A Poisonwood Gospel

If you want a book to mess with your neat and tidy ideas of how mission and evangelism should be expressed then the Poisonwood Bible is your go to.

Set primarily in the 1960’s it follows the journey of one Baptist missionary family who feel the ‘Lord has called them’ to missionary service in what was then the Belgian Congo. Nathan Price, his wife Orleanna and their 4 girls all set off to bring the good news of Jesus to the ‘backward’ tribes of a tiny Congolese village called Kalanga.

It’s a story with many interwoven threads and if you don’t pay attention you could easily get lost between the ‘family’ story and the bigger story in which the book is set (Congolese independence and the political wrangling that accompanied it). The story is narrated thru the eyes of the 5 women but we never hear from the Reverend himself, unless it is in his ‘sermon voice’, or thru the mouths of the family as they quote him.

This is one of those books that every aspiring missionary should read. Why?… Because in brief summary it reflects on:

  • The curious idea of ‘calling’

Sometimes we can misconstrue God’s voice with our own inner desires and we can use him to sanction the things we already intend to do. Nathan Price had a burning ‘calling’ to go and preach to the African tribes, who he regarded as uncivilised heathen savages. We discover that his ‘calling’ comes as much from a tragic incident when he was serving as soldier, as it does from any voice direct from God. There is a mix of guilt and penitence driving his approach to Christian mission – neither of which are good reasons to pursue a vocation of this sort (in case you didn’t know…) And the outcomes are correspondingly catastrophic for him, his family and the local people.

As I have got older I have often wondered about my own ‘calling’ experiences at different times of life. Was it really the voice of God or was it simply my own desires that I wanted permission to proceed with? Did God really direct and lead us, or did he allow me to pursue my own dreams while I corralled him in to lend a bit of authority?

I don’t think we will ever answer that question properly as everything we do is done with mixed motives. But perhaps it just needs to be said… If you use the language of ‘calling’ then it just bears mentioning that it is usually muddied waters and very rarely a bolt direct from God himself.

  • The nature of the gospel.

For Nathan Price, a hardline fundamentalist (not a lot of fun but pretty damn mental) the gospel is almost purely about getting people to ‘convert’ – by which he means agreeing to follow ‘Tata Jesus’ – and then to a place of water baptism. It’s a contractural arrangement that he is seeking to broker between the people he perceives as uncivilised and ignorant savages and an angry God whose wrath he hopes they can avoid (although it seems he is more intent on negating the divine wrath he feels is coming his way)

Unfortunately the absence of any love whatsoever emanating from Price means he really is a clanging gong and every time we hear him speak it’s with a sense of his message completely missing the mark and grating terribly. His is a condescending, colonising voice, coupled with a refusal to learn from those around him. There is no ‘listening’ to the local people and hearing their stories and their journeys before launching in with a sharp and utterly tone deaf spiel about his narrow and jaundiced view of who Jesus is.

No doubt there were points of connection with the people at Kalanga, but he was never going to find them. Ironically his predecessor ‘Brother Fowles’, was a much loved presence in the community. He ended up taking an African wife, but was ironically fired from his mission role for ‘fraternising with the natives’. Fowles learnt the language and the customs, loved the people and became their friend, but he gets treated coldly by Price, as he is seen as a compromiser and heretic.

There is much we could say about the nature of the gospel / good news, but it just bears saying that despite his best intentions and his ardent endeavours he simply failed to communicate the reality of who Jesus is to these people. He spoke ‘facts’ as best he knew them, but he didn’t recognise his own cultural formation and as such couldn’t accept that the gospel may take a different form in this new culture.

For every missionary its a challenge to ask afresh ‘what is the gospel and how is it best communicated to the people amongst whom I am living?’ Because it changes…

  • The appropriateness of foreign missionaries even entering a space where people already had their religious and spiritual practices.

This idea has emerged as a critique in a few places lately, but perhaps the best known is the story of John Chau, a young evangelical American who felt God had called him to go as a missionary to the unreached people on India’s North Sentinel Island, a part of the world previously untouched by western ways of life. These people were known to be hostile to anyone who entered their space, but Chau was convinced God had called him and he was equipped with all he needed to do good work there. He had been inspired by the story of Jim Elliot and his small band of martyrs who were killed in Ecuador mid 20th C attempting a similar venture. Chau knew the risks, knew exactly what he was doing, but chose to go there, believing that if no one spoke to Sentinelise people about Jesus that they were spent eternity in Hell.

He was killed by the island inhabitants before he made any progress with his hoped for mission work. A doco movie has been made about his life and his expedition and while I haven’t seen it yet, I believe it doesn’t portray him as a crazy person – just a young man with a burning desire to serve God no matter the cost.

We could mock him and his foolishness, but I wonder where our passionate young leaders are these days? We seem to have fewer and fewer people stepping up to the plate of Christian service, especially costly sacrificial mission work. It’s way easier to poke fun at those silly people than to learn from them and be inspired by them. My own teenage and young adult years were the richer for reading stories of Jim Elliot, Jackie Pullinger and Hudson Taylor. Who are our modern day inspirational leaders in this space? Why do we have so few younger leaders aspiring to a life of sacrifice and service? Yes – it’s hard – but it’s this kind of leadership and service that inspires others to rise up also. Maybe it’s you that needs to drop your cynicism and cleverness and just jump in boots and all to serve and learn?

We can certainly question mission work done in the style of Nathan Price – ego driven, culturally bound and lacking in love. But there is simply no question that the core of the Christian message is to ‘go and make disciples – baptising and teaching them to obey Jesus’ words’. It is to lead people away from false ideas and false Gods and towards truth. Depending on who you are talking to that can be seen as offensive and intrusive, (even within Christian spaces) but this was Jesus’ mission – to ‘seek out and save the lost’. We don’t need to go about it using crass methods, but we do need to come to grips with the fact that at some point the gospel calls people out of one way of living and into another.

I remember hearing Dave Andrews say that in every culture there are Jesus symbols and motifs – and these are our connection points – our common ground to communicating the person of Jesus. There are also going to be points of conflict and disconnect and it requires both courage and wisdom to confront these both cross culturally and locally.

And yes – inevitably that involves calling some things ‘right’ and wrong’. It risks offence and it involves the willingness to take a stand. If missionaries came to Australia from other cultures they might be shocked at our lack of communal living – our prioritising of individualism and of our addiction to buying products which will apparently make us happy. Any missionary would have to challenge these behaviours as not in line with life in the kingdom of God. We don’t make offerings to the Gods like you would find in Bali, but we have our own cultural idols. Idols differ from place to place, but they never stop being idols.

So maybe we should ask; ‘Are we better off to stop cross-cultural mission work and leave people to their own spiritual devices?’ Should we leave Muslims as they are, Buddhists to do their own thing and so on?… I don’t think the New testament gives us any option here. If Jesus is the way to encounter God and he is truth then we are responsible for helping people engage with that truth. It means advocating for one way to meet God, but if that is a sticking point then you may need to go back and examine your own theology.

  • Contextualisation is everything in mission work.

Why won’t the people in Kalanga get baptised? Nathan Price feels it is hardness of heart – a refusal to bow the knee to Tata Jesus, but in actuality its because the river is full of crocodiles and very dangerous. As a result they perceive him as a danger to their community! If only he had taken the time to listen and figure that one out. His whole ministry comes under a cloud because they see him as a threat!

Then as the political clime turns towards liberal democracy where people can vote for what they want, the village decide to take a vote on whether they will follow Jesus. Jesus loses the vote, but Nathan still doesn’t get it… He is living in a different culture and has to tread gently and humbly. At one point the village chief lets him know that they managed just fine before he came along- and they will do just fine when he leaves. In the meantime it is they who are being patient with him – when all along he feels his own patience is being tested.

  • All mission is happening within a broader socio-political space and if we miss that context then our ‘gospel’ could just be white noise.

Right now we cannot speak of Jesus without paying attention to what is going on in the global political realm. The Russia – Ukraine war, the US Trump phenomena and the Israel – Palestine conflict all give shape to the world in which we live. Close to home we have had the Voice referendum impact our context, the Royal Commission into sexual abuse, as well as the challenge of wondering what alignment the church has with conservative politics and how that influences our message.

We don’t speak of Jesus in a vacuum. If Nathan Price had paid attention to the massive runctions taking place in Congo he may have made some very different choice. He may have been wise enough to get out of there. He may have been humble enough to accept that his western ways are not superior – just different to their own ways.

Sadly he misses all the cues and his end (spoiler alert)

is to be burned at the stake by the very people he was trying to save. No doubt he saw it as being persecuted for the gospel.

  • There is a price to pay for missionary service – and this family pays heavily.

I admire our missionaries – wherever they are – in Africa, Thailand, the Middle East or right here in Australia, because these people have stepped up to a very unique vocational challenge. To enter a culture as guests, to listen and to learn for a long time and to love graciously.

Some do it with their children and their kids end up stuck between the two worlds when they come home. Where do they belong? They aren’t sure… This can have both good and bad effects. Some kids resent their parent’s sacrifice and drop faith like a hot potato. Some kids are inspired and follow in their parent’s footsteps asking how they can build on the work and continue to serve.

But you don’t do what the Price family did without cost. Along the way there are significant impacts on each member of the family as they come to grips with their Africa experience. Truth be told had their father been a different man they may have thrived in Africa rather suffering PTSD and suffering in various ways.

I know of missionaries who have lost children in tough missionary environments, of others who have come home shell shocked and with a faith in tatters because they were not remotely successful at what they set out to do.

It requires boldness and some serious courage to take the cross cultural path and to immerse yourself in another world for an indefinite period of time – even in the middle of a countries internal fracturing. Nathan Price may well win a prize for being the world’s worst missionary. What is scary is that I saw some of my younger self in him as I observed his black and white view of the world, his dogged determination to succeed at all costs and his belief that his view was right in every way imaginable.

I’m glad to be a bit older now and to have been formed a bit more into Christ. But I grew up in an era of Nathan Prices and I could so easily have been him.

If you haven’t read the book then do yourself a favour and invest the time!

Simple Human Kindness

I’m not a fan of the dentist – never have been, but an experience of a failed extraction where the anaesthetic didn’t work around 9 years ago seriously scarred me. I never wanted to go back… Not having ever had an extraction before I just presumed it would hurt to some degree. Apparently it’s not supposed to hurt at all… I know that now.

On that occasion the dentist I visited dosed me up with anaesthetic right to the point where I simply couldn’t have any more – and still it hurt like crazy. After 40 minutes of wriggling and whining and getting nowhere I remember saying ‘just go as hard as you can and I’ll suck it up…’ After what felt like 10 seconds but was more likely 3 or 4 I tapped out. It was sheer intense agony. I dunno how people do it in countries without the facilities we have. She left me on a cheery note ‘don’t worry you can come back next week and we’ll have another try…’ Yeah right…’ I went to our church bloke’s group where I sat zombified for the next 90 minutes – happy to be out of there but in disbelief that I still had to do it all over again.

As it turned out the dentist on the return visit was a grade above the apprentice who was working on me and she got it out – but I lay rigid, frozen with fear, the whole time.

I have had 2 teeth extracted in the last month both at our local Yanchep Dentist and on both occasions I have been dreading the events. Fear lingers. That one event marked me. 

However these times were different. What really impressed me wasn’t the skill of the dentist – although both were very good at getting the teeth out and  keeping me ok during the event. But I was struck by the dental nurse who clearly picked up my anxiety. (I was trying to lie still and be touch but I think I was like a tin soldier.) On the first occasion she gently rubbed my hand and my brow and told me it would be ok. I was conscious of it feeling like an odd thing to be on the receiving end of – a 59 year old man afraid and uptight – but at the same time I was aware of her care easing me and calming me.

It was quite beautiful.

As I went in today for what was apparently going to be a ‘complicated extraction’ (cue the fear meter to register off the chart) I saw her there and she seemed to recognise me too. I felt better straight away knowing I had her. As the dentist looked into my mouth, he identified a wisdom tooth that had shifted since my last visit. ‘Right – let’s start here’ he said. I had come in for a different tooth, but now there 2 that needed extracting… As he poked around my mouth, I called a halt to proceedings and began to talk of general anaesthetic, getting the two done in one hit – waking up with it all over…

The crazy cost almost seemed worth it, but then my other side kicked in and said ‘ok let’s just do this thing…’

We agreed to the ‘complicated tooth’ with the wisdom tooth saved for another day. Joy.

Again as the dentist’s tools did their yanking and cracking in my mouth her hand was on top of mine, her fingers gently calming me – and it genuinely eased my fear. I didn’t realise human touch could make such a difference, especially from someone I didn’t know and before whom I felt weak and vulnerable. So thank you to S for not just being efficient and good with the tools but for seeing people for who they are – even anxious older men who you may expect to be tougher than that…

I’m not. But I’m also not dreading future visits anything like I have been

i think we all sometimes wonder how we ‘make a difference’ at work. Here’s a case in point. Learn from S and just see the people in front of you for who they are and respond to them as they need it – even if they don’t even know that they need it. I didn’t go in hoping the nurse would be kind and compassionate – would stroke my hand – but I left grateful that she wasn’t inhibited or restrained by any social conventions that ruled out physical touch with a client.

So We’re the Good Guys Right?

So we’re the good guys… right?…

Growing up in Belfast I was well aware that Protsestants (us) and Catholics (them) didn’t get on – in fact we were raised to despise one another and think the worst of one another. We even felt a little proud of our ‘good guy’ status, aware that while the IRA were the baddest of the bad, you really just couldn’t trust a Catholic no matter what.

This was the tribally divided world I grew up in. It appeared the tribes were formed around religious convictions, but as I was later to discover this was simply a means to an end – a way of identifying those we were conditioned to hate.

When I retuned to Ireland in 2014 I did some serious historical reading and discovered that the ongoing persecution and marginilisation of the Catholic population by the British / Protestant government was actually at the root of much Catholic anger. I had to acknowledge that ‘my tribe’ had treated these people terribly, so they were angry and the emergence of the IRA seemed like their only way of resisting and protesting. As a result several Protestant paramilitary groups formed (UVF UFF and the like). They met Catholic terrorist activity with their own brand of terror.

Remind me again – who are the ‘good guys’ and who are the ‘bad guys’?…

It’d be easier if the bad guys were all bad and the good guys all good, but of course it’s much messier than that.

I’ve been following the developments in Gaza closely over the last 2 weeks and increasingly it appears that the only ‘good guys’ left are the people forced from their homes and living in fear of their lives. Even if Hamas had the best interests of the Palestinian people at heart (which is very hard to imagine) their actions in Israel can only be condemned. There is no excuse, or valid reason for the slaughter of innocent civilians. It was a cowardly, but also provocative act. And while it hurt Israel, the rebound effect on their own people is now exponentially worse.

Much like the British government’s oppression of the Irish Catholics, the Israeli Government have created what some have described as an ‘open air prison’ in Palestine. So there is anger and unrest. There is seething rage at lives being wasted and recently that rage was expressed in extreme violence. It doesn’t validate it or excuse it, but it does give it a context.

Angry oppressed people seeking to bring some normality back to their lives respond in rage and hurt their oppressor.

And it did hurt. It still hurts for the Israeli people. Every day their family members are held hostage is another day when they haven’t come home alive. Every ‘forward’ step by the Israeli army may come at the cost of a hostage’s life.

And of course in the midst of this thousands of Palestinian people – already pushed to the edge – are now homeless and have lost everything.

Whatever Hamaas were thinking on Oct 7, it wasn’t concerned with the safety and lives of its own people. Whatever Israel are thinking, it is clear that even if they continue on the path they are on and succeed in completely erasing all sign of Hamas, it will only be a matter of time before a new resistance leadership emerges in search of justice and freedom.

I have been reading one news article regularly as it appears – the Gaza Diary, the ponderings of Ziad, a 35 year old Palestinian man who had been moving from home to home, just trying to find shelter, food and water in the middle of the madness. There are now 14 entries and if you want an insight into daily life for a Palestinian person in the middle of this then it will give you context. It’s bizarre to even contemplate the terror of living in that country at this time.

And as each day passes the legitimacy of Israel’s actions are increasingly under scrutiny. It seems that within the country there is anger at the amount of lives lost and from the perspective of an onlooker, Israel would appear to be responding way above and beyond what would be considered ‘fair play’ in a war situation. The casualty rate has been enormous (9000 +) with the vast majority innocents.

Even so the calls for peace and a ceasefire are being ignored, as Netinyahu seeks to act ‘strongly’ and without any concession. Whether their mission (the complete elimination of Hamas) is even achievable is debatable, but the sheer cost in human life to get there seems to be lost on the Israeli PM. He has commited the ‘strong-man’ position so it’s hard to imagine him backing down.

No one would deny Israel legitimate anger and rage at the barbaric way Hamas dealt with their people, but it seems that blunt force is not the best tool for this situation. Besides the risk of hurting hostages who may be used as human shields, there is also the cost of Israeli military lives – young men and women literally in ‘kill or be killed’ scenarios – with now 23 dead.

And then there is the the question of who else may choose to stick their oar in and the consequences of that. Lebanon, Iran and more specifically, Hezbollah have already spoken up and of course there is the US and associated allies supporting Israel. We (Australia) notionally support Israel, but I sense the word ‘support’ is being stretched well beyond its breaking point at this moment.

How anyone can endorse the degree of damage being inflicted on both people and infrastructure is beyond me. There’s ‘necessary evil’ and then there is simply evil that is not done out of necessity but out of a desire for ‘extreme revenge’.

My prayer is that someone can talk sense into Netinyahu. so that the troops are called off and a peaceful resolution is found. It’s an ambitious hope because Netinyahu has clearly stated his intent to wipe our Hamas completely – whatever it takes.

Is there a ‘third way’ that can take away the revenge drive and replace it with a restoration intent? I imagine there is, but it may now appear politically weak to pursue that path. It may be off the table for the Israeli leaders, but it is probably the only way to find peace and some semblance of friendly interaction.

So – we pray – for those directly impacted – hostages, Gaza residents/transients, we pray for the military to reconsider their actions and for the leaders of our world to act peacefully and wisely. And when i say ‘pray’, its not a euphemism for hope – it’s an actual choice to pray each day for cool heads and wise spirits to win the day. Someone suggested to me yesterday that prayer was not enough – but I am convinced it’s our best tool in the craziness. It’s calling for the spiritual power of a good God to be present and overpower the evil that is running amok at present.

Whatever side of politics you sit on – whatever your beliefs about where this conflict began – the immediate prayer is for a ceasefire and longer term for peace and healing to take place in such a divided land.

Love Your Enemies… Except…

Israel-Hamas war: 'Hide religion,' Welsh Jewish student told - BBC News

This week I am teaching at our morning gathering of QBC and I chose this part of the sermon on the mount (Matt 5) as the focus of my reflections.

43 “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbour and hate your enemy.’ 44 But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. 46 If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? 

I chose it intentionally because it’s confronting and ludicrously specific in how we are to respond to those who mistreat us, or with whom we are in significant conflict.

I also chose this passage a few days before Hamas did their terrorist thing in Israel. Which begs the question, how does this play out in situations where there is obvious and terrible violence being perpetrated and where to not retaliate may see further deaths and injury? Hamas have it as part of their charter to ‘wipe out Jews everywhere’, and that isn’t changing. If Israel put down their guns then they would be most likely giving up their lives.

Are we to take Jesus’ teaching to that extreme?

And of course I am aware that Israel have their share of responsibility for the animosity that exists between them and Palestine. But that isn’t the question I am pondering. Where I am struggling is to think of a Christlike response that ensures the best for both groups. A solution similar to the Irish ‘power-sharing’ agreement may work, where each side puts down their guns and seeks to work co-operatively. But it’s hard to envision it…

Was Jesus just off with the fairies the day he said these words? Did he have in mind that the Jewish people should respond to Roman oppression with love and prayer? Did he see this as applying purely to personal relationships? Or was he just speaking aspirationally? He finishes with the words ‘be perfect as your father in heaven is perfect’, so there is a degree of aspirational thinking at play here.

I wonder if we would be better off if he had left detailed instructions for dealing with International conflicts? Although I doubt we would follow those rules any more than these ones.

The application of ‘love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you’, is complicated in these international long term struggles. Hatred and suspicion has been so deeply entrenched in people’s thinking that it has become a way of life.

But I am left wondering how do we disentangle this terrible mess of animosity and hatred. Is it even possible?

‘Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you…’

You just made it sound really easy Jesus…

No reference to issues of justice or how to protect the innocent, just some unmistakeable instructions that sound way too absurd to have any bearing on reality. Or is it that we have moved so far from the kingdom of God in our way of being in this world that it is our thinking that is tainted and marred. Is it like trying to see a path forward when your windscreen is literally covered in mud?

As is his style, Martin Joseph a self declared pacifist sings a powerful song referring to the Russia / Ukraine conflict titled ‘I’d take you out’. He literally says that if he were left alone in a room with Putin and a gun he’d shoot him dead. ‘I’d lose my soul’, he sings, ‘But I’d take you out.’ I imagine your soul would take a serious toll if you were to kill another human being while trying to protect others. Bonhoeffer of course found himself in an assassination plot to rid the world of Hitler. Is this a better of two evils ethical issue?

If Jesus puts it out there then I can only believe that it is achievable, but maybe we just don’t want it that much. It’s easier to choose a side in a conflict and align with a group of powerful people. It’s harder to refuse to fight, to seek the best for the other and to pray for them, because then you get in the middle and you get hit from both sides.

If there were easy answers to these conflicts then we would have found them by now. Happy to hear your thoughts…

It’s Not Working..

It’s the shortest and snappiest of comments on the state of the church in Australia.

After presenting her data for 30 minutes and showing the ongoing decline of the majority of churches in Australia, this was Ruth Powell’s conclusion.

It’s not working…

What we have been doing to live out the gospel in our society and culture is not working’

And it hasn’t been working for a long time!

Now to be fair Ruth did indicate that by this simple numeric metric larger churches did appear to be ‘working’. ‘The attractional church works‘, she said. The problem is that it is resource intensive, so that when small churches try to copy them it usually results in either leader burnout or a pale imitation of what can be achieved with top rate musicians, speakers and resources.

Her point was that the vast majority of Australian churches are small 50-60 people and while the larger ones may be able to attract people into the building, 95% of those without those capacities are struggling just to fill their rosters each Sunday let alone fill the building.

We put a lot of weight on filling the building don’t we?… As if this was the best indicator of health and maturity. Don’t get me wrong – it does tell a story. When we count the numbers on a Sunday morning it tells us exactly how many people were present in church on that day.

Let’s be clear – this is what we are measuring and by that measurement the National Church Life Survey tells us that the church in Australia has been in decline for some time now.

I would assume a correlation between higher attendance and formation into Christlikeness, but it’s not a given. I remember having this smash me in the face one Sunday. I looked out when I was preaching and saw Clive in the congregation. Inwardly I thought ‘it’s good to see Clive in church so consistently.’ As Clive was a new Christian I was happy to see he had begun to prioritise church attendance. But what about his wife Jane? She was rarely in church. I worried about her.’

Eventually one morning I caught up with her and began chatting. She was quick to let me know why she was rarely in church. ‘I can’t stand to be around him! He’s off with prostitutes Saturday night, then in church on Sunday morning. I can’t stand by him and sing songs of worship!’

I realised I had equated regular church attendance with ‘doing ok’ and regular absence with ‘not doing ok.’ Not in this case. Perhaps not in other cases too.

To be fair I think there is a correlation of sorts, but it’s not a straight line. Perhaps it’s our easiest measurement to take as it would be a lot trickier to measure Christlikeness, unselfishness, kindness, generosity and so on.

But back to the ‘it’s not working’ statement. How do we progress from here? Do smaller churches just keep trying harder to be a pale imitation of their highly resourced larger churches? In my own context I stopped worrying about the attendance numbers a long time ago and became more concerned with the question of how we are living our faith out in the world. This quote from Martin Robinson has been formative in my own leadership:

“What would it look like for a church to function in such a way that the primary goal of church life was not to attract more people into attendance and membership, but to produce people who had a profound sense of their personal relationship to God, their resource in Christ and could take that reality into the world with them” 

~ Martin Robinson ‘Invading Secular Space’ p.111.

I’m not sure that question is given sufficient priority in our thinking, but rather it is hoped that if they come on Sunday they will be then ready to go back out. If our goal were to prepare people for the life that they live each day then I wonder what we would change to enable this to actually take place?

I know for some who are busy and focused in their workplace the Sunday gathering is like a drink of fresh water after walking in a desert. For some their Sunday experience is an essential part of their ongoing sustenance, but given we now count 1 in 4 attendance as ‘regular’ it would seem that for many it is not the case.

It’s been said many times that insanity is doing the same thing over and over, while expecting different results. I sense many of us are feeling the reality of this, but we are mystified as to what we can do that is different – and that will actually better equip people for their everyday life.

We can safely assume that if someone is turning up 1 in 4 to a Sunday gig then then either a) they are struggling to see the value of the gathering, or b) They have found ‘better’ things to do with their Sundays and are simply ‘ticking a box’.

When it comes to reimagining how we can “produce people who had a profound sense of their personal relationship to God, their resource in Christ and could take that reality into the world with themwe are often caught in a type of Sunday centric stalemate. If we try to adjust the parameters of discipleship by re-shaping or scaling back on Sunday events we instantly run into opposition from those who find sustenance in Sundays and also those who struggle with change. This often leads to a decline in attendance – a correlating decline in giving and then the inability to pay the pastor who initiated the process. That pastor is then forced to leave and it is concluded that ‘these new ideas really don’t work! Best to stick with what we know, even if it isn’t working…’ If you’ve led churches for long enough then you would be aware of this challenge.

Perhaps the answer is to plant a new church and instill something completely different in the DNA – a focus on discipleship for everyday life rather than simply Sunday gathering? But what does that look like? Having been down this road around 20 years ago with our Upstream community church plant I know that for many Christians anything that doesn’t resemble their safe familiar Sunday experience can be a bridge too far. Entering a space without a dedicated kid’s program or a tight band can make them weak at the knees. For many it just doesn’t ‘feel like church’ so they resist. Even for those who aren’t Christians we had the experience of them asking ‘ok so when do you guys do the real thing?’

Perhaps we need to seriously look at combining our efforts in such a way that smaller neighbourhood churches operate in partnership with a larger regional church? I dunno how that would all play out, but perhaps it would mean that smaller churches working their butts off just to get Sunday happening could throw their hand in with a well resourced church and then turn their own efforts to highly focused discipleship groups. (Of course this is in an ideal world where people’s egos are deflated and where personal agendas don’t rule the roost.)

I am aware of 4 country churches all within driving distance of one another who are struggling to find pastors. And the focus of their efforts is largely on making their own Sunday gathering happen. Surely… surely… surely… they could see their way to having larger combined gatherings and then operating in smaller focused groups outside of those gatherings?

But I sense I am dreaming and expecting too much – that people would be able to lay down minor theological differences (even bigger ones too) to pursue a church better equipped for the world in which they live.

The bottom line is that more of the same isn’t the answer to impacting our society with the message of Jesus. And that ought to concern us more than it currently does.

As a ‘non-pastor’ at the moment i can theorise all I like but dreaming and scheming is easy. What gets hard – really hard – is putting new ideas into action with a community of people who are weary, dis-spirited and suspicious of anything that differs from the norm. If you are one of those leaders well aware that ‘it isn’t working’, but completely at sea when it comes to fresh alternatives then I pray you are blessed with wisdom, courage, creativity and perseverance because you will need all of these qualities and more.

For now I cheer from the side-lines and I add my voice to those who are saying ‘surely we aren’t just going to keep flogging this horse because she died a long time ago.’

Toxic Cynicism

It’s a thing. A nasty thing – that is easy to laugh along with but that in the longer term often erodes both bad and good aspects of the subject under critique.

Cynicism and Its Negative Impact

Around here I ask questions of the church, mission and our interaction with the world around us (hence ‘backyard missionary’) and I admit – confess even that in days gone by my critique has had a slice of toxic cynicism in it. At times I have gone beyond the brief I gave myself to question, challenge and critique and at times I have just been sharp and destructive – albeit under the guise of questioning.

Quite honestly I am sorry for any damage that may have done to those who have also been questioning and critiquing but for whom peace hasn’t been found, but instead the whole faith aspect of life has been cast off either because the church wronged them or because some questions of faith couldn’t easily be reconciled.

If you’re wondering where these thoughts come from, I’ve been in the Gold Coast the last few days attending and speaking at the Exponential Church Planting Conference. I haven’t been to many conferences of late so it was interesting to be back in that space and reflecting on ways forward for the Australian church.

I met a lot of new people – which was inevitable, as I only knew 3 of the 600 who were attending. Some conversations were short and sharp, others longer and meaningful. One of the latter involved chatting to a couple who had recently closed their church plant after several years because, in their words, ‘it was no longer a community centred on Jesus.’ (Just as aside I wonder how many other churches would close if that criteria were applied with rigour…)

They shared a rather tragic story of planting with great hope, attracting a large number cynical and disaffected Christians / Ex-vangelicals and then walking with them as their faith wandered further and further from its centre. In the end it wasn’t a community centred on Jesus – it was a community of people who wanted to be good people in the world. A moment of clarity came for this couple when they surveyed their church on their hopes and dreams, their beliefs and their sense of commitment to the future. The results were devastating revealing that the majority of their church were really not committed to following Jesus and their questioning had led them further away from faith.

To their credit the couple closed the church – because it was no longer a church… It was a group of friends for whom an organised event had been scheduled and they would turn up and enjoy it (if they could.)

Curiously, there wasn’t massive disappointment at its closing – just some comments that of course they would all still hang out ‘organically’. Would it surprise you if I said that didn’t happen?

A community that began with such hope got tangled up, and self destructed. This was a really sad story to hear and I could feel the pain from this couple who started with such hope, only to finish up in such devastation. Certainly one of the hardest parts of my own experience leading churches for the last 30 odd years has been watching people say ‘yes’ to Jesus and then at some point later lose their way as they deconstructed their faith to a point where nothing was important – nothing was to die for.

But back to toxic cynicism – the kind of cynicism that moves towards destruction rather than towards faith and hope. You will know it when you feel it. It doesn’t ask questions that call for a deeper dive into our theology and ecclesiology. It just tears down, shames and despises the subject in question.

For example – church… Church is such an easy target and it isn’t hard to dislike some practices or be hurt by ‘the church’. How we deal with that is another thing.

It seems the word of our time is ‘deconstruction’, both of faith and of our understanding of church and how it operates. I have done my own fair share of deconstructing over the years. I have shifted ground significantly on some important theological concepts and at times I have simply had no answers whatsoever to disturbing questions. On occasions so I have then been forced to simply trust that God is good even when I can’t grasp what he is doing (or not doing.)

As well as doing my own re-thinking and pondering I have been keen to ensure that church is a place where questioning and doubting is welcomed. We are all gonna ask questions – we are all gonna review our theology from time to time so why not have a safe space to do it? Churches that don’t welcome questioners will generally create a brittle faith that does ok in happy times, but literally shatters when under duress.

So when does deconstruction become dangerous?

When it moves into cynicism, because the toxic cynicism is only a step away.

Deconstruction asks ‘tell me again, why do we meet like we do for church… Can we do this in other ways? Can we re-imagine this whole thing?!

Cynicism snipes and growls – ‘church?! Yeah right… I’m so over it – same stuff every single week and that guy is so deadly boring!’

Toxic cynicism takes it one step further. It says ‘hey church sux right? Let’s just catch up, but let’s no have meaningless prayers, lame singing or preaching that assumes there is one ‘right’ way to look at something.’

And it really becomes dangerous when it allowed to be the dominant culture of the group. When toxic cynicism is allowed to rule the show unchecked, then faith has a hard time surviving. I know we all have times of cynicism and frustration with the church, but if we lead with this it can be utterly devastating. When this is our primary MO then it also becomes tiresome to be around. It ‘white ants’ faith, both of the cynic and of those around him or her.

To move back a step, I’m not afraid of helping people deconstuct – in fact I think its an important stage of faith (see James Fowler for more on this) but ‘deconstructing’ is about dismantling unhelpful paradigms and opening new ways of seeing things. Take Father Christmas as an example – sooner or later we have to deconstruct that belief and the whole myth that goes with him. Maturity requires it. In the same way faith matures and toughens as it encounters questions, doubts and challenges and moves thru them.

For those of us who are leaders, the great challenge is to know how to create a safe space for doubt and questioning without simply facilitating a group deconstruction and abandonment of faith. It means being strong on some things and choosing not to negotiate or question – even when we are unable to fully explain a question ourselves. It means holding our own inner cynic in check when it would be easier to snipe and sneer. I feel like this has been one of my own practices in over the last few years. I can enmpathise with people’s questions and doubts without needing to affirm them with a cynical ‘oh yeah, tell me about it…’

Deconstruction isn’t going to go away. Unless we lose all connectivity to the world around us, we are now permanently exposed to people who ask questions like we do, and if we use google to seek out the answers then that algorithm will feed us with more doubt and will lead us further down the rabbit hole of toxic cynicism. So if we can expect deconstruction to continue to be a thing in the days ahead, what might we do to help people keep going with the faith journey?

Build a strong foundation – Build it on core essentials of the faith. Keep circling back to Jesus, the things he taught, the things he did and the significance of the resurrection.

Keep questions on the radar – so that we are always acknowledging mystery and paradox – I wonder if sometimes people get knee deep in faith only to discover that the water they are soon to be swimming in is murky and unclear at times. If we can negate the element of surprise and disappointment by acknowledging it early then I feel like we might do a better job of dealing with doubt. It will happen. We will ask questions together, but we will hold as not negotiable that God is good and that Jesus is our living picture of what he is like.

Hold your theological ground – there are plenty of issues that I see as unclear in scripture – which is why we have so many denominations. But you will have some core convictions that you simply can’t negotiate on. For example the bodily resurrection is one of the central points of faith, whereas the ‘shape of creation’ is much more up for grabs.

Don’t be afraid to nail your colours to the mast on stuff that matters and allow those who want to leave to leave.

And if you’re reading this as a cynic then please heed the warning that you could just be a step away from being a spiteful, sneering toxic cynic. Maybe better to deal with the source of your cynicism and just be aware that it is present in your make-up.

So by all means ask difficult questions, seek more satisfactory answers, but when you get to a place of mystery and bewilderment choose to pray for faith to move forward rather than allowing toxic cynicism to win the day.

ADD or Opportunity Overload?

I’m getting used to a very new headspace.

Last Monday after having spent some time training up the new owners of Brighton Retic, I had no work. No need to accompany them and no caravan work in the wings either. Monday was empty. As was Tuesday, Wednesday and… you get the idea…

What happened is that I started noticing things that needed doing, imagining some new possibilities and dreaming about some fun activities. By the end of the week Danelle told me I needed to get checked for ADD!

It began with replacing the shower on our caravan – a Jayco Silverline with a crappy plastic shower that inevitably cracks and leaks. I had been pondering how I could do this for weeks – because once you start you’re kinda committed… I figured out a plan of attack and managed to get a much better shower base installed in just a day of work. That was enjoyable. I like fixing things and learning new skills.

Then we began thinking about how we could remove some lawn and build some retaining walls for veggies. Which then expanded into buying a dingo / bobcat to dig it out and then while we are at it to replace the existing sleeper walls with limestone – all 70m… With the right machine it couldn’t’ be that hqrd…right?… Cue a Gumtree and Marketplace search for dingo/kanga.

Then my son Sam began to talk about going halves on a boat… I don’t need a boat and I haven’t been hankering for one, but it could be fun. Maybe we could buy one for summer and see how it goes and whether we use it or not… I do like boating. So now I have a Gumtree and Marketplace search for boats too. I like the idea of using some of my free time to head out on the water with my kids. Unfortunately Danelle gets seasick so it’s not really something she could join in.

Improving my fitness has been a goal that has eluded me as the body refuses to play nice, but I have started walking (which honestly feels so lame after running) and then I saw Sam’s old bike sitting gathering dust and rust so I took it for a service and decided I’d break up the walking with cycling and swimming when things warm up. Another new activity to add to my life! I have taken it out a couple of times now and it’s a nice change from walking. Once my butt cheeks adjust it will be a lot more enjoyable.

Then… I have also noticed a fair number of people sleeping in their cars in our local carparks. I thought it would be good to put on breakfast for them one day a week. That idea has been shelved because we are travelling so much between now and January that we just couldn’t commit to a weekly timeslot. I did try and invite one guy (I call him ‘Mr Convertible’ because he lives in a soft-top Auid) to join me one day for brekkie, but he refused. So I’m pondering how we do that in a way that worjks… In February my car goes in for some panel work – for 3 long weeks – so that might be the time to get the ball rolling on that.

Then we saw a house for sale.. yeah I know… another idea… But it was for $275K! It was a legit house in Yanchep, that had been abandoned and squatters had moved in and trashed it, before it was repossessed by the bank. But $275K?… If Danelle and I spent 6 months doing all that needed doing we could probably double that value. So we went and had a look on Sunday, along with most of Perth! I doubt it will sell for $275K, but if it does then that might be our project for a time. My mind was zinging with the possibilities there.

Alongside these projects have been some new writing ideas, possible job opportunities that I am aware of and then general home maintenance that has been neglected while I have been in busy mode.

The great challenge is to know what to focus on and what to ignore. My goal is not to simply fill the free space with activity and commitments. But I realised very quickly that I don’t like sitting still and doing very little. It’s good to have a project or ten on the go.

This time of year I am normally squeezing in 8 or 9 retic jobs each day and running hard. This morning I slept in until 6.30am, went for a mountain bike ride out to the Yaberoo trail and then spent the day hanging with Ellie before heading out to lunch with her.

Tomorrow I squeeze in one more diesel heater before an elbow operation on Wednesday – an arthroscopy to clear out years of accumulated debris that is limiting movement and quite painful. Of course that will take 6 weeks to heal, so further jobs that involve physical work may well be delayed until my elbow heals. That makes it a good time to get some writing done… But here too I have so many idea bouncing around at the moment and I haven’t settled on where I want to head next.

A-D-D? Maybe… Or maybe it’s just the overwhelm that comes from so many possibilities, now that life has slowed.

There is an awareness that at least for a period, we don’t want to be ‘tied down’ and limited in our movements – but we also know that sometimes things of substance happen because we commit to longer processes and activities.

Tensions and opportunities. Just finding my bearings in this new space.

I guess I could just get stuck into Netflix…

Time For Another Enquiry?

We have already had, An Enquiry into the Obligations of Christians to Use Means for the Conversion of the Heathens. Interesting title for a book and the language alone tells you how old it is!

We don’t use the word ‘heathens’ much at all now in reference to those who don’t share our faith. In fact it almost sounds like pejorative language. But this is the title of the treatise that inspired thousands ,written by William Carey, regarded as the father of the modern missions movement.

Carey’s missionary concern was for those beyond our immediate vicinity – particularly those in countries far away (often referred to as un-civilised) and his booklet advocates for the use of ‘means’ (money) to send people there as missionaries.

I doubt many have read Carey’s manifesto, but in its time it served to mobilise a generation into missionary service and its impact has reverberated ever since, so that when we ask a church about their mission program many still default to describing whoever they are supporting overseas.

William Carey :: Carey International University of Theology

Carey sought to take the ‘great commission’ in Matthew 28 very seriously and so began the idea of sending missionaries overseas with support being raised from churches back home. If you’ve been around church life for a while then you will know the deal. ‘yeah we have missonaries we support in Thailand, Malaysia and Africa.’


Yes it is good that people have gone to other countries to spread the good news of the kingdom of God. And it is good that we support them in these ventures.

But I have a question… and it might be an unpopular one, but I am wondering if Carey were around today if he would write the same words?

Question: How much does it cost to send a missionary overseas?

Answer – a lot!

Now it depends on where they go and what is needed, but generally speaking my understanding is that it is more expensive to send people overseas than it is to have them serve in their own country.

We invest humungous resources in overseas mission and I am not sure Carey would advocate for this if he were around today. We are all products of our time and culture. He was responding in 1872 to the needs of the world as he saw it then. There was an element of ‘civilising’ that seemed to accompany the missionary efforts, an approach we would see as no longer appropriate. He does address the need at home in this quote”

It has been objected that there are multitudes in our own nation, and within our immediate spheres of action, who are as ignorant as the South-Sea savages, and that therefore we have work enough at home, without going into other countries. That there are thousands in our own land as far from God as possible, I readily grant, and that this ought to excite us to ten-fold diligence in our work, And in attempts to spread divine knowledge amongst them is a certain fact; but that it ought to supersede all attempts to spread the gospel in foreign parts seems to want proof. Our own countrymen have the means of grace, and may attend on the word preached if they choose it. They have the means of knowing the truth, and faithful ministers are placed in almost every part of the land, whose spheres of action might be much extended if their congregations were but more hearty and active in the cause: but with them the case is widely different, who have no Bible, no written language, (which many of them have not), no ministers, no good civil government, nor any of those advantages which we have. Pity therefore, humanity, and much more Christianity, call loudly for every possible exertion to introduce the gospel among them.

I feel like we could summarise Carey’s thinking as ‘Christendom based’ – and a little bit ‘Bo Peepish’ (leave them alone and they’ll come home), which may have been fine in the 18th C. But today we face huge challenges in mission work here. The end of Christendom and the increase of secularism means the context has changed significantly. Australia is its own mission field today and when it comes to finding spiritual sustenance for life the church is not their first port of call. This is dissimilar also to Carey’s era.

So I guess it’s a long way of asking, ‘should we continue to invest large sums of money in sending people overseas to learn language and culture before they even begin to be effective or would be better off using those resources to support local missionaries in their work within Australia?

I realise it’s a very pragmatic question, but it needs asking.

I wonder to what extent our ongoing overseas missionary service is anchored to an old paradigm – a way of thinking that needs poking and questioning. I have hesitated to write this post – firstly because I don’t want to discourage people I know who are overseas and doing good work. If that’s you and you’re reading this then I do see you – and I applaud your work. My intention is not undermine you in any way.

But I also feel we need to hit pause on overseas sending and ask again ‘how do we reach Bob next door who has no Christian heritage and no allegiance to any church?’

I feel like in more conservative churches ‘mission work’ overseas is a bit of a sacred cow that we don’t mess with as it’s how we do ‘mission’, but I want to suggest it’s time for us to look more closely at the needs right here and trying to send our best and brightest to seed new church communities right here in Oz.

Perhaps our work overseas is completed?

Perhaps we ought to let them reach their own countrymen and women while we do the same back home?

What do you think? Is it time for a shake up? Would Carey write the same tract if he were around today?

You can read the full text of Carey’s booklet here.

If It Sounds too Good to be True…

419 scam | Agent-X Comics

If it sounds too good to be true, it usually is. We all know that.

The nice Nigerian man who wants to give you $500K isn’t really out to enhance your life.

But occasionally an offer comes around that simply is every bit as unbelievable and generous as it sounds.

A couple of weeks ago an old mate rang and told me his father had passed away. He lives in SA and had come back for his final days of life and then the funeral. His dad was not a God botherer, but even so, who do you get to do the job of laying him to rest? A generic celebrant who has never met the family and can utter some inane AI generated platitudes, or someone who at least knew a few of the family?

So Al called me and said ‘At least you knew him…’ True – I did. I met Big Al, (yeah both father and son are called Al) once or twice at his place in Bassendean where he sat with his wife Pier at the kitchen table, a king brown in hand and plenty more in the fridge. He was a decent kinda man. That was about all I could remember, but I wasn’t close to him at all. When it came to the funeral I wasn’t sure quite how I’d tie it all together at the end – how I’d do the ‘religious bit’ with a group of people who by and large certainly weren’t that.

The Big Al I knew was a good bloke, who loved his family, but not a man who had much time for God. In fact I think it would be fair to say that God, Jesus etc was not his radar at all, until the day before he died. His son, Al, told me that when he went in to see the old man he laid it out for him, that he better make his peace with God – and he better get a move on because the clock was ticking. In typical Al fashion he didn’t beat around the bush. He shirt-fronted his dad with the offer of forgiveness and a hope in the hereafter. Big Al agreed so Al led him thru a prayer of confession, repentance and salvation.

When Al told me that his dad had come to faith the day before he died, I got a whiff of what I may be able to say to a crew of people who were unlikely to step foot inside a church, and who maybe had a view of God as distant, irrelevant or hostile.

That whole thing of Big Al slipping thru the door right at the literal death knock sounds absurd – ridiculous even. If he treated any of us that way – ignored us for this whole life then asked for a significant favour at the end – we’d probably tell him to think again. Not cool.

That’s how we operate, but not God.

He’s not like that. And it sounds absurd, ridiculous and even unfair in a sense, that he would extend the same grace to Big Al as he did to the every Sunday church goer who did their best to dot the ‘i’s and cross the ‘ts’.

Psalm 103 was made for these occasions. Read those words

he does not treat us as our sins deserve
    or repay us according to our iniquities.
11 For as high as the heavens are above the earth,
    so great is his love for those who fear him;
12 as far as the east is from the west,
    so far has he removed our transgressions from us.

13 As a father has compassion on his children,
    so the Lord has compassion on those who fear him;
14 for he knows how we are formed,
    he remembers that we are dust

Ah yes – dust… and Big Al was about to complete the cycle of life – to become dust. The two beer cans on his coffin and the other one that had been tucked under his arm spoke to where Big Al found his ‘happy place’. He didn’t mind a beer or 20…. There was no doubt he was created in the image of God and people shared beautiful memories of a dad, a grandad and a friend. But I also have no doubt Al had his fair share of regrets, stuff ups and failures. We all do.

Yet, in his final moments he meets a God whose love for him is so great that he chooses not to treat him as his sins deserve, but to welcome him with open arms. To offer forgiveness, peace and reconciliation.


Absolutely, completely seriously. This is what God is like.

Jesus once told a story about a man hiring workers – some he hired early in the morning at an agreed price, some others at lunch time and then a final crew just before knock off and when it came time for payment he gave all of them the same amount. Of course the ones who worked in the heat of the day complained against the late comers. ‘Not fair” was the cry. To which the boss answered:

13  ‘I am not being unfair to you, friend. Didn’t you agree to work for a denarius? 14 Take your pay and go. I want to give the one who was hired last the same as I gave you. 15 Don’t I have the right to do what I want with my own money? Or are you envious because I am generous?’

16 “So the last will be first, and the first will be last.”

Matt 20

As I told this story I felt myself welling up with emotion – not that Big Al had passed away – but at this reminder of God and his willingness to love and accept someone who it seemed really hadn’t tuned in to him much throughout his life. His grace and love is just that astounding and far reaching.

I don’t know if anyone else in the room felt the utter confounding power of the words I spoke that day – but I did. They struck me with tidal wave impact all over again. God is that good – that generous…

He really is the father who welcomes the prodigals with open arms and then throws a party in thier honour.

If it sounds too good to be true then it probably is… except when it isn’t.

It’s why we call it ‘good news.’

Farewell Big Al – but only until we meet again in the age to come.

If Jesus Came Today

I was around 23 years old when I read a story in On Being, an 80’s Australian Christian magazine, that told the story of Mick Duncan and his wife Ruby working in the slums of Manila with the mission organisation, ‘Servants to Asia’s Urban Poor’. I was totally inspired by what I read of their work so I wrote him a letter and told him I wanted to come visit and see what I could learn from them. I wondered if my own sense of missionary calling may have taken me to working in a similar situation. I had to explore this!

I didn’t hear back from Mick – I don’t know if my letter ever reached him – but I decided to book a flight and then go find him – in Manila… It wasn’t the sharpest of plans. I realise that now, but at 23 I wanted to be inspired and I wanted to live for Jesus in the most radical way I could imagine. This form of mission seemed to really push that button so I flew out on a whim and a prayer.

I can’t imagine doing that at 59. Not just the crazy impulsive travel plans, but the whole thing. At 23 I owned a car and a couple of surfboards. I wasn’t married and I had nothing to lose. Everything was a possibility and an adventure! I never did find them, but I eventually met Mick about 20 years later at a Forge gathering where I listened to him teach about some of the harsh realities of slum living. I then felt glad I didn’t end up there after all.

Such is the nature of western life that as we age we become wealthier and ‘wiser’, less prone to adventure and more likely to conduct ‘risk assessments’ rather than simply wading into challenging situations. Our ever increasing affluence means we now have more to lose than before and it feels almost impossible to stay free of the entanglements of wealth. My mind flits to Hebrews 12 – the ‘sin’ that so easily entangles and prevents us from running the race we had set our course for. Could it be greed? Security? Comfort?

These are the challenges of later middle age – to not be the soil that is choked by thorns – to steer a course away from the safe and cruisy life that our society tells us we are entitled to. Does anyone really want to do that?

Jesus says. ‘You cannot serve both God and mammon’, and we seem to say ‘can’t we at least try?…’

Whatever happened to youthful zeal? When was it converted to a measured and tempered – (maybe even dull) approach to faith and discipleship?

Why the lament?

It’s possibly less a lament and more a reflection on the nature of youth, but it is borne from my reading of the gospels and the book of Acts.

We know Jesus was around 30 when things kicked off for him and he chose disciples to be with him – young men – late teens to early twenties. Paul was a very young man when he was involved in persecuting the church and when he was converted. The mission of the early church was catalysed by a group of young people.

Jesus didn’t seem to pursue older men – the (apparently) mature and wise ones. It seems he wanted to invest in the audaciousness of youth. He put all of his chips on a crew who had little to lose and a lot to live for. But just imagine – this man who is a charismatic curiosity not only doesn’t choose your best heavy hitters for his cohort, but instead chooses some relatively unknown and definitely un-tested ‘kids’ to form his core team. Not only does he choose the young, but he avoids the churchy types and goes for more blue collar, tradespeople, the non-elite.

The hopes for his movement – for the kingdom of God – have been invested in a crew of men and women in their teen years – with maybe a few in the early 20’s.

If you know what its’ like to not be chosen then you know that feeling of indignation that would arise as many of us feel sidelined and even offended. We have so much to give -so much experience! But he doesn’t choose us. I wonder if I’d be able to be ok with that?

To see Jesus choose my son or daughter and then ‘radicalise’ them in the cause of the kingdom of God? I wonder if I would be glad that he chose my teenage kid to join his band or if I’d be suggesting to my child that we wait and see where this all headed? I wonder if he would even see my PK kids, or if he’d choose the ones who had lost interest in church?

I wonder if Jesus drew his disciples quite purposefully from young adults because he was seeking out undamaged minds – paradigms still forming – because he wanted to invest in the optimistic energy of youth. He was willing to take on some loose cannons, because with their unpredictability also came devotion and focus that was less inhibited than the parents – less wed to a vision of how things ‘ought’ to be.

If we accept that Jesus chose disciples who were aged around 20 and that he had no fear of investing his life in them, then how may that inform us at this time when the church is struggling? I wonder if we have bet all of our chips on the grey hairs – the wise and experienced – to help us out of this mess.

Could it be that if Jesus came today he would do the same thing? He wouldn’t go after maturity, experience and savvy, but he’d go for the ‘drop everything’ raw passion of youth – for the pliable minds and simple uncluttered faith, that aren’t cynically deconstructing every last element of faith?

Honestly – I don’t think he would look at my 31 years of church leadership as an asset – but possibly a liability. I think I may be offended by his choices, but I sense he’d just tell me to deal with it.

What’s the point?

As I wrote a few posts back, I wonder if those of us who are older need to take more risks by inviting our young people into leadership and allowing them to genuinely shape the form and future of the church. Unfortunately most of our churched youth have long been steeped in a culture of deference to elders so even freeing them from this could be nigh on impossible.

But I sense our hope lies in listening to the ideas of a generation who do not see the world as we do and who may not see church as we see it.

And our role? To ‘em-power’. To genuinely create space and allow them to lead us. Patrick Lencioni makes the point that ’empowerment’ is giving power away – allowing someone else to have control.

If Jesus came today he wouldn’t recruit denominational leaders or senior pastors. He would go after young, willing hearts and minds, and no doubt we would oppose him and make his life hard. Who knows we may even crucify him.