Saturday, October 21, 2017

What to do about the person who MUST answer every question

Some people are super extroverted. 
Few of them reside in churches. 
But they do exist.

And some people are super-charged bible study extroverts.

They feel the need to answer every question... Usually first.
They have an innate drive to add a comment... Even if it occurs prior to fully engaging their brain.

I've been in bible studies with these people.
I've lead bible studies with these people.
I've overseen youth ministries which have included, both as participants and leaders, these people.

At times they are wonderful.
They stimulate discussion.
They keep the study progressing.
They, usually, far exceede silence.

But, they can also, unhelpfully, dominate.
They can be a distraction.
They can steal the train of thought of others or deprive them of feeling that they need to contribute.

So, what do you do with the always-answering extrovert?

As the youth minister, if a leader was dominating their group then I just asked them to slow down. Count to ten before you answer. Intentionally wait for someone else to respond first for every second question. 

As a leader, if a participant is overpowering others giving their input, then there's a few simple things you can do. 

First, you can split people into pairs and ask them to talk about the question, then, intentionally, don't ask for mr/mrs talkalot pairing to respond first.

Second, similar to the first option, you could specifically ask for an induvidual to respond first, or a type of induvidual (such as gender or life stage).

But, always remember, any group should be welcome and enclusive for all. Even those who love to chatter away.

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Celebrate the story of the church sleeper

I've done it a few times.
From the back of the church, I've seen the telltale head bobble.
From the front of the servie, it hasn't gone unnoticed.

Given enough time and life stages, everyone will almost drift off to sleep during church.

Kids are tiring.
Jobs are tiring.
Study is tiring.
Modern life is tiring.

One danger is to judge those who are evidently fighting against the sleep monster during church.

I think there's a better response.

Celebrate the sleeper.
Pray for the sleeper.

Why?

Because, chances are, you don't know the story of why they are tired... EXCEPT that, even in their tiredness, they turned up to church.

So, celebrate that the mother with the sick or restless baby turned up.
Celebrate that the student who had to stay up late to finish the assignment turned up.
Celebrate that the middle aged man, when things are really stressful at work, still turned up.

For, it shows, that for them, even in their tiredness, church still mattered.
It shows, even with their tiredness, that they dragged themselves out of bed, because church attendance matters.

This should be celebrated.

Because, one day, it will be you.

And, like them, you'll have the choice about turning up to church. 

And, if you don't judge them, then your church might become somewhere where you'd be more likely to get dress and turn up while exhausted.

What would you rather... The church sleeper stayed home?

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Should you utilise the church spy?

During my ministry career I switched churches on three occasions. 
Over the last two decades I've seen around a dozen ministry agents come and go - both as a congregation member and as the only other staff member.

In ministry, people transition.
Additionally, in ministry, people know many others within churches.

My pondering is about church spies. 
Should you use them?

Should a prospective or incoming minister "get the goss" on the new church or secure the "inside word" on where they are going?
Should they, like I did at times, chat to the outgoing ministry agent?
Should they, innocently or not, connect with a member of the congregation?
Should they check the responses the interview panel gave with the real "lay of the land?"

As a professional, it makes perfect sense to go in with as much information as possible.

But, do you threaten to poison the well before you arrive?
Do you expose yourself to unhelpful, or even untrue, preconceived ideas?
Shouldn't those in a new church deserve, more or less, a clean slate with an incoming minister?

Frankly, I rathered going into a place with my eyes open.

But, interacting with someone - be it the church council chair, treasures, secretary, lay leader, church gatekeeper, or ill-regular attendee - might work better if you don't go in wearing the lenses of your church mole.

Sunday, October 8, 2017

Our problem is not the cost of living

As a resident of Sydney, I live in one of the most expensive places on the entire globe. On top of that, I live in one of the wealthier parts of the city.

Now, under no circumstances am I obscenely rich, but in the lottery of birthplaces, I lucked out.

This morning at church I was having a chat with a few, similar to me, parents of young kids.

It was noted, as privileged as we all are, we don't really compare to some of our neighbours.

As someone who reads gas meters across properties in Sydney, I see some truely incredible units and houses. 

My lifestyle doesn't even compare.

One of the parents at church observed, wisely, that the real expense in Sydney (one mirrored in much of the West) isn't the basic cost of living.

Our problems are driven by the cost of want.

Our wants are expensive.
Our wants keep us in debt.
Our wants ensure that we always need to work longer and earn more.

Food. Water. Shelter. Basic comfort.
For many of us, with hard work, these are within reach.

Our wants, especially in a keeping-up-with-the-Jones'/projecting-a-perfectly-filtered-life-on-social-media culture, are the genesis for our obsession with money and the basis which leads us towards currency idolatry.

Friday, September 29, 2017

Mourning the hymn book

It occurred to me last Sunday, now that I've moved away from my home denomination, that there will be something which, potentially, I'll never have to use again.


A hymn book.


Now, admittedly, if I stayed in my denomination, choosing a church which had more relaxed services or solely going church in the evening, I could still have avoided the songbook, but now that I've made the denominational turn, I can now go years without a hymn book in my hand.


And... I'm going to miss it.


Not always.


But, sometimes.


Why?


Because, chances are, I won't sing the familiar hymns that the oldies loved.
I won't sing the trusted hymns that I'd turn to when leading a morning service.
No longer may I sing songs rich with hymn-depth theology.


And this comes with an element of sadness.


For, with all its faults, I grew up in a hymn book church.
My maturity as a Christian was marked by attending a service that sung hymns.
I worked in churches full of people who loved and cherished the hymn book. 
I still, at times, have hymns that randomly pop into my head or are triggered by something in church.


Really, last Sunday, I mourned a part of my tradition that has now slipped by...

Saturday, September 23, 2017

When and why to set things right once you've made a preaching mistake

Preachers make mistakes in every sermon. Usually, they will be mistakes in delivery. Hopefully, on only the rarest of occasions, they make a factual error.

Sometimes these will slip harmlessly by because they're obscure or inconsequential.

At other times these goofs will be fairly obvious or pointed out due to someone in the congregation being more knowable about a topic than the preacher.

My most public error was at bible college when I used the name of the wrong King during a preaching assignment. 

So, how should a situation like this be handled?
Should a correction be made, and if so, how should it be done? 
Need it involve an apology?
Does the medium of the correction matter?
If there's a correction, what message does this send to the congregation?

Ideally, the mistake isn't a major point of theology - like you've said that there's four in the trinity or you're saved by good deeds - so no ones salvation is in jeopardy of their image of God clouded.

In these extreme cases the correction must be made, publicly, ASAP. If possible you should communicate on the next level up from how you first communicated. If the error wasn't in person, then you should seek to make personal contact, increasingly directly depending on the first medium.

If the point is minor, then I think it can be addressed as widely as the platform you've used. If your mistake was heard purely in the ears of those present, then a simple email blast can suffice. If the transgression went out online, then social media might be the best avenue for clarification.

All that needs to be communicated is what you said, the facts, and a quick apology. No harm, no foul.

But, should you then address it the next time you speak/write?

I can't see why not. If it's just a two sentence correction then it won't take up too much time, but can also communicate a powerful message.

You're not perfect.
You make mistakes.
You're open to correction.

This is especially powerful if you're able to openly acknowledge that a member of the congregation was the one who pointed you in the right direction.

An admittance of your error and apology, even quickly, is both deeply humbling for the speaker and receiver. These words show that the leader is just as infallible, correctable and prepared to be vulnerable before everyone as they humble themselves, with grace offered by those who, themselves, aren't above reproach,

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

How we develop our theology and ethics

With Australia currently going through the tribulations of a same sex marriage plebiscite, the topic is everywhere. 

E-v-e-r-y-w-h-e-r-e.

I cast my vote today, but, as yet, I won't tell you which box I ticked (I'll do that when the voting closes and even share which way I think the survey will go).

As I've been considering my vote, watching and listening to people on both sides of the subject and thinking about how people engage in healthy debate, it's become clear that we must keep in mind the most important thing in dealing with topics of theology or ethics.

How and why do people come up with the things they believe.

Fortunately, I'm not the first to wrestle with this issue.

John Wesley, when pondering how people developed their theology, developed the paradigm of the Wesleyan Quadrilateral.

In short, when trying to establish what we believe, we put a topic through the filters of scripture, tradition, experience and reason.

When faced with an ethical or theological quandary we weigh it up against our source of truth - be it the bible, Koran, Dawkins or science textbook - cultural and personal history - including family, social circles and structures - and our intellect/logic.

When we consider how these four things influence what we believe and how they might affect the worldviews of others, then we can be in a place to have a respectful and empathetic depiscussion, even if we're in disagreement.

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

In the common shadows of the Reformation divide

Last Sunday morning I went to the first communion of my niece. Accompanied by my five year old, I knew going in that things would be different to what we were used to.

The whole service reminded me of the difference between the rugby codes.

For, while I follow both rugby league and rugby union, I know others who only follow one.

And, if they only follow rugby league, then, frankly, they are lost at times.

At times, on Sunday, I was a little lost.

I didn't know the responses.
I was unsure when to stand.
As was noticed by my five year old, the building was quite different (she liked the pictures of the stations of the cross and the colourful statue of Jesus).

But, also, plenty of things were familiar.

They spoke about Jesus. 
They spoke about forgiveness.
They spoke about reconciliation.

Similar to both rugby codes sharing the dimensions of the field, ball, tries and aim to score the most points, both sides of the Reformation share core things.

Sure, Catholics and Protestants may differ and appear different due to interpretation, history and structure, the central things are held in unison.

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

The missing element in a liturgy-free church service

I've shared in the past that I'm not the biggest fan of written liturgy during church services. From my experience, it's easily open to ecclesiastical-monotonal-fakery.

Sure, with disclaimers about the importance of liturgy or intentionally inviting a connection with the words before reciting them can make liturgy more engaging. In general, I don't see it as the most effective way to draw people into an experience of God.

But, liturgy does have one significant advantage - structure.

One criticism I faced when consistently leading an evening church service was that, without the structure of liturgy, an intentional time of confession would be omitted.

And, from what I see in many contemporary church services, intentional communal confession is the first victim once you stray from a set liturgy.

I'm sure it's not intentional.
I'm sure confession gets "touched on" in other areas of the service.
Maybe it's because the leader doesn't want to drag the mood down...

But, whatever the reason, regular, intentional, communal confession is dying out, seemingly sacrificed upon the alter of modern service structure.

Perhaps, as a church, it's something we need to confess...

Thursday, August 31, 2017

Arranging where the butts go

At my previous church I moved rows of plastic chairs. 

A. Lot. Of. Chairs.

Each week I'd set up the hall/church for the Friday youth activities and the Sunday night evening service.

As the architect of the seating arrangements I had a lot of choices...

How many chairs do I put out?
Do I match the amount of last week?
Do I leave room for more?
Do I have the same arrangement as usual?
Where do I want the focus to be?
How do I get the majority of people sitting where I prefer? 

Most importantly...
How do I make it look full?

This is the question which dictates the most time in the mind of a person setting up for church.

Can you make the space feel full? 
Can people look around and see others?
Are there spots where people can feel isolated?

I'd love to say that I had noble, God's-Kingdom-building, intentions when I set out the chairs.

But, truthfully, some weeks were about creating the illusion of a fattened attendance, even if there weren't more people in the room. 

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

A bible study of soft throws or curve balls?

Bible studies come in a lot of forms. 

They vary depending on the make up of the participants, their chronological and spiritual maturity, the amount of time the group has been together, the length of time they have to meet, the openness to new members, the history of those involved, the nature of what book/theme/topic they are looking at and the preference of the leader.

At times, it will be appropriate for the study to be more surface level and exploratory.

On other occasions it will be fine for the group to be lead through a series of in-depth, technical or searching questions

Is one better?

Both have times when they are needed and useful.

And your group needs both.

At the core, the gospel message is simple and you should keep coming back to it. There's no problem when the answers bring you back to trusting in Jesus and being saved by God's grace.

On the other hand, we shouldn't be scared of delving into some of the more complex/confusing passages of the bible or topics. If we're going to develop an intellectually defendable faith, then the tough things of faith should be seriously wrestled with.

So, you need both.

Some weeks will reassure you of the beauty, truthfulness and simplicity of the gospel.

Other weeks can leave your brain whirling from the way you've been challenged of the new revelations which have unfolded.

The danger is when we don't get the balance right and only do one. 

Thursday, August 24, 2017

Do we consider the believer's drain caused by religious schools?

I didn't go to a Christian school, but there was an active scripture presence in the school, and nearby there were a number of Catholic, Anglican and independent Christian schools.

Furthermore, I've be attached to numerous public and private high schools while I was a youth minister. In some cases, these were schools connected to my denomination. 

A few weeks ago I heard a scripture teacher from the local high school, the one I attended, speak in a church service.

Amongst other things, prompted by a question, he mentioned the role of Christians within public schools.

In his response he said, while the local public school is a rich ministry field, a part of the reason is the Christian drain which occurs due to religious schools.

Without doubt, religious schools serve an important communal, educational and spiritual purpose, but it can come at a cost to the public system.

With the vast majority of Christians withdrawn from the public system, where does this leave the Christian presence in, primarily secular, state schools, especially peer-to-peer?

One inadvertent effect of this funnelling, with the Christians in their own special conclave, is it gives the appearance that their are far fewer believers than is actually the case.

Additionally, it isolates any new believers or genuine enquirers who might emerge through the scripture programs.


So... Does the heartfelt desire to cater, or even worse, shelter your child from public education hurt the wider Christian witness?

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

The church without old people is weak

Now that I'm not in vocational ministry, I've changed denomination away from the one with the oldest demographic in the nation. Thus, when I look around during a church service I now see a lot less wrinkled faces.

Usually, frankly, pensioners were the majority of people filling the pews. Now they are in the minority.

Seemingly, they only number a handful.

And I'm not sure this is a good thing.

Being someone with a history in youth ministry, this might sound backward since I should be exclaiming the value of youth, but... If I'm honest... I feel a little uneasy in a church devoid of oldies.

Why?

Because, when you're looking for wisdom, this is where it can be found.
When you're looking for peace, this is where it can be located.
When you're in need of a prayer warrior, the older generation are the place to turn.

Sure, not every oldie will be overflowing with positivity and spiritual heroics (the grumpy old person is very much alive and well within the church), but, with a lifetime of positive, negative, uplifting and crushing experience within the church and amongst society, they can be much needed fountains of faithfulness and support.

This is why the church needs old people.

People who can speak up in times of trouble or crisis and say that they've seen it before.
People who can tell you when they went through the same thing you are.
People who can guide you through the steps of life they've already walked down.
People who have the perspective to know what's actually important in life and the church.
People who know what it's like to give consistently and sacrificially.
People who have seen God work and heard prayers answered.

These are the faces and stories which strengthen the church and uplift those who work within it.

Sunday, August 13, 2017

Young and opinionated is ok

When it comes to the development of faith, one of the final stages is, as I describe, mega-confidence.

Fuelled by an expanding exposure to church culture and leadership, a plethora of books, numerous questions and "profound conversations" and infinite articles/blog posts on the Internet, nowadays a young Christian can both devour and develop theology at a previously unforeseen rate and depth.

The result is a knowledge, and confidence, which is common in Christian young adults.

As young adults mature chronologically, cognitively, experientially and spiritually, they establish what they do and do not believe. They decide what they will and will not stand for. They, especially if immersed in the university mindset of intellectual exploration, will mine the depths of things which both confuse and stimulate them. 

As a result, Christian young adults can be quite opinionated.

And, frankly, annoying.

And that's ok.

I want young adults to be confident in what they believe because they've examined the challenging things of faith.

In many settings, like university, they'll need to be confidently armed with answers in order to thrive in an, occasionally, confrontational theatre.

In general, young adults don't deal greatly in shades of gray.

Again, that can be annoying.

And, again, that's ok.

Especially if you're aware of this going into a conversation/discussion with a headstrong young adult.

For, they'll think they're correct and have a handful of evidence, both biblical and theological to back them up.

What they might lack is the experience and wisdom to apply and explain their confident knowledge.

But, in order to confidently stand on their own two legs - knowing what they stand upon, for and against - this is the exact stage they need to be in.

Thursday, August 10, 2017

Should we retreat?

I've been on plenty of "retreats."

Some have been personal, most professional.

Every time I've returned I've felt a little squeamish about the term retreat. Why? Because words and titles matter.

They matter in terms of what they communicate about the events, particpants and those on the outside looking in.

So, with that said, do we always want to "retreat?"

I ask because, in some instances, retreating is negative.
Retreating is surrendering.
Retreating is defeat.

Is that the message we want to send?

In some cases, you need to retreat. 

In most "retreat" situations, you're going to rejuvenate. Or relax. Or escape.
But, if our intentions are to do some of the latter terms, why don't we honestly use them?

Furthermore, how does our "retreating" sound to the outsider?
What, exactly, are we retreating from?

Monday, August 7, 2017

Does the church have an intimidating BMI?

Some churches are... Well... Full of beautiful people.
Or, with a glancing overview, appear that way.

Or, at least apparently, be filled with relatively talented, nice, mono-cultural, 6+/10 looking people.

I wonder, can this be intimidating to outsiders?

Is it intimidating to minorities?
Is it intimidating to the obese?

Does it run through someone's mind when they're going to invite someone to church?

Of course, it shouldn't.

Our churches are more welcoming than that...
We care more about their salvation than comfort...
People, in general, aren't that insecure...

But, are we really welcoming to those who are different?
Do we care more, or at least equally, about our friends or family fitting in?
If someone's already unnerved about a characteristic or setting, does our church congregation provide a barrier that they'd struggle to overcome?

I don't know what the answer is... There might not be one. 
I don't think we should instigate services especially for the chubby or less athletically gifted.

But, when I look around some churches, I think I'd be a little intimidated if I weren't as beautiful as the rest of the congregation.

Saturday, August 5, 2017

Could we now describe a fearful hell?

Fire.
Brimstone.
Sulphur.

Traditionally, these are the images associated with hell.

For a time, these were the images which communicated aspects of hell.

Fear.
Torment.
A place to be desperately avoided.

To be honest, I'm not convinced they communicate the same ideas now.
Today, they are images from cartoons.

They're, certainly, no longer scary.

Is this a bad thing?
Have we, now, stripped hell of being scary?
Do we even have the images available to us today in order to communicate fear of hell?

Frankly, I'm not sure.

Nowadays, and it's something I often did, we use abstract ideas for the afterlife.

Darkness.
Absence.
Isolation.
A lack of all that is Godly or good.

I'm not sure these images are scary in the same manner that the picture of fire and brimstone were.

On the scale of fear-inducing, we've gone backwards.

And I'm not sure we can wrestle it back.

You could argue that fear isn't a motivator which should be used in or by Christianity, but this option has now been neutered.

But, if we did want to resurrect a scary image of hell, what would we use?

The twin towers on 911?
The London unit fire?
The Boxing Day tsunami?

I don't know what image you could use, but truthfully, I suspect that many strands of Christianity and induviduals would shy away from using them anyway...

Thursday, August 3, 2017

The message of "Dear Graeme..."

A few days ago I got forwarded an email from my immediate superiors' boss.

While the email was nothing more than passing on his gratitude for a task I had done, it included one detail which largely undid all the goodwill he intended.

He misspelt my name.

Now, this isn't the first time it's ever happened to me, nor till it be the last. It's just a part of life if your name happens to be spelt in multiple ways.

And, while I'm sure this was an innocent mistake,  it did communicate one thing clearly.

I don't really know you.

I might be aware of you, but I don't really know you.

And, in ministry, I sent this message far too often.

Because I was crap in remembering names.
It was a constant struggle.

Sure, I could blame my history of concussions.
Or the number of people I'd come in contact with over my church life.
Or the hundred-odd children I'd teach scripture to each year.

But, every time I'd struggle to recall or misspell a name, I sent a message - even unintentionally.

I don't know you.
You're not important enough for me to learn your name.

As an adult, boss' misspelling was inconsequential.

As a child, looking for approval and a place to belong, the message could be quite damaging.

Monday, July 31, 2017

Wondering about the past

In 2005 I started sponsoring a child, then aged 8, from the Phillipines.

Today I found all the letters he sent me up until he moved in 2015.

Since then I've heard nothing.

After a decade...
Well over $5000 in sponsorship...
Dozens of letters...

Nothing.

Assuming that Compassion isn't a giant scam and the letters were genuine, thus making my kid alive and mobile at 18, all I can now do is wonder.

Did he go to university?
What does he do for work?
Is he married?
Does he have a family?
Is he still in poverty?
Is he even still alive?
What, if at all, does he think of me?
Does he still have, or even remember, my letters?
What would he say/write to me now?
Would I, if so inclined, be able to track him down?

Potentially, he now has a far better life because I was an, albeit small, part of it.

These questions remind me of the young people I've come in contact with at various churches as their youth minister.

What are they doing now?
What memories, if any, do they have of me?
How would they have described the youth ministry I were the leader of?
Are they connected with a church?

For many, even those I'm friends with on Facebook, I have no contact with.

All I'm left to do is wonder...

Sunday, July 30, 2017

Why wanky questions don't work

I've been to and hosted a lot of bible studies over the years. Some where richly engaging. Many were slightly informative. Some have been dull. A few have been awkward.

In general, one trait tends to make things less conducive to productive sharing.

Prepackaged questions.

While I'm generally ok with using material written by those outside of your church they, usually, hold a danger.

Wanky wording.

At times, especially if penned by an author/theologian, the questions posed can be far to wordy or complex to generate genuine discussion.

For, if you're struggling to work out what a question is asking, or are intimidated by the wordiness of the question, then you'll be less likely to chip in with your response.

When a question is, seemingly, more interested in being poetic or theologically sound than clarity, this breeds needless intimidation in the midst of studying the bible.

The worst thing, even if the questions are useful, a lot of people will miss the point because they get swamped in the flood of words and jargon.