God in the Gritty, Quiet Places

My latest column in ChristianWeek

I always thought of Halifax as quaint, like a big small town. I had a hard time believing that Halifax faces urban issues like crime, homelessness, and poverty. On a Thursday in May, I drove down Gottingen Street (nicknamed Got-a-gun Street) in the north end and turned onto Cunard Street. There, beside a transmission shop, is the Souls Harbour Rescue Mission, dedicated to rescuing “people from poverty, addiction and despair by offering emergency help, such as food, clothing and shelter, life-changing recovery programs, and the Gospel Message.” Downstairs I found Brad Somers talking and working in the crowd of men who had gathered from the community.

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Brad used be a youth pastor in a large suburban church in Cambridge, Ontario. Five years ago, he planted PAXnorth, a church that meets on the main floor of Souls Harbour. PAX means peace; north means that they’re committed to the gritty part of the city. I was in Halifax to speak to our denomination’s regional conference, a small gathering of pastors and church members from the Atlantic region. I came to teach; I left having learned.

I learned, for instance, from a member of PAXnorth who had lived on the street. He spoke of the difference that the gospel had made in his life. “PAX means I don’t have to go back to the streets and the gang, drugs, violence, and addictions,” he says. “PAX means I’m with Christ. This is where God sent me to meet his Son, and his Son was here waiting for me.”

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I learned from the Glenn Goode, who serves as the only part-time Regional Director in our denomination. He travels through Atlantic Canada encouraging pastors and helping churches on top of his day job.

I learned from the pastors who gathered at the conference. Many of them had taken hard assignments in relative obscurity. As a pastor, I find myself tempted sometimes by the desire to make something big out of myself. That’s clearly the opposite of Jesus’ way, but I’m still tempted. I was encouraged that I met pastors committed to serving joyfully in small places with no expectation of making it big.

I was encouraged as we broke bread and drank the cup together, sensing the very real presence of Jesus Christ who was active in the gritty side of a city in the smallest of our denomination’s regions.

If you read the statistics, things are in rough shape in Canada. The culture is in decline, and churches are losing. It’s not hard to find the stories, or believe them. Some of them are true.

But it’s a little too soon to give up hope. Across this country are hundreds of churches where God is at work, making a difference in lives and communities. It doesn’t get much attention, but God seems to often choose the places we tend to overlook. I keep discovering God at work in the gritty, quiet places.

Blogging and Social Media

I've written a short piece for The Institute of Evangelism in Toronto on how and why you should consider starting a blog. Here's an excerpt:

One of the best ways to maintain an online presence is through a blog. Mohler says that we used to think that bloggers were all “twentysomethings in their pyjamas writing online rants.” But blogs are now “one of the most significant platforms for our cultural conversation.” It’s one of history’s “most cost-efficient way of communicating big ideas and solid content. If you are not writing a blog, you should be.”
I agree. Here are four reasons why you should blog...

Read the rest here.

Speaking of web stuff, I was interested to read about how astronaut Chris Hadfield made it onto Twitter:

He initially balked when his sons began preaching the merits of Twitter and Facebook more than three years ago...
During a family Christmas get-together in 2009 his son Evan, who now lives in Germany, and Kyle, who's in China, pointed out that they relied on the Internet to find out what's going on.
They got on his case again when his five-month mission was announced in early September 2010. It was then that they decided to set up his two social-media sites...
Upon his return to Earth this week, Hadfield was hovering around one million Twitter followers and more than 325,000 "Likes" on Facebook.

I'm sure glad his sons got on his case. I'm glad the same thing happened to Tim Keller (except, of course, the part about going into space or singing a David Bowie song). What I should say is that I'm glad his son pushed him onto Twitter.

I agree with Al Mohler.  If you’re not active online, you’re limited in your ministry to those who aren’t online. “That population is shrinking every moment. The clock is ticking.”

Setting Gospel Grassfires

My latest column at ChristianWeek:

There’s no question that ministry in Canada is a challenge. According to Bill Hogg, National Missiologist with C2C Network, that’s not a surprise. “Canada is further down the track in terms of liminality, the marginalization of religious ideas and religious institutions,” he says. “Canada prizes social pluralism and religious pluralism, which is obviously a challenge as you seek to proclaim Jesus.”

Not only is Canada pluralistic, but many churches are stuck. “The reality is that 85% of North American churches have plateaued or declined.” Hogg believes that churches often follow a life cycle that resembles a sigmoid curve. “Something that started, where lives are being transformed, can eventually decline, and needs to experience renewal, refocus, restructuring, or replanting.”

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Despite the external and internal challenges, Hogg is encouraged. “There are pockets of hope across Canada. There are little gospel grassfires.” The C2C Network exists as a nationwide, indigenous Canadian church planting and renewal network. “If we want to reach Canada for Christ, it’s going to require fresh, vibrant, innovative, gospel-centred, Spirit-led, mission-focused new churches,” Hogg believes. “But it’s also going to require the established church to get on mission, steward the gospel well, and embrace the mission fields where God has placed them.”

According to Hogg, the Canadian church faces three challenges. The first danger is gospel drift. “A lot of evangelical and charismatic churches are not centred around the gospel,” he says. “There’s a danger that evangelicals are no longer evangel people.” Hogg identifies the danger of preaching the prosperity gospel, or its “kissing cousin success,” moralism, or just old-fashioned legalism instead of the gospel. Churches must continually recalibrate around the gospel.

The second danger is missional retreat. According to one author, the dominant North American ecclesial motif is church as private club. Our challenge, Hogg says, is to first look to Jesus, and then to look outward to the town, village, city, and community in which God has placed each faith community.

The third danger is seeing the church as human enterprise. This means that we often look for technicians, not ministers, and for techniques and programs that promise success. “We have to be Spirit-empowered, Spirit-dependent, and Spirit-led. This is messy and defies the cookie cutter approach.” Our starting posture is important: “It’s not about coming up with a plan. The first order of business is to surrender to Jesus. The idea is not to work a plan but to hear from the Lord, and then from dependance upon Him walk in obedience to what he speaks into the life of the church.”

This underlines the importance of prayer. “Jesus, who commissioned the 72, said that he’s sending them out as lambs among wolves. There is peril and danger. We’re in a spiritual combat zone, and we need the wisdom and power of the Lord.”

Hogg believes that we have every reason to hope. “The gospel hasn’t lost its power. God is still on the throne, and Jesus has not rescinded the Great Commission even for such a time as this.”

Making Sense of Weakness

My latest column at ChristianWeek:

I spend so much time trying to be strong that I have a hard time making sense of what the Bible says about weakness.

"I was with you in weakness and in fear and much trembling," the apostle Paul writes. Later he says, "For when I am weak, then I am strong." What kind of Kingdom math is this? And if it's true, why do we try so hard to be strong?

Rose Marie Miller, in her book Nothing Is Impossible with God, helps me make sense of this. There are three kinds of weakness, she writes.

The first kind of weakness is presumptive weakness. It's what we usually think of as strength. "Presumptive weakness is when I am strong in myself. I think, 'I have the ability, the gifts, the understanding, the wisdom to get the job done or get on with life.'" It turns out that our strengths, until surrendered, are liabilities, because "it is impossible to fully trust in God while you still cling to something in yourself."

The second type of weakness is despairing weakness. This is usually what we think of as weakness, but it's not what we should aim for. When we despair, we look at our own resources and discover they're not enough, and we begin to lose hope.

I find that I tend to alternate between these first two types of weakness. I try to make it on my own strength, or give up. There's a third way, though.

The third type of weakness is what Paul talks about, and it's what we should aim for: true weakness, "born out of a deep sense of inadequacy and need, which drives us to Christ and unleashes all the redeeming energy of God's grace in our lives."

Charles Spurgeon put it this way in his sermon "Paradox": "We are strong when, under a sense of absolute inability, we depend wholly upon God...When we are weak we are strong, again, because then we are driven away from self to God."

What about our abilities and talents? Oswald Chambers writes, "God can achieve his purpose either through absence of human power and resources, or abandonment of reliance on them...He chose and used nobodies only when they renounced dependence on their natural abilities and resources."

The exciting part about true weakness is that it's freeing. We don't have to pretend to be more than we are, or that we have it all together. I spoke to a man last week who with genuine joy said to me, "There's nothing you could tell me about yourself that would surprise me, because there's no way that you're a worse sinner than me." He had encountered God's grace and strength in his weakness, and it set him free.

I'm a weak pastor in a land of weak churches. That may just be my greatest strength. I'm slowly learning to turn away from my own resources and despair, to find that God's strength really is enough and more.

Planting is for Every Church

My latest column at ChristianWeek:

I used to think that church planters are deviants—nice people with a rebel streak. I liked them, and I admired them, but I couldn't relate to them, and I certainly didn't want to join their number.

Tim Keller, a pastor and church planter in New York City, changed all that. I read an article of his called "Why Plant Churches?" (PDF) and I still haven't recovered. Church planting, he argues, is the biblical strategy for reaching people with the gospel. Church plants reach people that established churches won't.

Church plants are also the best way to renew established churches. Keller answered every objection I had to church planting, and he convinced me to see church planting as essential. It's not for deviants; it's essential for every church.

I remember sitting in my office a decade ago while pastoring an established church. A friend of mine had just planted a new church. We had a huge building, money in the bank, and a couple hundred people. They had a dozen people meeting in a basement.

A decade later, that church plant has outgrown the established church I pastored, and they have also planted a number of new churches that are also growing. While I'm still convinced that we still need to work on renewing existing churches, I began to appreciate church plants like never before.

I also remember sitting in a meeting with two pastors of established churches and three church planters. As we talked about our churches, the two of us from established churches struggled to articulate our vision. We lacked clarity. The three church planters spoke with great clarity about the vision of their churches. I walked away from the meeting wondering how their vision and clarity could rub off on us.

I've come to believe that every church needs to be involved in church planting. It's not just because I'm now a church planter—it's because I've spent 20 years pastoring established churches, and I now realize what I was missing.

First, church planting is strategic. In every city and town, we need new churches to reach the people that existing churches can't. According to Keller, the average new church brings in six to eight times more new people than an older congregation of the same size. I agree with Peter Wagner: "Planting new churches is the most effective evangelistic methodology known under heaven."

Secondly—and this is new to me—church planting benefits established churches. My mother is often asked why she seems young for her age. She has a one-word answer: "Grandchildren." Because she's investing in the lives of those who are young, she's stayed young. Every church was once a church plant; the way to maintain some of that energy is to continue to live close to the youth of other church plants.

Church planting isn't for deviants. It's the way to reach new people, and it's the way for the established Church to maintain its vibrancy. Church planting is for every church.