Monday, May 10, 2021

What can we do to get our church going?

This is an interesting but confronting question.
There are so many assumptions and presumptions potentially implied, even if asked honestly and relatively innocently. I write this as a member of a small rural congregation in decline.

Firstly there is the assumption that a small and elderly church is clearly in need of a boost. And the opposite being that a large and diverse congregation with many young people present is necessarily healthy.

Is this a normal and safe assumption?

Are there examples of small churches being healthy and large ones being very unhealthy?

Do we always equate large and numerically successful as blessed by God (and doctrinally safe)?

Do good churches age, dwindle and then die never to be heard from again? Or do good  churches simply keep on going because God blesses "good" churches with perpetuity? (The fact that most of the geographic churches written to in the letters of the new testament no longer exist as congregations or denominations is interesting. It does not disqualify the letters.)

Does a denomination have to continue on perpetually to be proved as bone-fide (no pun intended)? Does the death of a congregation or a denomination prove its error or inadequacy?

Might God allow a whole movement to be wiped out by means of disaster, or simple ageing? Might he also allow relatively poor theologically based movements to thrive?

And what of a particular gathering in a particular building?

Does legitimate faith mean that a congregation must continue to thrive in a particular building?

Does the loss of congregation and an empty church building signify failure of the church, or the denomination, the community, or the truth of Christianity?

And does a new building and a growing congregation imply true teaching and true service of God?

And what actually grows a congregation in postmodern Australia?

The desirable answer is unconverted people coming to faith and then making Sunday worship at a church building with a particular congregation a regular habit.

But truly, in Australia, how much of that is the true reason for church growth?

What of christian people marrying and having children who carry on the faith as they grow up within a church? Sadly many church kids leave christian habits. Many families have few children, which is a western norm, somewhat dictated to by culture and economy(this is a whole topic in itself). And some couples choose not to have children at all.

And what of the many people who have a Christian heritage, some becoming more convinced of the importance of practicing their faith and then simply deciding to attend church? Is this conversion or confirmation?
 

And what of the simple movement of people of faith from one congregation to another?

Surely this is the major reason for changes in congregation size in Australia?

And whatever factors come into it, people of faith can be swayed to change congregation.
The reasons may include a change of geography for job opportunities. In smaller rural communities, children grow up and often leave permanently, for reasons of employment.

But other factors like style of worship, being child friendly, theology, inclusivity, exclusivity, etc may come into play.

Of course people become deeply hurt by perceived lack of love or failure in expected behaviours within a congregation. Scandals may alienate people as well as progressive or fundamental teaching. Changes in all of these things test the loyalty of a congregation. People do become hurt, and do express this through a cessation of attending or a move to a different congregation.

People also die. Sometimes they are even martyred.

But an important question is, who is a congregation or an individual actually loyal to?

The minister?
The other congregants?
The denomination?
The building?
The accumulated funds?

To God? 

Does that imply attendance at one specific building?

Have we ever asked the simple question as to why a particular individual attends a particular congregation, and especially, why they continue attending a particular congregation? The answers I have heard include "My parents were married here, my wife was buried here, my father built the pews, etc. While I'm alive I will never leave this building!

These are all interesting questions.

It is easy to visit an old, small congregation and pick out the problems, just like it is easy to push over an elderly person.

But being elderly and frail as a congregation does not logically equate with failure in Gods eyes. And pushing over an elderly person may be easy, but it certainly is not acceptable.

Jobs suffering (in the old testament) was not due to his moral failure.

Is it an important goal to keep a congregations numbers above a certain threshold? And what determines that threshold?

To whose advantage is that status quo?

Does a small and ageing congregation imply a failure in the witness of that congregation?

What of the effect of major denominational shifts in teaching? And of the continual change in ministers appointments? Forcing people to move on within 3-5 years even when things are going well?

Is it a fair assumption or expectation that a healthy congregation will thrive in spite of changes in leadership?

Is it notable that the most populous christian denomination has, until recently, kept its leader, once chosen, in place for life?

Yes, I am a member of a small rural congregation of the uniting church. Yes, I have become somewhat wounded at people coming to our congregation and implying that somehow the smallness of numbers and lack of children is our responsibility. Yes, I am saddened and distressed by the progressive theology our denomination embraces, testing the loyalty of people like myself to my local congregation and denomination.

As Christians, we all need to be be ready, even eager to share the reason for the hope that is in us. But let us not put burdens on each other that are not godly. (Like the Israelites being given quotas for bricks by the Egyptians)

Rather let us continue to meet and worship our wonderful God and ask him to direct our steps as individuals and congregations within our community.

And let us trust God, that he births, builds and maintains his church, and that the gates of hell will not prevail against her.












 

Sunday, April 18, 2021

Giving Praise

 Giving praise to God does not need music. Turning up on Sunday, no matter how we feel, humbly identifying as a sinner who has been forgiven by God through the sacrifice of Jesus, and honouring this gift of grace by identifying with other believers, not as those in any way better than them, but as those connected permanently and lovingly by our shared Lord and faith, as well as being willing to hear Gods word, knowing the Holy Spirit is present amongst us corporately, as well as individually, but especially corporately, this is praise.
Being a willing member of the gathered community, doing whatever we are asked by God, which might include not being active, but simply being still and listening, re-aligning our lives, attitudes and goals to Gods quiet but persistent voice. Giving up personal ambition, giving up self justification, embracing Gods faithfulness, and his good and perfect will for our lives, this is praise and worship of the God who has done everything that we need, even giving up his own precious Son, and who is bringing all creation including us, to His glorious and wonderful goal.

Friday, January 8, 2021

“The earth was a formless void”

This early verse from Genesis chapter 1, should not be interpreted within the framework of our own creativity.

 

Yes, we as humans are creative, being in the image of our creator God. Yes, we can picture a “formless” lump of clay that a potter carefully and meticulously shapes into a beautiful bowl. Or we might picture a stark and barren moonscape without life. But I don’t believe we can simply apply these images to the “formless void” of the creation account.

God speaks and from nothing, creation takes place.

But pre-creation (pre-time) nothingness, and “step one” unformed earth are concepts that are beyond our understanding.

 

The human pottery artist did not begin by making, out of nothing, a formless lump of clay. That is clearly beyond us as humans. And young, aspiring potters, need to practice and develop their artistic abilities, to bring out mature works of art from the formless lumps of clay.

 

God, on the other hand, did not need to practice his creative abilities. His first and only attempt (and that word “attempt” is clearly irreverent) at creation was perfect and flawless.

The image of a stark, lifeless, cratered moonscape, implies a history to the moon. But this formless void of Genesis 1:2 has no history outside of God's intention of creation. It may be empty at this point of creation, but it is in God's active sphere of creation and therefore not lifeless, as in him is all life.

 

Some might argue that the fact of the fall of mankind is evidence that creation was flawed.

 

I disagree.

 

God saw that creation was “good”.

 

But I ask you to please continue with my thought process.

 

If God did not need “practice” in creating, then his first step of earth as a “formless void” should not necessarily be interpreted as a chaotic soup of undifferentiated building blocks, awaiting a master’s touch, or a dusty landscape, long neglected, awaiting the eye of an expert restorer. 

Each step of creation was perfect, including the formless void of earth step 1.

 

The formless void was exactly the step that was required. It was as brilliant and incomparable as every other step of creation. Though formless, it was not purposeless. Though formless, it was not ugly. Though formless, it was not waste matter. It was not an immense piece of ore that required refinement and the discarding of waste in order to purify the golden nugget, so to speak.

 

If I could compare it to anything, it would be the fertilized human ovum, the single cell with a complete set of chromosomal DNA, and the energy and environment to develop into a perfectly formed human being. The initial cell could be considered the formless void of the developing fetus.

 

God was not a space traveller who happened upon a formless void and out of it, created the earth and all of creation. Space, stars, sun, moon were created after the formless void of the earth, on day four. Of course, I am speaking from a very literal interpretation of creation. Not everyone will agree with me. I accept this disagreement.

But if we do take a very literal understanding, then the formless void of earth precedes light, and precedes the first day and night. Which may mean that the formless earth preceded the creation of time.

One day we will understand more fully the incomparable glory of our creator God.


Wednesday, January 6, 2021

Precious Jesus

In the middle of the night

keeping me awake

I see visions of my life,

scenes I can't forget,


I try to edit every scene

cut out the ugly parts

make myself a better man

but it falls apart


O I need Jesus, precious Jesus

Only Jesus heals my soul

So give me Jesus, precious Jesus

help me Jesus, make me whole


I've believed for many years

in the grace of God

all the blessings that he gives

and his kingdom come


still, I lay awake at night

As the Spirit leads (me)

past the visions of my life

to the one I need


And I see Jesus, precious Jesus

I see Jesus makes me whole

O I see Jesus, precious Jesus

Help me Jesus, to go on.

 

so I call his name

and he gives me peace

only he can save

me from my distress

every hour, every day

still, I need his grace

the great gift he gave

when he took my place

 

O, I need Jesus, precious Jesus

Only Jesus heals my soul

So give me Jesus, precious Jesus

Help me, Jesus, to go on,

Precious Jesus, bring me home.

 

Saturday, November 7, 2020

Actions Speak Louder Than Words.

One act of kindness will benefit a person, or many people, maybe even a nation. One selfless act will bless others.
But this personal gift does not nullify our personal rebellion against God.
And what if it is not a gift but a calculated investment, an attempt to redeem personal glory in the face of accusation? What if it is a premeditated sacrificial act, well within the means of the giver, designed simply to make a way of escape when justice seems likely to supervene, like a sentencing deal allowing the “lesser” criminal a reduced punishment for the sake of convicting the “greater” criminal?

The world honours these sacrificial acts and does indeed redeem fallen stars when they do good, headlines giving witness to these events.

But we are deeply devious and calculating, we do even convince ourselves that we are good. Genius drives our ability to save ourselves at every difficult turn of conscience.

But no act of kindness can save the rebel heart, on the day of true judgment,  

none.

Other than that quiet act of kindness by the Glorious Father, in sending his dearly beloved Son, as a living sacrifice, giving all he had, beyond his means, to save sinners, of whom we are all the greatest.

Sunday, November 1, 2020

We have the Numbers

We are currently pacified.

 

Our level of moral sensitivity is set, and largely satisfied.

 

We have elected our messiah-leaders and we have voted to resolve major injustices that have lingered due to long held archaic beliefs. What a time to be alive!

It sounds like freedom.

Modern man, in the west, is finally receiving due recognition, with science and technology as faithful creatures of brilliance, aiding our glorious and worthy ascent.

 

But it is not modern man, but rather modern being, as gender would threaten to fracture our inevitable victory.

 

But what if this is a dream, an hallucination, an hypnosis, brought about by unseen forces that are able to look deep into the conscience and moral make up of a human being, and give enough stimulus to our need for justice and progress, that we no longer need religion or faith to quieten our sense of failure.

 

We no longer need a true creator, a beginning story, a God.

 

But if there is a day of judgement, then what happens to states and nations, cities and communities, families and individuals; those who have never known that self-direction is a sin?

 

And if there is a day of judgement, would religion and faith be strong enough to turn the tide of self-righteousness in any of us?

 

If there is a God, is there any safe haven from the fiery apocalypse of his holiness?

 

Is there are planet or asteroid in a distant universe, with enough atmosphere to sustain life without God?

 

Are there any clauses in the fine print of his ten commandments?

 

It would not be right for anyone to bear such an unbearable cross.

 

It would be much better to continue, indefinitely, in our current path of enlightened equality, at least until life was interrupted by incurable suffering, and then we are free to be terminated by a younger messiah, who somehow avoided being terminated before their birth, so that our terminal illness is quickly ended. We could then rest in peace.

 

No suffering is better than a judgement day. We could vote in that one, we have the numbers.


Sunday, September 20, 2020

The Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard (Matthew 20:1-16)

“For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire workers for his vineyard. He agreed to pay them a denarius for the day and sent them into his vineyard.

“About nine in the morning he went out and saw others standing in the marketplace doing nothing. He told them, ‘You also go and work in my vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.’ So they went.

“He went out again about noon and about three in the afternoon and did the same thing. About five in the afternoon he went out and found still others standing around. He asked them, ‘Why have you been standing here all day long doing nothing?’

“‘Because no one has hired us,’ they answered.

“He said to them, ‘You also go and work in my vineyard.’

“When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his foreman, ‘Call the workers and pay them their wages, beginning with the last ones hired and going on to the first.’

“The workers who were hired about five in the afternoon came and each received a denarius. So when those came who were hired first, they expected to receive more. But each one of them also received a denarius. When they received it, they began to grumble against the landowner. ‘These who were hired last worked only one hour,’ they said, ‘and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the work and the heat of the day.’

“But he answered one of them, ‘I am not being unfair to you, friend. Didn’t you agree to work for a denarius? Take your pay and go. I want to give the one who was hired last the same as I gave you. Don’t I have the right to do what I want with my own money? Or are you envious because I am generous?’

“So the last will be first, and the first will be last.”

 

My friend spoke on this passage this morning, which led me think on it further. The parable is often taken to imply that it’s never too late to come to faith, and the gift of salvation and eternity is the same for a lifelong, faithful Christian, as it is for someone who might be a rebel for all of their life, but just prior to dying (like the thief on the cross) comes to trust Jesus. I agree that no matter when a person comes to faith, they are saved. But may I just say that most lifelong faithful Christians are still rebels to some degree, and struggle with sin every day, at least that is how I see myself as a long term christian.

 

Anyway, these are some of my thoughts that are a little tangential to the main thrust of the parable,

 

Those workers that were hired late, where were they earlier in the day? Obviously not as keen for work as the ones that were there early. Did they take a while to realize that there was no sense loafing at home, that there is much more satisfaction in doing a job, even if it is hard. The teamwork and the achievement is more of a reward than the pay itself, it could be said.

Having no purpose in life can be soul destroying, any job is better than no job, so it was a great blessing that the landowner went out again, and again, looking for workers.

 

Also, the harvest is a time critical job, if you don’t get it done in time, the fruit will go off, and you lose your productivity, so in a way, the landowner had no choice but to go out and find the workers that he needed.

 

But if the Landowner is God, what is the rush? Surely he can decide to delay the harvest, if necessary? but if the harvest is us, then he needs his workers to bring us in, otherwise, maybe we are lost? This gives the parable and interesting angle?

 

And what of the upset workers who felt that they were underpaid? I certainly can identify with changing my “reward expectation” without a justifiable reason. Maybe those workers quickly reassessed their personal value and skill, as they watched the last workers get paid a full days’ wage, and quickly justified to themselves that they were really worth 3 or 4 days’ wages rather than 1.

 

We can easily be overly generous in our self-assessment (as well as overly critical, which is related).

It’s better to judge ourselves with sober judgement, and accept that we are probably no better than the next person, and maybe worse; God still loves us. And that days wages, if that represents salvation, well, what have we ever done to deserve salvation? Nothing.

If there are first class seats in heaven, then God will decide who gets them, but the truth is, we all fail miserably in our Christian lives, repeatedly, yet God’s grace abounds even more, and we are included in the great wedding feast with the lamb (that’s Jesus) wand we are the bride. Unbelievable.

 

As an example of a great worker, Paul was willing to work for a living (tent making) as well as serve God as a missionary and apostle.

All he wanted was for people to come to a clear understanding of who Jesus is and what a wonderful cleansing and redeeming work he has done for us on the cross. He was willing to die if necessary (yes he was probably martyred in Rome), so great was his love of Jesus and those around him. And he didn’t think he was special, he called himself the chief of sinners.

 

I don’t think he was after any reward, he was simply grateful that Jesus met him personally on the road to Damascus, and opened his eyes to the truth. In fact he was willing to be cut off for the sake of his Hebrew brothers!

 

Also, he did not count himself as worthy as the other apostles, if that is the right word to use, probably because at one point in his life he tried to destroy the church.

 

God does not make many of us famous in preaching or songwriting, or Christian social media or even in our usual jobs, but the fact that we fulfill a role in our family, community and church is a wonderful blessing, that we should not despise. We should not envy others, who appear or are more successful.

 

God is able to do much more than what we can ever ask for or even imagine. So, brothers and sisters, let’s joyfully continue serving our loving Father, in the jobs he has prepared in advance for us to do.