The number one reason youth leave the church

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When churches find a dearth of young people in the congregation, it is never long before questions start being asked. The questions become even more pointed when children, who otherwise seemed engaged, drift off when they become teenagers. Were there not enough programmes available for them? Were they isolated from their peers? Did we just not pay them enough attention? The hand-wringing begins and the cries of ‘won’t somebody please think of the children?’ go up.

The fact is, however, the lure of the world is as great among adults as it is teenagers. Nor do teenagers leave the church because there are not enough programmes for them. At best, in certain cases, young people may leave your church and begin attending another one in which they feel they might be better served. This doesn’t account for why they drift off altogether.

The reality is that the number one reason young people drift off from the church is because they are not believers. It is as simple as that. They have not come to a saving knowledge of Jesus Christ nor entered into personal relationship with him. They either do not understand the gospel or they know it well enough and have decided they don’t want it. In either case, they leave the church because they never came to faith.

When we understand this, the issue is brought into sharp relief. The main reason teenagers drift away from the church, just like adults, is because they are not real Christians and never came to faith in Christ. The answer to how to stop them leaving, then, becomes more obvious. It rests in teaching our young people the gospel and praying that Christ will effect in them a positive response.

Coupled to this, we must recognise where the responsibility for teaching and training our children lies. Contrary to popular belief, it does not lie with the pastor, elders or Sunday School teachers. Whilst each of these people will be held accountable for what they teach, they are not charged with the spiritual welfare of your children.

Ephesians 6:4 makes clear that it is fathers who are responsible for teaching and training their children in the Lord. Deuteronomy 6:6-9 puts it this way:

These words that I command you today shall be on your heart.  You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise.  You shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes.  You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.

It is the responsibility of fathers at home to teach their children. It is not good enough to outsource all of our children’s spiritual teaching and then wonder why they never came to faith given we sent them out of the service for half an hour every week. This is neither talking of the scriptures in your house nor the incorporation of them into your everyday life that Deuteronomy expects. It is likewise not fulfilling the imperative of Ephesians 6:4 that fathers are responsible for the spiritual teaching and training of their children.

Notwithstanding the responsibility of fathers, if the church does offer teaching programmes for children, we must make sure they are gospel-centred. It is so easy for the Sunday School to simply become a time dedicated to little more than keeping the children quiet while the adults sit under the “real” teaching. We can so quickly fall into the trap of singing a few songs and then spending most of the time on a craft or activity with no spiritual value. Even if we intend to offer Biblical content, it can quickly descend into mining the Bible for moral lessons or treating the children as though they are already ‘little Christians’ despite having no understanding of the gospel.

Our Sunday Schools would be well served if they made a concerted effort to be gospel-centred. That is, teaching the children about the reality of sin and the only remedy that is found in the person and work of Jesus Christ. Though we can rightly teach the traditional Bible stories, rather than mining them for moral content, we must teach them in a Christocentric way. There is no problem with learning of David & Goliath, but let’s rightly interpret David as a type of Christ, the anointed one sent to save God’s people. This leads us to Jesus, who was God’s anointed messiah sent to save God’s people. This then needs to be applied to children in the same way as to adults. There is a problem (sin/Goliath) which we (children/Israel) are unable to defeat. But God has set forth his anointed one (Jesus/David) to defeat our enemies that we could not. It is only by trusting in God’s anointed that our enemies are defeated and we may receive peace and freedom. This would be a gospel-centred, Christocentric approach to the story.

The key here is not simply teaching our children facts about the Bible. It is to teach them the gospel as presented in the lens of those stories. Likewise, it is to not presume that all the children in front of us are believers. Similarly, it is to apply scripture as we would to adults. Recognising that children, like adults, are sinners and need to repent and believe in Christ in order to enter right relationship with him. These stories and Christocentric readings of scripture must be primarily taught in the home – with the gospel modelled by parents in the way they live – which are simultaneously reinforced through the teaching programmes of any children’s works in the church.

We cannot be surprised if young people, who never became believers, drift away from the church. We similarly cannot be surprised when young people do not become believers when their parents don’t teach them the gospel at home and our Sunday School programmes focus more on morals, or nice lessons, than they do on the Christ and his gospel. If our children never hear about sin and the means of salvation, we can hardly be surprised if they never see a need to repent, come to Christ and submit to his Lordship. If they see no need for all of that, we can hardly be surprised if they see no value in the church.

Loving your vision of church more than the church itself will ultimately destroy it

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Dietrich Bonhoeffer put it rightly when he spoke about one’s wish-dreams for the church:

Every human wish-dream that is injected into the Christian community is a hindrance to genuine community and must be banished if genuine community is to survive. Those who love their dream of a Christian community more than they love the Christian community itself become destroyers of that Christian community even though their personal intentions may be ever so honest, earnest and sacrificial. God hates this wishful dreaming because it makes the dreamer proud and pretentious. Those who dream of this idolized community demand that it be fulfilled by God, by others and by themselves. They enter the community of Christians with their demands set up by their own law, and judge one another and God accordingly. It is not we who build. Christ builds the church. Whoever is mindful to build the church is surely well on the way to destroying it, for he will build a temple to idols without wishing or knowing it. We must confess, he builds. We must proclaim, he builds. We must pray to him, and he will build. We do not know his plan. We cannot see whether he is building or pulling down. It may be that the times which by human standards are the times of collapse are for him the great times of construction. It may be that the times which from a human point are great times for the church are times when it’s pulled down. It is a great comfort which Jesus gives to his church. You confess, preach, bear witness to me, and I alone will build where it pleases me. Do not meddle in what is not your providence. Do what is given to you, and do it well, and you will have done enough.

Bonhoeffer was, in the first instance, directing this comment at pastors. He states:

This applies in a special way to the complaints often heard from pastors and zealous members about their congregations. A pastor should not complain about his congregations, certainly never to other people, but also not to God. A congregation has not been entrusted to him in order that he should become its accuser before God and men. When a person becomes alienated from a Christian community in which he has been placed and begins to raise complaints about it, he had better examine himself first to see whether the trouble is not due to his wish dream that should be shattered by God; and if this be the case, let him thank God for leading him into this predicament.

Bonhoeffer is warning against the desire to build a church in our own image. It is so easy to get taken up with our own vision of how the church ought to be that we come to despise the church as it is. In our desire for Christian community as we would have it, we end up despising the reality of the Christian community Christ has given to our care and soon end up destroying any form of community at all.

It is, however, a warning for all that would seek to create church in their own image. Just as pastors may be wont to form the church in the ways they would have it, so members can be prone to discontent when things aren’t as they would have it too. Just as pastors may destroy Christian community by forcing it into a particular mould of their own devising, so too church members can insist on the same based on their own predilections.

Bill Hybels – the arch-advocate of the vision-casting, programmatic, church-growth approach – admitted back in 2007 that they had got it all wrong. His vision for the church, whilst increasing participation in the church, did absolutely nothing to increase spiritual growth. Their vision for the church proved detrimental. Their wish-dream ended up destroying Christian community. Rather than focusing on teaching scripture, and encouraging others to read scripture for themselves, they poured millions into programmes. As Christianity Today paraphrased Hybels:

Spiritual growth doesn’t happen best by becoming dependent on elaborate church programs but through the age old spiritual practices of prayer, bible reading, and relationships. And, ironically, these basic disciplines do not require multi-million dollar facilities and hundreds of staff to manage.

The bottom line is this: let us drop our visions for the church and start implementing Christ’s. Let us stop chasing our our vision for how the church should be and simply love the church for what it is. Let us teach and preach the whole counsel of God and so let him work through the Word, by his Spirit, to build the church.

Is there a distinction between elders and pastors?

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There are three primary principles laid down in scripture relating to the working relationship of elders:

Eldership ought to be plural

  • All New Testament churches had plural eldership (cf. Act 15:2; Act 20:17; Ti 1:5; Jam 1:1, 5:14; 1 Pe 1:1)
  • James presupposes multiple elders available to pray for the sick (Jam 5:14)
  • Paul’s practice was to appoint multiple elders in each church plant (Act 14:23)
  • Paul summoned the elders (plural) at Ephesus (Act 20:17f)
  • Titus was commanded to appoint elders (plural) in every city (Ti 1:5)
  • Peter gave the responsibility of shepherding the flock to elders (plural) (1 Pe 5:1-2)

There is no formal distinction between elders, establishing parity between them.

  • The bible uses the terms ‘pastor’, ‘elder’ and ‘overseer’ interchangeably (cf. Act 20:17, 28; Ti 1:5, 7; 1 Pe 5:1f).
  • When Paul summoned the elders in Ephesus, he called all of them not just their formal leader (Acts 20:17)
  • Paul calls all the elders to care for the church of God and watch over the flock equally (Acts 20:28), that is to the work of pastoral oversight
  • The elders collectively laid hands on Timothy together, rather than being commissioned by a formal leader (1 Tim 4:14)
  • James expects all the elders to be available to pray for the sick, not just one appointed as formal leader (James 5:14). This task is either done by all the elders collectively every time or it establishes that any elder is individually able to perform this role. In either case, the elders appear co-equal in function and responsibility.
  • Peter’s exhortations in 1 Pe 5:1-5 are to “the elders among you”, not merely the formal leader, establishing a level of co-equal parity in shepherding the flock, oversight and having the younger members subject to their lead.

The Bible sets aside special honour for those who labour in preaching and teaching

  • Scripture recognises that one (or more) elders may be set aside primarily for preaching and teaching (1 Tim 5:17) and this is worthy of special honour.
  • Paul commands Timothy specifically – not all the elders in the church – to “devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture, to exhortation, to teaching” (1 Tim 4:13) noting that this was what Timothy was set aside for by the eldership (1 Tim 4:14).

Taken together, churches ought to have a plural eldership, which is co-equal in both function and responsibility, with parity between them. There are biblical grounds to set aside one (or more) of the elders to dedicate themselves to studying the word for the preaching and teaching of the church. As Alexander Strauch rightly points out ‘to call one elder “pastor” and the rest “elders”… is to act without biblical precedence… It will, at least in practice, create a separate, superior office over the eldership, just as was done in the early second century when the division between “the overseer” and “elders” occurred’.[1]

The role of a full-time elder

It is, therefore, appropriate for a full-time elder to be set aside to specifically make the teaching and preaching of the word his first priority. This setting aside does not preclude him from taking on other tasks and ministries, however, these things ought not to take him away, or interfere with, his central focus on the word.

The concept of primus inter pares (first among equals) has no real biblical warrant. References to Peter taking a first amongst equals role rests on scant evidence. Against this, it should be noted that it is James, rather than Peter, who makes the final judgement at the Jerusalem council (cf. Acts 15) and Paul rebuked Peter with some authority too (Gal 2:11ff). The closest biblical referent is the distinction between the elder(s) set aside primarily to focus on the word and the other elders who – though co-equally charged with oversight, shepherding the flock, etc – are not called to this same focus on word-ministry. Any full-time elder has co-equal oversight for the flock as an elder amongst elders but holds the additional responsibility of being set aside to focus on the word and act as the primary outlet for teaching and preaching. This does not equate to the concept of primus inter pares. Such a concept necessarily undercuts the overt biblical principle of co-equal parity within the plurality.

Nonetheless, it should be emphasised that the setting aside of a full-time elder to primarily focus upon preaching and teaching is not instead of the other responsibilities of eldership – as if he only preaches and teaches – but rather it is in addition to those responsibilities common to all elders. It must also be noted that the one skill required of all elders is an aptitude to teach, which cannot be separated out from other aspects of church life. Teaching and preaching feeds directly into disciple-making, pastoral care, and overall leadership of the church. If the church is led through teaching and preaching, and the elders as a whole are responsible for directing the affairs of the church, it follows that preaching and teaching are the responsibility of the leadership as a whole, even if the bulk of it may be delivered by a recognised individual set aside for this task.

The role of the elder

Apart from the primary focus of the one(s) set aside to focus on the word, given the co-equal parity the bible establishes between each elder, all other tasks may rightly be shared between the elders. The bible does not offer any specific guidance as to how these tasks ought to be divided, except being sure not to take the one set aside to teach away from his principle focus on the word. This division of duties, therefore, is a matter of prudence.

As noted by Matt Perman at Desiring God, ‘although no one elder has greater formal authority than any of the others, certain elders will emerge as natural leaders in particular areas and thus provide helpful leadership that the other elders will generally respect. Also, it is appropriate for the elders of a church to focus on varying tasks’. Whatever the division of labour looks like in any given context, it is vital for each elder to be committed to the success of his colleagues. The success of an individual is success for the whole eldership and thus each must be committed to supporting one another in their various duties.

The biblical criteria for eldership contain all the necessary requirements of an elder. Most of these qualifications are commanded elsewhere in scripture of all Christians (e.g. not a drunkard). The only criteria specific to elders are “not a novice” (though it should be noted that no Christian is called to remain one) and “apt to teach”. Apart from teaching ability, all the qualifications for eldership are character-based and do not require particular skills.

If these are the biblical criteria for eldership, we ought not to demand that elders come with specific skill-sets and abilities other than that of teaching. To do so is to go beyond what the biblical data demands. Rather, elders are appointed according to character criteria and their divergent skills can be brought to boot on the various tasks shared out amongst the eldership, as their abilities allow.

Benjamin Merkle highlights four key tasks of the elder. He must be: (1) a leader, (2) a shepherd, (3) a teacher, and (4) an equipper.[2]

Leader: The Bible assumes the elder holds a certain level of responsibility that the congregation ought to recognise and to which the church must submit (cf. Heb 13:17; 1 Thess 5:12). The appointment of an individual to the office of elder by the church membership is both the recognition of their leadership and a statement of willingness to submit to it. Nonetheless, the leadership in the church is akin to that of a father leading a family (1 Tim 3:5f). Moreover, it is a humble leadership that is not domineering but leads by example (1 Pet 5:3; Heb 13:7). As elders we cannot ask people to do what we are not willing to do ourselves. We are called to a humble, exemplary servant leadership.

Shepherd: As the terms pastor (shepherd), elder and overseer are used interchangeably, all elders are called to shepherd because the church are pictured as sheep (1 Pet 5:2). As Merkle states ‘the shepherd’s primary task is not to run an organisation but to care for people’s souls. A pastor is not primarily a motivator, administrator, or programme facilitator, but a shepherd’.[3] Our example in this is Jesus, the Chief Shepherd (1 Pet 5:4), the one who lays down his life for the sheep (Jn 10:11; 15:13). The primary task of the shepherd is to protect the sheep from the wolves that would damage them spiritually (cf. Acts 20:28f). Likewise, it is important for the elders to care for physical needs (cf. Jam 5:14; 1 Tim 3:4f). Nonetheless, elders are primarily responsible for soul-care of the members (Heb 13:17).

Teacher: Along with the elder’s call to lead, he is distinguished from a deacon by the call to teach (1 Tim 3:2). Elders are to lead people into sound doctrine and to rebuke those who depart from it (Ti 1:9). This role of teaching is also linked to our shepherding (cf. Eph 4:11). It is therefore the task of the elder to maintain word-centred ministry in the church. To approve those who teach it and to rebuke those who would depart from it.

Equipper: Just as Paul charged Timothy ‘what you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses, entrust to faithful men who will be able to teach others also’ (2 Tim 2:2). Not only is the elder called to lead, teach and shepherd but they must be equipping future leaders who will be able to do the same.

[1] Strauch, A., Biblical Eldership: An Urgent Call to Restore Biblical Church Leadership, (1995)

[2] Merkle, B.L., 40 Questions about Elders and Deacons, (2008)

[3] Ibid., p. 90

Battling the lie that I deserve resources

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The danger of working in a small church, in a supposedly ‘hard to reach’ urban area, is that we fall for the lie that we somehow deserve greater resources. There is no denying that, on paper, we need more resources than we have. The work rests on the shoulders of vanishingly few people and our church generates only around 50% of our running costs with no outside patrons. We function with a not inconsiderable monthly deficit and under the shadow of a ‘go-bust’ date. As it stands, when the money runs out, that’s it.

This can lead to a sense of entitlement on our behalf. We can come to believe that if my need is greater than yours – the reality of which may or may not be true – then I somehow deserve more resources than you. At heart, an underlying covetousness (I wish I had those resources) can quickly turn to jealousy (those resources really ought to belong to me by rights) which in turn may manifest itself as resentment of other gospel works, discouragement in your own work and discontent with Christ amongst other things. We can sometimes believe our own hype and convince ourselves that our situation, however hard or easy it may be, is exceptional and thus more deserving of support and the like.

Aside from the (hopefully obvious) issues of sin at play, there are several wrong ideas in this mode of thinking.

For one, it turns on a presumption that one work is more deserving than another. In reality, working amongst the urban poor, the homeless, Muslim communities or asylum seekers is no more deserving of support than work among the middle classes, rich or professionals. Scripture is clear enough that all have fallen short of God’s glory and thus all need the only remedy that is available in the gospel. Sin is no respecter of class, Satan has no regard for professional achievements and one cannot buy their way out of Hell. If every soul is precious to God, then every faithful gospel work is vitally needed. When people are drowning, the lifeboat doesn’t wait to hear who deserves to be saved first, they just reach in and pull aboard as many as they are able. In the same way, there is no such thing as a more worthy gospel work. There are simply souls to be saved, people heading for a lost eternity and people sharing the only means of salvation with them.

Second, this view suggests that somehow there is real gospel work and there is second-rate gospel work. Seemingly we make that divide according to how many people are willing to do it. This makes gospel work a zero-sum game. In this line of thinking, the importance of our gospel work is determined, not by any criteria laid down by Christ, but according to other works in different places. It makes the value of gospel work entirely subjective.

This is the same fallacy that argues I am not a bad person because Mr Worse-Than-Me down the road is truly awful. Just as this argument leads to a regression that effectively says only the worst person in the world is truly bad – a point never lost on those involved in prison work who regularly hear murderers contend ‘at least I’m not a paedophile’ – so too we say my work is more important because it’s harder, or less well regarded, or whatever measure we use. Such arguments actually undercut our intended claim to importance because there are fewer people engaged in mission to remote tribes than there are working in UK deprived urban communities. By our own logic, resources should by-pass us and head straight to Papua New Guinea and the like. The importance of gospel work isn’t determined by the numbers doing it or the people it’s reaching. It is determined by faithfulness to the gospel and the call of Christ. Where there are people dying in their sin without Christ, there is a valid and necessary gospel work to be done.

Third, there is a fine line between arguing our work deserves something (which is wrongheaded anyway) and suggesting I deserve something. Our role in gospel work, and the gospel work itself, are so closely entwined. Arguments about the importance of my particular bit of gospel work so often come across as arguments about my own importance. We inevitably refer to my work, my church, my ministry. This pays little attention to the fact that such things belong to the Lord. It’s not my anything; it’s the Lord’s work, Christ’s church and his ministry. When certain works see great fruit, it is the Lord who has determined their work will be blessed in this way. When we don’t see much fruit, presuming we are faithfully proclaiming the gospel, it is the Lord who has determined that would be the case. When we complain and grow frustrated that our work is not getting what it deserves, we’re really saying Christ doesn’t know what he’s doing. It is his work and he will determine whom he will save and when it will happen. To covet the fruit of other gospel work, rather than rejoice that the Lord is working elsewhere, is to say he doesn’t really know what he is doing.

I don’t pretend that there are churches and ministries out there with vast resources and other with much less. I don’t pretend that for gospel work to continue it needs funding and resourcing properly. But God keep us from presuming that we somehow deserve such resources, that our work is somehow more vital than others or that the church will crumble without us. I make no bones about the disparity in resource and I do want to see richer, wealthier churches resourcing smaller gospel works. Just as small urban churches like mine cannot presume that we deserve anything, so larger and wealthier churches shouldn’t make the same presumption. It is as wrong to hoard our resources – as if they belonged solely to us – as it is to believe that we somehow deserve greater resources than God has granted to us. Let the wealthy be generous and the poor content so that by all means God might choose to save some.

Still, having said all that, wealthy churches can go a long way to helping the contentment of smaller ones by resourcing them properly. But we must no fall into the trap of presuming that we somehow deserve it. Simply put, we don’t.

The myth of self-made men and self-made churches

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I am not a self-made man. Indeed, you are not either. Nobody is self-made. Che Guevara was right when he said:

The myth of the self-made man, has to be profoundly hypocritical; it is the self-serving demonstration that a lie is the truth.

You see, most of us were born in hospitals paid for by the taxes of others. The overwhelming majority are taught in schools funded by others. Even the few who go to independent schools are rarely paying for it from wages they were earning at the age of 11. Until around 20 years ago, many were put through university with grants paid for by others. You became the person you are through your interactions with others, in the institutions to which you belonged and the family from whence you came. As George Matthew Adams said:

There is no such thing as a ‘self-made’ man. We are made up of thousands of others. Everyone who has ever done a kind deed for us, or spoken one word of encouragement to us, has entered into the make-up of our character and of our thoughts, as well as our success.

The place where this ought to be recognised most fully is in the church. For it is not even our church that we are building; it is Christ’s. As Paul reminds us, one may sow and another might water, but it is God who gives the increase. If even my own faith is not a product of my self-will, how much less can any success in the church be mine?

Why, then, do we so often act as if that were not the case? We seem to believe in the church that I built. We wheel out so-called experts who have achieved greatness within the tiny pool of British evangelicalism. We ask them to come to share the wisdom of what they have built with the rest of us. Rarely is advice given with the caveat that God simply acted when universal, Biblical principles were followed that we can all read for ourselves. That is usually our fault rather than theirs, for it is we who seek the wisdom of the one who did the building.

Often the appeals to models and examples bear little reference to scripture. What we hear is that X model worked in Y place and – without quite using the phrase ‘pragmatically speaking’ – we are all encouraged to follow their lead. We hear of leadership models that depart from the Biblically grounded approach of co-equal plural eldership on the ground that others have seen other approaches work elsewhere. We are pushed into one-size-fits-all moulds that do not always translate to different places.

Those who become experts often only really understand their specific context. Naturally, those looking on from outside see what a great success they have made of X or Y and want to know how they, too, can emulate it. Expert status is conferred on them by those looking on, who themselves give away the fact that we do not believe God gives the increase by chasing after the man they believe did the building. As we onlookers fan the hype, so – to which we are all prone – those being hyped begin to believe it, even in small measure. Perhaps I really did have a hand in building the church after all.

As I noted here, in an article for FIEC:

Our work among Iranians began during the tenure of my predecessor, when one single Iranian man entered the church. From this, a work grew such that many Iranian asylum seekers have since come to know the Lord. Whilst many have moved on elsewhere, we have a number in church membership and a regular group of around 20 meeting with us. We now translate significant portions of our service, including the sermon, into Farsi.

I would love to say this was the fruit of some amazing strategy or vision, but the truth is that the Lord simply brought them in. Many have wandered into the church asking ‘what do I do to become a Christian?’

It was not our clever strategy or our wonderful gospel-heartedness that brought such people into the church; it was the Lord. There was no vision, just one guy who turned up one day. From there, a work grew and we merely responded. In short, we built nothing.

As Jared Wilson has said in The Pastor’s Justification:

I was once in a place where many enjoyed the success of gospel-centred ministry, but I did not. The problem was not with the word. But in my particular ministry, the preached word was regarded like the arrival of a UFO, only much less interesting.

In my current ministry context, church attendance has increased steadily. People are finding freedom in Christ. Our giving frequently outpaces our budget needed each month. People are excited, sparkling about the eyes and bringing their lost friends. We’re baptising adults and enjoying the gurgles of babies in the service.

And I am not doing anything differently than I did in the lean days. I’m in a different place, sure, and I minister to different people, but my preaching, my counselling, my leadership and everything else is the same same ol’, same ol’. I am the same guy stubbornly doing the exact same thing. I am insanely repeating the same “methods” and expecting different results. And it appears to be working. This proves to me it has nothing to do with me.

Success in ministry is about faithfulness to the word of God. It is about leading the church according to the principles God lays down in scripture; not according to the latest faddy church growth techniques. It is about preaching the gospel and allowing God’s word to do God’s work by God’s Spirit; not creating business-plans that will lead to exponential growth. It is about shepherding God’s people; not managing his company.

Here is the truth, there are no such things as experts in church growth, leadership or strategy apart from those offering systematic exegesis of the scriptures. To say there are implies there is something not in the Bible, that these folk have gleaned, that is necessary for the church. Even solid, theologically reformed believers have gone after such things and, I may be missing something, but we used to call that Gnosticism. They say (to a lesser or greater degree) the success of the church depends on things that are not stated overtly in the Bible. We cannot believe that and, at the same time, hold to the sufficiency of scripture and that it alone contains all things necessary for faith and praxis (as most standard Evangelical doctrinal bases insist).

If God cares far more about his church than we do (and he does), then whatever is necessary for her has been made manifest in his word. If God wanted us to know that without vision statements, growth strategies and the like the church would fail to grow, surely he would have said that to us in no uncertain terms in his word? That he hasn’t suggests such things are not the silver bullet we so often make out they must be.

There are no self-made ministers, no self-made churches and no church growth experts. There are simply faithful gospel ministers whom God may choose to use to grow the kingdom. All the models in the world cannot account for kingdom growth when the same strategies and plans rolled out elsewhere lead to no visible success. There is no such thing as a self-made church; there are only faithful ones grown by the Lord.

When networks don’t work

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I have occasionally wondered how I would get on in the corporate world. Before falling into a brief career in teaching, I remember going for a job in recruitment. I forget most of the interview but do specifically remember being asked if I was ‘money motivated’. As a Christian, I follow Jesus’ teaching and dared to offer an answer along the lines of wanting an interesting job in which I felt I could add value. The look of horror on the interviewer’s face made clear that – if not already – this was the moment I truly blew it. Apparently refusing to value money above all, nor being the kind of grasping individual that will work harder simply because larger bonuses are thrown their way, was not the appropriate answer.

Alas, it is such things that make it so surprising when business practices inevitably make their way into the church as though they were commands of Christ himself. Yet, there they are for all of us to see. The vision statements drawn not from scripture but corporate companies, the linkage of the biblical criteria for eldership to business acumen and the unfortunate tendency of some to see other churches as rivals vying for dominance in the marketplace of disciple-making. It is no less grubby than the business world, but at least businesses make no bones about it.

Another unfortunate reality is the obsession with networking. I have commented on this phenomena here. In particular, I said this:

I recall being invited to one meeting, entering the room, standing like a total lemon on my own whilst everybody else “networked” around me. I tried to engage a few folk in conversation where it was clear that talking to this no-mark oik – who was unlikely to do anything to advance their standing within the Christian world – was not high on their agenda. I found myself [as per Morrissey] going and standing on my own, leaving on my own, going home and wanting to cry. It is made so much worse when one thinks these people should know better. Among Christians, especially among Christian leaders, these things should not be.

There is clearly nothing wrong with seeking beneficial links and finding other like-minded people with whom we can work together. In fact, the Bible encourages such things. But all too often, it descends into mere networking – akin to some professional business meeting – and becomes more about what is useful to me rather than mutual support and encouragement. In the worst cases, it becomes little more than crass self-advancement. How many links can I make? How much can I make of myself? If you are a “big name” I will make every effort to speak to you, if you are unknown you are not worthy of my time.

I was brought up Strict and Particular Baptist – probably the worst nomenclature in all of Christendom and which the Grace Baptists were right to re-brand. To the uninitiated, it sounds like a denomination advertising to the world that being both po-faced and fussy is an essential part of their core identity. No doubt critics would venture that an accurate representation. Despite giving absolutely no sense of it, the name derives from their historic baptistic position and reformed (or particular) theology.

I am so grateful for the theological grounding I received from my Grace Baptist upbringing. Nonetheless, there can be no denying that they seem to instil a particular character-type within their congregations. They have a tendency to attract people who love the Lord and his Word, but – whilst loving one another – tend to be socially awkward and not a little bit shy. Inevitably, if a crass reading of your theology is that everything good you do is God working through you and everything bad you do is your own, a tendency to introspection, continual questioning of your own motives and a penchant for mental self-flagellation is rarely far behind. Along with the shyness, social awkwardness, introspection and second-guessing oneself, then, comes an aversion to publicity. Being in the spotlight immediately leads to concerns of arrogance and making too much of yourself. If you do ever find yourself being asked about your situation, everything in you wants to play down any sense of being exceptional, seeking to turn attention anywhere else. It feels like a uniquely conservative British dissenting evangelically reformed problem.

My upbringing was such that I do not relish the spotlight. This was not only linked to my church background but also my family. I come from a line of shy men who hate attention. My Grandfather, though an elder in the Liverpool Brethren churches, loathed public attention. Despite forcing himself to do so, he often struggled to stand up and give notices in the churches he helped to run. Here was a man who – as a self-employed painter and decorator – would rather write off hundreds of pounds owed to him than have an argument about money. One infamous story told by my Nana recounts the time he came home with a piano in lieu of payment. A piano, it should be noted, nobody could play. This he preferred to the awkwardness and unpleasantness of a dispute over money. My Father inherited his shyness. He is not a man who relishes the limelight and, as one in a family of 6 boys, found it relatively easy to hide away.  I still notice my dad’s shaking hands when he get up to preach, not least because I have inherited them. Just as my dad used to find cups of tea wobbling in hand as he spoke to people after a service, so I have inherited this nervous tic that worsens in exact proportion to the number of people looking.

What this means is I struggle to deal with public attention and, when I get it, my natural instinct is to want to come across as funny. Making people laugh takes the attention away from me. The need to do this is because seared into my consciousness is the need not to be arrogant and push yourself forward. You wait to be asked, you don’t foist your service on others. You don’t talk at length about what you’re up to, you make sure to take great interest in what others are doing. There is rightness to all of this, for sure. Unfortunately, it makes talking about one’s work and church extremely uncomfortable.

Coupled to this, there are myriads of odious creepy networking types who behave as though they would sell their own grandmother if it meant making a bigger and better name for themselves. They appear to have no shame when it comes to whom they will ask for money and resources nor how often they are prepared to do it. Their work must be front and centre. Their names must be known. Would that it were not so within the church, but it be so. When every part of you refuses to make much of yourself, and every other part of you wants to stay as far away from the sort of repugnant behaviour that many exhibit in getting themselves known, networking becomes extremely hard indeed.

In addition, the sorts of events at which contacts are made and networks extended suit a certain type of person from a particular background. Networking events are a product of the middle class business world. The making and maintaining of networks and contacts is a middle-class business endeavour. If you are from a working class community, having lived and worked in the same area all your life, and never having held a managerial post (and even then, many wouldn’t require it), you are unlikely to have ever needed to network. Even many professional jobs, such as teaching, require minimal networking. It is those in professional corporate jobs that network. These events are driven by middle-class people from professional corporate backgrounds and do not serve those from working-class, non-professional or non-corporate backgrounds well.

The truth is nobody is ever likely to help churches whom they have never met and with whom they have minimal contact. The question is whether networking events and the like are the best way to create links between churches. It would be great if there was some way of larger bodies making the contact on behalf of the churches with need of resources. It would be great if there was a well organised introduction scheme to link up larger, better resourced churches with smaller ones. Just as there are schemes to formally partner successful schools in order to share resources and best practice with failing ones, a similar set up could be useful in the church. It would be great if there was national oversight (or regional oversight) whereby resources could be directed to the places that most need them.

Unless we do something, we will simply continue to rely on networking events. This inevitably means those with the sharpest elbows, the least shame and the best regarded backgrounds will continue to get what they want/need whilst smaller churches and less confident people will continue to struggle on. It amounts to an old boys network where those who don’t wear the right school tie don’t get a look in. Only the basis is not the school you went to (though sometimes it is going to the right seminary) nor the specific job you used to do. It is having been prepared through the right sort of privilege and background to know the social cues, and cultivate the appropriate behaviours, that will serve you well in such environments. It is the sort of thing that is learnt in the corporate, business world – or in similarly privileged school and university backgrounds – which rather lock you out and hold you back if you haven’t moved in such circles. It is an environment the wider church has cultivated and owes much more to the world of business than anything we read in the Bible.

The one reason Labour will struggle in the election

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As stated on the Guardian, here is the relevant passage from the BBC transcript in full where Jeremy Corbyn repeatedly refused to say if the UK was certain to leave the EU if Labour won the election. Corbyn (JC) was being interviewed by Laura Kuenssberg (LK).

LK: Jeremy Corbyn let’s start with Brexit because if you become prime minister it will be the biggest task in front of you. You said today Brexit is settled. Does that mean if you’re prime minister, come hell or high water, whatever the deal on the table, we will be leaving the European Union?

JC: Look there’s a clear vote in the referendum a year ago. But there is now the negotiations which have already begun. I sent a letter to President Elect Macron last night congratulating him on his election and also setting out in broad terms what our aims are in these negotiations: To have good relations with Europe of course, secondly to make sure there is a trade access, a tariff free trade access, to European markets. Thirdly, that we will of course protect the rights of EU nationals living in Britain which we will do straight away and that we will also ensure that the regulations that we got from the European Union such as Working Time Directive and employment conditions will be defended and maintained. It has to be put very clearly.

LK: That is what you would hope to achieve. But on that specific point if you say Brexit is settled whatever happens in the negotiations – however well or badly they go – we would be leaving if you were prime minister.

JC: We will go into the negotiations with the determination to achieve what I’ve just outlined. And it’s not a one-off meeting, it’s not a one-off discussion. It also involves relations with all the governments across Europe in every one of the member states as well as their parliaments and the European governments and the commission.

LK: But forgive me Jeremy Corbyn that’s not quite my question. My question is if you’re prime minister we will leave come hell or high water whatever is on the table at the end of the negotiations?

JC: We win the election we’ll get the good deal with Europe. A good deal with Europe that will ensure that the very large number of manufacturing jobs in Britain that rely on trade with Europe won’t suddenly find themselves under World Trade Organization rules where there’ll be a tariff wall put up immediately around this country.

LK: But on that specific point Jeremy Corbyn few few can predict how the negotiations will go either for Theresa May

JC: The specific point is we’re negotiating to gain that market access to Europe.

LK: But you won’t say then that we might potentially stay or we might… just to be completely clear because people will want to know this. If you’re prime minister we will leave whatever happens?

JC: People know that there’s been a referendum and a decision was made a year ago. We’ve set out very clear our terms for negotiations. Keir Starmer has built those relationships across Europe and that is what we’ll be pursuing in the European Union. I don’t know any more than you do exactly what is going to happen in the future on this, but I do know we are not approaching this from megaphone diplomacy. We’re not approaching this from threats. We’re not proposing to set up some kind of tax haven on the shores of the European Union. We’re serious about these negotiations.

LK: But forgive me Jeremy Corbyn this is a very important point to lots of people. As you say, we don’t know what will happen in the negotiations. If you are prime minister can you categorically say that we would definitely leave because if you won’t there is a chink of a possibility that things could change and we might end up looking differently at our options.

JC: The danger is of the approach the Conservatives are taking in their megaphone diplomacy with Europe and approaching the whole thing as though what you’ve got to do is shout loud and be abusive to people across the Channel. Our view is you have to talk to them, negotiate with them and recognise there is actually quite a lot of common interest, particularly in manufacturing industry. That is the process we’re following.

LK: So you won’t you won’t address that point specifically?

JC: We are negotiating a trade arrangement with Europe and protection of the things that we’ve gained from the European Union.

As the local elections made blindingly clear, the general election will be about brexit. Theresa May has done her utmost to make it about our exit from the European Union. There are scores of Labour voters, in Labour heartlands, who voted out in the EU referendum. At present, they are being forced into a choice between the government they want and the brexit they voted for. Until the Labour Party recognise this reality and alter their messaging accordingly, Labour will continue to shed votes.