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EFAC Australia

Church Leadership

ChaseKuhnChase R. Kuhn lectures in theology and ethics at Moore College. This article was first published online by The Gospel Coalition Australia and is republished with their permission and that of Dr. Kuhn.

The current situation with COVID-19 has raised many questions, and amongst them are important theological questions about what we believe the church is, and whether the church continues when we are commanded not to ‘gather’. Throughout the Bible the people of God are depicted as the people called into a covenant relationship with God. One of the key identifiers of this people is the fact that they meet together with one another, in the presence of God, to hear from God’s word. This is what the Bible teaches is the ‘church’: the gathering of God’s people. God called the Israelites to be his people, and he assembled them (gathered them) together in his presence to receive his word (Deut 4:10). It was at this assembly, in the first instance, that God established his covenant with the people (Ex 19:4-6). Likewise, new covenant believers are charged to continue meeting (Heb 10:23-25). Historically, the distinctive marks of the church are the word preached and the sacraments duly administered—these sacraments being signs of the new covenant in Christ. But if gathering together is something so crucial for the people of God, what are we to do—and believe—in times such as these, where meeting together physically is not possible? I want to consider four abiding theological truths about the church, before turning to four practical implications for our lives today.

1. OUR IDENTITY IS PRIMARILY IN CHRIST

It is Christ who establishes us as a people. This statement is important because of its ordering. Our identity as the church is to be a collection of God’s people, brought together because of our union with Christ. This union is what is celebrated in the sacraments. But the union is not dissolved because of our inability to gather. Rather, we gather because of a union that transcends time and space. This should be deeply reassuring to Christians: your identity isn’t fundamentally as a church member, but as a person united to Jesus. Right now—in this very moment—you are part of the people of God. And it is precisely because you are one of God’s people by faith—not insignificantly, a faith given to you by the Spirit (Gal. 4:6)—that you meet with other Christians regularly.

2. OUR LIFE IS DEFINED BY THE WORD

The definitive marker of our life together is hearing God’s word—the word that saves us and tells us who we are by the grace and mercy of God. In Scripture, God communicates rich truth about who he is, the way he has made for us to relate to him, and what it means to live in that relationship. The word of God transcends the inestimable chasm between God’s transcendent, infinite holiness and our fallenness and finitude.

3. CHRIST’S PROMISED PRESENCE

God promises his presence amongst us when we gather together. In Matthew 18:20, Jesus made it clear that he is with believers whenever two or more are gathered. This is intended to reassure us of Christ’s abiding presence with us corporately, even in the tiniest gathering. Furthermore, the apostle John tells us that though no one has ever seen God, he is manifested to us in our love for one another in the Spirit (1 John 4:12-13). This means that life-together presents us with more than may initially meet the eye: God’s presence is known through the presence of others, as we demonstrate mutual love for one another.

4. MUTUAL DEPENDENCE

Our Christian growth and maturity depends upon our relationships with others. We don’t simply grow through receiving from others, but also giving—by assuming our proper place in the body. Put simply, the Christian life requires both active and passive participation: other people need you, and you need others. God’s plans for the church are illustrated wonderfully in several of the key metaphors used in the New Testament for the church. The temple (Eph. 2:21-23) depicts a place where God’s presence dwells, and a place that is being built of many different pieces (people). This image highlights how we are being constructed together, and the wonderful promise of the presence of God in the midst of our life together. The body (1 Cor. 12:12-26; Rom. 12:3-8; Eph. 4:11- 16) depicts a unity of purpose and mutual dependence on one another. There is an interconnectedness that is indispensable. There is a building and developing as we ‘grow up together’ into Christ our head.

FOUR PRACTICAL IMPLICATIONS FOR CHRISTIANS TODAY

First, don’t despair that you can’t meet as usual. You are still in Christ! But precisely because you are in Christ, seek out ways to ‘meet’ with others. We have unprecedented opportunities to gather virtually as a church. So, even in days like these, we should not forsake coming together. In fact, especially in days like these we should be all the more diligent to seek out opportunities to meet together. Because the times demand change for us, we must be patient and persistent.

And we must remember that there is great promise even in few numbers; even where two or three are gathered, for Christ has promised us his presence.

Second, when you ‘meet’ with others, don’t forsake the significance of hearing from God’s word. The word of God is the richest thing we can offer to someone. We should find ways to mutually encourage one another from the truth, especially when the world seems turned upside down. Helping brothers and sisters to fix their eyes on Christ once more will prove to be an anchor in the midst of much turbulence. Third, recognise how important we are to one another. On our worst usual Sundays together, we allow church to be a passive experience for the majority of the congregation. Now more than ever we are in danger of only receiving. But in the midst of change, we should expect different people to exercise gifts that may otherwise lie dormant in church life. We must prayerfully consider the needs of others and how we might serve our brothers and sisters. In particular, we should be mindful of those in our churches who will be most needy in times of isolation. In times of forced seclusion, there is a temptation to turn inward and only think about our individual needs in the confines of our own bubble. But we must pursue a thoughtful awareness of others. This will be an opportunity for us to be appropriately counter-cultural, rejecting the panic-hoarding of the world around us, and turning instead to think of our neighbours. And, as people serve us, we should be prepared to offer them encouragement and gratitude. But we also should consider how we can help others be more aware of needs. People will both need to seek others out, but also communicate openly when they are struggling and have practical requirements.

Finally, we should not lose hope. Though things look, feel, and certainly are very different during this pandemic, we must remember the promise that Christ gave us: he is building his church, and the gates of hell will not prevail against it.

Even if we are unable to physically gather, we can still ‘gather’ together under the word.

As we do, even then as we meet virtually or in few number, Christ has promised to be with us. And, when we meet under the word of God, in the presence of Christ, we can be assured that he is maturing us as his people.

William Macquarie Cowper (1810–1902) was Australia’s first Australian-born clergyman. When Sydney Synod passed a motion unanimously to “place on record [the Synod’s] sense of the loss sustained by the Diocese, and its sincere appreciation of the valuable services rendered” he had served as a clergyman for sixty-six years, including forty-four as Dean of St Andrew’s Cathedral.1

His exceptionally long ministry was dominated by the eternal future assured by Jesus Christ.Cowper

He learned this perspective from his parents, Rev. William and Ann Cowper. In 1827, they were prepared to endure the “painful separation” involved in sending their 16 year old to his university education in England for his own “great, and I trust eternal, advantage”, urging him to study everything “deemed likely to make [him] acceptable and useful among [his] fellow creatures for their eternal good.”2 By the time the 23 year old Cowper preached his first sermon after his ordination, on 15 September 1833 at Dartmouth, this eternal perspective had become his own. His chosen text showed that he was thinking of his ministry in the light of eternity: “Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account.” (Heb 13:17)3

He returned in 1836 as the Chaplain to Australian Agricultural Company and for 20 years his ministry was centered in Stroud. Here he helped establish gospel work in the northern parts of NSW and in what became the Diocese of Newcastle, as well as playing his part in wider issues of the colony, such as the public debates about education. Like many of his contemporaries, Cowper was deeply interested in education because it “involves alike the temporal and eternal welfare of the rising and all future generations”.4

“Since man, in his social and moral character, is what he is made by education, the question of his training, even as regards this world, assumes the very highest importance. How much greater still when we take into account the next?”

His time at Stroud came to an end after he lost his wife Margaret in October 1854, after a long and painful struggle with cancer. He drew inspiration from her own eternal perspective:

“Were it not for the faith which He has given me in His blessed Son—a faith which assures me that He will accept me, for the sake of that blessed Saviour who died to redeem me; were it not for this faith and this blessed hope, I should sink into utter despair and misery for ever.”5

As he left Stroud, the parishioners expressed their gratitude to one “who had for so long a period taken a deep interest in the present and eternal welfare of every member of the community”. Cowper, in turn, prayed that the Lord “may guide you in the path of life, and when your earthly pilgrimage is ended, may grant you all a place amongst his redeemed in glory!” His parting sermon (10 February 1856) looked towards eternity, since this occasion may well be “for the last time until we shall meet in the presence of our Great Eternal Judge”. His text was 2 Corinthians 6:1, and he spoke of the grace of God in the Lord Jesus Christ, turning to the famous look towards eternity found in John 3:16: that “whosoever believeth on Him should not perish, but have eternal life”.

When he moves towards his final exhortation, he spoke of the minister being entrusted with the mission to call people to accept salvation through Christ.

Naturally, therefore, he then called upon his congregation “in the name of the living God, […] the Fountain of all your hopes for eternity, not to receive the grace of God in vain.”6

In 1856, Cowper returned to ministry in Sydney, successively as the first (Acting) Principal of Moore College, St John’s Glebe, St Phillip’s Church Hill, and finally to St Andrew’s Cathedral as its first and longest serving Dean.7 In the early months of 1858, as he watched his father gradually fade, he noted that thoughts of “the great assembly of saints in the paradise of God, and the final triumph of the universal church with its Lord in Glory everlasting” were much on his father’s mind.8

Cowper’s eternal perspective came through strongly in funeral sermons. He confidently proclaimed the gospel light:

“which has shown us beyond all doubt, first, that there is a heaven of bliss, and secondly, by what means it is to be secured. Were it not for this revelation, what hope should we have to console us when mourning the death of friends, or to cheer us amid life’s manifold sorrows, or to support us under its burdens? None, my brethren, none whatever. A gloomy cloud would have enveloped the tombs of the departed, and fear and sadness would have rested upon every reflecting mind as it realized its own condition and dwelt upon its prospects. But how different now, is our lot, blessed as we are with the Christian revelation! Its declarations upon this subject are plain, simple, and unmistakable. It sets before us life and immortality as brought out from obscurity to light by the Gospel; it tells us that ‘as by man came death, by man came also the resurrection from the dead’.” [1 Cor 15:21] 9

The Dean explained that the Burial Service uses Revelation 14:13 in order, “to raise [our] thoughts from earth to heaven—from that which is mortal and corruptible to that which is spiritual and eternal; from the sighs and griefs of time to the rest and the joys of eternity.” When he summed up Richardson’s ministry amongst them, he reminded the congregation that “he sought to win your hearts to the Redeemer, and so to bring you to Him that when you should die, you might ‘die in the Lord’.”10 This reminder then led to Cowper making a personal appeal to the people, by asking what Richardson would say if he was able to address the assembled throng at his own funeral. Cowper was pretty sure he knew, and concluded by doing the same:

“Let me then urge this upon you in the spirit of love and concern for your everlasting welfare. And when the Saviour returns to gather His Saints unto Him, may we all be found among His sanctified ones and enter with Him into His eternal joy!” 11

In the first half of 1902, when Cowper faced his own final days, he had to endure five months of illness. When he was saying farewell to a friend, he said, “We shall all meet in a better world”.12 Cowper left this world in June, just short of his 92nd birthday. His coffin was placed in St Andrew’s Cathedral for the whole night before his funeral. It was bedecked with “white hyacinths, a fit emblem of ‘sure and steadfast hope’.”13 After a joyous service, he was taken through “a dense, sympathetic, and deeply respectful crowd” to Randwick, to be laid in the family vault. There the crowd sang his favourite hymn, whose words capture Cowper’s own perspective, which he considered so essential to life and ministry:14

Jesu, Lover of my soul,
let me to Thy bosom fly […]
Safe into the haven guide;
Oh, receive my soul at last.
[…]

Plenteous grace with Thee is found,
Grace to cover all my sin;
Let the healing streams abound;
Make and keep me pure within
Thou of life the fountain art;
Freely let me take of Thee;
Spring Thou up within my heart;
Rise to all eternity.

NOTES

1 Proceedings of the Second Session of the Twelfth Synod of the Diocese of Sydney, New South Wales, September 16th to September 23rd, 1902 (Sydney: William Andrews, 1902), 75. Emphasis in quotations mine.

2 W.M. Cowper, Autobiography & Reminiscences (Sydney: Angus & Robertson, 1902), 222–223. In all quotations, italics are my own.

3 W.M. Cowper, Sermon preached at Dartmouth, 15 Sept 1833 (Sydney Diocesan Archives: 1994/67/1)

4 W.M. Cowper, The Christian Training of Children by their Parents. A Sermon, preached in St Philip’s Church, Sydney, on the 11th January, 1852 (Sydney: Kemp & Fairfax, 1852), 5.

5 W.M. Cowper, A Brief Account of the Closing Period of the Life of Mrs W.M. Cowper, who departed to her eternal rest, at the Parsonage, Stroud, October 21st, 1854. Derived principally from memoranda made during her illness (Sydney: Reading and Wellbank, 1855), 6. See also J.M. Tooher, ‘Margaret Cowper (1806–1854): A Woman of Eternal Hope’, in E. Loane (ed.), Proclaiming Christ in the Heart of the City. Ministry at St Andrew’s Cathedral, Sydney. Dean Cowper, Dean Talbot and Dean Shilton (Sydney: St Andrew’s Cathedral, 2019), 167–190.]

6 W.M. Cowper, A Sermon preached at Booral and Stroud, Port Stephens, on Sunday, February 10th, 1856, on the Occasion of His Resigning the Ministerial Charge of that District [2 Cor 6:1] (Sydney: Reading & Wellbank, 1856), 21, 24, iii, 5, 8, 14.

7 See my ‘William Macquarie Cowper (1810–1902): The First Dean of St Andrew’s Cathedral’, in Loane, Proclaiming Christ in the Heart of the City, 49–90.

8 Cowper, Autobiography, 61–62.

9 W.M. Cowper, & W.H. Walsh, Two Sermons preached in St Mark’s Church, Darling Point, on Sunday, January 3rd, 1864, on the occasion of the death of Rev George Walter Richardson [Rev 13:14] (Sydney: Joseph Cook, 1864), 9, 10, 15

10  Cowper, Two Sermons, 15.

11 Cowper, Two Sermons, 16.

12 Cowper, Autobiography, 245.

13 Cowper, Autobiography, 248.

14 Cowper, Autobiography, 249.

ChrisBrennanResilience is a buzzword in many circles, and aren’t there plenty of days we would love a good dose of it for ourselves? Chris Brennan encourages us to reflect on ourselves and our situation to help us get that dose. Chris is the Dean of St Peter’s Cathedral Armidale.

One of the big topics in ministry circles at the moment is resilience. It certainly seems big to me as I experience varying occasional sequences of busy-ness, tiredness, disfunction, envy, frustration and then discouragement in ministry. It happens enough for me that I can sometimes find that I have taken my eyes off all that God has done in the Lord Jesus and is doing through me and around me. And then I hear the crushing news of those ministry fellows who have stumbled, stumbled out of ministry, stumbled out of positive relationships, and even stumbled out of faith. Resilience in ministry is certainly worth the discussion. Some time ago I asked the resilience question of one of those who stumbled. I asked ‘Why is ministry so hard?’ His answer was fulsome, grounded in experience, and practical wisdom, and I’m going to share his insights, mixed with mine, as I have reflected further on what was said. What follows is not a carefully researched study, but merely a reflection of what I found to be a really helpful conversation.

Along with crucial self-care, a careful management of our expectations seems to be an important but often overlooked key to hanging in there. My dear brother helpfully reminded me that firstly, and most importantly, ministry has always been hard. This fact is worth pointing out because we will all live it. We tend to moan about tough days, or particularly busy and stress-laden months, but the apostles daily faced death and hardship in a hundred different ways. In later centuries faithful ministers worked away in their plague-ravaged villages, often succumbing themselves. Missions into war zones, leper colonies and into dangerous and violent jungles are less than a generation old, and even today some really brave and faithful Christians willingly give away daily face to face contact with family members, familiar streets, comfortable climates, and good coffee for the sake of the gospel—hard to believe, but true! In reality, our hard days, here in Australia at least, don’t end in a beheading or crucifixion, but our expectation of ministry should be to expect hardship and personal cost. To have a different expectation is to ignore what Jesus says, and what his people have experienced down through the ages. We need to foster within ourselves a realistic expectation of this, while at the same time developing a right priority of obedience to Jesus over comfort. Even if this stands against what our culture and our sinful selves might attractively counsel, desire, and justify. A thorough and personal reading of Matthew— or at least 10:34-39 if you are really busy—will be a good corrective, along with the pastoral epistles, and the Ordinal for that matter, especially if it is a while since you looked at them.

Secondly, each personality type creates different pressures for each minister of the gospel. It is well worth taking the time to reflect on what kind of person you are (and your spouse too, if you are blessed to have one). The task-focused and driven among us will experience stress as people fail to meet what we see as necessary expectations. The flow on will be the major stress of relational conflict, where our side of the conflict will often be unhelpfully and liberally seasoned with self-righteousness and presumption. On the other hand, the more relationally focused, or academic among us, may struggle to be organised, or to be able to get through all that we need to get through because we are so busy caring or learning. The pressure of time, and the danger of permeable work-relationship boundaries can cause real issues at this point.

Each personality is different, and each will carry with it unique dangers that can impact on us in different ways, at different times.

We need to know ourselves in humility and acknowledge properly that the church is a body with different members: different in maturity, ability, role and responsibility, but equal in value. This will go some of the way towards building more realistic and theologically balanced expectations for ourselves and others.

A second, related danger here is that our personalities will lead us to hear or read unhelpfully. If I am a task-focused pastor located in a remote community with a small population, reading the latest mega-church, step by step leadership guide to awesome godliness and a church of a thousand, may be far less than helpful. It might even be downright unhelpful and depression-inducing if we can’t recognise our unique selves, and unique situations as we hear or read. Similarly, if I don’t recognise myself well, then I may not read at all something that might helpfully correct my lack in this area or that. Ministers of the gospel have been victims of living in the social media opinion bubble for longer than social media has been around, I think. It is important too, to remember that aspects of our personality and effectiveness are properly open to reform by God’s Spirit through exposure to his word and the godly counsel of the wise. Some weaknesses are sinful and require repentance.

A third reality is that our post-Christian and increasingly individualistic society brings to bear new and unique pressures that eat away at our time and confidence and therefore at our resilience. We need to note up front that we are part of this society, products of it, and therefore not innocent collateral damage of the shift—in some ways we propagate it. Although ministry has always been hard, individualism brings with it a staggering complexity. Only a generation ago, denominational ministers followed pretty closely to a set format, both liturgically and in terms of congregational expectation. They carried an authority that was rarely challenged, and their role revolved around Sundays and the regular occasional services (hatch, match, dispatch, and umpiring the local games of cricket). Evangelism could be run comfortably from the church through those services, Sunday schools and youth groups, trading on community expectations and a widely accepted authority. This form of ministry and evangelism sat comfortably in what was a basically Judeo-Christian world view, blessed with a fair biblical literacy and Sundays reserved for just these purposes. Clearly, the situation has changed.

Individualism has impacted both the wider population and the institutions that serve them, including the church.

People are far more suspicious of denominations, churches and church leadership (and with some good reason it must be said). People are far more focused on themselves, and seek self-actualisation, rather than fitting in with a broader paradigm (‘we’re all individuals’ someone once famously said). More comfortable with the supermarket approach, people seek options and points of difference. For the minister this has huge impacts. No longer is the denomination trendy, so we’ll go independent. No longer is the office valued, and so we’ll change the title and redefine the role. (I’m no longer a minister. My desk slab says ‘cool, relatable, lycra-wearing, fun-loving teacher of truth and eternal direction. See me for the best climate-neutral, and social-justice-approved coffee bean advice going around’). That creates a pressure. A pressure to be entrepreneurial, sadly competitive, and relevant in accordance with the assessment of a changing society, and deeper questions of worth from within. Our people too, having dispensed with clerical authority, have become more vocal about their preferences, not as preferences, but as essentials to connect with them and a society increasingly distanced from the church and less biblically literate. That’s why you must dress this way or that, play this type of music or that, with these lights, using these new technologies, addressing these particular hot-button issues, and for this long. Rocking up to church to work through the Bible as an authoritative and revealed text, using a set liturgy, a set song book and holding to basic orthodox theology does not easily sit with many of us and with the society thirsting for the new and exciting that we now inhabit. This creates extra work, and a perceived or real need to engage more fully with a quickly-changing and suspicious world. Conflicts arising today would have been unimaginable to many in the generations before us. On top of this there is now a new and significant administrative load created, at least in part, by the failings of those who came before us. This is particularly evident in the areas of safe ministry and compliance. Again, these burdens were not within the normal experience of those who came before. That said, our expectations must be built for the now, not for what once was. If we are going to minister in today’s world, we are going to have to acknowledge the situation and work in it, holding on to that which is essential and good, while being prepared to jettison some of that which was just easier. We will need to develop an expectation of flexibility and heightened relational engagement. We will need to be sure of the positions and directions that we take, why they matter, and be prepared to communicate this clearly, confidently, and with great patience.

All of this is about knowing ourselves, knowing our situations, and then in humility building realistic and godly expectations in the midst of this.

After all it is God’s church. If we want to survive in the ministry world, we will of course have to take on board all the self-care wisdom that has been helpfully generated, but we will need to do this carefully, not selfishly, slavishly or without consideration for others, but with godly flexibility and a view towards loving our neighbours and ourselves over the long term. We need to work on our own relationship with the Lord Jesus through prayer and Bible reading. We need to take our days off when we can, and make sure our staff, if we have them, can responsibly do the same. We will need to look after our marriages, and families as we seek to present those closest to us holy and blameless before the Lord, and we will need to develop a proper love for the brothers and sisters given over to our care in our churches. All of this will take time, energy and organisation, but perhaps the building of proper godly and humble expectations and understandings of ourselves and situations might help us here too.

Bishop Anthony Nichols died on 24 August 2019. This is an edited version of the eulogy his wife Judith gave at his funeral at St Lawrence’s Dalkeith, WA on 3 September 2019.

Anthony Nichols was born in Sheffield, Yorkshire to a working-class family. He never sought honours or preferment. Being a bishop did not define him as a person so there are no pictures here of him in clerical garb today. Like many people from Yorkshire, Tony took frankness to an Olympic standard, as many of you know. His dad was aspirational and liking the free-spiritedness of Aussie airmen with whom he served during the war, brought the family to Australia in 1947. They subsequently moved to Wollongong, an industrial city south of Sydney where Tony and his brother Roderick were educated.

Tony’s Christian journey began at 14 years of age when he was asked to teach Sunday School, so he thought he ought to read the Bible. The first text that gripped his heart was Ephesians 2:4-5, “but because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in our transgressions - it is by grace you have been saved.” The church he attended with his family was spiritually dead but he often claimed it was through the prayer book service that he learnt of the need to follow Christ wholeheartedly, for forgiveness through Christ’s death on the Cross and the absolute certainty of the resurrection of the dead and judgement when Christ returns. His university days laid a strong biblical foundation for his faith through the Christian Union and he was challenged by the opportunity to share the Gospel with overseas students. He was the first Caucasian member of the Overseas Christian Fellowship. He taught for 2 years at Temora in rural NSW where he established follow up bible studies after the Billy Graham Crusade because none of the churches were willing to hold them.

  ChurcheJodieMcNeills everywhere have scrambled to respond to the crises of coronavirus. Jodie McNeill in Jamberoo, NSW had the bushfires to contend with before that. He reflects on the ministry opportunities we have now and may take into the future. Jodie is Senior Minister at Jamberoo Anglican Church on the south coast of New South Wales.

If we expected that the defining event of 2020 would be the Australian bushfires, then we were wrong. As green shoots begin to emerge from the blackened landscape, a new crisis has confronted our communities, and the impact is global. In drought, bushfire, flood, and now pandemic, our everyday life has been profoundly disrupted, and through this momentous occasion we will have fresh opportunities to glorify God as we minister his word.

Over summer we used the word ‘unprecedented’ on many occasions to describe the ferocity and widespread impact of the bushfire disaster that ravaged our country. Yet, as COVID-19 grinds our world to a halt, it has already demonstrated the potential to unlock new ways of doing church ministry. Whilst they are unrelated, the two disasters have built upon each other as our church has grown to become more connected with our community through crisis.

Initially, during the bushfires I was able to strengthen connections with my local community through my involvement as a volunteer firefighter with the NSW Rural Fire Service.

This gave me many opportunities to speak about my faith with my compatriots on the fireground who knew me as the local ‘Rev’. It’s also helped grow my friendships and connections more widely with the greater community. This inspired me to call a village prayer meeting in our church, which welcomed people from the brigade and beyond to ask God to bring rain to extinguish the fire, and to bring protection and comfort to all who were affected.

The bushfire crisis brought together our community, and our church was there to offer leadership and light in a time of uncertainty and grief.

What’s more, God clearly answered our prayers as he brought rain which overflowed the dry rivers and extinguished the unstoppable fires. It felt like this bushfire crisis brought a degree of engagement and trust from the community to talk more about spiritual things, and my own conversations about Christ served to further energise parishioners to speak more freely about their faith with friends and neighbours.

And then when we thought things might settle down, the coronavirus has shaken our world, and changed the way we do life. Though we are grieving the loss of propinquity, (as one of my theological lecturers once described face-to-face engagement), we are finding new opportunities to connect with each other and the wider population. As soon as the doors to our church building were closed, I chose to replicate our normal services using live streaming. I hastily moved around the furniture in church to enable me to stand taller and closer to the screen that displays our lyrics and liturgy, and I scrambled some tech to try and beam us into the homes of churchgoers and the wider, community audience. Even though a ‘live’ broadcast had many rough edges, I was keen to help our parishioners to keep the routine and experience of church, especially given the tectonic changes to interaction and scheduling. Plus, it meant that viewers were more likely to engage real time through comments and reactions, and it helped prevent people skipping forward through pre-recorded videos.

Yet, the greatest boon has been the opportunity to welcome many newcomers to our services, largely through their connections through social media with existing congregational members.

People I’ve been praying for have now tuned in to watch my church, and fellow RFS brigade buddies have even commented on my guitar playing! Also, I’ve heard that non-Christian spouses have been watching our livestream with their churchgoing husband or wife.

What’s more, I’ve been sharing the link to the livestream on our Jamberoo community Facebook page, and complete strangers have been telling me that they’re connecting themselves or their family members with our church services. We’ve even had some banter on my posts, which has led to an opportunity for me to engage in some full-on apologetics in the public Facebook group, which has brought about other ‘offline’ conversations between parishioners and neighbours. Even though our church building is closed, we’re welcoming many more people through our virtual doors from around the world, and we’re praying that they will join us physically when we’re able to open our doors soon, God willing.

What’s still more, we’ve now been able to welcome some of our older and technologically challenged members to simply phone into church and listen via Zoom to the whole service. This is something we didn’t use before, but now should be a new part of life after this virus. In addition to streaming church through Facebook Live, we’ve also run a virtual dinners and morning teas after church, encouraging members to join a Zoom video meeting to chat, together, about life. I’ve ‘chaired’ the gathering of around a dozen or so screens, asking people to share about their experiences of the week and to answer a sharing question based on the sermon.

Yet, there have been other significant changes that we have begun to enjoy over this period of isolation. Inspired by the daily rhythm of the sixteenth century, I encouraged members of my church to join me on Zoom for morning prayer each day at 7:30am.

To my surprise, up to a dozen people have gathered with me to start the day with prayer and readings from the scriptures.

Now we’ve got control over our diaries, maybe the people might revolt against the nine-to-five and reclaim time to enjoy precious fellowship with others on a daily basis? As our routines have vanished before our eyes, I have sought to put things into our life that might end up remaining with us in the postcoronavirus world.

It may be that the ease of videoconferencing means that we can grab half an hour of peoples’ time during their day, without any need of travel. Maybe this can be a new way of connecting that will supplement our normal face-to-face ministries, and

redeem some of the small blocks of time that are frequently wasted in our lives? Similarly, I invited one of our overseas missionaries to join an ad-hoc ‘missionary hour’ one Tuesday night at 7pm, and even though I gave the congregation only a few days’ notice, we were able to pull together a dozen or so people to meet in Zoom and to pray. This is the kind of thing that otherwise would have required more logistics and careful scheduling. But with the simplicity of videoconferencing, we can enjoy these kinds of events without too much effort.

I’m thinking of launching a similar thing for regular training events for our parishioners and key leaders. Perhaps now that videoconferencing is becoming as ubiquitous as SMS, we might be able to supplement or transform our current programming with short, half-hour sessions on screens? No longer will it require people to have a ‘night out’ to do a church event, because now we can grab 30 minutes of time, without taking up an entire evening?

There is no doubt that after the virus there will be a new ‘normal’ in our schedules and life. As we have been forced to adapt to using technology to beam out church to the world, we can also use this as an outreach strategy to encourage newcomers to ‘watch us online and then decide if you wish to join us’.

Maybe this is the way we can ease the transition of people into our gospel communities.

Maybe this dramatic change to life is giving us the special opportunity to harness the widespread use of social media as a tool for engaging the non-Christian world with the powerful message of the gospel. But we’re also praying that there will be one, significant change after we come through this virus.

We’re praying that many people would look back on 2020 and say that through this crisis they came to know Christ. For these unprecedented times offer our world a wake-up call that might make them alive in Christ. That’s our prayer.

Claire sat across the table from her friend, the leader of an evangelical Anglican church near the rapidly-changing inner ring suburb that God had been laying on her heart.Gathering her thoughts, Claire began to speak. She excitedly laid out her vision for a new church that would engage with the highly diverse mix of people moving into the suburb. She shared about how God had begun drawing together a team who were eagerly praying with her about this new endeavour. To top it all off, she spoke about the affirmation she’d received when she communicated her vision to another church planter from a different denomination who had launched his own church in the same suburb several years before. Although his view of women’s leadership differed from Claire’s, he had greeted her overture with enthusiasm: “Terrific! There are heaps of people in this area who need to be reached for Jesus. I can even think of a few people currently involved in our church who would probably get on board with what you would do.”

Claire paused to draw breath and hear from her friend. But rather than shared excitement, it was like a bucket of ice had been dumped on the conversation — and their relationship. What Claire had anticipated as a moment of collegiality and convergence around a new mission initiative turned out to be anything but. Far from an opportunity to be welcomed, her announcement was treated as a threat by her friend. Instead of joining her in dreaming and strategising, Claire’s friend was worried about the families from his church who lived in the suburb Claire wanted to plant in. He didn’t say it out loud, but she could tell what he was thinking: “Sheep stealer!”

Her heart sank. Well, it would have if this conversation — and Claire — was real. It’s not. It’s an amalgam. But the emotional trajectory of the conversation is only too real. The announcement of a intentions to church plant is greeted with fear and defensiveness at least as often as it is by joy and excitement. Church planting is regarded by many among the leadership of established churches as a foe — or at least as unwelcome competition in the already-challenging work of fishing for people in shrinking pond. This sense of competition or antagonism is not helped by the cheerleading of some who promote church planting. Much of the romance and rhetoric around planting overplays its superiority.

In his seminal article, “Why Plant Churches?”, Tim Keller — the founder and key thought leader of City to City, the church planting network I work with — claims that “the only way to significantly increase the overall number of Christians in a city is by significantly increasing the number of new churches.” The argument Keller makes in support of this is not without merit and nuance, and the evidence for it is not wholly lacking. But it risks underestimating the effectiveness of and potential for spiritual renewal through healthy, established churches.

Most church planters are concerned to avoid the label of “sheep stealer,” and church planting agencies like Geneva Push are rightly committed to “evangelising new churches into existence” rather than depending on transfer growth. But the stats tell a messier story. Transfer growth is involved with almost every new church plant in some way— whether in the original core/launch team, or as fringe members of other churches come to check out the new church on the block. And more than one church planter would be able to tell you about missteps they’ve made in recruiting such people — and even thrusting them into leadership — without adequately consulting the leaders of the churches they hail from.

What is more, well-intentioned as they often are, church planters sometimes speak and act in ways that undervalue the ministry of established churches. In fact, some church planting looks like the old-school Protestant tendency to fracture and divide, dressed up in glad rags. Tim Keller calls this “defiant church planting.” His observation about the motivation for this kind of planting rings true in an uncomfortable number of situations I’m familiar with: “Some people in the church get frustrated and split away and form a new church — because there is alienation over doctrine, or vision, or philosophy of ministry.”

Without a doubt, there can be a thin line between (i) someone whose burden for reaching new people combines with a resolution to give that a go by trying something new (resulting in a church plant), and (ii) a dissatisfied assistant pastor who feels that things aren’t being “done right” by the leadership of their current church and who therefore starts something new in reaction to it.

Even the most noble and other-person centred church planters acknowledge the possibility of mixed motives — the human heart is mysterious and has depths that can conceal unrecognised ugliness!

It has been said that God frequently uses church planting to do at least as much work on and in the planter/s as through them (in this sense it’s a lot like cross-cultural mission work). From my own experience walking alongside church planters, almost all of them sooner or later are led to face and, in God’s kindness, repent of their tendency to fashion ministry around their own preferences.

An example: a planter can act on the assumption that their preferred style and shape of church experience is automatically what will resonate most with those they’re trying to reach. Sadly, such “missiology by mirroring” is unlikely to be resoundingly successful (believe me — I’ve tried). Worse, it typically flows from a lack of personal maturity and failure to lead as an equipper and empowerer of others in God’s mission. Significantly, however, the simmering hostility between new and established churches is not reduced by treating church planting as an enemy rather than a partner in the work of reaching people.

On the planting side of the equation, the data about multiplying church movements tells us that good relationships with a sending church (or better yet a whole group of churches who partner in sending out a church plant) make a massive difference to the health and likely longevity of a new church. In a sense, this should hardly be surprising. The New Testament authors link Christian unity and partnership with mission effectiveness on more than one occasion — no doubt taking their cue from Jesus, who makes this connection in his “high priestly prayer” in John 17.

So planters beware! You trash talk the ministry of established churches at your own risk. Not only do you face the danger of alienating potential mission partners — or, more prosaically, preachers who could step into the pulpit when you need to take a vacation (and you’ll need to take a vacation!). You also risk having to eat your words if and when in God’s grace your church plant becomes an established church itself. Even more dangerously, you put your soul at risk. And that’s not me being overdramatic. It was Jesus himself who said (Matthew 5.22):

“I tell you, everyone who is angry with his brother or sister will be subject to judgment. Whoever insults his brother or sister, will be subject to the court. Whoever says, ‘You fool!’ will be subject to hellfire.”

Nursing contempt, dismissiveness, and superiority in your heart is spiritually a very, very bad idea.

Equally, however, those who lead existing churches need to grapple with the fact that church planting is demonstrably good for the established church. There are well-documented benefits of church planting for existing ministries as well as the wider mission in an area. It’s not only church planters making this point (and believing their own hype). It’s also strategists and those who research trends in church life — both here and abroad. For instance, NCLS Research, who conduct the National Church Life Survey in Australia, have consistently found that newer churches (up to ten years old) have a higher than average proportion of “newcomers” — who are defined as people with no active connection to a church in the previous five years (so include both unchurched and dechurched people). According to their 2016 survey data, the nation-wide average across all types of churches is 6% newcomers. A 2015 study into church planting in the Diocese of Sydney, suggests that in newer churches that number jumps up to 13% — although the study notes that these numbers vary depending on the model of church planting adopted.

This may still feel like a relatively modest proportion of a church. Yet what would constitute a healthy proportion of newcomers is an interesting question to consider. Presumably not 100% (a church that was entirely “evangelised into existence” would have some very significant needs in terms of establishing and maturing all these new believers). It may not even be 50%. Those who study group psychology tell us that the dynamics of group cohesion mean that a fairly substantial majority who already “belong” is required in any group for it to be able to integrate new members well. As one church planter admits, “I don’t want transfer growth (but I probably need it in order for evangelism to lead to discipleship).”

Of course, it’s not the case that simply starting a new church is an ironclad guarantee of a solid showing of newcomers, let alone of fruitfulness in evangelism and disciple-making. The findings of a significant study undertaken by LifeWay in the US indicate that engagement in evangelistic activities — even simple and “old fashioned” activities like door-knocking — is strongly correlated with effective engagement with the unchurched. In other words, you’ve got to do something to engage and reach your community (and it may not matter so much what that something is).

Established and newer churches are on a level playing field here — with the odds possibly even slightly in favour of healthy, well-resourced established churches. Activating our congregations and mobilising their members in evangelism is a crucial task. It is a matter of both faithful discipleship and fruitfulness in mission - whether we’re in a new or an established church.

In this vein, there’s a strong case to be made that church plants contribute to the health and vitality of all the churches in an area.

On the one hand, the lessons new churches learn in seeking to reach and disciple people often find their way back to more established churches. Perhaps it’s the community-service strategy they stumble into as they scramble to secure a community grant or qualify to rent their preferred venue — without quite realising it, the new church’s credibility in the local community goes through the roof. Or maybe it’s the excellent kids program they run because they happen to have some gifted people in their launch team — families with young kids love it because they’re desperate for ways to break up their seemingly-endless weekend. Or maybe it’s the carefully-tracked social media campaign and letterbox drop ahead of the launch service — a deliberate attempt to experiment and learn what sort of community contact is most effective that can directly inform the strategies of established churches in the area. In all these ways and more, church plants can function as missional R&D departments.

This mirrors a lot of what leaders in the business world have observed about the transferability of lessons learned in a startup context. A recent Harvard Business Review report, for instance, argues that the agility, learning stance, and growth mindset that startups need for survival can benefit every type of business — especially given the rapid pace of change all companies are facing. In my view, little is different in the church. The incredibly rapid changes in the social position of the church in the wider culture prove potentially more disastrous if we fail to adapt, or adapt poorly.

On the other hand, churches that actively partner with new church plants frequently report significant benefits — even amidst the pain and grief of giving away people and resources. Whether it’s by becoming a “parent,” sending out a new church plant, or by some other kind of partnership — e.g., sending some members to join or temporarily serve in the plant — it hurts to let go of core, motivated leaders (or potential leaders). Things never feel the same in an established church after commissioning and sending off people. But the space it creates can allow new leadership to emerge, new things to be tried, and new connections to be forged. Even if it can never compensate for it perfectly, the new opportunities created by releasing people can be meaningful — and are never lost in God’s economy.

In conclusion, may I humbly suggest that those on both sides of the church planting vs existing ministry divide would find it worthwhile to meditate on the words of Nathan Campbell:

“The reason it’s scary to hear about a schmick new church plant led by cool people with great ideas is because we’re (and by we I mean me) often insecure about what we bring to the table, and to our city... focusing on the size of the mission field and trying to reach lost people, rather than the limited pool of human resources around, is the best way to get a bit of perspective about this insecurity.”

All of us need to cultivate a bigger vision for mission to overcome our sense of competitiveness and insecurity — whether about the prospect of a new church plant in our “patch” or about the existing churches that don’t seem to share our enthusiasm for what we’re talking about starting (and, reality check, no-one shares your enthusiasm for it to the extent that you do). Many of us enthusiastically preach on Jesus’s instruction to ask the Lord of the harvest to raise up workers. But if we’re honest we probably prefer to see them raised up within our ministry, where (as God knows!) the need is real and the resources always feel scarce. Nevertheless, the Father who sends his Son in the power of the Spirit for the sake of the world in the overflow of love, is not threatened by scarcity. Indeed, Jesus endured the ultimate scarcity and deprivation, crying out “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” on our behalf on the cross. The perfectly rich and free Lord of creation became poor and subject to death in order to bear the deprivation and judgement due us for turning from our Creator. And it is only to the degree that this fills our hearts that we’ll be able to lift our eyes from our apparent scarcity — as a planter or an established church leader — and see each other as collaborators rather than competitors.

You can check out a full interview with Chris here: https://youtu.be/HOcKBK1kVJE

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