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Do we need another church?

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I thought I’d just share a short response to a question I’ve been asked a few times over the past couple of months. Does Belfast really need another church? It’s a fair question and there are lots of ways to respond but here are 3 quick thoughts:

1/ I firmly believe that to reach more people we need to plant more churches. Different expressions of community, worship, teaching and mission will reach different people in different ways in different places. As some churches die, other churches need to be birthed. We are going to need a bunch of renovation in the church in our nation, but we are also going to need a bit of innovation too. They go hand in hand. We need the established and we need the new. We need the traditional and we need the fresh models. And we need to realise we’re all in the same team!

2/ This is not about starting a church out of a place of complaint or in a spirit of disunity. The picture of churches in the New Testament wasn’t about churches growing bigger, but about planting communities of people that spread and multiplied. For whatever reason, we as a church have been growing significantly over the last few years. We have lots of new people coming to join us, some who haven’t been part of church before, others wanting to pitch in with what we’re doing. Somewhere along the line, there has been a realisation that it’s not just about building the church in Carnmoney, but there is an opportunity to be a resource and blessing to a wider mission. Through our growth, we want to give life away. This is about a sense of call from God to the city.

3/ As we look towards wider society I think most people could agree that there is a desperate need for hope. People need hope. It just happens that I’m part of a group of people who believe that true hope isn’t found in a policy or a politician, but a person called Jesus. That’s why we’re joining in with what God is already doing in the city. To join others in declaring a message of hope.

If you would love more info about Carnmoney Central, you can click here.

Pressures and gifts

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Christmas Presents

We’ve all felt that unspoken pressure when handing over a gift. Will they already have it? Will they use it? Will it be enough? Will it fit?! Perhaps this Christmas you’re feeling that pressure!

“Whatever is good and perfect is a gift coming down to us from God our Father, who created all the lights in the heavens. He never changes or casts a shifting shadow.” James 1:17

God is a giver and the gifts that He gives are good. If he created the dazzling lights in the skies around us, then we can trust that gifts he places in our lives and in our hands will be good. We can be sure that the gifts he gives us will be of use to us. His gifts will be enough. His gifts will fit us!

God is the giver of good gifts. He is reliable, trustworthy and unchanging. Unlike some of the other things we’ll give and receive tomorrow! And don’t we see that and celebrate that in the ultimate gift that God gave?

Jesus.

The gift of Jesus didn’t come perfectly wrapped with a ribbon and a bow, but arrived on earth messy and helpless.

The gift of Jesus didn’t arrive with much of an advertising campaign, but was revealed to a few on the fringes of society.

The gift of Jesus didn’t come with a return policy or a gift receipt, he was sent by God as the only option for a broken world.

And did the world have this gift? Would they use it? Would it be enough? Would it fit?

Well, this gift of a Saviour wasn’t something the world already had. The gift of a sin forgiver was useful and necessary to a depraved humanity. The gift of God in human form was more than enough for us. This gift of Jesus perfectly fitted the gap between God and man.

We didn’t have it and we need to use it. It is more than enough and it fits. God’s good gift is Jesus and there’s no need for a return policy this Christmas. Let’s celebrate and walk in that today!

SIMPLICITY AND VULNERABILITY

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Over the years I’ve often been told to rely on your strengths. Play to your strengths is the age-old advice. Find out what you’re good at and focus on your sweet spot.

And while at times in life there’s definitely some wisdom in that, recently I’ve been discovering more about how often the most significant times of leadership and learning are in weakness, simplicity and vulnerability.

Recently, alongside some friends and with the blessing of our church family, a small team of us from Carnmoney Church have been establishing a fresh church community in the Cathedral Quarter area of Belfast. It’s a thriving and growing area of the city centre with not a huge amount of church buildings or gatherings of Christians. After a few years of sensing a need, asking some questions, and running Alpha Courses in the area, we took the step last month of beginning some Wednesday night gathering in a local theatre.

It’s been a fun journey already, with some hints that we are in the midst of something significant, but what has struck me in these early weeks has been the sense of operating from a place of weakness and vulnerability, rather than out of strength and power.

In many of the projects, initiatives, events or gatherings I’ve been part of in the past there has been a clear blueprint. We have arrived with our plans, launched our resources, pitched, used our strengths, but this has been different. As Carnmoney Central has been established, and as we have dreamed, chatted, prayed and begun a rhythm of weekly gatherings, it has felt entirely different.

Luke 10 documents a time when Jesus sent his followers out into the world. But instead of placing a host of plans, ideas and resources into their hands, he tells them to take little with them and carry nothing in their hands. They are to empty handed and open hearted, rather than rely on all their strengths. Instead of protecting and pastoring them, Jesus tells them that they are being sent out as lambs among wolves. Not the best launch pad for mission into the hostile world around them. And yet they go.

I’ve sensed a similar spirit as we have begun Central.

As a team we certainly know we don’t have all the answers about what it takes to plant, grow or lead a church.

Every time we gather we could almost be embarrassed by the simplicity of saying hello, singing a few songs using a single instrument, a half hour sermon and inviting people to respond.

In some meetings we have felt blind as we step into the future, a fair bit uncertain about the future direction of a brand new church.

We feel vulnerable as we step into The Mac week by week, unsure of how our songs, our words and our lives will connect with those who gather with us.

Some nights we’ve felt insecure wondering if anyone is actually going to show up to join us, as if the metrics of success actually depend on a number or a graph.

The model is simple and we are stripped bare. Yet amidst all the unknowns, the blindness, the vulnerability and the insecurity, we have been so encouraged by God’s strength in our weakness, His speaking into our doubt, and His movement into our blank spaces. We are more aware of His presence in our vulnerability, His touching lives in our smallness, and the stirrings of His heart in the silence of our strategies.

And so we stand, a few weeks into gathering as a brand new community of God’s people. Already we feel like family and yet we haven’t even scratched the surface. Already we’ve sensed His moving yet we know there is so much more. And while we want more of His leading and less of our blindness, we don’t want ever want to lose this sense of God moving even among our simplicity and vulnerability.

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.
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“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.

1/ CELEBRATION OVER COMPLAINT
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.

TRANSFORMATION OVER INFORMATION
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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stand-out-in-a-crowd

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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Pendulum

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.

Disciples

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disciples
Intro
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…

Disciples
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.

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