Tuesday, January 28, 2020

Focussing


This is the last in a series on strategy for Wales. See the others from 17th January onwards starting with 
this.

A strategic approach to the re-evangelisation of Wales must be an exercise in ministry triage: just as paramedics arriving on the scene of a critical incident need to quickly assess their priorities, who it is that needs immediate treatment, so we need to think critically about our programmes and approaches. I think two groups, in particular, could do with more focus:

a)    Men

It seems to me that the evangelical church has for too long spent too much energy prioritising the wrong people. It has often been observed that an approach that focusses on children and women often ends there too. If men are led to Christ, however, women and children often follow. We need to be looking to reach whole families. And in order to do that we may need to cast a critical eye over our programmes with a view to asking how men are going to be reached. Furthermore, when, in God’s mercy, he draws women and children to himself what plan do we have in place to bridge over to the family leaders? If this is not happening, perhaps we need to scrap some activities and replace them with others that are more focussed on the men.

b)    Ethnic minorities

A rather different matter is that of how we approach the evangelization of ethnic minority groups, whether they be Iranians in Swansea, Somalis in Cardiff, or Nepalis in Cwmbran. It is true that the great emphasis of the New Testament is that, in Christ, previously antagonistic groups have become one (John 17:20-23; Eph 2:11-22). And the church must work hard to reflect that reality. But the Lord Jesus also made it clear that the church must make disciples of all nations (Matt 28:19). We do not have to define that in any kind of anachronistic overly sociological manner for that to lose its significance. The fact is, we have not been very good at reaching out to minority communities in the UK. This is especially so, I believe, for those groups that are traditionally Muslim, Hindu, Sikh and Buddhist.
I suggest that for some communities a focussed outreach is the only way we can overcome the social and cultural stigma that is attached to the prospect of becoming a follower of Christ. That is not to say that a church plant among, say, South Asian British Muslims needs to remain isolated from other churches. But it is an acknowledgement that we do not expect that such people are required to become like us when they turn to Christ. There is more than one way to express unity in the body of Christ.



Monday, January 27, 2020

Resourcing


We often seem to think that a lack of resources is the biggest obstacle to the fulfilment of our vision. I disagree. The biggest obstacle is spiritual lethargy. We need to cry out for the Lord to warm up our churches, and us, so that we are willing to free up time, energy, and money for the work of the gospel. 
On a practical level, how do we find funding for worthwhile projects? I mentioned earlier the great work done by social entrepreneurs. In the developing world such businesses are often funded through microfinance set-ups. A fund is created that makes small loans to individuals and groups for small-scale businesses. The community is much more invested in such a scheme than is typically the case in Western bank-based, individualistic lending.
Are there businesspeople in our churches who can establish such a scheme in order to help church members in some of our poorer communities set up small-scale businesses that bring employment and other benefits to those communities? Is this something that Stewardship would get behind? I suggest that we all look out for competent people in our church leadership who will run with this vision. Such a person would be a networker who can connect visions and skills with resources.
In addition, it seems to me that there are two areas of our churches’ giving in which a bit of critical thinking may be fruitful:

a)    Short-Term Mission

Churches in Wales have encouraged members to get involved in Short-Term Mission (STM) for decades. STMs can be a blessing in three ways:
·      people in difficult situations can be helped directly by the assistance of energetic short-termers;
·      the short-termers get the reward of doing something useful;
·      their churches can benefit from the renewed enthusiasm brought back home and cross-fertilisation of ideas.
But STMs can also have negative consequences:
·      they can be a humungous drain on resources. Darren Carlson writing from the US perspective reports that in 2005 the cost of STMs was a whopping $2.4 billion, more money than the GDP of more than 20 countries; it is a lot less in the UK but still substantial;
·      significant concerns have been raised (in the secular world as well as in missions) about visiting short-term volunteers. Sometimes dubbed ‘voluntourism’, this has been roundly criticised as a selfish effort to get an experience of life in another country without sufficient concern for the long-term effects it has on the host community. Imagine the emotional effect on an orphan of having a new adult come and play with you every week.
One friend from India recently expressed his dismay that people are going from Wales to serve the poor in places like his home country, when, in his opinion there are poorer people here in Wales! Should we think twice about sending young people overseas when there are great needs here in Wales? If someone wants to serve overseas but not at home, it may indicate that their inspiration comes more from Instagram than from the Spirit. STM in the UK (with EMW camps, UBM beach missions for example) automatically avoids many of the issues associated with STM overseas.
While we must not drop a global vision, we must continue to encourage people to consider service at home as well as in far-flung places.

b)     Partnership

Paul commends the Philippians for their partnership in the gospel (Phil 1:6). That included the giving of gifts (Phil 4:10-19) and the sharing of personnel (Phil 2:19-30). Clearly partnership between churches and other ministries is a gospel priority that leads to a synergistic outcome.
Many of our churches in Wales are involved in partnerships with churches and organisations in other places. Often that will involve financial giving to persecuted Christians, disaster relief, orphanages, etc. We are sending a lot of money overseas but what do we do to ensure that is not misused?
I have seen financial gifts bring great blessing to many: girls saved from traffickers needing a safe house to stay in and training in a skill to become independent; literature bought with foreign funds and donated to a book shop to be sold and provide an income for the bookshop owner and his family; small gifts to help someone start a business when he could not access credit from a bank. Money can be a tremendous blessing when it is used carefully.
On the other hand, there is a massive problem of fraud and UK churches can sometimes be very credulous. According to David Barrett and Todd Johnson $50,000,000,000 of ecclesiastical fraud is estimated to take place annually (latest stats I have are from 2006). That is equivalent to the entire GDP of the world’s 44 poorer nations combined! Such a statistic should make us very cautious about giving money to projects and people that we have little relationship with. I have personal experience of many horror stories of financial abuse from my time in Asia.
Just recently I challenged the organization Mission India about false statements they make on their publicity. Organizations like this lack integrity but are supported by many of our churches and church members, sucking the Lord’s money into dubious projects. We need to regularly review our giving to try to ensure that best practice is being applied and we are not allowing corrupt people and poorly conceived projects to drain our resources. Let us take a long hard look to see if we can free up money for gospel work in Wales.
Furthermore, we could be more open to develop partnerships with those from outside Wales who want to minister here. The right kind of people are needed. Can we draw up a profile of the need and send out a Macedonian call across the world? This is challenging without a doubt. We may need to be more open to change, which is never easy. But the right kind of partnership has great potential – e.g. Grace Baptist Partnership in London and SE.
Here are three principles for partnership:
      i.         Partnership can include both tangible and intangible exchange: the sharing of money and personnel must be matched by prayer, and love, and expressions of concern (Phil 1:3-11; 2:19-30; 4:10-19).
     ii.         Partnership thrives on mutual respect and love. Neo-colonial paternalism is not welcome even if it comes from countries previously considered as developing countries – the Macedonian call was to ‘come over and help us’ not ‘come over and take over our institutions’. We must be careful not to be wowed by big churches and big budgets. Using a business model to shape a partnership is worldly. Partnership must be relational, not transactional. 
    iii.         Partnership grows as trust grows. Trust is something that is formed over time. But it can be broken in a moment. The key here is attitude: cross-cultural partnership thrives on relationship. If we have the right attitude, mistakes in cross-cultural communication will be overcome. So, it demands constant self-examination to ensure we are not undermining gospel relationships in any way. And when we sin, we need to be quick to confess. Our willingness to pursue the healing of past rifts is a measure of our readiness to build gospel partnerships in the future. If they have any wisdom, brothers and sisters from other countries, or even England, will examine the health of existing partnerships before committing themselves to new ones.
The local church is of course the Lord’s vehicle for gospel expansion. But local churches must think twice before they try to forge partnerships with churches in far-flung places without help from culture brokers – people with knowledge and experience of both places. I lost count of the number of na├»ve British churches who desired to forge relationships with churches and leaders in Nepal. It always seemed to me to be a function of a little-kingdom-building mentality that wanted to show partnerships off as pins on maps in exotic places. They are playing Risk with the kingdom of God.
A way to avoid slipping up here is to recognise that the Lord in his providence has already given us expert bicultural bridges in the form of mission agencies. So, if you want to build a connection with a church in Japan, you involve people who have on-the-ground experience, who understand the situation and can interpret it to you.
I think we have not tapped into these existing networks to anything like their potential. There are Americans, Nigerians, Chinese, and Indians who want to do cross-cultural ministry in Europe. Organisations such as UFM, OM, and SIM are well-placed to facilitate our partnerships with brothers and sisters in other countries. Let’s seek wisdom from the Lord to use the relationships that already exist to develop new opportunities.
In conclusion, may I reiterate what I said at the beginning: our greatest need is not strategies and talk fests on reaching Wales but a genuine work of God by his Spirit. So, we must never substitute planning for prayer. The Lord has said he will build his church. He calls us to work with him. We must always be sensitive to the Spirit’s leading and be ready to drop our plans when he gives us an unplanned opportunity. May the Lord give us sensitivity and wisdom as we seek to lead our churches in the great work of the kingdom.

Friday, January 24, 2020

Training


The great need is for men and women who are devoted to the Lord, growing in grace, and seeking to live their lives as communities of true disciples before a watching world.
But we must also recognise that we need men and women who are able to give a coherent account of the teaching of the Bible and the gospel message. And for that to happen they have to be recognised and taught. 
The shape of that teaching must emerge out of a dialogue between the text of Scripture and the ministry context for which the learner is being prepared. It should be informed by historical models of ministry formation but not constrained by them.
Our concepts of ministry underlie the way we approach this issue. When we consider the task of training people for ministry it is the way we conceive of that ministry that has a great influence on the form of training that emerges. What are the elements that characterize our traditional Western concept of ‘the ministry’? Let me explore one area of tension.
Harvie Conn, who taught missiology at Westminster Theological Seminary until his death in 1999 asserts that the model of the minister as pedagogue is deeply influenced by Greek culture with its over-emphasis on the intellect (Eternal Word and Changing Worlds: Theology, Anthropology, and Mission in Trialogue [Grand Rapids: Academie, 1984], 273). This emphasis, says Conn, came into the church through the Alexandrian theologians of the second and third centuries, replacing the Bible’s emphasis on edification as a God-centred call to build up others through love (Rom 15:2; 1 Cor 8:1).
Conn was not condemning the training of the mind. He was arguing that, at least in some circles, the mind was being overemphasised in relation to the life of obedience and faith. So he called for the development of a model for training for ministry that is formed in “doing the will of God” (Matt 6:10, 7:21), in “living by the truth” (1 John 1:6), and in being “transformed by the renewing of your mind” (Rom 12:2). The “sound doctrine” of the minister (Titus 1:9) is to be exercised in the context of a godly life (Titus 1:6-9, 2:1ff.). I think he was right.
So, I want to plead for a diverse approach to ministry training. Let’s not exclude godly people from leadership because they don’t have A-levels. 
And let us not slip into excluding men from the pastoral ministry because they haven’t got a theological degree. Our accredited institutions are expensive to run. They need to spend tens of thousands of pounds each year just to keep their accreditation. And that in the context of too many such institutions for the size of the constituency, that in spite of a number of closures in recent years. The knock-on effect of this is they need to fill spaces in order to stay afloat. They may be tempted to widen the criteria of entry to make that happen. And gifted individuals may be led to believe that they really need a degree in order to be fruitful. The advantages of an accredited programme are that there is a rigorous check on academic quality and the student is forced to discipline themselves to fulfil the learning outcomes. 
But there are also dangers. Let me list five of them:
1.     Danger One: the professionalization of the ministry. When that happens, anyone without a theological degree considers themselves unqualified to make a contribution. The gap between the pulpit and the pew grows. Church members come to see the minister as the one who must do the work of ministry. The biblical view of every-member ministry is dropped in favour of clericalism to the detriment of the church (Eph 4:11-16).
2.     Danger Two: Satan uses good training to puff up the one who is trained. 
3.     Danger Three: those who are thus trained are put into an invidious position – if they admit they are weak and that there are some things they don’t understand they think their people will lose respect for them, which, given the expectation created by the system, is a very real fear. And so, the fear of man proves to be a snare (Prov 29:25).
4.     Danger Four: pastors and evangelists are well equipped to interact with conceptual thinkers but poorly equipped to interact with concrete thinkers. Those going into the system as concrete thinkers are socialized out of their native cognitive style into one not suited to their background and so become less able to communicate with their own people.
5.     Danger Five: church life moves from the life of faith to the life of sight (Prov 29:25; 2 Cor 5:7). The minister, with his professional qualification, takes on the role of the CEO, whose basic criterion for success is the ability to balance the budget. We may not see this much in Wales, but it is a big issue in other countries. There is no inherent reason why it should not become so here.
That means that we must develop a healthy scepticism towards accreditation. How much of the Lord’s money is simply handed over to secular academic institutions for the kudos of offering a degree? 
Furthermore, we need to develop curricula that are flexible in pace and place. These need to fit the needs and abilities of those who are identified as being called to service, whatever their academic background. Though some accredited institutions have innovated in this way, the demands of the accrediting body can prevent the flexibility that is desired.
I am not arguing that nobody should get an accredited degree: we all benefit greatly from commentaries and other scholarly works that would not have been produced had not the author been put through an academically rigorous programme. My argument is merely that we must be creative, flexible, and pluralistic, not beholden to academia. A nimble approach that is well-grounded in the context will be better able to respond to changing situations and be a better use of limited resources.
I have mostly been addressing the preparation of men for the pastoral and evangelistic ministry. But we also need to take a long look at how we are training men and women more generally. How many of us are consciously looking out for how we can release men and women in our churches into ministry and thinking how they can get the training they need to do that well?
In this connection it would be good to look at how parachurch ministries such as student ministry and camp ministry can synergise better with the local church. At camp, for example, are we consciously looking to upgrade the skills of camp officers, not only so they can lead camps but also so they can lead groups in their home churches? My impression is that this could be done better.

Thursday, January 23, 2020

Mobilising


I have been posting a series of articles that emerged out of an invitation by the Swansea ministers' fraternal to speak to them on a strategy for Wales. The introduction is followed by posts on place, migration, and settlement.

Here is the first of four posts on strategic issues:

Although we must not narrow ourselves to one text in Scripture to summarise the mission of the church, the centrality of disciple-making through evangelism and teaching is a good place to start (Matt 28:19-20). Having said that, we must do all we can to avoid dividing the works that our church members are doing on an everyday basis into a two-tier system of spiritual and secular. 
Nevertheless, we would do well to be creative to think of ways that we as churches can multiply our impact on society. In saying this I am aware that we must avoid mission creep. I take it that the mission of the church is not to do everything that individual disciples of Christ are called to. But there are ways in which we may be able to mobilise members into works of service that are good in themselves whilst also building bridges with the community.
One expression of this is social entrepreneurship. Manumit Coffee set up by Dai Hankey is a good example of social entrepreneurship in Wales. 
It is no surprise that the proportion of committed churchgoers involved in parent-toddler groups, foodbanks, and debt counselling services is way higher than our proportion of the population.
Can we extend that reach into other areas: care homes, friendship centres, and other community services? These do not have to be run by the church as church. But church members may be encouraged to take up the challenge and their involvement in such works can lead to fruitful connections to the core activities of the church. Since these services would not be specifically oriented to church activities it would be perfectly appropriate to accept public funds.
Can we encourage church members to address the growing crisis in the care sector? As a nation we should hang our heads in shame for the way we treat our elders. Taking care of the needy and vulnerable has always been a significant way that the church has attracted outsiders. Since the advent of the welfare state, however, the church has been marginalised by the state. Our country is facing a complex of serious social crises. This has been brought about, among other things, by the abandonment of our Christian heritage and its replacement with the selfish pursuit of pleasure and affluence. The consequential high rate of abortion, aging population, tension with immigration, crisis in mental health, and intergenerational alienation gives the church a new opportunity to step into the gap and do what it had always done so well before. For instance, I recently heard of a church parent-toddler group that now meets regularly with senior citizens. They all love it and it meets several needs at the same time. 
Considering the mobilization of workers, I have a particular question about one demographic that we need to be more alert to: migration statistics tell us that students from the rest of the UK tend to leave Wales once they have completed their degrees or soon after. Should we try to keep young graduates who are followers of Christ in Wales? If so, how? We may have a ready supply of workers if only we were able to share our vision with them and find ways to make that more attractive. 

Wednesday, January 22, 2020

Settlement


Having explored a little of the significance of place and migration I want to look at settlement patterns in Wales, to see if there may be anything that we can learn from them. I am not a geographer so I may need correcting on this, but I think it is helpful to recognise three major settlement types: rural, peri-urban, and urban.


a)    Rural

The great need for the gospel in rural parts of Wales is obvious. It seems to me that a bi-vocational approach to gospel ministry should be explored here: farmer-pastors, teacher-pastors, mechanic-evangelists, etc. Simon Bowkett is a good example of this approach. No doubt there are others. 
There is a huge need for church planting. Have we given sufficient thought as to the shape of such churches? I wonder if we should consider a model in which small village churches, probably meeting in homes, could be networked together with larger churches in the market towns, bi-vocational pastors providing the lion’s share of pastoral care and even teaching.
We also need to look out for other opportunities: e.g. demand in Powys for doctors. Can a church planting network recruit young doctors via CMF? Clearly the area is unattractive to newly qualified doctors, but I wonder that if the church can help meet the social and cultural needs as well as provide spiritual support such an influx could have a tangible impact on these communities.


b)    Peri-urban

The Welsh Valleys form a characteristic peri-urban region, making them different from both rural and urban places. Though similar to urban spaces, they can be isolated and neglected by the powers that be and even by the church. A report for the Welsh Government tells us that the Valleys constitute "a distressed area unique in Great Britain for the depth and concentration of its problems" (R. David, et al., “The Socio-Economic Characteristics of the South Wales Valleys in a Broader Context.” A report for the Welsh Assembly Government [2003]). While social and economic problems deepen, local authorities have been cutting back their services, apparently abandoning smaller settlements, e.g. Afan Valley.
Is this an opportunity for the church? There is still a real sense of community in many Valley settlements. Can we tap into that? We should learn from the example of John Funnell in Abersychan, and others like him.


c)     Urban

This is by far the most complex geographical type. I won’t go into any discussion of the meaning of cities here but that is a discussion that needs to be had before we seriously engage with the city. Gospel churches in Wales, as in other parts of the UK, are generally to be found in the suburbs, though in recent decades, there has been an encouraging development of gospel churches in the city-centre.
I want merely to point out the following features of the cities of Wales that should figure in any attempt to formulate plans to reach our cities with the gospel:


i)               Social diversity

One of the features of the city to have emerged since industrial times is that of the ‘estates’ – pockets of social housing with high rates of social and economic deprivation. I don’t have any particular contribution here except to suggest you follow the tweets and blogs of such people as Stephen Kneale, Ian Williamson, Mez McConnell, and Duncan Forbes. (Tim Chester’s Unreached and the older, but still useful, Urban Harvest by Roy Joslin should also be studied to understand the context better.)
Let me say, however, that I think discussions about ‘class’ are often ignorant and lazy, talking about the ‘working class’ and the ‘middle class’ as if they are social groups. They are not. We need to recognise the distinction between social groups and societal groups and not get them confused. It would make our discussions more nuanced and concrete.


ii)              Cultural diversity

The cities are by far the most culturally diverse settlements in Wales, as elsewhere. Immigration is far more pronounced here than in peri-urban or rural environments. Now many of us have a high ideal when it comes to displaying the multi-cultural nature of the Bride of Christ. That is good. But often we show a lopsided attitude. We expect minorities who come to our churches to adapt to us but don’t expect the majority to have to adapt to them. Furthermore, not many of our churches demonstrate our value of multi-cultural diversity in the makeup of our leadership. Are we looking out for potential leaders among our ethnic and social minorities? It would be easy to overlook them. They are often quiet, perhaps because they have a strong sense that they are guests. I am just scratching the surface of a difficult phenomenon that some of us should be making a matter of much prayer and study.


iii)            Religious diversity

At this point I want to say something distinct about reaching those of other religious traditions. It seems to me that the evangelical church in Wales has hardly begun to give this matter much thought at all. We lump all ethnic minorities together. But I think we need to take the context from which these minorities come very seriously indeed. I have given this issue the major part of my thought for 34 years.
I want to suggest that we give careful consideration to community-specific churches rather than automatically disqualifying such a notion as being unbiblical.
I think the ground reality is such that we will never get very far at all unless we move in this direction. I have written extensively on this elsewhere (e.g. here).