On boundaries and walls

Any illusions that cricket is a genteel sport always free from controversy took a tumble during a one-day international game between Ireland and Afghanistan during this past summer. Without going into the technicalities of it all, it had to do with a dispute over whether the ball (or more specifically the fielder attempting to stop the ball) had crossed the boundary.

Meanwhile, in other news from across the Pond, Donald Trump had been proposing a wall along his country’s border with Mexico – in order to keep certain people out.

Boundaries and walls.

Both – in different ways – mark what and who are in and what and who are out. However, even though they may have a similar function, boundaries are not walls (nor are country borders). Boundaries mark what or who is in or out, but one of the functions of a wall is to keep some people in (lest they stray) and to keep others out.


It seems to me that the Church has a responsibility to define its boundaries, but that it needs to be much more cautious about the walls it raises. To define its boundaries the Church will look to God’s revelation in Scripture: what boundaries has he set for the Church? In addition, and depending on its view of historical tradition, the Church may also want to pay attention to the various creeds that have helped to clarify boundaries at different times in various centuries.

For example, the statement that ‘Jesus is Lord’ is a boundary marker. Some people affirm it, others don’t. It distinguishes who is in and who is out. But while it is a boundary marker, it is not a wall. Those who affirm it can reach out to those who do not. Those who don’t affirm it can sit in congregations as they explore the implications of the claim.

At the risk of an over-generalisation, may I suggest that the relationship between boundaries and walls throws up a challenge for the Church and for every (local) church.


So here is my question – actually a double question: there are other questions that could be asked around this, but this is enough for now.

  • Are there some of us who are so intent on making sure our boundaries are well marked and secure that we turn them into walls?
  • And are there some of us who are so keen not to build walls that we even want to do away with boundaries?

Answers on a postcard…

PS – My thanks to Steven Peay for planting these ideas in my mind.

George Muller’s morning devotions

While I was staying at Nailsworth, it pleased the Lord to teach me a truth, irrespective of human instrumentality, as far as I know, the benefit of which I have not lost, though now, while preparing the eighth edition for the press, more than forty years have since passed away. The point is this: I saw more clearly than ever, that the first great and primary business to which I ought to attend every day was, to have my soul happy in the Lord. The first thing to be concerned about was not, how much I might serve the Lord, how I might glorify the Lord; but how I might get my soul into a happy state, and how my inner man may be nourished …

I saw, that the most important thing I had to do was to give myself to the reading of the Word of God and to meditation on it, that thus my heart might be comforted, encouraged, warned, reproved, instructed; and that thus, whilst meditating, my heart might be brought into experimental communion with the Lord. I began, therefore, to meditate on the New Testament from the beginning, early in the morning. The first thing I did, after having asked in a few words the Lord’s blessing upon His precious Word, was to begin to meditate on the Word of God, searching, as it were, into every verse, to get blessing out of it; not for the sake of the public ministry of the Word; not for the sake of preaching on what I had meditated upon, but for the sake of obtaining food for my own soul.

It’s no way to run a business, but it’s the way the Kingdom of God operates!

work-punch-clockIn case you’re wondering, it’s a time clock where employees get their cards stamped as a way to verifying they’ve worked enough hours.

But how much work should a worker work to be sure that they’ve earned their pay?

Unless you are committed to some kind of economic utopian egalitarianism, you’ll probably not use the story Jesus told in Matthew 20 about a man who owned a vineyard and who recruited a series of day labourers.

There were five groups of them: some of them started first thing and worked all day, some worked from 9 in the morning, some from noon, some from 3 and some were recruited only at the 11th hour. The kicker in the story comes when the people who’d worked all day watch the 11th hour workers get paid a full day’s wage, assume that therefore they will get more, but end up getting the same.

It’s probably not how you’d run a business: at least you’re unlikely to be successful if the people who turn up after lunch on Friday get the same wage as the people who’ve worked all week!

But it’s the way the Kingdom works, for God’s Kingdom is a Kingdom of reversals. The story is framed by a couple of bookends that make the same point: But many who are first will be last, and the last first (Matthew 19:30); So the last will be first and the first last (Matthew 20:16).

It’s not the first time that Jesus has talked about reversals: the Beatitudes (Matthew 5) pronounce blessing on some of the people who are most likely to be trampled or ignored. Nor is it the last, for it is the servants who are the greatest, the slaves who will be first: just as the Son of Man came to serve and give his life, rather than to be served.

The story of the vineyard workers is an illustration of the principle: but I think it’s also worth making a couple of observations about the King of this kingdom of reversals, and how he treats his workers.

  1. He is fair – and never underpays. In the story the 12 hour workers got what they had been promised. Justice and fairness are important planks in how an ordered society should work and in the story the vineyard owner kept his word. Perhaps the point is not far removed from the assurances that Jesus gave Peter and the disciples in Matthew 20: anyone who lives sacrificially for the King and his Kingdom will receive their reward, for the King never underpays.
  2. He is generous – and gladly overpays. In a sense the workers’ grumbling (not unlike the older brother in Luke 15) had less to do with what they received and more to do with the treatment of the 11th hour brigade. Had they received the day’s wage promised and the others received only a fraction of that, there would have been no complaint. But – as the vineyard owner pointed out to them – they begrudged their employer’s generosity. People whose lives are built exclusively around the notion of fairness – no such thing as a free lunch, you’ve got to pay your way – are likely to struggle with grace. They are so intent on being treated fairly that they resent it when the King chooses to be generous over less-deserving folk.

So how do you handle it when God seems to bless someone else more than you? When they seem to have a bigger portion of his favour and by your reckoning they are not as deserving as you? Perhaps they are not as gifted, not as theologically sound, not as diligent, not as righteous – at least in your estimate: and yet God chooses to bless them! What if you’re a leader and God seems to be blessing someone else’s leadership or ministry more than yours?

How often to some of us need to hear the King’s rebuke: Would you begrudge my generosity? If our relationship with God is based largely on some kind of quid pro quo arrangement, we are likely to struggle when he is kind and generous to those who – in our judgement – don’t deserve it.

And isn’t it also true that those who truly appreciate God’s generosity to them will not begrudge his generosity to others, even when those others are, apparently, less deserving?

Gettys at the Waterfront


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We spent Saturday evening at Belfast’s Waterfront Hall (where you’re not really supposed to take pictures or use your phone): it was the third evening of the launch event for Keith and Kristyn Getty’s autumn tour, Facing a Task Unfinished. That’s also the title of their most recent CD release. The title comes from an old missionary hymn, written in 1931 which the Gettys refreshed and relaunched earlier this year in a unique world-wide sing that included over 5000 churches.

The Gettys were joined on stage by their band – an extraordinarily talented bunch of musicians who – it should be said – add to these events because of the enthusiasm they exude while making music, by Jonathan Rea and members of his New Irish project, and by Keith’s writing partner for his best known hymn, Stuart Townend.

Music and musical tastes can be quite a divisive issue in churches: we should be grateful for the way Keith, Kristyn and Stuart have contributed a singable, and theologically rich repertoire to the Church’s hymnody.

If you missed the concerts in Belfast, get the album (crank it up on the amazing tour of the world ‘Beyond these Shores’; and if you live in North America, get along to one of the upcoming tour events.

Crucibles of leadership development


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It’s not the first time I’ve written about this, but, as I have processed the results of y research over the past few months, I thought I’d give it another go.

The term crucible is how Warren Bennis and Robert Thomas described intense transformational experiences that had been encountered by leaders. I set out to explore what significance crucibles might have in the development of Christian leaders.

Fourteen leaders were kind enough to give me a few hours of their time and allowed me to interview them at some length about their leadership journeys. The leaders were drawn from several denominational backgrounds, they have led mostly in the British Isles, they had an average age of 61 and included twelve men and two women. Most of them have led in local churches but the sphere of leadership for others has been wider.

They described various kinds of experiences which I classified under three main headings:

  • New territory: learning to lead was sometimes a step out of the comfort zone – a couple of leaders referred to a ‘baptism of fire’; for some of them, their leadership journey has involved significant paradigm shifts, both for them and for the people they have led.
  • Reversals: leaders are not exempt from challenging personal circumstances such as loss or the reversal of their plans. In addition there are particular challenges that come with being a leader: some of the leaders have had to deal with conflict, rejection, or disappointment.
  • Isolation: leaders undergo seasons when they are unable to lead, perhaps because of illness. They may also encounter ‘wilderness’ times, out of the limelight, or times of spiritual struggle like the famous ‘Dark Night of the Soul.’

Crucibles have a part to play in shaping both who the leader is, in terms of his or her character and relationship with God, and also what the leader does, in terms of his or her calling.

  • Character: at times it take a crucible to reveal character issues that need attention. This can happen in crucibles of failure, but also in crucibles of success. In fact it is possible for a leader apparently to be successful in one area of life, say their public ministry, while failing badly in another.
  • Spirituality (or the leader’s relationship with God). An intense crucible experience can drive a leader into a greater degree of dependence on God: the crucible becomes a means whereby the leader learns to cultivate trust in God. For some leaders, various crucible experiences allowed what they already believed about God to take on an ‘existential intensity’. Leaders also described remarkable, life-changing experiences that had helped them grasp God’s love for them.
  • Calling: some leaders (not all) experience God’s call as a dramatic experience, not unlike the call of some of the great leaders and prophets of the Old Testament, whose lives were redirected as God intervened at a particular point in time.
  • ‘The Stamp’: some leaders find that their leadership takes on a particular mark or stamp – perhaps a particular emphasis comes to define or shape what they do, as their convictions are forged in the crucible.

Crucibles, then, are intense, transformative experiences that contribute to the shaping of a leader, often playing a significant part both in shaping who the leader is and in shaping the leader’s calling. In some senses they function as intensive learning opportunities where leaders learn about themselves, about God and about their leadership.

But they are not everything. Leaders – like everyone else – are often shaped in more gradual, perhaps almost imperceptible ways through the relationships and commonplaces of life.

Character: the shadow side

shutterstock_1838598141While it should be obvious that, as Parker Palmer puts it, a leader has the ability to project either light or shadow, it may be less obvious that leadership strengths have a shadow side. For example, resilience can easily become stubbornness; discernment can become judgementalism.

Samuel Rima observed that,

The personal characteristics that drive individuals to succeed and lead often have a shadow side that can cripple them once they become leaders and very often causes significant failure.

Here are four examples I have noted in from talking with several leaders (some of whom I have quoted):

  • Self-reliance/resilience
  • The ability to confront
  • Passion
  • A strong sense of call

Self-reliance can lead to resilience, but can make it difficult to relinquish control.

[Self-reliance] been a strength… in that I have faced things that some of my brothers and sisters in ministry would have gone off with stress. And I don’t think I’ll ever go off with stress… But it’s …bad in that (a) I find it hard to let go and let God and (b) I think I find it hard to … to not be cynical, you know that if I depend on people I expect they’ll let me down, and, you know, so I… have to keep things right.

As this leader says, there is clearly a negative side to ‘self-reliance’, when it gets in the way of depending on God. But it’s tricky when it come disguised as resilience – a vital quality for successful leadership.

The ability to be confrontational enables a leader to deal with problems, but can lead to harshness.

There’s a few stories of people who I confront and it wasn’t nice and I had to go back and apologise, which was the right thing to do.

Passion enables a leader to get things done but can lead to burnout or damage to others.

Passion is a two-edged sword; it both gets things done but it burns you out…

My passion made me very single-focused in terms of … I don’t regret a single thing I challenged, but I regret deeply the way I went about it – in some cases.

It’s those leaders who operate with passion and drive who are most likely to accomplish significant goals – and every organisation needs them, especially in ground-breaking or particularly challenging situations. Some leaders may have deeper emotional resources than others, but the leader quoted here warns about the potential of burning out (which might be better than rusting out, but, either way, the leader is out!). And there is, of course, the potential for collateral damage in those you lead.

A clear sense of call can lead to confidence and focus, but may also lead to drivenness and neglect of other areas of life.

Ministers, especially those in the reformed tradition, who have this sense of call, are so driven, everything else just falls… secondary. Because everything has to be on the basis of what God has called you to do…. There is something wrong here.

This may be particularly delicate in that having a strong sense of God’s call on one’s life can appear to be such a spiritual thing! If God has called a leader to a mission, who or what would dare to get in the way! Os Guiness (in The Call) challenges those who prefer to concentrate on that part of their calling which sits closest to the core of their giftedness at the expense of what they regard as more peripheral aspects, Guinness argues that ‘calling is comprehensive, not partial. We need to remember that calling has multiple dimensions and includes our relationships…. This distinction is important because it is easy to become spoiled if we concentrate on the core of our giftedness – as if the universe existed only to fulfill our gifts.’

If you are a leader you will need to develop a humble introspection and a willingness to allow yourself to be challenged.

Concluding words on this to Leighton Ford:

Every leader has a ‘shadow’ side, like the dark side of the moon – areas that are disguised, or perhaps explored but unrecognized. I am convinced that our leadership will be stronger and the dangers of collapse lesser if we become aware of these dark areas and bring them into the light early.’

Failing in the crucible of success


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It’s been a while since I’ve blogged about crucibles of leadership – those experiences which test and transform a leader. The term normally conjures up some kind of harsh experience in fact not every crucible is painful.

Success can be a crucible – and it’s possible to fail in the crucible of success.

Hezekiah was an essentially good king in Judah. He got to witness the remarkable destruction of Sennacherib and his Assyrian invaders; and he experienced a supernatural healing, going on to live a further fifteen years as God responded to his prayer (see Isaiah 38).

Upon his recovery he received envoys from Babylon who had come to find out what had happened. The biblical text observes that ‘God left him to himself, in order to test him and to know all that was in his heart.’ Motivated by pride (see 2 Chronicles 32), he welcomed them and showed them his treasure house with its precious metals, spices and oil.

Sadly, he was judged for his pride, though judgment was deferred as he humbled himself.

A leader’s response to success and prosperity are as significant as his/her response to failure and adversity.

  • Success can distort our hearts, leading us to forget that apart from God we can do nothing of significance. It can lead us to become proud, not only to forget who God is, but to forget who we are. One of the leaders I interviewed for my research told me that he had been reluctant to consider himself as a leader (even though he led) and that part of the reason for that was his observation of people whose success and status changed them for the worse: their ego took over as they were increasingly celebrated as leaders.
  • External success might draw a blind over what may be going on in the hidden parts of our lives. Another leader I spoke to recalled a time when his public ministry was flourishing while his home life was in chaos. The more his ego was stroked as his ministry prospered, the more he worked and the less he invested in his family.
  • External success might even lead us to think that the hidden and inner parts of our lives don’t really matter too much: after all, look at how successful we are.

So, leaders, don’t just reflect on what you can learn from the hardship experiences and how they might be shaping you: pay attention to how you handle prosperity and to what your response to success says about you.

The crucible is for silver, and the furnace is for gold, and a man is tested by his praise (Proverbs 27:21).

PS (20/6/16) – Came across this – from Abraham Lincoln – yesterday:

Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man’s character, give him power.

Defining Moments


Portbraddon on the North Coast of Northern Ireland.

I’m off to the North Coast this weekend with a group of men from Moira Baptist Church – they take themselves up to a hostel by the sea this time every year (they have little imagination in terms of inviting speakers, so this is my third year with them).

The theme of the weekend is Defining Moments. One of the leaders I interviewed for my ‘crucible‘ research talked about a time when his plans for his life were turned on their head: it was a defining moment that taught him what it meant to allow God to direct his life (he has subsequently had a long and fruitful ministry).

In our lifetimes, most people make relatively few really major decisions that require hours of thought or that result in a significant change of direction (it might be different if you are a head of state or the commander of your country’s armed forces). For many people it’s limited to various permutations about which career path to follow, who to marry or where to live. On the other hand, life is made up of 1001 moments, the seemingly small decisions (some of them are genuinely small – what breakfast cereal did you have this morning or are you an avocado and poached egg person?) that make up our day, sometimes without us being aware of them.

Over the weekend I’m going to be talking about a couple of major defining moments that were encountered by two biblical characters. One is Nehemiah whose life direction was changed on the back of the news that his brother brought him from Jerusalem. The other is the story of the temptation of the Lord Jesus when he was offered a series of shortcuts that would have eliminated the need to follow the painful path of obedience and trust.

But we’re also going to be thinking about some of the 1001 everyday situations that shape our lives. What’s the point on me focussing all my attention on waiting for a one in a lifetime (if even) ‘call’ experience like that of Nehemiah or one of the other biblical characters to go and do something significant, if I don’t treat my wife well?

What do you think? Has your life been shaped more by the small number of big decisions you’ve made or is it defined more by the everyday choices you make – both good and bad?

Theology: systematic or biblical? (An illustration)


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A couple of disclaimers to start:

  1. The title should not imply that there has to be an either/or; much less that systematic theology is necessarily unbiblical!
  2. This is not meant to be a scholarly piece – it’s really just a simple illustration.

I’ve just started a six part series for Portstewart Baptist Church (where I was formerly pastor) in what they are billing as a Spring Theology School. As part of the introduction yesterday evening I used an illustration that went like this:

Let’s say you have a copy of a biography of a significant politician, for example. The biography itself might start with the background of his family, proceed through the person’s childhood and education, his (or her) first steps into politics, rising to power and what they did when they were in power. It tells a story. But at the back you might have an index that would tell you which parts of the book contain references to various subjects. Let’s say Europe was important, or tax policy: you’d look up the index and it would give you all the pages that refer to the particular theme. It would be useful if you wanted to cut to the chase and see how the person related to any of those issues, but it would not give you much of a sense of the storyline or the overall picture.

Same thing for approach to the Bible and its themes. We can take a systematic approach whereby we define a list of major topics (God, humanity, Jesus, the work of redemption, etc) and arrange all of the relevant passages and verses according to their contribution to one or other of the themes. It’s a systematic approach that helps us define our doctrinal views, for example on the Trinity, or the deity of Christ.

However it’s possible to do this without paying adequate attention to the developing storyline of the Bible: in fact an overly systematised approach can cause us to miss the force of particular individual sections. Biblical theology is more concerned about how each part of Scripture contributes to the developing picture. Rather than slicing everything up into categories, it reminds us of the progression of God’s plan.

The challenge is to do both and allow each to inform the other in appropriate ways.

Do you like Christmas?



It’s a bit of a weird question to ask at this time of the year (though it’s almost been cold enough for Christmas): in fact, it’s a slightly weird question to ask anyone at any time of the year, unless his name is Ebenezer Scrooge.

A number of years ago, when I was working with Westlake Church in Switzerland, someone asked me. At Christmas time, too.

Of course I liked Christmas – and still do. In our church we made quite a big deal of it with candles and carols and special radio ads.

Yet this guy asked me if I liked Christmas.

Thing is that apparently the way I spoke in some of the Christmas services you wouldn’t have guessed it. I sounded kind of angry and annoyed. Not at Christmas, mind you, more at the people who were in the congregation.

Like a lot of churches we had people turning up at Christmas who didn’t tend to show up so much the rest of the year. It was great that they came, but somehow my desire to use the opportunity to challenge them about the lack of room for Jesus the rest of the year meant I was coming across a bit angry.

It can be a fine line for preachers. How do you preach to the spiritually careless, especially when you only get one shot at it every 52 weeks? Didn’t John the Baptist tell his brood of snakes they’d better produce fruit in keeping with repentance? It’s hardly being faithful to the gospel to do no more than leave people feeling good about themselves when they’ve basically shut out their Creator. Not that I think we should borrow John’s language, mind you!

The problem is that there is a kind of preaching that leaves people – even the faithful, as they listen week by week – with the impression that they are never good enough and can never do enough. I’m not talking about discouraging self-salvation at this point, it’s more about preachers who feel that their job description is all about challenge. No matter how committed the people are, they ought to do more. No matter how much spiritual progress they are making, they must not rest on their laurels. It’s preaching with a big stick. And it is potentially exhausting.

Why do we do it? Is it because we want to be faithful to God? Is it because of the doctrine of total depravity? Is it because we are fearful and strong words are the best way we know to keep people in line? Is it because we are preaching to ourselves and we are only too aware of our own shortcomings? It can be easier to scold someone else than change yourself!

I preached the other day about grace – or signs that we may not be living in its goodness as a day by day experience. It left people feeling ‘challenged’. I was conflicted about that; for it seems to me that there is something ironic in people going out from listening to a message about grace smarting from a challenge. What kind of grace would that be?

Preaching needs to comfort as well as confront. Too much of one without the other leaves it imbalanced. There is some truth in that old saying that the preacher’s task is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.

That seasoned leader, Paul, wanted the Thessalonian church to ‘admonish the idle, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak [and] be patient with them all.’

If your preaching is all about admonishing, you need to add some encouragement.

There is a time to confront and there is a time to comfort. When grace exposes us, it is not to leave us exposed, but to lead us to a place of shelter and restoration.

Think about Jesus and Peter. Breakfast by the lake. The grace that restored Peter first asked Peter the searching question: ‘Do you love me?’

When grace-filled preaching confronts and challenges, it is ready to pour in the comfort of the good news of a Father’s love that comes to us through his Son.

If you’re always scolding, how will your people know that you love them?

Maybe that’s what was wrong with my Christmases.

When Ego Leads the Church



I’ve been teaching through John’s letters over the past couple of months – one of a couple of evening classes at Belfast Bible College. As we wrapped up the course yesterday evening we were in 3 John, where we met Diotrephes.

In the background of both 2 and 3 John are some travelling preachers – some false and some true. The church is to help the former but not the latter.

Gaius, the addressee of 3 John has done a great job of helping those preachers who have gone out on mission for the sake of the name of the Lord Jesus; in contrast to him is Diotrephes.

Scholars have attempted to reconstruct the reasons for his conflict with ‘the elder’ (presumably St John, the Apostle), but the simple facts are that Diotrephes refuses to acknowledge John, he is spreading gossip about him, he refuses to welcome the missionaries and excommunicates anyone who goes against his policy.

And he ‘likes to put himself first’.

Ego leading the church.

A week ago, a prominent evangelical pastor in America resigned from his post. His elders have written on the church website, detailing some of the patterns of sinful behaviour which have led to this situation: they include ‘manipulation and lying’; ‘domineering over those in his charge’ and ‘a history of building his identity through ministry and media platforms’.

These are their words and not mine. They tell a story, like 3 John, of ego leading the church.

Perhaps you think of the old dictum that said that power tends to corrupt and absolute power tends to corrupt absolutely. It’s naive to think that Christian leadership is exempt from this.

Which calls for some urgent reflection on the nature and practice of Christian leadership. What is the nature of a leader’s authority? Should that be leaders’ (plural) authority? How can a leader recognise when ego is settling into the driving seat? When is it appropriate for a leader to exercise authority (as John appears to do in 3 John)?

And how is the concept of authority coloured by Jesus’ teaching that his followers are to relate in ways that are different from the leaders of the secular world?

Do we need to see more leaders taking up the towel and washing people’s feet?

If your church is not serving cake, you may be making a big mistake!



This time of the year often seems to throw up some fascinating studies relating to church ministry. I’ve written about a couple of them here and here. This week’s edition of The Irish Journal for Practical Theology and Church Leadership has turned up a fascinating report on some of Belfast’s fastest growing churches and what they have in common.

The title of the article is somewhat prosaic – ‘Factors in Church Growth in some Belfast Churches’ – but it’s worth a read. The research was carried out by Professor Pat Mason from Limerick Institute of Practical Theology and Dr Siegfried Schmidt from Hannover University.

They began by attempting to identify the 10 fastest growing churches in the greater Belfast area. They found that these straddled denominational backgrounds and included several newer, non-denominational churches. They conducted a series of interviews and focus groups among leaders and regular attenders at these churches to explore the factors behind these churches’ growth.

Some of the factors were particular to individual congregations. In one, it’s a popular preaching ministry; another is noted for its music; a slightly more offbeat attraction in one of the (Presbyterian) churches was the use of a smoke machine at the monthly family services.

But the one thing all ten had in common was the fact that they all serve some kind of cake either before or after the service (one Church of Ireland Church serves it both before and after). In most cases it was muffins or donuts, but one or two served freshly made scones: cake washed down, it should be said, by freshly brewed coffee (not instant).

John Ervine, an elder at one of the two Presbyterian churches in the survey described how he and the other elders had been sceptical when their minister suggested they try muffins and coffee after the morning service. They assumed it was ‘another American idea’ but agreed to allow him to try it for a month. ‘The results were amazing. We have tried modern music, we’ve even given out balloons to the children, but nothing worked like this: our numbers doubled in a month!’

The pastor of one of the Baptist churches in the survey (who wanted to remain anonymous) described how they had also encountered a bit of resistance at first, but after a couple of church business meetings they were able to get a 2/3 majority to agree to try muffins and coffee on the first Sunday morning of the month. They have not looked back.

‘We saw how popular all these coffee shops are with people nowadays,’ said Lucy Morris, part of the leadership team at a Church of Ireland church plant. ‘People are after the kind of experience that you only really get around a muffin and a decent cup of coffee. Why can we not give them that at church? The church should be leading the way in this kind of thing.’

A few people expressed concern about the sugar content of the donuts and muffins, and thought the Church should be setting a good example in proper eating. And there were a few other naysayers (‘they didn’t need gimmicks like that when WP Nicholson was preaching’). But it’s hard, say Mason and Schmidt, to argue with the figures. If it can all help make church the most fun time of the week, is that not what it’s all about?

If you would like to read the whole article, here is the link.


A plea for mentors


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A while ago I was reviewing the leadership journey of a godly, retired church leader. He had ‘come of age’ in terms of his church leadership at a time when – in his words – ‘there was no talk about mentors or disciplers’.

He told me that he would have loved an older Christian to have helped walk him through the essentials of the faith; even if this older person had been from a different denominational background, with different views on certain things, he could have suggested some useful reading to help the younger leader come to his own opinion.

And he said this:

That would have been so good, if I had had that. I think it would have prevented me from making mistakes later on: mistakes that I had to learn by, and did learn by. But it might have short circuited some of the problems in the ministry.

If you are a seasoned leader, say in the second half of your life and leadership, how do you read that? Is there a younger leader or two that you know who might benefit from your coming alongside them in their leadership journey?

The Church: God’s workmanship

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This year – 100 years on from the Easter Rising and from the Battle of the Somme, three Christian agencies have got together to call people to 100 days of prayer. They’ve drawn on a number of various people to write a series of daily devotionals.

Today is my contribution and it’s a reflection on what Paul says about the Church as God workmanship, in Ephesians 2.

But it’s not just the stars. It’s us. The Church. Not yet perfect, but God’s handiwork. Pointing beyond ourselves to the great Artist who has brought us to life through His grace.

You can click here to read the whole thing and catch up on the story thus far.

One more thought on loving Jesus

Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?

The powerful, penetrating question of Jesus to Peter that every leader and every disciple needs to hear spoken freshly: do you love Jesus?

My mind’s been drawn to this after I was asked to preach recently from John 21. In an interesting juxtaposition in other reading this week, I read the story of another Simon – the Pharisee in Luke 7. The man who hosted Jesus, but with no apparent affection. The man whose party was gatecrashed by ‘a woman of the city who was a sinner’.

While Simon tut-tutted, the woman wept and washed the feet of Jesus with her tears.

He who is forgiven little loves little.

Is that at least part of what holds some of us back? We have not realised how much we are loved and forgiven.

If you’re struggling with the John 21 question, perhaps you need to focus on grace.

A couple more questions

Following on from my ten questions for church leaders post, I thought I’d dig a little deeper into John 21 and highlight a couple more themes.

The key question for Peter – and for us – was,

Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?

It’s a searching question that really allows for no dodging or prevarication. It’s the sine qua non of genuine discipleship and effective leadership.

Each of Peter’s affirmations is followed by some variant on the theme of feeding Jesus’ sheep. The fisherman who was commissioned as a ‘fisher of men’ now becomes a shepherd – and this, in the gospel where Jesus is the Good Shepherd.

The leader’s second question (after, ‘do you love me more than these?’) is ‘will you serve me?’

Jesus connects Peter’s love for him with his care for the sheep. The best starting point for feeding the sheep is loving the Good Shepherd. Just as feeding the sheep is an expression of love for the Good Shepherd. Anything else slides quickly into the realm of the hireling.

Then Jesus gives Peter a sobering look into his future. A day will come when he will lose his autonomy and actually lose his life. Thence to the third question: ‘will you follow me?’

At one level the first time Jesus asks Peter to follow him could be as simple and as literal as asking him to take a walk along the beach. But he asks him again in verse 21 in a way that points to Peter’s future path of following in Jesus’ steps.

But what about John? For he is following too. What’s his future like? Will he have to endure what Peter endures? Will his path be different?

With words that challenge us about our own tendency to compare ourselves to others and to get distracted, wondering about their pathway, Jesus gently and politely tells Peter that that is not his concern.

What is that to you? You follow me!

Three questions that allow a leader (or any believer, really) to explore three aspects of their life:

  • Our heart, the level of our devotion to Jesus;
  • Our calling: how does that devotion express itself in being part of Jesus’ plan?
  • Our journey, the extent to which we are focussed on following Jesus.


Ten Questions for Church Leaders (one of them matters more than the others)


  1. How many people did you have on Sunday?
  2. What theological degree have you got?
  3. Can you cast an enthralling vision?
  4. Have you read James Taylor on secularism?
  5. How many staff in your church?
  6. Are you heading to the next big leadership conference?
  7. Are you looking forward to Don Carson’s new book on biblical authority?
  8. Has your church got the new software for projecting great graphics?
  9. Have you worked out what kind of Millennialist you are yet?
  10. Do you love me more than these?

You might recognise #10.

It’s what Jesus asked Peter after a breakfast that had been cooked over a charcoal fire, and Peter was about to become a fairly significant church leader. Three times he asked him, too. Three times Peter had denied Jesus. Peter was the man who thought he was stronger and better than all the others. It turns out he wasn’t, but now Jesus wants to know if he loves him more than all the others.

I suspect that church leaders are more likely to base their conversations around the answers to the first nine questions than the answer to the tenth: and perhaps more likely to rank one another (and themselves) on the basis of the first nine, than on the basis of the tenth.

But it’s the tenth that Jesus asks.

It’s not always first come, first served



What are we to make of that strange story Jesus tells (Matthew 20) about the people who worked for different amounts of time but ended up being paid the same wage?

To remind you: the first batch of workers were hired ‘at the third hour’ and were promised the going rate for a day’s work. The next batch were employed three hours later, the next a further three hours later and then there were the 11th hour brigade who had just been standing around all day. When the wages were distributed it was the 11th hour workers who were paid first and they got a day’s wage. Good work if you can get it! Which meant that when the all day workers came to receive their pay, they thought they would get more, and were quite displeased when that did not happen.

Unless you subscribe to some form of egalitarianism that argues everyone should be paid the same, no matter how much work they actually do, you probably have at least a touch of sympathy for the workers who slaved away all day under the hot sun. Fair day’s work for a fair day’s pay, and so on.

The story is framed by the double occurrence of Jesus’ teaching that the last will be first and the first will be last: it’s an important theme through the latter part of Matthew 19 and into much of chapter 20. Those who have given up things in this world will be compensated in the next. Those who want to be great have to become the least. In this (to us) upside down kingdom, the King gets to be generous to whomever he chooses in whatever way he wishes.

The landowner had kept his word to the workers who worked all day. He gave them what he promised. There was no way they could sue him for breach of contract. He had not paid them too little; if anything he appeared to have paid the other too much! ‘Do you begrudge my generosity?’ he asked them.

If our relationship with God is based largely on some kind of quid pro quo arrangement, we will struggle when he is kind and generous to those who – in our judgement – don’t deserve it.

Those who truly appreciate God’s generosity to them will not begrudge his generosity to others, even when those others are, apparently, less deserving.

If you are a young church leader, here are three things you need to be building into the foundation of your leadership


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I could write about vision, or resilience, or creativity, or brilliant communication skills, but I won’t. At least not in this piece. Instead, here are three significant things that you might be tempted to overlook, or just take for granted.

I’m taking these from one of the three references in Hebrews 13 to the word ‘leader’. You can look them up, but two have to do with the Hebrews current (at the time the book was written) leaders and one with their previous leaders.

Here is what the writer says:

Remember your leaders, those who spoke to you the word of God. Consider the outcome of their way of life and imitate their faith.

  • Pay attention to the content of your message. The first leaders were basically defined as being the people who spoke the word of God to the Hebrews. If it it true that any leader’s message is important because of the way it shapes the values and direction of the organisation, a church leader’s message is vital. You are not simply tasked with presenting a compelling vision or articulating the top ten values of the group, you have the responsibility to communicate the mind of God to church. That is a very big responsibility.
  • Pay attention to the character of your life. The Hebrews were invited to consider the outcome of their old leaders’ lives. How they had lived bore consideration. The concept of ‘authentic leadership’ has gained profile in recent decades. Writing in the aftermath of some of the business scandals from over a decade ago, Bill George appealed for ‘authentic leaders, people of the highest integrity… leaders who have a deep sense of purpose and are true to their core values.’ If this is true in the business world, how much more significant is it in the church?
  • Pay attention to the quality of your faith. Do you live such a life of resilient trust in God that those who follow you could be encouraged to imitate your faith? Are you marked by a steady trust in God – like those characters in Hebrews 11 whose races have been run but who still bear eloquent testimony to the life of faith?

There is more to leadership than these three things. I’m not saying vision is unimportant (it is), or that you don’t need to learn about how to manage change (you should), or that you don’t need to worry about surviving or resolving conflict (it would be a good idea to learn how to do both of those things): but I’d venture to say that authentic church leadership cannot afford to be less than this.

Happy birthday, Pauline!















In January 1956, Buddy Holly, Little Richard and Elvis Presley were busy making records. In the first week of that month, Sudan became independent of Britain. Two days later (January 3), Mel Gibson was born. Two weeks after Mel saw the light of day, my wife was born.

Yes – today is Pauline’s birthday: she is 60! Not that she looks it, and even if you could see a suspicion of a grey hair or a wrinkle, it would probably be down the challenge of being married to me for over half of her lifetime!

She is a lady of many roles. Some people know her as a colleague and a gifted administrator. Some know her as a wise counsellor, a trusted confidante, or a friend. She is a hostess, a cook, a (slightly reluctant) church events speaker, a team leader. She is a mother, a mother-in-law, a daughter, a sister and a sister-in-law. To me she is my wife and the person who knows me best and who loves me loyally.

In biblical terms, she is a “Proverbs 31” woman, whose children and husband rise up and call her blessed.

Happy Birthday to a wonderful lady!

The experience economy comes to church



Once upon a time, when our ancestors wanted to eat cake to celebrate a family birthday, they took themselves to the local grocer who was happy to sell them some milk, flour and eggs. From there, it was DIY and, hey presto, a cake! Until one day the grocer told our ancestors’ descendants that he knew a baker who baked a very fine birthday cake: it even had chocolate flavouring. Why go to the trouble of gathering ingredients, mixing them together and fretting nervously, lest the cake fail to be perfectly puffed, when someone else could make it for you? Which all worked nicely until someone thought the pre-baked chocolate cake could be improved by adding superheroes and cartoon characters and someone else decided that they could pop an entire birthday package in the post, complete with balloons and novelty bags. But even that could be bettered. They could send it all round in a van, to be delivered by a clown who would not only hand over the aforementioned goodies, but would spend the afternoon creating a memorable birthday experience!

Well, it’s not quite Economics 101, but hopefully you see the point. We’ve gone from an economy based on providing a commodity, to an economy that provides goods, then a service, and eventually an experience.

The other day I spotted this – on the website of a Belfast Coffee Shop:

We are not just a coffee shop, we are an experience!

For the record, it’s Cafe Smart in East Belfast but I suspect they’re not the only coffee joint that likes to offer an experience and not just a cup of coffee. Which, you probably don’t need me to tell you, has been turned into an art form in recent years. I had coffee in a friend’s house a couple of years ago: watching him prepare the brew was like being transported back to chemistry class.

Nor are the purveyors of coffee alone in providing an experience for their customers. Ever been in an Apple Store?

But what does it have to do with church?

I have a sneaking suspicion – and I would really like to hear what you think – that this might be one of those areas where as things go with the culture, so they go with the church. I wonder if the church has moved into the business of attempting to provide an experience and if many of those who attend church judge their attendance on the basis of what kind of experience they had.

I need to express one or two caveats here.

For one thing, Christianity is meant to be experienced. I am aware of the debates regarding the extent to which Acts is meant to be normative, but it’s hard to read that particular NT book and conclude that Christianity is a purely intellectual exercise. If the fruit of the Spirit is joy, is that not something to be experienced? Frankly, I think a lot of us could do with a more experiential expression of church at times: more of a clear sense of the presence of God. Is he not meant to be among us when we gather to worship?

For another – and to be clear – this is not a post about not serving coffee in church! Preferably not instant coffee, though: in that case, mine’s a black tea! And if you want to add donuts or muffins, go for it. In fact, why not have the occasional Sunday where you have a meal together?! In fact, do what you can to make sure that the folk who attend your church feel welcomed and valued. And sing songs that are memorable. And preach in a way that is interesting.

There is nothing necessarily wrong the idea of church as a positive experience. I doubt that the person who leaves a church service feeling bored is necessarily more spiritual than the people who leave with a smile on their face.

But I wonder…

Is it possible for leaders – and worship leaders – to become susceptible to a shift where they start to act as though the key to church growth and prosperity lies in how well they create and market an experience?

And it is possible for church attenders to start to judge the value of a gathering based on how it felt to be there and if there is a bigger buzz on offer at the church round the corner, they’ll go there?

And on the other hand, to what extent should churches take account of the cultural climate in order to be relevant?

What do you think?

What makes a leader?



Once upon a time, the quest among students of leadership was to find the particular traits that set leaders apart from the rest. This had followed the so-called Great Man Era, the days when it was thought that the history of the world was really the history of the great men who had lived here. Trait theory fell somewhat out of favour in the years after WW2 as other theories came to the fore, but it has made something of a comeback in more recent decades. It seems that there may indeed be some characteristics that distinguish leaders. Leadership writers Jim Kouzes and Barry Posner highlight honesty, being forward-thinking, inspiration, and competency.

I’ve been asking (via Facebook and email) what people think are the three most important marks of a leader. Among other things, people have highlighted faith and humility, the ability to be alone, vision, character and courage. I will feature a selection  from what people have told me over the next few weeks.

Meantime, here are three from me: I wish I could talk about four, but I asked everyone else for three!

1 – Trust. It’s hard for a leader to lead a group of people who don’t trust him/her. Sometimes the trust is generated by the leader’s competence: this is someone who can get the job done. But there is also a trust that is based on the perception of the leader’s character. I wonder if the reason why politicians with well-publicised integrity issues still manage to garner votes might be because followers are willing to enter into some kind of pact with a (morally) untrustworthy leader because they are confident that the leader’s competence will guarantee a particular outcome. Those followers should not complain when their house comes tumbling down! Good leaders will aim to build trust based on both their character and their competence.

2 – Self-awareness. Know yourself. Your strengths, your weaknesses, the areas where you are effective and the areas where you are not. Leaders need to know themselves well enough to be able to say ‘no’ to an opportunity that might stroke their ego but would land them far outside their level of competence. Self-awareness should also comprise an element of awareness of how I am seen by others. I’d venture to say that a lot of us have no more than a very vague idea of people’s perception of us.

3 – Resilience. The ability to bounce back and to stay on track. Resilient leaders are able to navigate the tough challenges that face their group. Sometimes the picture is going to be the captain telling the frightened sailors that they are going to make it through the storm. And resilient leaders are able to navigate their personal challenges. Sometimes life throws up crucible experiences where a leader is tested and asked questions about calling, character and values. Crucibles have the potential to shape and transform a leader, but without resilience, the lessons of the crucible may not be learned.

Trust – Self-awareness – Resilience.

What do you think?

The case of the innkeeper: A Christmas conundrum

A few years ago I saw an interview with a couple of people who write nativity plays – there’s one with a couple of pizza delivery boys! It’s a great way to include lots of kids, I guess, and it helps to freshen up the old story a bit – if you think it needs freshened up!

Which raises the question of another character – often featured – who possibly does not actually belong in the story. I don’t mean Father Christmas, or David Beckham, or Wayne Rooney, or any other modern day celebrity.

This is one we might even hear preached about in sermons. I know I have preached about him. Here is something I said about the innkeeper as part of a Christmas sermon a few years ago:

Of course there is no actual innkeeper mentioned!  His existence is implied.  But what are we to make of him?  Should we applaud his creativity insofar as he was able to come up with a place for Mary and Joseph, even though the inn was full?  Or should we reprimand him for not giving the young couple a proper place to stay when he saw their plight?

You know how the story goes. Poor Mary and Joseph with nowhere to stay. Strangers in a busy town. All the hotels were full. The B and Bs. They went from door to door and it was always the same story. Sorry – no vacancies. Nowhere to stay. No friends and no family. No room at the inn. Only the stable – a draft one, with an open door – thanks to the kind/grudging innkeeper!

And you’ve heard the evangelistic applications! Have you any room for Jesus? No room in Bethlehem’s inn, but is there room in your heart?

And so on!

But what if the reason that there is no mention of an innkeeper is because the story doesn’t even have an inn?

And right now you are scrambling around in your memory because you know what the Bible says. Not sure if it’s Matthew or Luke, but you’re sure it’s there somewhere.

What you are looking for is Luke 2:7 – And she gave birth to her first born son and wrapped him in swaddling cloths and laid him in a manger because there was no place for them in the inn.

So there it is. An inn. If there was an inn, there must have been an innkeeper. Or an innkeeper’s wife (she would have been a lot more understanding, being a woman: what with Mary obviously about to give birth). Which, by the way, raises another interesting point about the nativity story – the Bible version this time! What about the midwife? Surely there was a midwife? But she’s not mentioned – no name, nothing. A few years ago J John wrote an Advent reflection where he talked about the midwife. This nameless woman who carried the responsibility of helping to bring the Son of God into the world. He makes the point – and it’s important – that we can be anonymous to the world but no one is anonymous to God.

But back to the inn. Without being too technical about it I think there is a good case to be made for translating ‘inn’ as ‘guest room’. The word Luke uses in chapter 2 is also used in chapter 22 and it means a guest room. When Luke talks about an inn in the story of the Good Samaritan, he uses a different word.

‘No room in the guest room.’

So imagine this alternative scenario:

It’s reasonable to think that Joseph, being ‘of the house and line of David’, had some relatives or friends in the village. It is also possible that there were other out of town members of the family who had come back for the census. In which case the relative with whom Joseph and Mary had planned to stay had no room in the guest room: another family member had got their first or was considered more deserving of the guest room. Or perhaps, with the impending birth, the room was not big enough!

At that point Joseph and Mary would have had to be accommodated in what was traditionally the family room at the far end of which were mangers to feed the animals which were brought into the adjoining stalls at the end of the house.

When Jesus was born, neither he nor his mother enjoyed the relative comfort of the guest room: and the only place to place the baby was in the animal feeding troughs.

That, of course, is one way to ruin a few Nativity plays, or a few Christmas Eve sermons, or even a few carols.

But before you run me out of town as a heretic, can I remind you that the the point remains, and it is this:

When the Son of God came into the world, it was not to a palace, much less a private hospital. He was born in a place that hardly had room for him. His first sleep was surrounded by the smells of animals as he lay in a feeding trough.

And – as a glance at Mark 10 or Philippians 2 reminds us – it was only the beginning. He took on our humanity in its weakest, most vulnerable and most dependent form. He lived as a servant, obedient to his Father with an obedience that went as far as death – even the utter humiliation of death on a cross.

There is still room for us to get onto our knees by the manger.

And we also need to realise that while both the incarnation and the death of Jesus are unique events, fundamental to our salvation, they also serve to challenge us about how we live. There is no room for self-centred arrogance among the servants of the Servant King.

Who is he in yonder stall,
At whose feet the shepherds fall?
‘Tis the Lord, O wondrous story,
‘Tis the Lord, the King of Glory:
At his feet we humbly fall,
Crown him, crown him Lord of all.