing their advice or wisdom and their status updates on facebook almost always seem to be about their next preaching gig. While this symptom is more funny than harmful it is still, I think, a sure sign of a lack of clear, Jesus formed identity. If your identity is threatened it feels desperately important to reassert yourself at any given time.

2. a suspicion of others

God hates visionary dreaming; it makes the dreamer proud and pretentious. The man who fashions a visionary ideal of community demands that it be realized by God, by others, and by himself. He enters the community of Christians with his demands, sets up his own law, and judges the brethren and God Himself accordingly. He stands adamant, a living reproach to all others in the circle of brethren. He acts as if he is the creator of the Christian community, as if his dream binds men together. When things do not go his way, he calls the effort a failure. When his ideal picture is destroyed, he sees the community going to smash. So he becomes, first an accuser of his brethren, then an accuser of God, and finally the despairing accuser of himself. (Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together, 27-28).

This symptom is less funny and more harmful than the first, it destroys communities. When the pastor/leader acts towards a community out of suspicion, then that community will never flourish. The pastor/leader is again showing that he/she is deeply insecure – others, even their own community, become a threat to their identity. This is where Mike’s post is really helpful. When others threaten our security there is a temptation to go on the attack reasserting oneself over and against the other, perhaps accompanied with the comforting thought that ‘I am defending the truth and this person is just being subversive.’ Or you could just be a jerk!

The Church Needs to Get Scandalised!

Posted in Church, Reconciliation with tags , , , , , , on January 24, 2011 by stephengardner

One thing that will sell a newspaper is a scandal. One thing that will sell a newspaper and incite mobs of angry people is a scandal within the church. However, Miroslav Volf, in his book, Exclusion and Embrace,  argues that the Christian community needs to a scandalous one. A community that is willing to get scandalised because that is exactly what God has experienced in event of the gospel:

At its core, however, the scandal of the cross in a world of violence is not the danger associated with self-donation. Jesus’ greatest agony was not that he suffered. Suffering can be endured, even embraced, if it brings desired fruit, as the experience of giving birth illustrates. What turned the pain of suffering into agony was the abandonment; Jesus was abandoned by the people who trusted in him and by the God in whom he trusted. “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mark 15.34). My God, my God, why did my radical obedience to your way lead to the pain and disgrace of the cross? The ultimate scandal of the cross is the all too frequent failure of self-donation to bear positive fruit: you give yourself for the other – and violence does not stop but destroys you; you sacrifice your life – and stabilize the power of the perpetrator. Though self-donation often issues in the joy of reciprocity, it must reckon with the pain of failure and violence. When violence strikes, the very act of self-donation becomes a cry before the dark face of God. This dark face confronting the act of self-donation is a scandal. (Miroslav Volf, Exclusion and Embrace, 26)

Volf goes on to say that ‘there is no genuinely Christian way around the scandal’ (26). Volf explores such practices of self-donation in the political sphere but his challenge, I think, is just as valid for the way our church communities relate to one another.  Getting scandalised, in this sense, is a non-negoitable for our churches. He goes on to write:

the only available options are either to reject the cross and with it the core of the Christian faith or to take one’s cross, follow the Crucified – and be scandalized ever anew by the challenge. (26)

I love it when different thoughts from different books collide. I find Volf’s challenge resonates deeply with much of the work of the brilliant Christian psychologist Larry Crabb. When it comes to thinking through how the Christian life should be expressed in relationship with others, there is no one sharper than Crabb. In his book Encouragement, he argues that too often we are motivated by fear to serve others, or that we hold back from serving because we are self-protective and anxious that we must first have our need for encouragement met by others before we can give of ourselves, or ‘self-donate’ as Volf would say.

What radical a call the cross makes on our communities, and yet isn’t it odd how few of our churches come close to resembling  such radicalness. Imagine the difference it would make if we actually believed that our security and significance was found in Jesus Christ alone.

A warning to preachers

Posted in Church, Leadership with tags , , on January 18, 2011 by stephengardner

I believe that one of our big weaknesses is in what is called ‘application’ in imparting God’s Word. I don’t mean a personal appeal tacked on to the end of a sermon. I mean an awareness on the part of the speaker of the condition of the audience, and the addressing of his utterance to that particular condition. Or to put it in more personal terms: a knowledge of the people on the part of the person who speaks…The personal relation between pastor and people, between friend and friend, is absolutely integral to effectual imparting of God’s Word…Yet a chief defect of modern preaching is that it is so often fundamentally impersonal: no amount of earnestness, or desire to get decisions, or shouting, or belabouring the audience, or tricks of rhetoric, or even conversational tone, will make up for a lack of awareness on the speakers part of just who he is talking to, and what their spiritual condition is in the actuality of their daily lives, and what they are likely to make of what he says. Nor will it make up for, above all, a lack of love for them which, even while he knows himself to be the messenger of the Lord, constrains him to be their servant, and to frame him message in such a way as fits their need rather than his own.

D.W.B. Robinson, ‘The Theology of the Preached Word’ in Donald Robinson Selected Works: Volume 2 – Preaching God’s Word. p146-147

“Katay=New Perspective, New Perspective=Bad”

Posted in Church with tags , on May 28, 2010 by stephengardner

The title of this post comes from a new series over at Gold, Silver and Precious Stones where Katay is undertaking an incredibly bold but incredibly important and positive step – to try and clear the air. And its already creating a bit of a buz; here and here and I’m sure much more to come.

Anyone who has kicked around certain circles for even the briefest of moments is aware of the controversy that Andrew’s name carries. I have lost count of how many times I’ve had to ‘defend myself’ for having served with him at Uni and Church. But Katay’s project, I think, represents a far bigger problem than the ‘New Perspective’. The problem is this; the readiness with which the term ‘heretic’ is bandied about.

Here’s a slightly funny, but nonetheless distressing example of what I mean. Just this week my wife was labelled a heretic for talking about infant baptism. The funny part is that this happened at Moore college by a fellow student (who by the way did not think to tell my wife she was a heretic before telling others)! Last time I checked Moore College was an Anglican training ground.

But again this is only symptomatic of a very real and very serious problem – our readiness to use the term ‘heretic’. My hunch is that more often than not, when the word heretic is thrown around in our churches and christian scenes, its nothing more than gossip. Gossip dressed up as a ‘zeal for the truth’.