A Very Grey Gospel

As we walked among the large rocks that made up the ‘Callanish stones’, possibly a site of ancient pagan worship, Danelle asked me ‘can you not feel anything?’

‘Nope… Nuthin. Not a thing. My legs are cold… But maybe coz I’m wearing shorts?’

Not what she meant at all. She could feel something and it was spiritual, dark and nasty. I’m sure she’s on the money with her capacity to discern – she usually is – but that ain’t one of my super-powers. They could as easily have been a bit of creative landscaping to me.

But park me down in the heavily churched and yet miserably dour spiritual environment that is the Isle of Lewis and all I can wonder is ‘how would we help these people connect with the real message of Jesus?‘ From there I begin wondering about how a missionary might live in this unique context, what kind of church might resonate with the locals and how we might present an alternative to the bleak and joyless (free) Presbyterianism or Church of Scotland that seem to be the only shows in town.

The note in our visitors guide reminding us that Lewis was a ‘sabbatarian’ culture was the first hint of the tone that faith has taken in this environment. The drab grey buildings that are home to the churches seems to speak of utilitarianism rather than any kind of joy. The existence of a morning and evening service as well as a midweek prayer meeting took me back to my days in Belfast (the 60’s). Further reading spoke of an expression of faith with some very hard edges and strict cultural and pseudo-theological boundaries. I read of a minister who left the church after 45 years of ministry because they had introduced hymns alongside the metrical psalms that had previously been their only expression of sung worship. He argued it was simple heresy (to sing words not directly inspired by the Spirit) and he was forced to take a stand against this aberrant practice.

Remember the fights over hymns and modern songs in our churches? (C.1970-80) Well this is a step further back from that… Whew…

I am always inclined to give the benefit of the doubt, so despite the drab appearance, I imagined a congregation of happy people living in blissful ignorance of where the rest of the world is at. For some reason I envisioned people finding joy in a form of church that simply wouldn’t be my cup of tea.

These were my impressions from afar. But on Sunday evening after we had finished our meal at the local pub we drove by the local church and saw that it was due to start in 15 minutes.

(Not the church I Attended)

‘I’d like to go,’ I said. ‘Anyone else?’

No one was keen so Danelle dropped me at the church. ‘What are you hoping for?’ she asked as we drove there.

‘I’m genuinely curious as to how it all works.’ I said, ‘I’d like to experience their worship, but I also know that sometimes you hear the voice of God more clearly in different places – so I’m hoping I might have a moment with God that I wouldn’t have otherwise.’

I knew that even though we speak of being the family of God, I was walking into a foreign culture. That said I’d spent a couple of days with the pentecostal side of the family so an hour with the other mob couldn’t hurt.

So at 6.25 I climbed the bare concrete steps to the grey stone building with hopes of something unique and special happening. I was met at the door by two men in suits and ties. They looked me up and down and asked, ‘You here for the service?’ I think my presence and attire (jeans and a jumper) may have caught them a little off guard. I smiled (someone had to) and walked thru the doors into a space that would have held 150-200, but had maybe 30-40 elderly men and women sprinkled throughout the area.

What stuck me immediately was the silence. Dead s I l e n c e Not a whisper was spoken by anyone. I pulled into a pew midway down the aisle and took the opportunity to pray quietly, reflecting that it was good to be able to do that. At home we normally have to dial people down to start a service because there is so much chatter. Both approaches have their merits. I do know that a significant factor in how I have led churches over the years has been a reaction against the stifling church culture I experienced in my early years in Belfast. I have no fond memories of that church experience whatsoever – however I do recall trying to fudge a few tummy aches in attempts to get a day off. My mum was a nurse and never seemed to have any compassion for my Sunday morning ailments. I don’t think I got a single morning off… Add to this the evening service as well as a strict sabbatarian culture and Sundays became endurance feats for a 9 year old kid.

We sat in the pin drop silence until one of the men who met me at the door brushed quickly past and shoved a Bible / song book onto the ledge in front of my pew. He then took up his post at the front of the building behind some kind of wooden barrier. I wasn’t sure what function he was fulfilling as he didn’t do anything else during the service.

Once he was seated the minister entered from the side room and climbed the steps up to the podium, a good 2m above the rest of us, where he spent the whole service. After another few moments of silence he stood and spoke.

It wasn’t a welcome or a call to worship even. Just the briefest of perfunctory introductions. ‘We are here to worship.’ This was followed by the singing of a Psalm. This brand of church believes in singing only what is already found in scripture and doing so without music. You can read the rationale on their website which incidentally was ‘closed’ on the Sabbath too. Internet use is deemed to be possibly an inappropriate Sabbath activity too so the website is closed to prevent you stumbling. I clicked a few links trying to beat the systems but was continually re-routed back to the Sabbath announcement.

So the minister read the Psalm right thru, then called on one of the men to start the singing. He led away while others slowly joined in. It was my first experience of this type of ‘metrical Psalm singing’ and while the language of the Psalms was all ‘King James English’ it was refreshing to simply sing a piece of scripture – although I will take the Sons of Korah (Aussie Band) version over this any day. With many of our smaller churches struggling for musicians I thought hmmm… maybe this is an option… Acapella as normal?..

Truth is you would never get away with it in Australia because the expectation is already so strongly calibrated to expect at least two instruments in play on any given Sunday. To sing without music is just a little too weird for most of us.

Once we had sung the Psalm we sat down, only to stand again for prayer – around 15 minutes in total led by the minister. In truth it felt like another sermon as he led us thru various passages of scripture that were related to content of the prayer. The practice of standing for prayer is engaged to prevent people ‘lounging’ in the presence of God. Again, I understand the sentiment but given the hardness and narrowness of the pews we were sitting on, lounging was never gonna be an option.

Another Psalm was read and then sung, followed by a Bible reading – all of Galatians 3, again read by the minister. I know Galatians pretty well, but the KJV language lost me early. I’m curious that people still favour it despite the simple evidence clearly showing it is a poorer translation. But then we are all guilty of baptising our cultural preferences in a modicum of scriptural / theological proof.

One more Psalm was read/sung before the sermon – a 40 minute tirade on freedom in Christ – that somehow got converted into a spiel on why we should continue to observe the law. Woven into this was the Reformed staple of justification by faith, but it would be an undestatement to say there were mixed messages. As I listened I found myself hoping that there wasn’t communion that Sunday as well as I wasn’t sure I would receive permission to take part.. I wasn’t sure of what their house rules would be and I didn’t want to find out.

I’m not sure if I heard correctly but it seemed like there was a belief in ‘perfectionism’, as we were called to be perfect as God is perfect. No pressure folks… (If you can’t be perfect then you can learn to pretend.) He seemed to be saying that the law was our schoolmaster pointing us to Christ, but Christ did not end the requirements of the law – he simply bought us freedom from its consequences. To be fair I don’t think he was arguing for adherence to the whole of levitical law – but more the 10 commandments. Nevertheless the spread of grace felt very thin while the call to behave felt heavy and the consequences of failure very grave. At no point during the entire service did the minister smile or give any sense of this being a joyful experience. As I looked around during the service his misery seemed to be shared equally among the flock.

As the sermon finished the minister declared the end of the service and as one the congregation stood to their feet and filed out the door. Within 30 seconds no one was left in the building. Another 30 seconds and the carpark was empty too. In our churches the ‘after’ part can last as long as the service itself some weeks and usually ends with me turning the lights off and telling everyone to go home!

On my way out I did manage to receive a nod and a smile from one older lady, but other than that I made it to the carpark with no human interaction whatsoever.

Then I heard the sound of footsteps and some puffing. It was the minister running to catch me – clearly I was the visitor – and he was now all smiles as he shook my hand and greeted me. I think it was supposed to be the ‘gospel service’ that I had attended so I imagine he was coming to see if I may have been a lost soul searching for help. He was around 50 years old and by far the youngest member of the congregation. We chatted briefly until we established that I was already ‘in’ and then he excused himself. I wondered why his pulpit persona was so sombre and heavy. Which was the real ‘him’?

I walked the back streets home wondering again ‘how would you communicate the good news of Jesus to these people?’ It is a culture steeped in so much religion and yet it felt in many ways like an unreached people group.

Bizarrely these very islands were the site of the Hebridean revival (C.1950) that literally reshaped the spiritual landscape of the entire region. It was hugely significant and lasted 4 years – but what is left now is nothing that would even approximate that move of the Spirit. Worse still perhaps, the people may have had their fill of protestant religion and any one who comes in under that guise will be 6 goals down and kicking into the breeze before they even begin.

So what would a missionary do in this culture? I get the sense that any overtly ‘evangelical’ expressions of church would be met with suspicion by existing churches and the community may not be easily convinced to reconsider the Christian message.

I couldn’t understand why the evangelical churches of mainland Scotland haven’t sent church planters over? Why are there no Baptists or charismatic or pentecostals on these islands? Is it just too difficult?

Much of our time on Lewis was wonderful and stunning. Vast landscapes and beautiful beaches were found simply everywhere. We were quite literally overwhelmed with beauty. Wouldn’t it wonderful if the people really got to know the creator of all this and were able to share in his joy?

Why You Should Listen to Your Mother in Law

It was around 15 years ago that we set out as a family to be missionaries in the new Perth suburb of Butler – known better by the estate name ‘Brighton’. You might remember the TV ads… ‘Brighton – Its what a community should be!’ We remember them well as we were the family in them – mum, dad, two blonde kids and a labrador…

I set off on that adventure ready to change the world, ready to break new missional ground and to chart a course for those who would follow. This blog was to be a journal of our learning. I read everything I could about mission and went to every seminar. I was the full bottle and if knowledge was the key then I couldn’t fail.

As we began living there I connected with everyone I could, went to places I wouldn’t normally go, hung out with people who I wouldn’t normally connect with and did anything and everything to make this thing work. It was hard work at times but we seemed to be making some progress albeit slow.

At the start of that time I remember well a conversation with my mother in law where I asked her ‘Hey Val – if you were moving into this suburb as a missionary what would you do?’ I was hoping for some ‘ancient wisdom’ – some gem of insight that just wasn’t available to a 38 year old. Her response was underwhelming to say the least.

‘I’d just live my ordinary life’ she said.

Really‘ I thought? ‘Really?…‘ That’s so lame! So boring… so unimaginative! Surely you could be more creative and innovative than that?!

I didn’t say that of course… I just ignored her and carried on with the stuff I had read in books and been inspired by at conferences. The books I was reading called for innovation and entrepreneurship – creativity and new initiatives. So I turned myself inside out trying to dream up new ways of connecting with people and doing things I wouldn’t normally do in the name of mission.

If I were to sum up the time in Butler it would be to say, I tried so hard to be effective in mission, but I just couldn’t seem to find my niche. There were some great moments and some good times, but no matter how hard I tried – and no matter how creatively I sought to implement all I was learning and thinking I never felt we got close to what we hoped for. I always felt out of step and for me it was a time of failure. (Danelle would see this very differently – but that’s another story and related to expectations)

In the last 8 or 9 years since leading Quinns and being less involved with the so called ‘missional scene’, I have found myself with fewer and fewer answers for how to ‘reach Australians with the gospel’ (or whatever language you choose to place around that idea).

I have also become increasingly skeptical of anyone who claims to have found ‘the key’. I think mission and more specifically evangelism is tough going in this context and there are no easy answers or ‘strategies’. Most days I feel a bit like someone who has run out of ideas – hope even at times – but the sense of calling to be a missionary is still as strong and as deep as ever.

That’s a bit weird I admit – feeling called to a task but then feeling completely at sea when it comes to pulling it off.

Around 7 years ago we moved to Yanchep – this time with no intent at all for any ‘SAS style’ missionary work. We just moved into a suburb we loved and began to live there because it felt like a beautiful place. And we have fallen in love with this part of the world – in fact we can’t imagine ever leaving.

And part of living here for me, has meant working – running a business locally and spending a lot of time at the beach, surfing and swimming. Its what I do.

And I found that after a while I was getting to know people – lots of people. This year I began taking daily photos of the beach – which obviously means being there every day – and this has catalysed more connections. Its hard now to walk the dog without stopping for a chat with someone. I’m better connected in my own community than I have ever been.

It wasn’t intentional or planned… it wasn’t a ‘missionary strategy’.

I just got on with living my ordinary life...

Ha… It only dawned on me a few weeks ago what has been happening. My mother in law had actually given me a gem of wisdom but it wasted on my 38 year old A type personality!

I find myself now immersed in a community I love, where I feel a deep sense of connection and where I have made some good friends. But the most significant bit is that I’m ‘not trying‘ any more. (That’s not to say you sometimes in mission don’t have to ‘try’.)

But I’m now just living my ordinary life and paying attention to what God is doing in the midst of that. From business to beach I find myself loving my life and the people I find myself around.

I’m actually convinced the real hope for mission is not a well thought out missiology or cleverer strategies, but a community of people whose hearts are centred on Jesus and who are willing to be his people in their everyday lives. It means coming back to helping people in their discipleship and devotion to Jesus, rather than starting with funky initiatives.

Over the last year as we been praying and chatting with our church crew we have been asking God about the idea of planting a church community up here and we are at the point now where it feels like its going to happen. Not quickly and immediately, but it does feel like we are planting seeds and watering them, waiting to see what will develop.

So after 15 years I find myself at this point again – excited and hopeful – wanting to see people know Jesus – but with a totally different approach to the exact same task. Fifteen years ago I felt confident, focused and sure of what I was going to do. Now I feel a different sense of confidence, a different understanding of focus and a much less certain agenda for what I think we will do.

But I’m loving life, loving how its shaping up and the possibilities I see in the future. So Hamo’s tip for today is ‘listen to your mother in law’…

Random information – did you know mother in law is an anagram of woman Hitler?

Evidence That Demands Skepticism

The older I get the less theological stuff I want to be dogmatic on.

There is some core teaching I’ll go hard with, but there is plenty that is either negotiable, mysterious or just plain incomprehensible. That would have scared me when I was 20.

As my kids get older they ask me questions that I once knew the answers to, but now am not so sure about. That’s difficult because at their stage in life and faith they need fairly black and white answers and I see shades of grey far more easily. I refuse to give them trite answers to complex questions.

It was nice to be certain and assured of my responses and a part of me would like to go back there, but 52 years of life has left me with plenty of questions that aren’t easily resolved. In fact if I weren’t a Christian today then I doubt I’d have much chance of finding my way to faith. I seriously doubt you could put me in an Alpha course and have me pop out the other side convinced and converted.

That said I know the ‘reasons for faith’ and I could present them to you. Plenty of them have strong currency, but I subscribed to them when I wanted to believe. I ‘bought’ them when I was growing up in a Christian community. I think now I’d try to poke holes in them and I’d find a flaw in every piece of reasoning and use that to hold all belief systems at arms length.

I’m a natural skeptic and questioner, so things I just took as ‘gospel’ earlier in my life I have been revisiting and asking ‘what do I think now?’ And that’s a trickier question when you get paid money to be (at least somewhat) sure of things and to lead people to a strong place in faith.

What its helped me grasp is that there are few people out there just waiting to be intellectually convinced of faith (sorry ‘Case for Christ’ fans). I became a Christian largely because the ‘data made sense’ – the ‘numbers added up’ and I couldn’t refute the evidence (but I was also unconsciously being strongly formed by the Christian community I was in). It was the Josh McDowell / apologetics era, but much of what I took on board then is still valuable in holding a reasonable faith.

However in a world where there are so many competing ideas I don’t think people are chasing a ‘reasonable faith’. I don’t think many people are waiting for someone to hit them with a killer argument for the gospel.

Rather I sense that the difference will be encounters with God that have undeniable potency – prophetic insights, experiences with the divine that send chills down the spine – inexplicable love and grace. If faith is all down to logic and reason then I think we are fighting a losing battle.

But because my faith has been formed in a community, where I have experienced God repeatedly and also heard stories of his actions, I have a much harder time when it comes to letting go of my belief system. I would have to deny or re-interpret so much of my life experience.

As I’ve pondered how we approach evangelism in this climate it has led me to consider that the keys will be the supernatural experiences / divine encounters that give people a context in which to consider the ‘evidence’. I’ve begun praying for people more – and telling them I’m praying for them. It certainly opens up conversation and allows for God to do his thing. In that context there has been opportunity to speak of how I see the world – of how I see Jesus.

I’m sure there is still a place for well formed apologetics, but it seems that for every answer there is an equal and opposite response. I don’t really know how to do it, but reclaiming a faith that is more spine chillingly supernatural may just be a foothold in a slippery world.


The Problem is Not With Reality










Bunnings was shut today.

That’s a rare event, almost on a par with a visit from Haley’s comet.

But then it is Good Friday – possibly the only day on the Christian calendar to still command some degree of reverence (at least in hardware)…

In my own mind this day feels like the ‘big one’, more a day of mourning and reflection than Easter Sunday which is a celebration, or Christmas where the vibe is similar.

So when I got texts and emails from people wanting retic work done today I found myself a little irate.

Don’t they know what day it is?!

And that was the rub. Yes they do – it’s Friday and it’s a public holiday. They aren’t at work and have had time to go into the garden to notice that their sprinklers aren’t working. So they decided to get in touch and ask for help.

It’s only ‘Good Friday’ to those of us who are in the know – to those of us who buy the whole Jesus story. To everyone else it’s a day for fishing, gardening or taking off to Busso.

I found myself a little miffed at the insensitivity of people daring to ask about reticulation on this of all days.

And then as I stopped to ponder I simply had to realise that I was seeing the world very differently to them.

Why should I expect ordinary, secular Aussies to view Easter as a significant Christian event?

That’s absurd.

But it was a reminder of how easy it is to live within a worldview that is no longer seen as mainstream. And my response was equally concerning. Disappointment with a secular culture because it doesn’t observe Christian faith traditions is like getting upset with the cricket club for not kicking enough goals.

The times are still changing and as missionaries to this culture we have to be able to look back at ourselves and consider what we do and how we perceive the world because sometimes reality has shifted and we haven’t noticed.

When I Walk










Back on Jan 1 I made a spur of the moment decision to begin a daily Instargram photolog of our local beaches. I was inspired by the Instagram page of an Irish guy in a little town called Ballybunnion who I stumbled on late one night when I was surfing the web. I began watching his town, his beaches and environment and thought it might be interesting to do something similar. So the project is less an exercise in funky photography than it is in observation of local geography.

So far I’ve really enjoyed it, but moreso I’ve enjoyed the spin offs that have come from it.

Generally I am at the beach twice or 3 times a day and that alone is good for the soul.I never come back from the beach feeling like I have wasted my time… Even if I’m running late I make a practice of leaving the suburb via the beach route. It adds 2 minutes to my travel, but it also adds joy to my day.

I’ve picked up some knowledge around photography – all pretty basic and rudimentary – but still nice to learn something new. (There’s only so much you can do on an iPhone!)

But the real value has been in simply being present in the same places and spaces often and regularly bumping into the same people. I’ve met an old school student, numerous local surfers, some ‘sunset regulars’, other dog walkers and a whole swathe of other people who live locally. A few evenings we have finished up having a cup of tea with neighbours as we have ambled back home. I realised a couple of weeks back that this is more like the live I hope to live.

None of it was planned, but it simply happened as I was present and had the time to stop. The simple fact is that the more I am out there the more I meet people, make connections and become a part of the community. Its pretty obvious hey?… One evening as I walked the beach on dusk I took photos of a local surfer, we finished up chatting for a while after in the carpark, connecting on Instagram and I imagine we will see each other in the surf one day again soon.

For those of who embrace the missionary calling, the simple act of turning up is foundational. From there things can take their own course, but if we aren’t present in our communities then we definitely won’t be making the kind of connections we hope for.

So You Want to ‘Convert’?








Yesterday I was reflecting on the life and death of Eric Cooke and whether he genuinely found faith in Christ or not. I’m glad I’m not the one having to make that call.

But it does raise the question of what constitutes a genuine and substantial conversion. Is it even still ok to speak of ‘conversion’ or is that too un-PC these days?… Its a topic that interests me because it really is the pointy end of mission. Ultimately the end game of mission is to see people follow Jesus and live in the kingdom of God, but how do you get there and how would you know if you are ‘there’ anyway?

I had thought this would make an interesting post-grad research area, but instead it was an 8hr sermon prep and some wide and varied speed reading that led me to the conclusions I offered this morning in our teaching at QBC. So its hardly an in-depth analysis, but even a scan of the scriptures offers some intriguing insights.

Scot McKnight has a helpful book entitled Turning to Jesus – The Sociology of Conversion in the Gospels where he looks at how people come to faith when Jesus is around. It is often as simple as ‘follow me’, and it ends up with life changing encounters eg Zacchaeus where the person’s world is upended. He also looks at the ‘healing conversions’ (if they are that) and the response evoked from the person being healed who is unable to stop speaking of Jesus.

In Acts it is the diversity of conversion experiences that is interesting, from the Pentecost ‘mass evangelism’, to group conversions (Cornelius/jailer), the Areopagus where a philosophical debate leads to conversion or even Simon the magician trying to convert for reasons of personal gain – a reminder that not all conversions are genuine (as if American politics hasn’t already taught us that…)

I didn’t have time to smash thru the letters, but what I was trying to do was form a sense of the common elements in a conversion experience – recognising that conversion is both event and process.

So I finished with 1 broad idea that captured the essence of conversion as well as  5 elements that seemed to be essential in all conversions to Christ.

The broad idea is that of ‘turning’, as per 1 Thess 1:9 where the people turn from idols and to God. ‘Epistrophe’ seems to be a word used to describe this action and it is common to all experiences. If there is no ‘turning’ there is no conversion.

Then the five elements I picked up on were:

  1. An encounter with truth – the ‘gospel’ is proclaimed – spoken and communicated to the listener in such a way that they can understand. For Jesus it was as easy as ‘follow me’ (no doubt accompanied by some experience of him), but in Acts we read many sermons or verbal messages that contained the good news of the kingdom of God. For people to make a choice to ‘turn’ they need clarity around the message – the nature of the new life they are signing up for. So while we may advocate ‘speaking the gospel at all times, if necessary using words’ we have to acknowledge that we do need to use words.
  2. Repentance – this is the specific act of ‘turning’. Unless there is recognition that the current experience is a failed venture then it is again unlikely that there will be a conversion, Why would anyone turn from a life that is ‘working’ and feels just fine? More specifically, recognising brokenness as having its roots in sin is one of the great challenges for our mission in this time. While we may acknowledge that we are flawed, maybe even messed up, we live in a time when it is more likely for us to believe that we have the power within us to fix ourselves.
  3. Change of Allegiance – if repentance is problematic then offering someone else the title deeds to our life is even more challenging, yet this issue of ‘lordship’ is at the core of what it means to follow Christ. If a conversion is to have integrity and longevity then it will be because we have come to grips with the idea that ‘we are not our own’. Yeah… another popular idea…
  4. Action – the common ‘action’ in the Acts accounts seems to be baptism, but action simply refers to living differently as a result of the change of allegiance. We no longer get to opt out of offering forgiveness, or expressing generosity. We no longer fiddle taxes or watch dodgy stuff on TV because we are living with a whole new paradigm of life. James didn’t say ‘faith without works is ill’, he said ‘faith without works is dead’, so if a conversion does not show itself in a new way of life then perhaps it is questionable.
  5. Community – if we just convert to ‘go to heaven when we die’ (a truncated and flawed gospel at best) then there may be no need for community, but if the gospel is really the good news of the kingdom of God then it is unavoidably communal. To convert is to join the community of faith – to be part of the church and to live in a community of like minded people seeking first the kingdom of God. There is no faith outside of community. Yeah that’s a big statement, but its one I hold to. I get sick of hearing people tell me they don’t need church – as if ‘church’ was a pep talk each week to give a boost to their life. It negates the fact that when you choose not to be in community the rest of the church misses out, but it also reflects a deficient understanding of discipleship which is by its very nature communal. If you want to follow Jesus, but don’t want anything to do with the Christian community then I think there is something suspect in that decision.

What’s interesting is that these are not one off events, but rather ongoing commitments that both begin our journey in faith and also sustain it over the long haul. My observation of those who ‘de-convert’ or simply drift off into secularism is that one or more of these elements is allowed to become unimportant.

  • A rejection of the message – or supplanting with an easier message…
  • No longer a need to repent – feeling like we have evolved to a new consciousness where we are growing in our own ‘perfection’…
  • Deciding that you are running your own life in ‘this area’ and that area… taking back authority? Jesus becomes an advisor rather than the lord.
  • Choose not to do some things that a disciple would do – not into forgiveness or generosity – revert to practices more akin with a non-disciple? You slowly become a religious, church going person who lacks the traits of a disciple.
  • And move away from the community – take yourself out of a place of shared values and practices and you will slowly cease to own those values because that’s what community does – it earths us.

My Calvinist friends may well be shaking uncontrollably that I haven’t mentioned the work of God in conversion, his choosing, calling etc, but that isn’t the focus of what I am writing here. Conversion is unquestionably the Spirit’s work, as well as being our own decision, but my concern is more with what happens at our end to authenticate our experience.

What’s the point of this?

I asked the question this morning how many people would feel confident leading another person thru a conversion experience and not many hands went up. I sensed as much. I think its because we live in a world where we are (by and large) less certain about things and less willing to call people to the life of faith Jesus speaks of.

At every level we get met with objections – the sheer idea of ‘truth’, of the need to admit failure and repent, of giving away personal autonomy, of choosing to act in ways that are not convenient or self serving and then to submit myself to another bunch of people are all counter-cultural and difficult ideas, but then the kingdom of God is always intended to look radically different to western suburban life, so maybe that’s where it all gets tricky…

Alignment Rather Than Addition

Missional in the Neighbourhood 10 Years On Part VI


So I’ve been doing some preaching over the last few weeks around this subject of mission and I’ve been genuinely caught off guard by the surge of fresh energy it has given me.

I haven’t spoken about ‘mission’ for ages – not specifically or intentionally. Its not that I don’t believe in it any more – far from it, but sometimes when you’ve spent so much of your energy on one issue previously you can get a bit jaded and tired of speaking about it.

I think I had also come to the conclusion that I was better at theory than practice and I’d keep my mouth shut until I managed to get my actions in line with my ideas. Now that wasn’t actually true – I was very active and very determined – but I was also very driven and somehow couldn’t find a missional rhythm that fitted my life. I was constantly chasing new ideas and new initiatives in the hope of making connections and doing something of value.

Some of that was good – don’t get me wrong – but some of it was laboured. I haven’t dreamt up new ideas or chased new initiatives for several years now. I’ve just got on with living and doing what I do – leading a church and running a business, living in a street, surfing etc… nothing particularly revolutionary in all of that – just a regular suburban existence. Often banal and mundane.

But as I’ve come to speak about this subject again what has been encouraging is my observation of the amount of ‘mission’ that happens just in the flow of that pretty ordinary life. The practice of examen has been particularly helpful for reflecting on my days and noticing where God was at work – where I was engaged and where I was self absorbed or distracted. I know anything of value rarely happens when I am busy and caught up, but it often takes place when I am travelling slowly and able to ‘be’ with people rather than rushing them thru to get to the next appointment.

I don’t know if I read it or ‘thought it’, (I’m guessing its someone else’s idea…) but I do see the importance of a missional life being more about alignment of life rather than addition to life. If I can align my life with the heart of God and live in such a way that I listen to him in my everyday activities then I probably don’t need to add new activities to my life in order to be effective in mission.

I don’t need a project to work on, or an Alpha group to run. I just need to listen to the Spirit as I go about the everyday business of life and trust that as I am in tune I will see what I need to see – and when I don’t see anything that’s ok.

I fear the idea of ‘addition’ has stymied a fair bit of mission because people see their lives as already busy and ‘now I need to do mission as well…’ Sigh… I don’t think I can…

I feel like the fresh energy has come as it has dawned on me that my life is looking more like it ought to look – not that I had a ‘new idea for an aligned life’ that I pursued, but that I just relaxed a bit, got on with living and sought to listen to the Spirit in that frame of mind.

So to speak to people now feels less like I am ‘trying hard’ at the ‘missional thing’ and more like I have discovered a bit of how to live in a missional way that doesn’t require much effort at all because perhaps its how life is meant to be lived…


Another Voice 10 Years On

Steve McAlpine and I go back a long way – to under 14’s baptist basketball at Kent St High School in 1976. I liked Steve and his Melville Baptist comrades because they were the only team worse than us and each time we got to play them we managed a win. Steve also came from Northern Ireland so we shared a bit of heritage and Steve still has a twinge of Norn Iron accent if you listen closely.

There aren’t many people you stay in touch with for nearly 40 years, but we are still friends and have shared the road as Christian leaders on some very similar tracks in the small Perth scene for many years now too. I have a deep respect for Steve and his ability to integrate theology and culture and speak of it in a way that makes sense.

Steve has been blogging fairly seriously and prolifically over the last couple of years and is kicking off a series of his own looking at his missional journey 10 years on. He’s had a few ‘real deal’ adventures, including a stint in the UK with Crowded House network and planting his own gig in the hills (The Local), before his latest venture with Providence in Midland, so it will be really good to hear his learning from it all as he approaches the big 50…

Here’s part 1.

Missional in The Neighbourhood 10 Years On Part IV


One of the challenges of inspiring people towards a missional lifestyle and a missional church is that many either find it too hard to translate ideas into action, or they are too busy to cultivate new practices. (Another less flattering option is that we are too self focused to see other people.)

At the core of a missional identity is the idea of being sent – of our identity being tied up with God’s sending impulse. It starts here, but then it needs fleshing out.

I like the story of Jesus with Zacchaeus in Luke 19 as a picture of how we can live with a missionary focus. And in that story we can derive some simple core practices that could form the basis for a missional lifestyle.

I’ll be speaking on this on Sunday, but for now here’s a summary of 7 things I see:

1. Jesus meets Zacchaeus in the street – in the flow of his everyday life. The story doesn’t take place in the synagogue but in the town, followed by Z’s home. If we see mission as what happens when people come to church then we miss the idea of being sent and we will also wait a really long time for anything to happen.

Practiceengagement – intentionally spend time immersed in the community as opposed to spending much of our free time with church people.

2. Jesus is aware of Z – he is tuned in enough to the spirit to notice him in a tree checking him out. Its easy to not see people – to view them as ‘extras’ in our own story and therefore somewhat invisible or irelevant. Frederick Beuchner says ‘the first step in loving people is to see them’.

Practiceawareness – stop on occasions thru the day and look around. Ask God if there is anyone he wants you to pay attention to. Look back at the end of the day and see where God was at work.

3. Jesus has time for him – he makes himself available to have lunch with Z. He sees the interruption / distraction as part of God’s work in the world and rolls with it. The key is that he is not so flat out that he is unable to create space.

Practiceavailability – assess your life pace and whether it allows for interruptions and spontaneous connections. Each evening reflect on the day that has been and see where you accepted invitations to be with people or where you missed the cue. Choose to eliminate some things from your life to live at a more welcoming pace.

4. Jesus is himself – in that he is authentic and at ease in himself – not needing to impress Z or ‘win him over’. In a recent comment Scott pointed me to some research done by Lynne Taylor who was trying to understand what is happening in the lives of people who become Christians. Her conclusion was that authenticity was the key element in people finding faith – both a desire for an authentic life and an experience of authentic faith

Practiceauthenticity – reflect on the way you conduct yourself around those who don’t have faith. To what extent are you ‘yourself’ and to what extent are you acting a role?

5. Jesus accepts Z as he is – he knows who he is, the way he is perceived in society but he is happy to be with him and eat lunch with him.

Practiceacceptance – spend time with people who make you uncomfortable or who clearly do not share your values. Bring someone into your life on a regular basis who challenges your prejudices.

6. Jesus is vulnerable and willing to put himself at risk – he isn’t controlled by the societal norms that prohibit him from spending time with people like Z. He knows there will be criticism but he is willing to take the heat.

Practicevulnerability – don’t be afraid to spend time with people or go to places that may evoke criticism from other Christians.

7. Jesus was purposeful in his relationship – he finishes the time by declaring “Today salvation has come to this house, because this man, too, is a son of Abraham.  For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.” Jesus knew what he was doing and wasn’t shy about it. You don’t need to be offensive or brash to be purposeful. Jesus seems to get it right.

Practice – look at who God has brought into your life, pray for them, and seek every opportunity to love, bless, serve and speak of Jesus with them.

I’m hoping that as we put a practical edge to it we may be able to move people into a more natural missional lifestyle. And I imagine that will happen as those practices become automated and embedded in our everyday life.

There’s no rocket science here – just a willingness to listen to God and be a bit uncomfortable from time to time.


Who’s Getting Saved?…


It was a day for energetic conversations and this morning I met with Jennifer, as I do a few times a year for spiritual direction and mentoring.

We began discussing mission and some of what I have written here over the last few posts, then she asked a question that has been bubbling away in me for the rest of the day.

I don’t remember the exact framing, but essentially it was ‘It seems there are people becoming Christians around the place, but who are these people and what is bringing them to a point of conversion? And then…  what is the nature of that conversion – what do they understand themselves to be ‘converting’ to?’

I’d love to find some answers to those questions and I imagine it would form a really interesting and valuable piece of research – more specifically what is happening among those 25 and older in terms of conversion.

Its a somewhat vexed question as defining conversion and reflecting on evangelistic methodologies could be complicated. We seem to have anecdotal evidence for people coming to faith in large numbers in some areas, while others would say its ‘hard ground’ and as tough a time as we have known evangelistically.

But I’d be interested to know if there is any hard data available on this issue as it may be valuable to the wider church. Otherwise I might have to start that masters… haha…