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Monday, 26 March 2012

Why should Christians pray TOGETHER?

Prayer Spike - Fabrice Muamba
In the wake of Fabrice Muamba's heart attack, the footballing world has been alive with requests for prayer that he would recover. Wayne Rooney tweeted, "Hope Muamba is OK. Praying for him and his family."

What was unusual about this outpouring of prayer was that it was, well, unusual - it was a 'prayer spike': I don't suspect Wayne Rooney's tweets are normally filled with prayer requests.

The world prays in crisis - and then tends to forget God altogether when times are good.

The continual prayers of God's people
In contrast to spike prayers are the prayers of God's people. Prayer is a believer's native air because he or she has, through Jesus Christ, come to know God as their Father in Heaven and wants to talk to Him constantly, as a child speaks freely to a parent. In fact this is one way we know we are true children of God - the Spirit of sonship has entered our hearts.

The powerful collective prayers of God's people: Seven Mighty Motives
Another kind of prayer that rises to heaven is the collective prayer of Christians who gather to pray. There is something powerful about collective prayer, about devoting ourselves to prayer (Acts 2:42), and below I list seven New Testament motives for it.

Here goes:

Motive 1 - Because praying with others demonstrates my unity with them (Acts 1:14)
The 120 pre-pentecost believers "joined together constantly in prayer". In an individualistic age, where we find it hard to choose 'group' and easy to choose 'self', we need a reminder that rather than islands, we are members of the one Body of Christ. Merely praying together reminds us of this precious truth.

Motive 2 - Because I love my brothers and sisters (Acts 4:24)
When Peter and John found themselves in trouble with the religious leaders (Acts 4), the church met to pray for them. Praying for one another is a deep expression of mutual love.

Motive 3 - Because I am concerned about the Kingdom of Christ (Acts 4:24, Matthew 6:1)
Peter and John's imprisonment risked the progress of the Gospel, for if the authorities managed to shut them up, the Gospel would not spread. And so they prayed for courage and God gave it to them in abundance. Gathering to pray expresses concern for the work of the Gospel.

Motive 4 - Because I have made corporate prayer a spiritual discipline (Acts 3:1)
Peter and John go to the temple to pray at 3.00pm. Why? Because that was the time of the daily prayer meeting. Like Jesus who habitually went to the synagogue on the Sabbath (Luke 4:16), Peter and John made the place of prayer a spiritual habit, discipline or custom. Much of spiritual life requires discipline, and churches who discipline themselves to pray, will enjoy the blessings of God that come through prayer.

Motive 5 - Because I know that we are in a spiritual battle - an prayer is part of our defence (Ephesians 6)
The 'prayer meeting' is the poorest attended, most despised and least loved meeting of the church, because it is a battle ground; it is here that battles are fought and won. We have an enemy, a defeated one, it is true. Praying in the Spirit at all times, is a weapon in our armoury against him (6:18).

Motive 6 - Because prayer is the way we demonstrate our trust in God (Acts 1:24-25)
The 120 did not know who to choose as a replacement to Judas - so in their confessed ignorance, they prayed. John Calvin surely got it right when he said that "prayer is the chief exercise of faith" - he meant that prayer is the number 1 way we demonstrate our trust in God. For in prayer we humble ourselves ("we can't do this") and in prayer we acknowledge the power and wisdom and sovereignty of God ("so please you do it"). Humble Christians pray, proud churches don't need to.

Motive 7 - Because God is pleased to answer the prayers of his gathered people (Acts 1,4,12)
The book of Acts is filled with answers to corporate prayer. Wisdom is given, so that Matthias is chosen to replace Judas (chapter 1); courage is given in response to prayer (chapter 4); a miraculous escape happens (Acts chapter 12). And so it has been down history to today. God is pleased to accomplish his mighty purposes through the prayers of his humble people.

What great motives! Let us give ourselves afresh to corporate, all-together, prayer.

Tuesday, 20 March 2012

Emerging Church (2) - What can we learn from them?

Spitting out the seeds
To some, black is black and white is white. To them a movement with serious faults cannot yield any profitable  lessons. I beg to differ and prefer Scripture's advice to test all things (1 Thessalonians 5:21), holding onto the good and avoiding every kind of evil. (The real world is analogue, not digital). Few human movements are 100% in error, none 100% pure. Not everything about the Emerging Church Movement (ECM) is in error.

Here are two of their valuable insights:

The ECM takes modern culture very seriously
Like every great missionary from the apostle Paul to Hudson Taylor, the ECM want to understand the world they are living in, the people they are working among. This is first-principle evangelistic thinking and it is to be applauded. CS Lewis once said that this first part of missionary endeavour was much harder than many of us think it is - we just assume we know how the world thinks, but we don't, we have to work hard at it.

Chief among their findings is the belief that we now live in a world shaped by the system of beliefs called postmodernism.

The ECM challenges us to distinguish between Gospel and Tradition
What parts of our church life and ministry are Bible-shaped and what parts are mere tradition? Could it be that we have absorbed the culture of a previous age (modernism) and that much of what we think is "biblical practise" is nothing more than human tradition (one way, one cultural way of 'doing church').

Anyone who has worshipped in a different culture than their own will realise that the way we do things in our culture is not the "only way" to do things (unless they are so proud as to think that we Westerners have got everything right). We may think it is pure Bible-shaped, but often it is as much influenced by our culture as by the Bible.

Indeed, the genius of the Gospel is to be  low on specifics and high on general principles. Nowhere are we taught to meet at 11.00am on Sunday morning, how often to celebrate communion, etc: these things are all culturally determined. And this genius permits the Gospel to enter any culture and find there a home.

For example, the ECM challenges the following five aspects of  mid-stream evangelical churchanity:
  1. Do we over-emphasise the role of the mind, at the expense of the heart, because we were born in a knowledge-based culture? The mind is absolutely crucial in Christian living, but it is not the only human faculty!
  2. Do we consequently underestimate the role of the emotions, and even the work of the Holy Spirit as a result? (Both are at the more subjective/heart end of human experience).
  3. Do we allow people to have and express doubts, or do we stamp on doubts because we fear error and heresy so much (because we are so cerebrally/doctrinally/intellectually geared, or simply because we think we have 'arrived' and any questioning of our position is 'heresy')?
  4. Do we neglect the 'journey' aspect to conversion, thinking that all conversion must be digital - zero or one - in or out? Can we allow people to believe slowly? (At what point did the Twelve 'believe'?)
  5. What parts of our church and ministry life are out of touch with today's world because those practises were shaped by the world view of 100 years ago, though of course we find that hard to accept? 
If we are frightened to ask these kinds of questions perhaps the charge of The ECM is true - that much of western evangelicalism is unreflectively doctrinaire on secondary matters, and so unable to reach the world we are called into.
Other blogs:
Emerging Church (1) What is Emerging Church?
Emerging Church (3) What's wrong with Emerging Church?

Wednesday, 7 March 2012

Church Planting is a Costly Business

Church Planting is about Sending
Church planting is about being sent (the team) and sending (the 'mother church'). In the New Testament there is a word group whose noun is transliterated into the English word "apostle", designating a person who is sent, but whose verbs just end up as our "send", "sent" or "sending." It's a pity we don't have a single word group in English which would give enable us to say things like, "Barnabas and Saul were apostled for the work...."

Now if church planting is about sending, it is a costly business. We know that because the first Sent One (John 3:17 and Romans 8:3) was Jesus Christ, the Son of God. And that sending was costly not only to the Apostle himself, but to the Sender too.

All "apostling" is Costly
It cost the Sender his One and Only Son, the Son he loved. It cost him the sound of a heart-wrenching cry from this beloved Son, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me." Sending was equally costly to the Sent One whose anguish began long before the dreaded Good Friday, heightened in the Garden of Gethsemane and reached its apex on the Cross.

This is intentional and purposeful suffering - because out of this suffering would come the forgiveness of sins, the joy of ransomed souls, the joy of re-union with the Father. "For the joy set before him, he endured the cross."

It's no different for us: church planting 
       = sending 
       = suffering 
       = joy
If this is what sending involved for the Great Sender and his Great Apostle, it will be the same for us. Churches and church planting teams must prepare for suffering.

Straight talk to the Team
No-one should join a church team if they want a comfortable life which revolves around their families, their work, their hobbies.  If you are not prepared to put the Kingdom first, stay out of church planting. If you are looking for a church which ticks all your boxes (creche, Sunday School, Youth Club, etc., etc.) stay away from a church plant. Church planting is about giving not receiving.

Straight Talk to the Sending Church
The sending church must also adopt a spirit of giving and sacrifice too. Giving people, giving away friendships, giving away numbers, giving up money, forgetting about fame-by-numbers, being overlooked by organisational religion which counts heads ("that must be a top church, they have xhundred members"). Perhaps it is this great cost that prevents some churches from church planting: they want the glory and the fame that comes from being big, instead of the ignominy of deliberately remaining small by giving away.

Joy to Team and Sending Church
But sacrifice is never an end in itself and it always results in joy. The joy of seeing a new church born in a needy community. The joy of seeing souls saved, baptised and discipled. The joy of seeing the Kingdom grow. All true cross-centred ministry is about "death in us but life in others." (2 Corinthians 4:12).

Personal suffering, yes, but life in others.

"He who goes out weeping
carrying seed to sow
Will return with songs of joy
carrying sheaves with him."
Psalm 126:6

Friday, 2 March 2012

Church Planting needs a Missionary Spirit

Church Plant Pep Talk
Last week I spoke to a group of Christians who are wanting to church plant in a very needy area of our city. I put six questions to them, which could be summarised as: Do you want to be a missionary?

The attitude of all-too-many western Christians is "What's in it for me and my family?" This attitude pervades everything from employment, to housing location to church choice.

The consumer mentality
So many Christians  are really modern consumers masquerading as disciples of Jesus. Their choices are determined by the question: "what's in it for me?"

Take church choice as an example. Western Christians write down a mental check list. The church must have this facility and that ministry; it must tick this box and that box. If it does then I'll go there....

.......well, I'll go there until one of my boxes gets unticked. And then I'll leave and find another church.

"Sainsbury's used to sell my kind of root beer, but since it no longer stocks it I'm off to Tescos": that's how many Christians treat the local church.

Islands of selfishness
This attitude is simply fleshly selfishness, which we  know all too well can assault any one of us. In sharp contrast to this me-ism, is the attitude of a true disciple of Christ, perhaps only seen fully in the life-time missionary. 

Missionary Adoniran Judson visited by his wife in prison
Sacrifice is the name of the Missionary game
Missionaries sign off their lives and desires before they embark on their life's calling. They do not start with the question: "what's in this for me?" They start off knowing "there will be nothing in this for me or my children." They expect suffering, inconvenience and sacrifice.

The Great Reward
And yet in a typically cross-like twist of expectations, they end up with far more than they ever dreamed, far more than they ever lost, far more than they ever imagined. Jesus, "for the joy set before him" endured the cross. When we lose our life for Christ's sake, that's the only time we really gain it. When we give up everything, that's the only time we get it back. So missionaries are no fools! They know that to lose, in the Kingdom of God, is to gain - not only in the world to come, but in this world too.

One missionary who lost everything including his life, put it like this:

"He is no fool who looses what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose" Jim Eliot

And more importantly are the words of Jesus from Matthew 19:
"Jesus said to them, “Truly I tell you, at the renewal of all things, when the Son of Man sits on his glorious throne, you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel. And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or wife or children or fields for my sake will receive a hundred times as much and will inherit eternal life. But many who are first will be last, and many who are last will be first."

Wanna church plant? Only if you wanna die in order to really live.