Plan A: The Local Church

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Plan A.001

Recently I’ve been doing some speaking around the topic of The Church. As I spent time thinking, preparing, writing and sharing this material, I was both challenged and inspired. Since some of it seemed to resonate with people over this summer I thought I’d share some of what I’ve been saying. The intention of it is to encourage you wherever you are. So here goes. Happy to hear your input.

“Always be humble and gentle. Be patient with each other, making allowance for each other’s faults because of your love. Make every effort to keep yourselves united in the Spirit, binding yourselves together with peace. For there is one body and one Spirit, just as you have been called to one glorious hope for the future.” Ephesians 4:2-4

Let me suggest 2 ways that I think this looks like for the church today.

I recently read the front page of a newspaper that led with 2 main feature stories. The first celebrated a British female tennis star who the newspaper claimed was “ours”, despite conceding the fact that she had been born in a different country. The second story focused on the migrant crisis, with the headline writer making it clear that these people weren’t “wanted here”. The irony was strikingly obvious and yet that didn’t seem to bother the publishers. They were complaining about the same thing they were celebrating.

Too often we do this with the church.

We realise its importance & recognise its value but often we end up complaining about what it isn’t or grumbling about what it is. Too often we open our mouths to sing with our church community, and yet mutter our frustrations about that same community. Too often our first mindset is to complain about what the church isn’t rather than to celebrate what it is. Instead can we recognise the brilliance and the beauty of the church?

I love this quote that I read on the Catalyst blog: “We have great worship on YouTube and inspiring sermon podcasts to listen to. Yet nothing compares to meeting with God’s people for worship, mutual encouragement, friendship, prayer and teaching. When you read the New Testament, belonging to Christ and belonging to his church always go together. Jesus is coming back for his church. It is not an optional extra-it is the community of God’s people in every place, showing God’s love and demonstrating his kingdom. Love the church, because in spite of all her flaws, Jesus loves her.” Craig Cooney

When my hairdressers asks me where I work I always seem to downplay what I do. But I work for a large multi-national company that’s been in existence for hundreds of years that runs hospitals all over the world, helps people out of poverty, feeds hungry mouths, empowers thousands of leaders, serves those in need and stands with those who are broken. What if I adopted this posture towards the church?!

As a youth worker I often heard complaints from teenagers about the church. Yet I often wondered whether these complaints were formed in their own minds or by the opinions of their parents at the Sunday dinner table. I certainly wasn’t going to add to their complaints. The very mouths that celebrated Jesus on Palm Sunday were the same mouths that turned on him later that same week. And so I want to ensure that I don’t celebrate Jesus on Sunday and yet grumble about his bride on Monday.

Does the church still need to think about how we do things? Absolutely.
Does the church need to be better at welcoming the outsider? Yes.
Does the church need to change its posture at times? I think so!

But it’s my family. And I love it.

People in our culture will never value the church if we spend our lives grumbling about it. We won’t teach the next generation to value something that we can’t speak well of. Martin Luther King had a complaint, but his speech didn’t start that way! His first words declared that he had a dream. Complaints don’t lead people. Vision does.

So what’s your posture? We can either adopt a position of complaint or a place of celebration. I’d never trash talk my best friend’s wife and so if Jesus is a friend who sticks closer than a brother, what does this mean for how we should speak of the church?

I recognise the heart and I want to see the good. I embrace those who may think differently but still sit around the same table. And as I look around and see what is going on in the big picture of our church, I am amazed at all that is going on and I want to see more. I am blown away by the people I have met people with incredible hearts & significant stories. I have listened to the desires of leaders seeking to make a difference in their context. I have seen the work among foreign migrants in the city suburbs. I have seen the next generation being raised and discipled through the church family. I have watched first hand alcoholics being welcomed, addicts become clean and the poor lifted out of poverty. I have heard the accounts of people finding faith in Jesus and then bring their whole family to church.

So let’s learn to speak well of one another. Let’s continue to love one another. Let’s search for the brilliance, and also call each other to more. Let’s develop a greater heart for our family and our tribe. Because there is so much good and because there is so much still to come.

I want to be part of a generation that values the church in our land as the incredible gift and resource that it is. A generation that rolls up its sleeves and embraces the cringe-iness, the ugliness and the mess, and begins to appreciate the challenge that she brings, the community that she offers, and the beauty she provides.

Secondly, if we want to see our churches flourish, it won’t happen with smart, strategic moves, but by fresh spiritual movements. The church doesn’t just need strategic innovation, it needs spiritual renovation. We need to recapture a focus on Jesus and a love for our husband as the bride. We don’t require any more head information, we need heart transformation!

In his letter to the church in Ephesus in Revelation, Jesus is clear what the issue was with this church. They had forgotten their first love. It wasn’t that they weren’t relationally relevant or culturally aware. Not that they weren’t strategically focused or missional sharp. They had fallen out of love with Jesus.

As church we have a purpose. A purpose that is bigger than merely filling a pew, that is wider than just volunteering in programmes and deeper than just gaining more knowledge about God. It’s a purpose to know Jesus and share him with the world, yet too often I get so wrapped up on things IN the church that I miss opportunities to BE the church in our culture.

Paul’s words remind us that there is One Body and as I read the New Testament, it occurs to me that God doesn’t seem to have Plan B or a better idea. As Alan Hirsch writes, “the church doesn’t have AN agenda. It is THE agenda. The church doesn’t HAVE a missional strategy. It IS the missional strategy.” In other words, the church is the primary way God chooses to work in the world.

There is nothing like the local church and I’m with Bill Hybels – it really is the hope of the world!

Mile Wide / Inch Deep

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I see a generation who are better connected yet more isolated. Too often our connections are a mile wide and our relationships remain an inch deep. Too much communication happens without the ability to look someone else in the eye.

This is not to blame technology – it’s fantastic and enables us to do so much more than we could ever do. And it’s not to blame a younger generation – this is their world and the culture they have been saturated in. To criticise social media per se is like criticising letter writing for being slow – the medium is not to blame! But we must be aware of how the medium has actually affected the message.

And then I look at Jesus. Crowds harassing. Thousands following. A successful ministry growing…and yet time after time in the gospel his direction of travel is away from all that. Not that he didn’t want to influence the crowd or the masses, but that he knew that true connection was found away from the crowd. That intimacy with His Father came first, and intentionality with the few was most effective. It was through imitation and being intentional with a select few that enabled the message of Jesus to reach the masses. The medium actually affected the message!

For me, in a generation that fears being alone, perhaps there is a need to embrace it. To flee from the many. To resist the demands. To walk away from the lure of the crowd, to embrace intimacy with the Father and intentionality with the few.

And how can the church respond? To grow our influence we must become smaller. To embrace community – not that it’s found in tea or biscuits, or one off events – but in regular rhythms and patterns of meeting together. In homes. Around tables. Looking each other in the eye. Sharing our lives. Praying together. Opening God’s word. Welcoming others.

This generation are desperate to belong. Somewhere. Anywhere. And if they can’t find that within the body of Christ, even when they are looking for it, then we have failed.

Retreat and Release

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There’s something about a pendulum that gets my attention. It fixes my gaze, almost hypnotically as it swings back and forward from one side to the other. There’s something about a pendulum as it manages to touch both extremes without ever favouring a side. There’s something about a pendulum as it creates and churns out a perfect rhythm without ever missing a beat, constantly correcting and re-balancing itself.

Perhaps as humans we naturally tend to jump to extremes. If we believe one thing to be the best approach, then the reverse is worthless. We champion one practice, at the expense of another. We scream that we have the answer and shout for everyone to abandon what they are doing and adopt the new approach. We see the flaws of previous generations and rush to become the opposite.

Yet more and more, I’m discovering that life as a follower of Jesus often looks like a swinging pendulum. Holding things of truth in tension, correcting imbalances that exist, and developing rhythms of our own.

Yes I love to worship, but I recognise the need to witness. My life is offensive to a perfect God, yet I can’t be any more loved by Him. I am called be involved in the world, yet I don’t want to be overly influenced by it. I understand the need for Christian community yet see the danger in being isolated from the world around me. I desire to have more information, yet I really desire transformation. There is always the danger in swinging too far one way, that I will lose something in the process.

The Early Celtic Christians had a beautiful rhythm of retreat and release. In certain seasons these early Celts retreated to be together and centre their life in community. During these times of retreat they developed patterns and habits that helped to develop the people around them. In their retreating and through their rhythms many new leaders were raised up, but they knew this wasn’t enough.

The Early Celts knew they were designed and called to more than retreat, and so in other seasons they released people from their community to go. These fresh leaders weren’t just raised up to be assigned to roles within their community, but rather they were equipped to create new hubs of mission outside of their community. Therefore, the rhythm of retreat was always for the purpose of releasing a fresh rhythm of mission in the world around them.

At times my life, my thoughts and my approaches are imbalanced. The desire to retreat from the out there and lose sight of the opportunities around me. Or the danger in becoming so consumed in activity out there that I lose sight of who I am and have been created to be. And so instead I need the pendulum, the correction that the life and person of Jesus brings me. The pendulum of Jesus that embraces the paradoxes of sinner and saint, worship and witness, retreat and release, and somehow holds them all in tension.

I want to end positively by saying that I’m thankful. I’m thankful for the church I’m a part of that places a high emphasis on worship, yet is passionate about reaching out. I’m thankful for the upbringing I had that provided me with so much knowledge in my head about God, but also modelled what that looked like in practice. And I’m thankful for the opportunities of retreat that renew me for my role in the world.



I’ve been thinking lots recently about what makes a disciple. Through conversations, thinking and reading, I’ve been trying to understand and wrestle with this broad, yet simple concept. So I thought I’d share some of the things that I’ve been learning. As I continue to explore this and share it a bit wider, I would love to hear what you think…

The final command of Jesus was to make disciples. What if this was the focus of our lives? And our churches?

Jesus never called us to build the church. And yet I’ve spent so much time trying to build the church! Instead Jesus said “I will build my church” and he asked us to make disciples. My job is to make disciples. Jesus’ job is to build the church.

I define a disciple as someone learning to follow the words, the works and the way of Jesus, and sharing that with the world around them. And here are some of the marks of discipleship.

1. The key thing not an extra thing
Whole life discipleship is not a new thing or even an extra thing to add to an already busy church programme – discipleship is the lens through which to view everything! There is a Biblical mandate to go and make disciples.

Discipleship doesn’t necessarily require a church or an individual to do any more new stuff. It won’t necessarily mean a whole bunch of extra programmes. Instead, it requires placing a disciple-making emphasis on everything you do, because making disciples doesn’t just happen. It needs intentionality in our message, our programmes, our language and our lives! The gap often isn’t in what is provided in our churches, but the gap is in the emphasis of what is provided. We are all being discipled by someone or something – the question is what or who are we being discipled by?

2. A message more than a method
Jesus essentially called his disciples to “Follow me”, and that remained the call throughout his ministry. The message of discipleship doesn’t change the further along the journey of faith someone travels. Disciples don’t graduate from the gospel, and so discipleship should always be about returning the disciple to Jesus as their first love.

And so there is a need for both Gospel & Community in making disciples. Gospel is the language for making disciples, while community is the environment where growing disciples can happen. Gospel is the message that will remain the same wherever someone finds themselves. Community is the place where that message can be shared and lived out.

3. An outward focus not just an inward process
The two bookends of the gospel are “Follow Me” and “Go and make disciples.” When we accept Jesus’ invitation, we are obedient to his command.

The emphasis of discipleship should always push us outwards. Growing as a disciple is not just about being better or becoming nicer, it is about becoming missional. If discipleship doesn’t have a missional edge then it becomes self-serving and so disciples should always have the desire to make other disciples. However, it is important to realise that releasing disciples outwards does not just mean filling more roles within the church! A helpful model is Up, In and Out – people find their identity in Christ, He transforms their hearts and lives and is motivated and influenced to impact the world.

And Finally…
Simply, we must make disciples where we are, reflect on the helpful parts of that process, communicate that, while repeating and multiplying those models elsewhere. This is how I see the role I am in – Making / Reflecting / Communicating / Multiplying. We make disciples. Jesus builds His church.

From Authority to Influence

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It was obvious to me what I should do. It seemed like a sensible thing to do at the time and appeared the most natural response to receiving such great news.

I had just been made captain of my Primary School football team and the night before the big game I made my way to a local Sports Store in search of the now essential piece of kit – a captain’s armband! For me it wasn’t enough that my team mates quietly knew who the captain was. Instead I had to make it clear to the opposition and the 3 watching parents who was really in control of our team. I was in charge and I loved it!

My team lost. I played badly. We were heavily beaten and I made a mistake for the 5th goal.

But I wore that black elasticated band on my arm with pride and made sure to turn it outwards at all times to best display the large white ‘C’ printed in size 144 font.

I was so obsessed with leading that I forgot to play well.

As the church grew rapidly in Acts we are told this:

“So the word of God spread. The number of disciples in Jerusalem increased rapidly, and a large number…became obedient to the faith.” Acts 6:7

I don’t think that means they were all leaders who were given authority in the church. But it does seem that many people grasped their opportunity to influence others for Jesus.

I sometimes wonder if we spend so much time getting our badges right, our programmes in place, the information correct and our church in order, but forget what our primary role is.

I sometimes wonder if we could give 10 different answers to the question ‘what is the church for?’, but forget the final command Jesus left his followers with.

I sometimes wonder if we too often succumb to the temptation to only truly lead when we have a badge on.

I sometimes wonder if we have made discipleship an inward process rather than an outward focus.

I would love the church to better grasp the simple call of Jesus to make disciples. I would love the church to not see disciple making as one extra thing to do, but rather a lens through which to view everything they already do. I would love the church to push for influence rather than merely desiring authority.

And it doesn’t need a church to do any more new stuff. It won’t mean a whole bunch of extra programmes. It just requires having a disciple-making focus on everything you do. If your discipleship doesn’t have a missional edge then it has become self-serving.

As you play your part in the body of Christ, how can ensure that the disciple making mandate of Jesus is at the core of your church? You might not be in charge, or even be a leader, but you will have opportunities to influence. Whether we wear the armband or are given a role, we all have a chance to be an influence on others.

Could you end the conversation over coffee after a church service by praying together? Who is on the fringes of your church community that you could drawing alongside? What questions could you ask in that meeting that ensure making disciples stays a priority? Who could you be opening the Bible with? Who could you be sharing the responsibilities of leadership with? Who could you be inviting to your dinner table?

Let’s not make disciple-making become a badge we wear, but a heart we carry. Forget the armband and just play well!

My Beautiful & Broken Family

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There is just something about family. You know each other so well, maybe even too well! At times you can frustrate each other. You might even argue. And yet there is a great freedom to say exactly what you think to one another, even if it might not be the most helpful thing to say!

You laugh and mock each other and at times you might even be embarrassed by one another. There are those weird traditions that happen in your family that no one else seems to do. At times you love those traditions. At other times you wonder why they still happen, especially when an outsider comes into your family.

But you are loyal to your family. Fiercely loyal. You might be aware of the flaws of a family member, but you also see who they are. You know their heart, know their story and recognise the brilliance and the beauty of what you are a part of.

And you’re proud of it.
You’ll speak well of it.
You’ll defend it.
You’ll applaud them.
You are proud of your family.

Just last week I stepped into a new job to work with the Presbyterian Church in Ireland. I have been part of the Presbyterian Church ever since I was born. It’s the tradition of church I know best. It’s the stream of church I understand and find affinity with. It’s my tribe. My family.

Over the years I’ve seen the flaws. I’ve cringed at how some things have been done. At times I’ve held deep frustration and questioned why things are done like this in the family of our church. I’ve been confused by distant relatives and unfamiliar with near neighbours.

But it’s my family. And I love it. And I have a heart for it.

Because I see the good. I recognise the heart. I celebrate the goodness. I embrace those who may think differently but still sit around the same table. And as I’ve started to look around and see what is going on in the big picture of our church, I am amazed at all that is going on.

In my conversations I have been blown away by the people & stories from across our church. I have heard the desires of leaders seeking to make a difference in their context. I have become more aware of the work among foreign migrants in the city suburbs. I have met people with incredible hearts and significant stories. And I’ve only begun to scratch the surface.

Does our family still need to think about how we do things? Yes.
Could our family be better at welcoming the outsider? I think so.
Will our family need to change our posture at times? Absolutely!

But let’s learn to speak well of one another. Let’s continue to love one another. Let’s search for the brilliance, and also call each other to more. Let’s develop a greater heart for our family and our tribe. Because there is so much good…and because there is so much still to come.

“…so that they may be brought to complete unity. Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them.” – Jesus

I’ve loved it!

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To all the teenagers at Carnmoney who I’ve led & spent time with,

Next week I step away from my leadership role with young people in our church and so I wanted to share some of my thoughts with you from the journey of the last 4 years. Here goes…

I’ve loved it!

For the last 4 years I’ve had the privilege of being your youth leader. Over that time there have been things that have challenged me, frustrated me, encouraged me, upset me and provoked me. But overall, I’ve had this sense of joy through everything. I’ve loved it!

I’ve loved watching you grow up. To have seen the growth in your confidence. To glimpse an extra level of maturity. To look back at the funny photo of what you used to look like. To watch the person you have and are growing into.

I’ve loved being your leader. The opportunities to influence you. The chances to stretch you. The times of dreaming up crazy events like Coast and making them happen. The responsibility of being a role model.

I’ve loved hanging out with you. The all too common Ashers Fry Ups. The races to the top of the walls at Clip n Climb. The road trips to the North Coast. The many desserts we ate at i56. The debates around the tents at Summer Madness.

I’ve loved standing beside you at key moments of your life. To pray for you in the midst of a relationship breakdown. To stand beside you when the exam results weren’t good. To listen to your struggles. To share words of advice when you asked for them.

I’ve loved the laughs. And there have been many. The stupid names in Empires. The brilliant dare suggestions during ‘What are the odds?’ The late nights on a Fusion weekend. The Insomnia all nighters. Your crazy antics and your funny stories.

I’ve loved watching you take brave steps forward in your faith. The times you invited friends to church. Those who stood at the front & spoke about your love for Jesus. Those who prayed out loud for the first time. Those who went on mission trips. Those who stood up for what was right even when the crowd did the opposite.

I’ve loved the times when I’ve had to get annoyed with you. When I saw you act in a way that I knew wasn’t all of you were called to be. When I got the chance to call you to something more. When I had the privilege to be able to speak into your life. When I had the opportunity to stand up for someone more vulnerable or speak out about something that wasn’t right.

I’ve loved the times I stood at the front of a room to teach you. To lift your eyes higher and point you to Jesus when all you wanted to do was look at your own situation. To explain the beauty of the gospel that God reached down to you because we couldn’t reach up to Him. To tell you that God made you well. To open the Bible and pass on the teachings of Jesus to love your neighbour as yourself, to pray for your enemies, and to share your possessions with the poor.

And I’ve loved watching you go further in your faith than me. When you prayed with your friends in a car. When you led someone to Christ. When you displayed your passion in worship. When you continued to serve with such enthusiasm.

So thank you for the memories. Thank you for being a pleasure to lead. Thank you for opening your lives to me. And opening your hearts to Jesus. There is more to come and I pray that you discover more of God’s character and His heart for you and the world.

I guess these words of Jesus sum up my hope for you…

I’ve told you many things over the last few years. Some of them aren’t worth remembering, but some of them are.

Anything worthwhile I’ve passed on to you – speak it out!
What I’ve taught you about Jesus – shout it loud!

Keep trusting. Keep following. Keep growing. Keep serving. And keep in touch!

Love you all,

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